Texas A&M Aggies: Luke Joeckel
Several months after the fact and more than halfway through the Aggies' season, has anybody made progress on finding one for the guy primarily responsible for protecting Manziel's blind side?
With a talent and personality as prominent as Manziel on the roster, or a receiver as productive and highlight-worthy as Mike Evans has been this season, Matthews' name isn't usually the first to leave the lips of someone talking about Texas A&M football. But if current projections hold true, it's more than likely Matthews will be the first Aggie to have his name called when the 2014 NFL draft rolls around in May.
Several prognosticators have the 6-foot-5, 305-pound offensive tackle as the top player at his position in next year's draft and one of the top 5 or 10 players overall. Matthews, the son of NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman and Tennessee Titans assistant coach Bruce Matthews, was widely considered to be a potential first-round pick in the 2013 draft but chose to stay in Aggieland for one more season.
After spending the early portion of his career at right tackle, Matthews moved over to left tackle this season and that has helped his draft stock by adding versatility to the list of traits he possesses. He has had to use that versatility of late when the Aggies lost right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi to an injury for the last two games. As a result, Matthews went back to right tackle and left guard Jarvis Harrison filled in for Matthews. The offensive line didn't seem to miss a beat as a result.
"Hopefully I showed I'm versatile and that I can do both," Matthews said. "That's a pretty big benefit. It was challenging too, but coach needed it and wanted me to do it so I was happy to do it."
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin likes to use the term "low maintenance great player," for a select few and Matthews falls into that category. So did Luke Joeckel, who was the No. 2 player chosen in the 2013 NFL draft and is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Matthews would love the chance to enjoy a similar fate come next May and is flattered to hear his name discussed among the draft's top players.
"It's really exciting and really humbling," Matthews said. "Just thinking about where I've come from, how far I've come, just playing this position, it's something really special. I'm proud to be [mentioned] in those ranks and hopefully I continue having a good season and finish it up on a positive note and we'll see what happens."
But the senior returned for his final season for several reasons. The chance to play alongside his younger brother, Mike Matthews, who is Texas A&M's starting center this season, was one. The chance to help the Aggies accomplish something special was another. While their ultimate goals of an SEC championship and perhaps a BCS national championship have all but evaporated, there's still plenty for the Aggies to play for.
The adjustment to left tackle hasn't been an easy one for Matthews. Footwork and hand placement are among the biggest things he's had to refine after switching from right to left and he has found that he's facing more elite pass rushers on that side of the formation.
"When you play in the SEC against the quality opponents that we are, really nothing's easy," Matthews said. "Like I said, just going and giving different types of looks on pass rush and stuff like that, I didn't get as much of that at right tackle. But the guys are really good over there on the left side."
On Saturday when the No. 15 Aggies host Mississippi State, it will be the final game in Kyle Field for Matthews and a host of other Texas A&M seniors. They'll close out their season with two road games at LSU and Missouri, so Saturday will mark the last time Matthews and his fellow seniors jog out of the tunnel in front of the 12th Man. Matthews said he has no regrets about his decision to return.
"It's gone by way faster than I ever could have expected," Matthews said. "It feels like maybe a couple weeks ago I made the decision that I was going to stay. Now it's already almost over. I'm going to be excited, proud, going out there for the last time. This school and all the fans have been nothing but good to me and I've enjoyed being at this school and playing so much. I just want to go out there and put on a good show in my last go round at Kyle Field."
Through six games, the No. 7 Aggies can safely say all is well up front. Even with two newcomers and some shuffling by moving returning starters around, the unit is again performing at a high level and is one of the reasons Texas A&M's offense continues to be one of the best in college football.
While it's difficult to replicate what the Aggies had last season, when all five starters last season played multiple seasons together, it's easy to see how well this year's group is doing. All it takes is watching quarterback Johnny Manziel drop back and sit comfortably in the pocket for five, six and sometimes seven seconds looking for a receiver or deciding to use his scrambling ability to gain yardage.
"Offensive line has played really good, with the exception of one game," offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "I think those young guys in one of those six games -- I think it was SMU -- had some struggles. But for the most part, they've played great."
Against SMU, there were some penalties and self-inflicted errors that the Aggies needed to clean up. Their performance against No. 1 Alabama was strong and they've been consistent, for the most part, the rest of the year.
The transition began back in spring, moving Jake Matthews from right tackle to left tackle to replace Luke Joeckel. To fill Matthews' void, right guard Cedric Ogbuehi kicked out to right tackle. Jake's younger brother Mike Matthews stepped in as the starter at center and redshirt freshman Germain Ifedi slid in at right guard. The only player still in the same position last season is left guard Jarvis Harrison.
Behind that quintet, the Aggies are putting up 586.5 yards per game (No. 3 in the country) and have allowed only seven sacks, which puts them in the top 30 statistically in the country. They're 20th in rushing yards (224.6 yards per game) and sixth in passing yards (361.8 per game).
"They're getting better every week," senior running back Ben Malena said. "It's hard to compare this year's group to last year's because they're only six games in, but I can tell you every week they are getting better."
The biggest question marks coming into the season centered around the first-time starters. So far, they've answered the questions.
"I'm really pleased with the young guys," offensive line coach B.J. Anderson said. "I think they've made some strides. They've played in some atmospheres where we had to communicate. Mike's done a really good job. I've changed protections on him a couple games. ... I'm really pleased with where he's at, and the same way with Germain. He's getting better every game and we're fixing some things that need to get fixed and we'll just keep working."
Anderson noted that they're not holding anything back from Mike Matthews, who is just a sophomore, when it comes to game-planning and protections. That's critical considering the vast array of defensive looks Anderson said opponents have thrown at the Aggies.
"If you had told me that I had that flexibility back in August, I'm not sure I would have believed you," Anderson said. "But he's got the kitchen sink right now. I'm not doing anything that I didn't do with Pat Lewis, who was a senior. He's able to make all the adjustments I need and I'm really pleased with the mental work he does during the week, preparation-wise."
The "older guys" -- senior Jake Matthews and juniors Harrison and Ogbuehi -- have also shined. Matthews' adjustment to left tackle has been smooth, as has Ogbuehi's to right tackle. Harrison has impressed Anderson with his effort week to week.
"Jake's Jake and Ced's doing a good job and Jarvis Harrison is playing his tail off -- as well as he's played since I've been here," Anderson said. "He's playing with great effort. It shows on tape and I'm happy with those older guys."
Manziel's progression and mastery of the offense in the second season in the scheme has helped as well. Players say they notice Manziel has tried to stay in the pocket more often.
"I feel more this year that he hasn't scrambled as much and he has been more patient," Ogbuehi said. "He looks to throw more, too. He's always looking to make a big play with his arm, and that's good."
Perhaps the best aspect of this group is it has stayed healthy. The Aggies were fortunate to keep all five starters healthy last season, and that's been the case this year, too. It isn't a perfect group, but it is a smart, talented one that continues to improve every day.
"This year, we're still trying to get there but so far we're getting there," Ogbuehi said. "It's exciting so far what we've done in the little time we've had together."
Coach: Kevin Sumlin (46-19 overall, 11-2 at Texas A&M)
2012 record: 11-2
Key losses: OT Luke Joeckel, DE Damontre Moore, LB Sean Porter, LB Jonathan Stewart, WR Ryan Swope
Key returnees: WR Mike Evans, DB Toney Hurd, QB Johnny Manziel, OT Jake Matthews, OT Cedric Ogbuehi
Newcomer to watch: RB Brandon Williams
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The status of quarterback Johnny Manziel. Looming over the Aggies is the NCAA investigation of Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, about whether he accepted payment for signing autographs. There's concern whether his eligibility for the upcoming season will be affected. If it is, the Aggies would have to turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or redshirt freshman Matt Davis at quarterback.
Forecast: If Manziel is cleared of any wrongdoing, then the Aggies are legitimate SEC West, SEC championship and perhaps BCS National Championship contenders. They'll likely be favored in every game except their home matchup against Alabama on Sept. 14, and perhaps the game at LSU on Nov. 23, one of the two teams they lost to last season.
Aside from Manziel, the biggest on-field questions for the Aggies are on defense. Three of their most productive players from 2012 -- defensive end Damontre Moore, and linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart -- are now in the NFL. The Aggies are young and inexperienced in the front seven, and the status of two starting defensive backs (cornerback Deshazor Everett and safety Floyd Raven) are still to be determined after offseason arrests.
Still, with the return of Manziel, leading receiver Mike Evans and three offensive linemen, the Aggies have the offensive personnel to compete with any team in the country. They proved as much in their upset of eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last season. If the defense can make the kind of strides it did a season ago, when the Aggies had depth questions and concern about size up front in a line-of-scrimmage league, then Texas A&M can seriously contend.
If Manziel's eligibility is affected as a result of the NCAA investigation, the Aggies have no quarterback on the roster who has started a college game. Joeckel and Davis will battle it out in training camp. While the Aggies can be a good team without Manziel, dreams of reaching the highest heights will be severely limited if he is forced to miss more than two games.
The options for Manvel (Texas) High School standout Koda Martin were plentiful.
Whether it was choice of colleges or a choice of positions, the 6-foot-6, 247-pound four-star prospect had a chance to determine his future a number of ways.
On Saturday, he decided that his best option was one close to home and committed to Texas A&M.
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2012 conference record: 6-2 (tied for second, West Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1
QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews, WR Mike Evans, DT Kirby Ennis, OLB Steven Jenkins, CB Deshazor Everett, S Howard Matthews
LT Luke Joeckel, C Patrick Lewis, WR Ryan Swope, DE Damontre Moore, OLB Sean Porter, MLB Johnathan Stewart, FS Steven Terrell
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Johnny Manziel* (1,409 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel* (3,706)
Receiving: Mike Evans* (1,105)
Tackles: Damontre Moore (85)
Sacks: Damontre Moore (12.5)
Interceptions: Deshazor Everett* and Steven Terrell (2)
1. Johnny Football: The Aggies are in the rare position of returning the previous season's Heisman Trophy winner. Heading into his sophomore season, Texas A&M is hoping that quarterback Johnny Manziel can be even better than he was a season ago. This will be his second year in the offense and for quarterbacks who have played in this system, year two is typically a season in which they progress significantly as passers. That's one of Manziel's primary goals, even though he'll still run when the time calls for it. As long as he's healthy and playing well, things bode well for the Aggies.
2. Experienced secondary: Last season, the defensive backfield was young and inexperienced. This fall, there are still young players back there, but it is the most experienced unit on the Aggies' defense. Three of the four starters in the secondary from the AT&T Cotton Bowl are back: Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris and Howard Matthews. Junior Floyd Raven has moved from cornerback to free safety and appears to have the skill set (range and tackling prowess) to fit into the position well.
3. Loaded backfield: The Aggies have four good options in their offensive backfield for Manziel to hand off or throw to. Starting running back Ben Malena returns, as does Trey Williams, who returned kicks and received carries as a true freshman. Add to the mix a pair of transfer backs who sat out last season, Brandon Williams (Oklahoma) and Tra Carson (Oregon) and the Aggies have a quartet that gives them a multitude of options.
1. Front seven: The Aggies are looking for someone to replace the production that third-round NFL draft pick Damontre Moore brought last season. Moore led the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks a year ago. Also, with two senior leaders gone from linebacker (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart) Texas A&M not only has to replace the bodies but also the leadership. Because of injuries, the Aggies were thin up front in the spring but when all their key players return in the fall, it will ease at least some of those concerns. Keep an eye on names like defensive end Julien Obioha (who started opposite Moore last year), defensive tackle Alonzo Williams and linebacker Donnie Baggs as players who have a chance to see their contributions increase significantly this year.
2. New receivers: Only one starting receiver returns from last year's squad: Mike Evans. Four of the top six players in receiving yardage are no longer on the roster, including second-leading receiver Ryan Swope. So who will Johnny Manziel throw to? Keep an eye on guys like Malcome Kennedy, who caught a fourth-quarter touchdown against Alabama last season, Derel Walker, who had a strong spring game, Edward Pope, who was a star on the scout team when he redshirted last year and a host of recruits from the 2013 class like Ja'Quay Williams and ESPN 150 duo Ricky Seals-Jones and Sebastian LaRue. Developing other reliable pass-catching options is critical, so keep an eye on how they use the tight ends with newcomer Cameron Clear (6-7, 270) on campus.
3. Kicking game: One player who fans kept a close eye on this spring was kicker Taylor Bertolet. In his redshirt freshman season, the strong-legged kicker struggled with consistency, hitting just 13-of-22 field goal attempts and missing seven point-after attempts. With a new special teams coordinator (Jeff Banks) who has college punting and kicking experience around to guide him, the Aggies are looking for an improvement from Bertolet this fall. Also the Aggies are working in a new punter, Drew Kaser, who takes the reins after senior Ryan Epperson graduated.
Kevin (Texas): Without Luke [Joeckel], will Texas A&M'S offensive line be as strong as last year's?
Sam Khan Jr.: I think it will take some time before they are that good. However, I think by year's end, the dropoff won't be very noticeable. Jake Matthews will make a great left tackle in my opinion and I think Cedric Ogbuehi has a lot of ability, so he could develop into a star at right tackle. And Mike Matthews at center will also be pretty good, I think. Jarvis Harrison is the lone player in the same position he was last year, so it stands to reason that he'll be better. The wild card is probably redshirt freshman Germain Ifedi. But playing right guard with his size (330+) should be just fine for the Aggies.
WaffleHouseAg (Plano): Which of the non early enrolled freshmen has the biggest impact next year?
Sam Khan Jr.: My guess is one of the two defensive tackles Isaiah Golden or Justin Manning. The Aggies were thin thin thin up front this spring (in part because of injuries) but they need all the depth they can get. I could see either of those guys in the two deep and getting into the rotation if they make quick progress this summer. I wouldn't be shocked to see any of these three offensive skill guys get on the field quickly either: LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Ricky Seals-Jones, Sebastian LaRue. I think you could see one or two of those guys have a role this fall.
Joel (Shreveport): What type of season do you see JFF [Johnny Manziel] having in 2013? Will he try to impress the NFL by staying in the pocket longer and throwing the ball downfield?
Sam Khan Jr.: I don't think he'll do that simply to impress NFL scouts -- he'll do that because it will be better for the Aggies and this offense if he becomes more proficient in the pocket. Is he still going to run? Absolutely. But the more hits he takes, the more of a chance you have of losing him. So the better he gets as a pocket passer, the more dangerous the offense becomes because then he won't have to scramble every time he tries to make a big offensive pass play. Also, year two in this particular offense is when a quarterback really takes off. See: Case Keenum, Geno Smith, etc. His grasp of it will be better and the Aggies will be better for it. So yeah, he'll do it, but not necessarily just to impress NFL scouts.
One of the most notable stops of the week occurred when Aggies' quarterback coach Jake Spavital stopped by Bossier City (La.) Parkway High School on Tuesday to see 2014 quarterback Brandon Harris.
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Who could be candidates to have their names called at this time next year, when the 2014 NFL draft arrives? Here are some names to know, both seniors and non-seniors:
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If it does play out that way, it would be the latest in a long line of landmark events that have occurred since the start of last football season that have raised Texas A&M's profile and, as a result, helped the Aggies in recruiting.
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In all its crystal glory, college football's national championship trophy made a brief stop at Kyle Field on Saturday.
Parked on the sideline for a live television shot during Texas A&M's Maroon-and-White spring football game, as well as for photo opportunities for those who walked by, it was a seemingly symbolic placement of the sport's most coveted piece of hardware, mere feet from a team that might have a realistic chance to hoist it next January.
But that's many months away. In the meantime, the nation got its first extended glimpse of the 2013 Aggies, a team that could be ranked in the preseason top five come August. The score was Maroon (offense) 43, and White (defense) 23, but that mattered little. What the record crowd of 45,212 came to see was how the Aggies looked and, more specifically, what their reigning Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel, would do.
Johnny Football didn't disappoint. He was 24-of-30 for 303 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against an overmatched second-team Aggies defense. He got out of the pocket and scrambled a few times (three carries, 18 yards), but that was not going to be part of the show today in the interest of keeping him healthy. Nobody was going to touch Manziel, although he almost found himself in harm's way when he tried to throw a cut block on sophomore defensive back Sam Moeller to pave the way for a Brandon Williams touchdown.
Just one of those "Johnny Football" moments for the redshirt sophomore.
"I went up and apologized to Sam after it," Manziel said. "The way I am and the way my motor drives me, it was just an instinct play. As much as Coach [Kevin] Sumlin was shaking his head and wasn't happy about it, it was more of 'Hey, in a game, this is how it would have been.' It just naturally took over for me."
He stayed healthy, as did most of the players who participated. The only notable injury to come out of Saturday's scrimmage was an MCL sprain for junior linebacker Tommy Sanders, who'll be ready in the fall.
Several other things about the 2013 Aggies became clear on Saturday. Williams showed why he was such a coveted recruit coming out of Brookshire (Texas) Royal High School, racking up a team-high 59 rushing yards on seven carries and catching three passes for 29 yards while recording a rushing and receiving touchdown. The Aggies' starting running back from 2012, Ben Malena, is back, as is Trey Williams, who contributed as a true freshman. Adding Williams and Oregon transfer Tra Carson to the mix (both sat out per NCAA transfer rules last season) adds more dimensions to the Aggies' backfield and their offense.
"Brandon Williams is very talented. He's a home run threat from anywhere on the field," Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "We plan on [using all four backs]. ... It's a good problem to have. The thing about those four guys, is that they all bring something different to the table."
While the defense didn't have its best day, its performance can be taken with a grain of salt with three surefire starters sidelined by injury, and another two defensive linemen who have taken first-team reps also sitting out. The unit out there Saturday wasn't exactly what will suit up for the Aggies this fall.
What the Aggies are hoping to develop is leadership. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that safety Howard Matthews is emerging as a leader, as is middle linebacker Donnie Baggs. Having that presence is critical because the Aggies waved goodbye to two of their best defensive leaders, linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, who both graduated.
That said, plenty of the signs Aggies fans were looking for were present on Saturday. Manziel looked in top form. So did sophomore receiver Mike Evans. The offensive line -- though missing soon-to-be first-round pick Luke Joeckel and graduated center Patrick Lewis -- is coming together well. The remainder of a top-10 recruiting class is on the way in the fall and could produce a few more quick contributors.
Manziel will go back to work and team up with George Whitfield Jr., the private quarterback coach he worked with last summer. Manziel said he's ready to eliminate any doubts about what is ahead for him and this year's Texas A&M squad.
"The big conversation that [Whitfield and I] had before Alabama was 'Be a dragon slayer, slay the dragon,' " Manziel said. "Now there's a big dragon out there for us with all the people that are doubting A&M and all the people that are doubting me, (saying) that last year was a fluke. So that's a chip on my shoulder and that's a dragon we need to slay this year."
Three of five starters return from what was the strongest position group on the team in 2012.
But just because a few familiar names are still around doesn't mean things are the same. There is plenty of change for the Aggies' front five this spring.
Of the quintet, only one player -- junior left guard Jarvis Harrison -- returns to the same position he was in a year ago. The rest of the offensive linemen are stepping into a new role, either as a returning starter in a new position or as a first-time starter.
Matthews spent last season at right tackle but has moved to left tackle, Joeckel's old spot, to protect Johnny Manziel's blind side. Taking Matthews' place at right tackle is the Cedric Ogbuehi, who started at right guard a season ago.
"They've become comfortable, I think, pretty quickly as far as their footwork goes," offensive line coach B.J. Anderson said of the tackle tandem. "What we're working now is all the little things. Right now, Jake's changed his post hand. It's his left hand when he's on the right side and now on the left side he has to change his post hand. We've got to work through the little things.
"Ced's the same way. There's a lot more grass out there when you play tackle. But he's long and athletic and he's done a nice job and we'll just keep working on those little things."
Since the 6-foot-5, 305-pound Matthews has excelled as a right tackle, there are high expectations for him as he moves to the left side. Ogbuehi was a tackle in high school, so the move outside is natural fit for him as well.
"The biggest change is that I'm going against faster dudes, my sets are different," Ogbuehi said. "Other than that, it's the same thing really.
"I was excited and also sad that Luke left. But it's a big change for me to show what I can do, because I'm athletic. Playing guard, I didn't really showcase that. Playing tackle is going to show what I can really do and also show that I'm versatile, that I can play guard and tackle."
He visited Texas A&M with his father, Manvel (Texas) High School coach Kirk Martin, on Thursday while the elder Martin attended the Aggies' annual high school coaches' clinic. Then on Friday morning, the pair drove to Austin for a Longhorns visit for the next day-and-a-half.
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There’s no point in trying to sugarcoat this for Texas A&M: The Aggies have become the hunted.
A year after the real training began for their official move to the SEC from the Big 12, the Aggies enter spring practice with loftier expectations and more eyes fixated on them. They can no longer be considered the supposed ragtag group that was expected to struggle for relevance in their new home.
After shocking their new conference mates with 11 wins, including one over eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, A&M enters spring figuratively glancing over its shoulder.
"Now that we know for a fact that we have enough talent and a new group of guys coming in, we know that this year we have a target on our back,” rising senior running back Ben Malena said. “The workouts have stepped up even more. The work ethic of the team collectively has stepped up even more. Coach [Kevin] Sumlin, he's let us know that last year's success was last year's success, but this year's success is gonna be even harder because now you have a target on your back."
Teams don’t lead the SEC in scoring (44.5 points per game), rushing (242.1 yards per game), passing (316.5 YPG) and total offense (558.5 YPG) in their first season in a new conference without feeling the heat in Year 2. And this league intends to bring more than just the heat to the Aggies.
If A&M is going to make strides in 2013, it has to push for conference supremacy. It'll have to be better than it was in 2012, and it'll have to pursue dethroning the mighty Crimson Tide. It's a tough job, but it really is the next step.
To do that, Sumlin and his crew will have to work even harder than they did last season. Players will have to be willing to sweat, bleed and push even more as the Aggies enter spring shorthanded once again.
Defensively, five starters from the front seven are gone, including All-America defensive end Damontre Moore and top-notch linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Dustin Harris and Steven Terrell must also be replaced in the secondary.
“We got a lot of young guys -- a bunch of new guys,” defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said of his defense.
And those youngsters need to learn quickly because the injury bug attacked the defense this spring, especially up front. It’s a necessary evil, but getting young players these kinds of reps excites Snyder because it helps with depth, which the Aggies need.
Not only did A&M lose two valuable linebackers but a wide receiver was moved to the position this spring and linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt was replaced by Mark Hagen, giving the Aggies even more change to deal with.
"There will be some challenges there,” Snyder said about the new faces on defense, “but that's what makes spring ball fun."
What will also be fun is finding out who the new leaders are.
Senior Toney Hurd Jr., who is battling for a starting safety spot, has been pegged as one of those new leaders. He’s always led by example, and Hurd knows younger players are looking up to veterans like him. He’ll have to come through because, although the talent might be there, inexperience needs guidance.
"I wouldn't say I'll be this year's Sean Porter, but I'll be this year's Tony Hurd Jr.,” he said. “I'll give the vocal leadership when needed.”
Some interesting months lie ahead for the Aggies, as they look to make more upward moves in 2013. But before A&M can worry about challenging Alabama -- or anyone, really -- Sumlin needs his team to get better. He needs youngsters to take advantage of more reps and he needs the veterans to evolve on the field and in the locker room.
It sounds clichéd, but it's true.
To be elite again and embrace this new-found target on its back, A&M needs even more resolve and toughness in Year 2. And to Sumlin, it’ll be quite an uphill battle.
"We're nowhere near that stage,” he said. “I've said that from every standpoint, from every aspect of this program, we're still playing catch-up to everybody in the SEC.
"From my standpoint it's always a new team, it's always a new personality. As coaches, what you're trying to do is figure out where you are, who can do what and put them in the best position to try to win games."