Texas A&M Aggies: Mark Hagen

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As part of Texas A&M's nightmarish 2013 season on defense, the Aggies linebackers endured more than their fair share of struggles.

Whether it was a position change, someone playing out of position or something as simple as inexperience keeping the Aggies from playing well, the group never quite found its footing in 2013.

The first week -- and even just the first day -- of training camp provided linebackers coach Mark Hagen with reason for optimism in 2014.

One area the Aggies' linebackers -- and the defense as a whole -- struggled with was communication. Sometimes when the ball was snapped, players were out of position or not certain of their assignments.

So far on the practice field there is much less of that, according to Hagen.

"Night and day,” Hagen said of the difference in communication. “The biggest thing we lacked last year were guys that had been there and done that ... I don't have to relive the 2014 season for you guys. It was constantly swimming uphill. And even though we got some pieces in the right place, the communication was never where it needed to be.

“We've got a different feel right now. It wasn't perfect. Going back to Friday, the first day of practice, even though it wasn't totally clean out there, there was never a time where you had guys looking left and looking right, [while the offense is] snapping the ball .... We got lined up and we played fast when the ball was snapped. That doesn't mean we played perfect in terms of the fits and the coverages, but we operated as 11 instead of 9 or 10 guys being on one page and a couple guys being on another page. That's a recipe for disaster."

Defensive line depth improving

One of the key tasks for Texas A&M’s defense since joining the SEC is building the type of depth needed to compete in the league. The defensive line is especially important in that area.

The Aggies have focused on the defensive line in recruiting and in 2014 were able to bring in five true freshman defensive linemen in the recruiting class plus a junior college transfer.

“It’s going to help everybody this season, not just me,” Julien Obioha said of the increased depth. “It’s going to help Alonzo Williams, Hardreck Walker, Daeshon Hall. There are two or three guys behind all those guys.”

Obioha was a true freshman who started in 2012 and is now entering his third season in Aggieland. The improvement in overall talent across the defensive line is evident to him.

“Depth is amazing compared to what it was [in 2012],” Obioha said. “Freshman year, we were playing maybe six guys [on the defensive line]. This year we’ll be able to play 12-14 guys.”

Defensive line coach Terry Price was able to secure top-flight talent in 2014, including the nation’s No. 1 defensive end, Myles Garrett, as well as ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham and three-star defensive end Jarrett Johnson. Price seems pleased with what they’ve shown him thus far.

“Our biggest deficiency last year, to me, was speed on the edge of our defense at the defensive end spot,” Price said. “We went out and tried to find the best we could find, which have added speed and depth to our defense which is huge.”

Competition at kicker

Walk-on kicker and former FC Dallas goalkeeper Josh Lambo emerged as an unlikely hero last season for the Aggies, making a game-winning field goal as time expired at Ole Miss. Midway through the 2013 season, Lambo assumed place-kicking duties from Taylor Bertolet, but just because Lambo finished the year as the starter doesn’t automatically make him the go-to guy.

Bertolet, a junior, is having a strong training camp according to special-teams coach Jeff Banks, making this year’s battle at kicker a close one. Last season Bertolet was 2-for-3 on field goals and 23-of-26 on point-after attempts. Lambo was 8-for-10 on field goal tries and 50-of-51 PATs.

"I'm in a great position,” Banks said. “To have two Division I guys who can kick the ball 60 yards and have a little depth, length and distance .... I'm in a great position from that standpoint; I'm in a tough position in [deciding] who's going to be the best guy for the job. It's probably a lot like quarterback. If you name a guy right off the bat then the other guy might get discouraged.”

“So we're not going to do that. We're going to continue to compete during fall camp. We've still got at least 15-18 practices before we get ready for South Carolina and we have to do the best job we can to evaluate who is the best for the job.”

Lambo sat out the first week of training camp, recovering from a groin injury but said he should be 100 percent soon.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Like many of Texas A&M's defensive players, Jordan Mastrogiovanni was thrown onto the field sooner than most anticipated.

He got his first career start in the Aggies' most anticipated game of 2013, the Sept. 14 clash against Alabama. He appeared in all 13 games last season and made another start in the Aggies' Chick-Fil-A Bowl game win over Duke.

[+] EnlargeMastrogiovanni
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Texas A&M coaches expect sophomore linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni to be a defensive leader in 2014.
Most incoming recruits relish the chance at early playing time, but for the ESPN 300 prospect out of Dallas Jesuit, the excitement was also met with a dose of reality.

"To be honest with you, it was overwhelming at times," Mastrogiovanni said. "To think that a year [before] I was playing in front of 2,000 people in a high school football game, that's just one of those things where you have to man up and take care of your responsibilities and do the best you can."

What was overwhelming about it? In a word, everything.

"Really, every aspect of the game," he said. "The players, the calls, just looking up in the stands and seeing 100,000 people, that's something not many people get to experience. As an 18-year-old kid looking up, it's something that not a lot of people get to experience."

In the bowl game against Duke, Mastrogiovanni started at middle linebacker in place of the suspended Darian Claiborne, who served as the starter for most of the season. Linebackers coach Mark Hagen recalls the difficult start the defense had across the board against the Blue Devils, as the Aggies surrendered 38 first-half points while a handful of glossy-eyed freshmen, Mastrogiovanni included, tried to figure things out.

"It was a disaster from the opening kickoff in the bowl game," Hagen said. "Nothing went right. I think like most of our guys they were questioning themselves in the locker room and it was just a matter of going out there and getting a stop and I think you saw the confidence start to come back a little bit. It was a playing time issue really as much as anything [for Mastrogiovanni], just not having a ton of [first-team] reps."

But as the Aggies regrouped in the locker room, Mastrogiovanni spoke up and the defense collected itself. The unit allowed only 10 points in the second half as the team completed its come-from-behind effort to steal a 52-48 win.

"At halftime I went in and was pretty frustrated with my performance and the rest of the defense's," Mastrogiovanni said. "I tried to take over as the leader at that point and I said 'Turn the page. Don't even think about it.' That's what Johnny [Manizel] was saying too. I really think we went out there and bought in on what the coaches and players were preaching in the locker room. I think you can see on tape that we were a lot more physical and we trusted each other so it paid off."

The Aggies are hoping the instinct the 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker showed that night carries over into this season, because he figures to be Texas A&M's starting middle linebacker. Mastrogiovanni spent the spring working with the first team. The Aggies are looking for improved play -- and leadership.

"I think we lacked a lot of it last year," coach Kevin Sumlin said of the defensive leadership. "We need a guy who's going to step up and talk and make sure we know everything and that we play with some confidence. I think that whole year has given him some confidence and some credibility among his teammates. It's one thing for you to be confident, but what about the guys around you? Mastro has spoken up."

Spring football, which wrapped up for the Aggies on Saturday, was productive for Mastrogiovanni. He became much more comfortable in his role as the middle linebacker and showed the qualities the coaching staff seeks.

"I just think you see a totally different person out there," Hagen said. "Much more comfortable, he's taking charge, he's getting our guys lined up which is over half the battle on defense."

The coaches want him to continue to progress, but so far he has given them reason for optimism. The one thing Sumlin wants him to work on is, of all things, his voice, so his teammates can hear him.

"I give him a hard time because I tell him to put some bass in his voice," Sumlin said with a smile. "I keep forgetting he's a freshman. He has played a bunch of football here. 'Yell from the diaphragm, act like a middle linebacker, put some bass in your voice.'"

With Claiborne likely to move to the weakside linebacker position and the Aggies mulling over a number of options for strongside linebacker, Mastrogiovanni's play is key. Texas A&M is looking to improve a defense that was last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories and struggled mightily against the run. It also didn't deal with offensive wrinkles well, something that having an experienced middle linebacker with the leadership qualities coaches are looking for will help improve.

Mastrogiovanni doesn't want to see another season go by with the Aggies ranking in the bottom 30 nationally defensively, like they did in 2013.

"That's just unacceptable, especially for a program the caliber of Texas A&M," he said. "The fans deserve better and we need to push ourselves. That's not the product we want to put out on the field. We're driven, we're motivated, we just don't want to have another defensive season like that."

Tales From The Road: Texas A&M 

May, 15, 2013
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Every Wednesday, Sam Khan Jr. will take a quick-hit look at some of the top recruits and storylines facing Texas A&M recruiting for the week.

This week’s targets: The Aggies are making sure to comb the state for linebackers now that one of their top targets at the position, 2014 inside linebacker Zach Whitley Jr., is committed elsewhere (Alabama). Spring (Texas) Klein Oak inside linebacker Josh Mabin and outside linebacker Ja'Von Shelley will get looks this week when linebackers coach Mark Hagen and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder are expected at the Panthers' spring game on Thursday. Hagen went by Klein Oak last week to see the pair. Texas A&M has also checked out 2014 Dallas South Oak Cliff defensive end Silvester Hayes, who could project as an outside linebacker and is someone the Aggies are evaluating.

Area of interest: The Aggies' efforts in Louisiana paid some dividends in the last recruiting class, as Texas A&M hauled in three prospects from the neighboring state in the 2013 class, including ESPN 300 cornerback Noel Ellis. So it shouldn't come as a surprise to see them targeting high-level prospects from the state in 2014. They're in the running for several notable kids from "The Boot," including five-star athlete Speedy Noil, ESPN 150 defensive tackle Gerald Willis III and four-star quarterback Brandon Harris. All 10 Aggies commits are Texas products, but expect them to stay in the hunt for those three Louisianans.

Aggies still eyeing 2014 LB Mabin 

May, 14, 2013
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Spring (Texas) Klein Oak High School has a handful of prospects in the 2014, 2015 and even the 2016 classes and plenty of college coaches have made their way to the school in the north Houston area to evaluate them this spring.

One of them is 2014 inside linebacker Josh Mabin, who continues to add schools to his offer list.


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Bayou City Beat: Recruiting nuggets 

April, 29, 2013
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Each week this spring, GigEmNation reporter Sam Khan Jr. will bring you notes and nuggets from watching and visiting with high school football prospects in the Greater Houston area that week, including observations of Texas A&M commitments and targets and other players that catch his attention. Here's this week's installment:


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With the spring evaluation period underway, Texas A&M is making sure to cast its recruiting net far and wide.

Assistant coaches began to hit the road this week and with the majority of the 2014 prospects in Texas undergoing mandatory state-standardized testing this week, it was an opportune time for coaches to get outside of the Lone Star State to see prospects.


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TAMU spring game impresses 2014 OLB 

April, 14, 2013
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Spring (Texas) Klein Oak 2014 linebacker Ja'Von Shelley made one visit to Texas A&M this spring.

On Saturday, he made a return trip for the Maroon-and-White spring football game. Though he originally planned to visit Oklahoma for its spring game, plans fell through and he called up Aggies' linebackers coach Mark Hagen, who encouraged Shelley to make his way back to Aggieland.


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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Throughout their successful 2012 season, the buzz around Texas A&M football built each week. It crescendoed after the Aggies defeated Alabama and peaked when the Aggies' quarterback, Johnny Manziel, won the Heisman Trophy. They kept that buzz going with a resounding win over Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.

That buzz has had a clear affect on Texas A&M recruiting and Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies' staff is doing what they can to ensure the buzz continues. In some instances, it's tricks or tactics that the Aggies use themselves, like when they trotted out a live disc jockey for the "Friday Night Lights" scrimmage last week.


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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Donnie Baggs isn't the biggest guy -- or even the biggest linebacker -- on Texas A&M's defense.

But he might have the biggest load to carry this spring and fall for the Aggies. And it's a critical role, one that demands success if Texas A&M is to consider the 2013 season a success on defense.

[+] EnlargeDonnie Baggs
Sam Khan Jr./ESPNLinebacker Donnie Baggs is taking on a leadership role for the Aggies.
In many ways, Baggs' transition -- from reserve linebacker and spot starter last season to likely full-time starter at middle linebacker this season -- is indicative of what the entire group of Aggies linebackers are going through. Change.

Turn your eyes to that group on the Coolidge Grass Practice Fields this spring and what you see -- at least in terms of personnel -- is significantly different than what you would have seen at this time last year. A unit that was considered a strength coming into the 2012 season, with two experienced seniors (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart) leading the way is now a group in transition, with two new starters and several players who weren't even on the Texas A&M campus prior to January. And that includes the position coach, Mark Hagen, who is in his first year with the Aggies.

Earlier this spring, head coach Kevin Sumlin joked that he doesn't talk to Hagen much because Hagen's too busy melding all the new players together.

"I don't talk to him much because he's busy," Sumlin said with a laugh. "His plate's full, he's running around, he's meeting, he's chasing guys all over the place."

But the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Baggs is at the center of it all -- literally and figuratively. Not only is he responsible for getting acclimated to a new role, he's also the point man for getting the rest of the front seven lined up properly before the offense snaps the football. That task is easier for someone like Stewart, who was an experienced senior with plenty of football under his belt, than it is for Baggs, who has never been a regular starter.

(Read full post)

For newcomers or players who are stepping into new roles, spring football is an important time to develop and get acclimated to their surroundings.

The same can be said for new coaches.

Texas A&M has three new position coaches this spring -- special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Jeff Banks, linebackers coach Mark Hagen and quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.

Banks, who filled the void left by new Nevada head coach Brian Polian, brings plenty of experience to the table, especially since Banks was an all-conference punter himself at Washington State.

"We talked about replacing Brian with a guy who's just as capable, and Jeff is that," Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He's got a wealth of experience, he's a former kicker/punter. He can be a technician and can help our guys. I think he's brought a different kind of scheme in all four phases. He's had the ability to keep their interests. Sometimes, change is good."

Sumlin said through the first nine practices, he is seeing some improvement from kicker Taylor Bertolet, who showed inconsistency during his redshirt freshman season in 2012. Bertolet was 13-of-22 on field goals (59.1 percent) and 67-of-74 on point-after-touchdown kicks last year.

"Just like quarterbacks and receivers, they have the opportunity to continue their craft all summer," Sumlin said. "So that will be an ongoing work. But definitely there's been some improvement, particularly with Taylor."

Tommy Sanders
Courtesy of Butler C.C.Junior college transfer Tommy Sanders is getting plenty of work at linebacker for Texas A&M.
Plenty on Hagen's plate: Hagen has a unique challenge. None of the linebackers who has taken snaps with the first team this spring were regular starters last year. The one returning starter of the group -- weakside linebacker Steven Jenkins -- is out this spring with a torn labrum.

"He's got a bunch of young guys," Sumlin said. "He's got Donnie Baggs, who has not played a whole lot of football around here at Texas A&M. He's got two guys who should be going to the prom next month at linebacker in Brett Wade and Reggie [Chevis]. And then he's got a junior college transfer [Tommy Sanders], who just got here. I don't talk to him much because he's busy. His plate's full; he's running around, he's meeting, he's chasing guys all over the place."

"You throw Shaun Ward in there and guys who haven't played a bunch. With Jenkins out, that's given all those guys a lot of turns, [including] Nate Askew, who we moved from wide receiver."

Sumlin said he's seen some positive signs from Hagen and his young linebackers.

"It's really good for a new coach because those guys aren't used to doing a lot of things," Sumlin said. "He has a lot of energy and obviously those guys have made really good strides during the course of spring."

Askew making progress: One of the many new faces at linebacker is one that was on offense last year: Nate Askew.

Before the spring, Askew moved to linebacker from receiver. Sumlin said he's seen Askew make improvement during the spring.

"It's going good," Sumlin said. "Some good, some bad. He's been over there nine practices in pads and the great thing about it has been his attitude and how he's approached the position, how he wants to get better, how he hasn't shied away from contact."

At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Askew brings size and athleticism to the position.

"He's one of the top athletes on this whole team," Sumlin said. "He can really, really help us if he continues to get better the way he's gotten better the last couple of weeks."
The first few months of 2013 have been good to Mesquite (Texas) Poteet outside linebacker Malik Jefferson.

The 2015 prospect has seen interest from colleges turn into offers from schools in power conferences. His latest offer came Monday night.


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Spring break for ESPN Watch List linebacker Josh Mabin wasn't too much of a break.

While he took a brief period for rest, he mostly continued working out, trying to get stronger and better every day in anticipation of spring football, which is roughly a month away at Klein Oak in Spring, Texas.


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If there was one thing that Spring (Texas) Klein Oak linebacker Ja'Von Shelley enjoyed about his trip to Texas A&M's junior day, it was the vibe during the Aggies' first spring practice.

More specifically, the vibe he felt coming from the speakers inside the McFerrin Athletic Center.

"They had some music going," Shelley said. "I liked that. It gets you hype for practice. ... I loved that. I was dancing on the sidelines."

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Sumlin not worried about Manziel

March, 1, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Johnny Manziel took home the Heisman Trophy last season, but what Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin wants to see from him this spring is the same thing he wants to see from the rest of the Aggies when they begin spring practice on Saturday: Improvement.

Manziel and the Aggies return to the practice field this weekend to begin work towards the 2013 season after a memorable 2012. The talented signal-caller from Kerrville (Texas) Tivy has had a busy offseason that included an award ceremony, photo ops with celebrities, courtside seats at NBA games and of course, classwork and time in the weight room.

Sumlin said he isn't worried about where Manziel's focus is heading into spring.

"That's part of it," Sumlin said of the things that have come with Manziel's new fame. "We start practice tomorrow. That has nothing to do with his performance level."

Earlier this year, Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman did call a meeting that included Manziel, his family, Sumlin and A&M compliance officials to make sure everyone was on the same page as public scrutiny on Manziel increased.

(Read full post)

Mike EvansRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesMike Evans will need support from other Texas A&M receivers in 2013.

Spring practice is rapidly approaching for Texas A&M. The Aggies hit the field for their first spring practice session on Saturday.

After a memorable 11-2 campaign that saw the Aggies impress observers in their first SEC season and redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel emerge as the Heisman Trophy winner, there's plenty to watch for in 2013.

Here are five storylines to keep an eye on as the Aggies begin spring drills:


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