Texas A&M Aggies: Matt Joeckel

video The departure of senior Matt Joeckel means that Texas A&M is down to two in its quarterback race. From here on out, it's all about sophomore Kenny Hill and early-enrollee freshman Kyle Allen.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsSophomore Kenny Hill threw for 183 yards and a touchdown in limited playing time last fall.
The question now becomes who has the edge at the position entering summer workouts and fall camp?

It really is up in the air. Coach Kevin Sumlin is not expected to announce a starter until August, much like when he chose Johnny Manziel to be the starter before the 2012 season. Sumlin isn't the type to make a decision like this early, so there's plenty of time for both guys to prove themselves before the season opener against South Carolina on Aug. 28.

While Allen, a U.S. Army All-American and former ESPN 300 member, arrived in College Station with a mountain of hype and expectations, the more experienced Hill might still have a leg up on the rising star. Yes, Hill was indefinitely suspended this spring after he was arrested in late March on a public intoxication charge, but that setback won't disqualify him from taking the starting job this fall.

After all, Manziel was also arrested -- much later in the process, too -- and did just fine with the quarterback battle in 2012. He also turned out to be a pretty decent starter for the Aggies.

Now, Hill isn't Manziel. He isn't going to make the kind of jaw-dropping plays that made Manziel so much fun to watch and so tough to defend, but he knows the offense the best and has the only on-field experience. Hill played in five games last season, throwing for 183 yards and a touchdown on 16-of-22 passing. With that said, Hill is on thin ice and certainly can't afford to have another off-field transgression if he wants a shot at being the starter.

Hill's suspension set him back this spring, giving Allen more opportunities. Allen showed the expected freshman jitters and errors this spring. He was far from perfect and still has a way to go in this offense. He might have an advantage in the arms race, as he threw arguably the best ball of all the competitors this spring. Allen might be the quarterback of the future with his talent and upside, but that doesn't mean he'll be the quarterback of 2014.

Hill has some work to do to get fully back into his coaches' good graces, but his knowledge of the offense gives him an advantage at the moment. Both will likely see playing time this fall, but Sumlin isn't one to swap quarterbacks in and out on a regular basis during the season.

Eventually there's going to be one guy for the job, and the next few months will still go a long way in determining who starts for the Aggies at quarterback in the fall.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — While Texas A&M had no formal Maroon and White game to cap spring football as construction continues at Kyle Field, the Aggies did conduct one last scrimmage on Saturday at the Coolidge grass practice fields to close things out.

The 15th and final practice of the spring for the 2014 Aggies went as smoothly as coach Kevin Sumlin could have hoped, as no major injuries were reported. It put a cap on an interesting spring for the squad.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsSenior cornerback Deshazor Everett was generally pleased with how the defense played during Texas A&M's final spring scrimmage.
"It went well," senior offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi said. "Young guys got a lot of reps. The three quarterbacks, they battled hard. Overall, it was a fun last spring [as a senior]."

Ogbuehi called the offensive performance "kind of shaky" on Saturday and noted that the Aggies' defense performed well. It appears Texas A&M is still jelling with new players at the key skill positions on offense and with a couple new faces on the offensive line. Starting left guard Jarvis Harrison sat out the spring, recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

"There are still young quarterbacks and new quarterbacks, a young O-line," Ogbuehi said. "We'll get there, but it was kind of shaky today and hats off to the defense. They played fast and hard and it's good for them."

Senior cornerback Deshazor Everett, one of the leaders of the Aggies' defense, seemed mostly pleased with how his unit fared.

"I think [Saturday] was pretty good," Everett said. "We had a few plays that we should have made a play, but we didn't. But I can't really say there are any lowlights. We went out there and competed with the offense."

The defense is a focal point for observers this offseason as the Aggies ranked last or near last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories last season. Everett noted how the unit progressed from scrimmage to scrimmage as March turned to April.

"The first scrimmage, we went out there and we competed just like this," Everett said. "The second scrimmage, it [didn't go] as well, but we still came out in the second half of the scrimmage and did a good job with the offense. This scrimmage, we pretty much stopped them and competed with them. That's what we need to do so we can go into the season with this motivation, that we can compete with anybody."

The future tasks for the team are clear. The defense must improve. The veteran secondary has to become more consistent, especially at safety. The defensive line needs to improve its level of play and depth and the Aggies hope to find the right mix at linebacker, a group that's likely to include a lot of youth.

On offense, the quarterback battle among Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen will carry into the summer and preseason training camp. An offensive line that returns four of five starters should help, as should a running back group that returns three lettermen, but there are battles for jobs in both areas. There also will be many new faces at receiver.

After 15 practices, the Aggies believe they have improved and will spend this summer trying to continue that progress.

"We're still far away from where we need to be," Ogbuehi said. "But we're progressing every day. It's a plus, but we're still far from where we need to be that great team."
Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The race to replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's starting quarterback is a marathon, not a sprint, but it fostered a compelling development when one of the contenders found himself on the outside looking in, at least temporarily.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsKenny Hill is losing valuable time in the competition for Texas A&M starting QB.
The three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman Kyle Allen will continue this week sans Hill, who was arrested (and later released) early Friday morning on a charge of public intoxication.

On Friday night, the Aggies held their third scrimmage of the spring, this particular workout serving as coach Kevin Sumlin's annual "Friday Night Lights" event which draws numerous recruits but also serves as a live-action opportunity for the current players. Hill did not participate as he began serving his indefinite suspension (Texas A&M athletic department policy dictates that student-athletes are immediately suspended indefinitely, pending further investigation, after an arrest). The repetitions at quarterback were split "half and half" between Joeckel and Allen, according to Sumlin, who made his first public comments about Hill's incident on Monday.

With no timetable currently set for Hill's return, it appears Allen and Joeckel will continue splitting time in this final week of spring football for Texas A&M. Sumlin sounded pleased with both players' performances on Friday night.

"I think both of them did some good things," Sumlin said Monday. "They both are progressing. I think they understand the offense a lot more. Obviously, Kyle has to because he just got here. Joeckel, being two years into this [offense], he understands it a little bit more and he should. But we've got to get everybody on the same page."

Hill's absence obviously isn't helping his chances.

"I would say that if you're not out there practicing, then that would have an effect on your ability to compete for the job," Sumlin said.

He also expressed disappointment with Hill's actions. He is the third Texas A&M player to be arrested in the last six weeks and the fourth to be disciplined because of an off-field incident. Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden have both missed all spring after arrests in February and Sumlin dismissed safety Kameron Miles from the team last month.

"[It's] extremely disappointing," Sumlin said of Hill.

He noted that the team educates its players on a wide range of off-the-field matters, including drugs, alcohol and behavior, when they come into the program.

"We've got a whole educational process with our young guys when they come in," Sumlin said. "We have a 'CHAMPS' class that puts them through the structure of basically growing up. Helping guys with a sense of urgency about time management, about on the field and off the field situations, drug and alcohol counselors. We have a couple of those guys, at least, a semester that come in. We have a complete curriculum and an educational process for all those guys."

The misstep isn't necessarily a death knell for Hill's chances, if history serves as a guide. Manziel was arrested the summer before he was named the starting quarterback, just before his Heisman Trophy-winning 2012 campaign. At the time of his arrest, he was in a battle with then-Texas A&M quarterback Jameill Showers, Joeckel and former A&M quarterback Matt Davis for the starting job.

Sumlin has overseen two preseason starting quarterback competitions in his tenure as a head coach and both were decided in August, roughly two weeks before his team's scheduled season opener. That will be the case again this year, which quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital confirmed in February.

So while there is time for Hill to make up ground, the absence hurts him, especially in this final week of spring practice. Allen and Joeckel will have the benefit of seeing more exotic defensive looks from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his unit this week and in the final scrimmage of spring on Saturday, which will aid both quarterbacks' development in the ongoing battle to start on Aug. 28 at South Carolina.

"I'd like for them to see it all here this week," Sumlin said of his quarterbacks. "As we get into the summer, it gives them a chance to work against some base looks and work their progressions."
Texas A&M got an unwelcome distraction on Friday when the news of Kenny Hill's arrest broke.

Hill, a sophomore quarterback who is part of a three-way competition for the starting job, is suspended indefinitely, per Texas A&M athletic department policy after he was taken into custody on a public intoxication charge.

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesKenny Hill's suspension leaves him unable to participate in the rest of Texas A&M's spring practices.
This is the third arrest and Hill is the fourth A&M player involved in an off-field incident since mid-February -- not an ideal situation for coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff.

The news broke just hours before the Aggies were scheduled to hit the field for their annual "Friday Night Lights" practice, an energized scrimmage/recruiting event that Sumlin has hosted since his first year as the Aggies' head coach.

Hill's suspension likely means the other two contenders for the starting quarterback job, senior Matt Joeckel and true freshman Kyle Allen, will see increased repetitions in his absence. The Aggies have four spring football practices remaining after Friday's scrimmage.

Many observers might be quick to point out that Texas A&M's recently departed quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner and potential first-round NFL draft pick Johnny Manziel, survived an offseason arrest in 2012 and won the starting job before going on to his historic freshman season. However, Manziel's arrest came in the middle of the summer, not during the spring, thus Manziel did not miss valuable practice time or scrimmage opportunities.

By all accounts, the quarterback battle has been a tight one. One factor that could work in Hill's favor is Sumlin's patience in quarterback competitions: He typically does not name a starter until two weeks before the season opener, and that is likely to be the case again this season. So there is a long way to go until anything happens, giving Hill time to recover from his legal incident.

Hill came into this spring with an edge over newcomer Allen because of his game experience (he appeared in five games last season) and because he's a dual threat with plenty of experience dating back to high school with no-huddle spread offenses like the one the Aggies run. But by enrolling early, Allen -- the No. 1 pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class -- is doing everything he can to put himself in position to succeed. And Joeckel, the veteran of the group, has the most experience and has long been waiting for his opportunity.

If this proves to be an isolated incident for Hill, it will likely become a footnote if he bounces back and wins the starting job. This doesn't help his case for the time being, though.

This is the latest off-field incident for the Aggies, as starting defensive teammates Isaiah Golden and Darian Claiborne were arrested last month, and safety Kameron Miles was dismissed from the team earlier this month. Claiborne and Golden have both sat out all spring (Golden actually withdrew from school recently, though Sumlin said he expects the defensive tackle to return) and Miles is headed to Butler Community College in Kansas.

Sumlin has been swift in dealing with off-field issues this offseason, but the last thing he wanted was to have to deal with another.
Editor's note: With Texas A&M taking a brief hiatus from the football field concurrent to the school's spring break this week, we'll look back at notes and nuggets from the first five practices of spring football for the Aggies. Here's the fourth installment:

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M has only had a week's worth of spring practice. There are still many months to come until the Aggies are even close to naming a starting quarterback, but the battle to become the next signal-caller in Aggieland is in full swing.

How did it look after five practices?

"I've seen a bunch of guys that are pretty good," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "There's a great competition."

Each of the three candidates -- senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen -- have been able to rotate turns working with the first team throughout the early practices and each have made progress, according to Sumlin.

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesSophomore Kenny Hill is one of three players vying to replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's starting quarterback.
"Matt's really competing at a high level and he should. He's been around here forever," Sumlin said. "He understands the offense and has played in games and has really, really, improved.

"Kenny is a lot more focused right now and is doing some good things. The young guy [Allen] has come in and is making strides every day. You don't expect him to be where those guys are at this point."

While each has their strengths, you won't find any with the scrambling ability that their predecessor, Johnny Manziel, had. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner's elusiveness separated him from other quarterbacks. Joeckel, Hill and Allen better resemble the prototype that fits the offense Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital have spent the last six years working in.

"These types of quarterbacks that we have here are similar to what I had at West Virginia and Oklahoma State, and you've just got to utilize their strengths and take advantage of what they do best," Spavital said. "They're obviously probably going to be more pocket-passer guys, but I think some of them are mobile enough to maybe get some things out there on the perimeter."

Each quarterback is at a different stage in terms of how much of the offense they've been given, Sumlin said. For Joeckel and Hill, that's an advantage. For Allen, who has been on campus since January as an early enrollee who signed with the 2014 recruiting class, inexperience is the primary hurdle right now.

"He's got to learn the offense," Sumlin said of Allen. "We have to put him in a position where he can be successful with not giving him the whole menu and letting him play in a style that benefits him and where he's comfortable. Realistically, Matt should have everything. Kenny should have a little less than everything and [Allen] should have a lot less than both those guys at this point. We're a third of the way through [spring]. He shouldn't have everything. He'll get more and more as we go and we'll be able to assess a little bit more. After five practices I think all of those guys are right where you thought they'd be."
Setting up the spring in the SEC West:

ALABAMA

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
  • What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
  • Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
ARKANSAS

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
  • A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
  • Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
AUBURN

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
  • Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
  • Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
LSU

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
  • Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
  • Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
OLE MISS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
  • Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
  • A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
TEXAS A&M

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)

What to watch:
  • Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
  • Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
  • New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.

Breaking down Texas A&M's QB battle

February, 28, 2014
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M enjoyed two years of one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history, 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and 2013 Heisman finalist Johnny Manziel. Today, as the Aggies open up spring football practice, life after Johnny Football officially begins.

Avid A&M fans know the main candidates for the starting quarterback job by now: senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and early enrollee freshman Kyle Allen. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital is charged with grooming Manziel's successor, and he has history working with talented quarterbacks.

The 28-year-old Spavital said all three will have a chance to win the starting job.

“Everybody's going to get a fair shot,” Spavital said. “I think competition brings out the best in everybody. I can tell you that the [quarterback meeting] room is not very comfortable right now, but that's what I want. They all want that starting job. Let's see who wants it the most."

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesFormer three-star recruit Kenny Hill, a sophomore, played in five games last season. Could he be the successor to Johnny Manziel?
The most experienced is Joeckel. He started the 2013 season opener against Rice when Manziel had to sit the first half while serving a suspension resulting from an NCAA investigation. Joeckel finished the day completing 14 of 19 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown.

“[Joeckel] plays within the system and he understands what needs to be accomplished,” Spavital said. “That's the reason why he started vs. Rice, because the kid doesn't mess up very often."

The 6-foot-4, 234-pound Joeckel, the twin brother of current Jacksonville Jaguar offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, has been working in the Aggies’ offense longer than any quarterback on the roster. Last season, Matt Joeckel was 22-of-37 passing for 293 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in four appearances.

"Matt's the most experienced guy out of all of them in terms of running this offense,” Spavital said. “I was very pleased with how he handled himself. He plays to his strengths. He knows his limitations; he's not the most mobile quarterback, but he understands that. He's not going to try to make Johnny Manziel plays out there, he's going to go out there and try to make Matt Joeckel plays.”

Hill also received playing time last season and competed with Joeckel throughout training for the backup job. A product of high school football power Southlake Carroll, Hill is who some fans might handicap as the favorite based on the fact that he’s a dual-threat who has playing experience and plenty of potential.

During the Aggies' Chick-Fil-A Bowl preparation in December, the 6-1, 215-pound Hill earned some valuable practice time.

“The bowl prep was good for [Hill], it really was,” Spavital said. “Johnny was gone on those award shows and everything so it gave him the opportunity to rep the offense and run with the [first team] a couple times and try to get used to them.

“Kenny has come a long way. You can tell he was raised in a spread, no-huddle system. That comes pretty much second nature to him. He's starting to understand the offense, he's good at the communication and the operation part of it, which is a big deal. Going into Year 2 he can focus on the execution of it, where it is more situational stuff that he needs to keep getting better at it. He's smart enough and he has been around it enough that he can keep learning from his mistakes and moving on."

In five games Hill was 16-of-22 passing for 183 yards and a touchdown. Even though his time was mostly mop-up duty, getting him on the field was important, Spavital said, in case he winds up being the starter this fall.

“If you walk out into Kyle Field, you understand how intimidating that can be,” Spavital said. “There's a lot of eyes on you. No matter who the opponent is, there are going to be some nerves. We did the same thing with [center] Mike Matthews, just to get him acclimated, get him trained, get him traveling, let him see venues and crowds and environments that he's going to be a part of. I thought that was very important to get [Hill] some playing time just so he we won't throw him out there and say 'Hey, go win a game' next year."

Allen is the wild card. Ranked as the No. 1 pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class, he has the physical tools required. As the No. 35 overall player in the ESPN 300, the four-star prospect comes to Aggieland with high expectations.

“Kyle was considered one of the top quarterbacks in the country because of his playmaking ability,” Spavital said. “He has a very strong arm, he has a quick release, he's a bigger kid, about 6-3, 200 pounds. He's big in stature and he has a hell of an arm. From a coaching standpoint and how we handle it, you can look at that and there's a lot of good quarterbacks out there that can throw a ball and they can make a highlight tape look good. But when you talk to the kid, he's a very intelligent kid and I liked his confidence and the way he carried himself. That was what separated him from everybody else.”

Allen enrolled at Texas A&M in January. Though his lack of experience is a disadvantage, enrolling early affords him a real chance to compete. He sat in meetings with the coaches and began learning the offense during the staff’s installation.

"That's huge,” Spavital said. “Just him being here now, he can compete. We're not going to announce a starter until fall, about two weeks or a week-and-a-half before the game. It's going to give him an opportunity to go through our installation four times and play some live scrimmages in the spring and get acclimated to the speed and then also have a good summer and go into fall camp.”

It should be a compelling race to watch unfold.

“You can sense the competition,” Spavital said. “We try to keep it as laid back as possible but you can sense that everybody's wanting that starting job. I like it.”
Over the span of their careers they threw for 48,824 passing yards. There were a total 403 touchdown passes among them, and they won 184 games in which they appeared, including 11 bowls and two national championships. They were, arguably, the most talented and productive class of quarterbacks ever to play in the SEC at one time. And now they’re all gone.

[+] EnlargeDylan Thompson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson saw a lot of playing time last season when Connor Shaw went out.
The SEC had to say goodbye to James Franklin, Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw in January. The void they leave behind is enormous, and while some programs already have an idea of who will take their place next season, not all are so lucky.

We’re counting down the five most pressing questions facing the SEC this spring, in no particular order of importance. First, how do you replace all the veteran quarterbacks the league enjoyed in 2013?

When spring camps open over the next few weeks -- the first being Texas A&M on Friday -- that question will begin to be answered. With each snap and each team meeting, leaders will emerge. Some staffs will look for a winner heading into the summer so they can avoid a quarterback controversy come fall, while others will have to sweat it out through the offseason.

Texas A&M: Surprises will undoubtedly occur, as we saw only a few years ago when a scrappy freshman from Kerrville, Texas, beat out the presumptive favorite to land the starting job at Texas A&M. The Aggies stumbled upon Manziel, and Jameill Showers was quickly forgotten. Kenny Hill and Matt Joeckel are this year’s frontrunners, but they’ll have competition in another freshman nipping at their heels in Kyle Allen. The Arizona native is more of a pure passer than a running quarterback, but he has the tools to sling the ball around in Kevin Sumlin’s offense.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier didn’t mince words when he saidDylan Thompson is “without question going to be our quarterback.” He even asked, “Why open it up when he’s the only one who’s played?” Thompson, a rising senior, doesn’t have the athleticism to break containment quite like Shaw, but Thompson can still move the chains with his feet when necessary. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound South Carolina native doesn’t lack for arm strength and might even have more pure throwing ability than Shaw. But where Thompson must match Shaw is intangibles. There wasn’t a more dynamic leader in the SEC than Shaw last year, and the Gamecocks will miss that kind of will power under center in 2014. While the starting job is Thompson’s to lose, don’t sleep on redshirt freshman Connor Mitch. The former four-star recruit could push Thompson this spring.

Missouri: The race to replace Franklin comes down to one quarterback and one quarterback alone: Maty Mauk. The rising redshirt sophomore showed last season that he can control the offense, starting four games in which he averaged 227.5 yards, 2.5 touchdowns and 0.5 interceptions per game. More importantly, he won three of the four games with the only loss coming in double overtime against South Carolina. He’ll learn from that experience and take over a team that will be moving on from the loss of big-time playmakers Henry Josey, L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas. Having the ultra-talented Dorial Green-Beckham back will help, but an arrest on drug charges in January has clouded his future.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cornwell
Courtesy of Cornwell familyEarly enrollee and former four-star recruit David Cornwell will get his shot at Alabama's starting QB job this spring.
LSU: The Tigers faithful got a sneak peek at their next quarterback, Anthony Jennings, after Mettenberger tore his ACL and was forced to miss LSU’s bowl game. The rising sophomore didn’t drop anyone’s jaw against Iowa, but he did just enough, throwing for 82 yards on 7 of 19 passing, while letting his supporting cast do the heavy lifting. At 6-2 and 205 pounds, Jennings has the look of a starting quarterback in the SEC. The former four-star recruit played sparingly in 2013, though, attempting just 10 passes prior to the Outback Bowl. He’ll have to contend with Brandon Harris, ESPN’s No. 37 overall prospect and No. 2 dual-threat passer in the 2014 class, along with rising senior Rob Bolden and rising sophomore Hayden Rettig.

Georgia: Despite what wasn’t a great performance to end last season -- 21-of-39 for 320 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Nebraska -- Hutson Mason is still the overwhelming favorite to replace Murray. Why? Because Mark Richt and the coaching staff have essentially been grooming Mason to take over for years now, redshirting him in 2012 so he would have a year left to play in 2014. Mason was once a three-star quarterback who put up huge numbers running the spread at Lassiter High School in nearby Marietta, and with Todd Gurley behind him, he won’t be asked to do too much his first year starting. While he might be a year away, don’t write off Faton Bauta just yet. The 6-3, 216-pound redshirt sophomore has impressed the staff with his work ethic and could find his way into some playing time.

Alabama: Oddly enough, the quarterback many presume will take over for McCarron won’t actually arrive until the summer. Jacob Coker, the heralded transfer from Florida State, will be a little late finishing his degree in Tallahassee, which leaves a big opportunity for the rest of Alabama’s quarterbacks to make a first impression. New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will instead have his focus on Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman this spring. Sims, who best fits the mold of a run-first quarterback, has a lot of work ahead of him to prove he can play from the pocket. Morris, meanwhile, didn’t get much time as a redshirt freshman last season and needs to improve his decision-making from the last time we saw him at A-Day. Bateman and McLeod are relative unknowns after redshirting last season, but Bateman, a four-star recruit, does come with a lofty pedigree. The wild card is David Cornwell, the four-star recruit who enrolled in January and will benefit from the fresh start all of the quarterbacks will get under Kiffin.
Editor's note: This is the first part in a weeklong series of predictions for Texas A&M spring football practice, which begins on Friday.

Those who have paid close attention to Kevin Sumlin's history with quarterbacks know one thing is certain when it comes to picking a new starter: Patience is required.

Since Sumlin's head coaching career began in 2008, he has overseen two preseason starting quarterback competitions. One constant existed in both: The starter wasn't picked until midway through fall training camp.

[+] EnlargeMatt Joeckel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsIf history is any indication, don't expect Matt Joeckel or any of the other Texas A&M quarterback candidates to be awarded the starting job in spring practice.
So while Texas A&M fans will discuss and dissect ad nauseam the three primary candidates to become the Aggies' starting quarterback, a spot now vacant with Johnny Manziel pursuing NFL dreams, Sumlin, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and the rest of the A&M coaching brass will likely preach patience.

We can attempt to glean clues from spring football practice, which the Aggies begin on Friday, but if you think the heir apparent to Manziel will lay claim to the quarterback throne in April once Texas A&M wraps up spring drills, you'll be disappointed.

This quarterback race will be a marathon, not a sprint.

Senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman Kyle Allen will take the field in the coming weeks, battling it out for the right to succeed A&M's second Heisman Trophy winner.

As they rotate repetitions with the first-team offense and showcase their skills during practices and scrimmages, it will be easy to make assumptions based on their performances. Player X leads, Player Y needs to improve in these areas, etc.

But if the last battle Sumlin and his staff oversaw was any indication, it's unwise to base entire opinions on spring football. Many believed that Jameill Showers led Manziel in the race to become the starting quarterback in 2012 based on their respective spring performances. While that might have even been true, it didn't mean it was Showers' job. As we all know now, Manziel made enough improvement over the summer that when training camp arrived in August, he earned the confidence of the offensive coaching staff and was ultimately tabbed the starter roughly two weeks before the Aggies opened the season. Showers became the backup, and Manziel went on to make history.

Sumlin even seemed to take pleasure in letting the media know that "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

Spavital has even said, flatly, that the timeline for announcing a starter will be the same as it has been in Sumlin's recent history.

"We're not going to announce until the fall, a week and a half, two weeks before the game," Spavital told ESPN.com earlier this month.

All three quarterbacks will get a fair shot. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, which have been documented well. Joeckel brings size and experience, Hill brings a dual-threat ability and history of competing in an up-tempo, spread-style attack, and Allen brings the physical tools coaches look for in a quarterback as well as leadership qualities, even though he's the youngest and greenest of the group.

It will be a long spring and summer as Aggies wait for the competition to play out. The result, no matter what it is, will be full of intrigue.
Editor's note: This is the fifth and final part of a weeklong series looking at five position battles to watch in spring practice, which begins Feb. 28 for Texas A&M.

Texas A&M has several areas where it needs improvement or will have to replace an outgoing veteran who was productive and reliable. Spring practice is a place where those things can be accomplished.

But for all the new faces and position battles that will ensue, there's one that Aggies will watch the closest: quarterback.

[+] EnlargeMatt Joeckel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsMatt Joeckel will be among the Texas A&M QBs battling to replace Johnny Manziel.
The last two seasons the Aggies were fortunate to have one of college football's best to ever play the position at this level, Johnny Manziel. Spring will be about a lot of things, but what will garner the most attention is who will be the successor to the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and how will all the candidates perform throughout the competition.

The battle will include three primary candidates: senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen.

Joeckel and Hill battled for the backup quarterback job -- and the right to start a game -- last fall while Manziel was under investigation by the NCAA for allegations that he profited from signing autographs. When Manziel was suspended for the first half of the season opener against Rice, Joeckel got the starting nod. He was solid, completing 14-of-19 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown in two quarters of play. For the season, Joeckel, the twin brother of former A&M left tackle and current Jacksonville Jaguar Luke Joeckel, was 22-of-37 for 293 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in four games of action.

At 6-foot-4 and 234 pounds, Joeckel doesn't feature the mobility of a dual-threat quarterback, but he's an accurate passer. He has also been in Texas A&M's offense longer than any other quarterback on the roster.

"He's the most experienced out of all of them in terms of running this offense," offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. "I was pleased with how he handled himself."

Hill, a Southlake (Texas) Carroll product, also received playing time during the 2013 season, even though he didn't get to appear against Rice. In five games, he was 16-of-22 passing for 183 yards and a touchdown and showed well in his college debut, which came in the second half of a blowout win over Sam Houston State.

Hill, a 6-1, 215-pound dual-threat quarterback, has a lot of experience in spread, uptempo offenses and has made positive strides in practices throughout last fall.

"Bowl preparation was good for him," Spavital said. "When Johnny was gone at awards shows it gave him a chance to run with the [first team] and get used to them. He has come a long way."

Allen comes in with plenty of credentials for a high school prospect. He was the No. 1 pocket passer in the country and has good size at 6-3 and 200 pounds. Spavital said he was impressed with how Allen handled himself publicly, his intelligence and his physical gifts.

"His playmaking ability, he has a very strong arm, a quick release," Spavital said. "He has a hell of an arm."

All eyes are on the quarterback anyways, but when these three begin competing, Aggies everywhere will be paying attention.

TAMU to-do list: Pick a QB

January, 24, 2014
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Editor's note: This is the fourth part of a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Texas A&M faces this offseason.

Texas A&M has had good fortune at the quarterback position in recent years but perhaps more so than ever in the last two, with Johnny Manziel.

After two fast, furious seasons, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner has a long list of accomplishments and left a lasting imprint on the program. Needless to say, the shoes he's leaving to fill are enormous.

[+] EnlargeMatt Joeckel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsMatt Joeckel started the 2013 season opener against Rice and passed for 190 yards and a touchdown.
But the Aggies aren't hurting for quarterback talent in the pipeline. The task now is simply figuring out who the best choice is to lead Texas A&M into the post-Manziel era, the next item on our Texas A&M offseason to-do list.

Earlier this month, we took a look at the primary candidates who will compete for the starting quarterback job. They are as follows: senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen.

If Kevin Sumlin's history is any indicator, don't expect to have a starting quarterback named after spring football. It's likely that the Aggies enter fall camp without officially naming the starting quarterback. The last two times that Sumlin has overseen a preseason quarterback competition, he has waited until about two weeks before the first game before naming his guy. In 2008 at Houston, it was Case Keenum who won a battle over Blake Joseph.

In 2012, Sumlin's first season in Aggieland, it was Manziel, a redshirt freshman, who beat out a sophomore in Jameill Showers, even though many observers speculated that Showers did enough in the spring to be the starter. Sumlin's patience paid off as Manziel went on to become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.

Joeckel has the most experience of the group since he has already participated in two springs and seen at least some playing time in each of the last two seasons. Hill, who arrived last fall from Texas high school power Southlake Carroll, made a push for the chance to start the season opener against Rice, which Manziel missed because of a suspension, and though Joeckel got the start, Hill did enough to warrant playing time as a backup during the season.

Both have the advantage of having spent plenty of time working with the coaching staff and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, who will be the offensive coordinator in 2014.

Allen is the wild card of the group. A freshman who is ranked as the No. 1 pocket-passing quarterback in the country and the No. 35 player overall in the ESPN 300, he has already enrolled in classes and will participate in spring football. He'll have time to try to make up ground on Hill and Joeckel.

Sumlin has always been a coach who believes the "best players play" regardless of classification, even if the best player is a true freshman. So while Allen has a lot to learn, he will by no means be eliminated by default.

Whoever it winds up being, it is a critical decision for the Aggies. The success of the next starting quarterback will go a long way in dictating how the Aggies fare in 2014 and beyond, should the starter this year be the "long-term" answer at the position. Nobody is expecting Manziel's successor to match his feats, but there is plenty of optimism with the talent on the roster.

So the Johnny Manziel era is over at Texas A&M.

The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner officially announced on Wednesday that he is declaring for early entry into the 2014 NFL draft and will forgo his final two seasons of eligibility. That means no more No. 2 in Aggieland.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsKenny Hill saw action in five games as a true freshman and is the most mobile of Texas A&M's 2014 quarterback options.
As Aggies reminisce about Johnny Football's greatest hits over the last two years and all the historic accomplishments -- both individual and team -- that occurred during Manziel's 26-game tenure, many are asking "Who's next?"

The Aggies must turn the page to find their next signal-caller. Who will be the quarterback tabbed to succeed Manziel? Virtually nobody is going to expect Manziel's successor to match his well-documented accomplishments, which included him finishing with the two best single-season SEC total yardage marks and come 11 yards shy of 10,000 total in two seasons.

But the Aggies aren't hurting for quarterback talent. There are options in the pipeline that head coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital feel good about. Let's look at the potential options:

Kenny Hill: Hill appeared in five games as a true freshman this season, all of which were blowout victories. He was 16-of-22 passing for 183 yards and a touchdown in his limited action. He competed with Matt Joeckel back in August for the right to be the backup quarterback, though Joeckel wound up getting the more meaningful playing time of the two, starting the season opener against Rice when Manziel missing the first half due to a suspension.

At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Hill is a dual-threat who has plenty of experience in the no-huddle, spread-style offenses. The soon-to-be sophomore played in one in high school at Texas power Southlake Carroll, where he won a state championship, and Spavital said earlier this year that he could tell Hill is a quick study.

"He's very calm, cool and collected," Spavital said. "He communicates discretely and that's something that I don't have to emphasize as much. When a true freshman comes in, you [usually] have to try to calm him down to execute. That's what he's pretty good with. He's got the communication and operation part down, we just have to keep working on his execution."

Matt Joeckel: Joeckel will be a senior next season and has the most experience among the possible candidates. He was usually the first one the Aggies turned to when Manziel was out of the game this season, including in the season opener when Manziel was suspended. Joeckel made his first start that day and performed admirably, completing 14-of-19 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown in two quarters of play. For the season, Joeckel was 22-of-37 for 293 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in four games of action.

Like it did during the season, you can bet the coaching staff will give Joeckel a chance to compete during the upcoming spring. Spavital said that he felt Joeckel "earned the right to get in there and compete" and start the Rice game on Aug. 31, so it's likely Joeckel will be given a chance to compete for the starting job in spring football and in the fall.

Joeckel is more of a pocket passer of bigger stature (6-4, 234) and doesn't feature the mobility of Manziel or Hill, but he's an accurate passer and has been in Texas A&M's offense longer than any other quarterback on the roster.

Kyle Allen: Allen will be a true freshman this fall and is a member of Texas A&M's 2014 recruiting class. He's an early enrollee who has already signed his financial aid paperwork. He'll be attending classes in January and will participate in spring football.

Allen is the highest-ranked quarterback recruit that Sumlin has hauled in since he has become a head coach. The 6-3, 200-pound Allen (Scottsdale, Ariz./Desert Mountain) is the 55th-ranked player in the ESPN 300 and the third-best pocket passer in the country according to ESPN's RecruitingNation. A U.S. Army All-American, Allen has the skills that should fit the offense well. He threw for 8,201 yards and 86 touchdowns with 32 interceptions while completing 66.6 percent of his passes in his high school career.

Since he'll be a true freshman and doesn't have the experience that Hill and Joeckel do, it might be an uphill battle for him to start right away, but being around for spring football will increase his chances as opposed to if he were to come in the summer. He'll be on campus to do offseason work from January all the way to the fall. Don't count Allen out of this race, as Sumlin has always been a "best players play" coach, regardless of classification.

Aggies need work, time to excel in SEC

November, 25, 2013
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Many parts of Texas A&M's first two seasons in its new conference home, the SEC, have been dreamlike.

It has included top-10 rankings, a Heisman Trophy, historic wins, huge crowds, big television ratings and, at times, the eyes of the college football world.

But on Saturday in Baton Rouge, La., the Aggies were dealt a dose of cold, harsh reality during a 34-10 loss to LSU in what were, well, cold and harsh conditions. Life in the SEC is tough. For everyone.

Texas A&M's success in the nation's premier conference came much more quickly than people outside College Station anticipated and even faster than some wearing maroon-colored glasses could have pictured. Coming off a 7-6 season in its final Big 12 Conference campaign, it was widely thought the Aggies would, as Kevin Sumlin has said before, "get their brains kicked in."

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesKevin Sumlin has fashioned winning records in Texas A&M's first two seasons in the SEC, but will he stick around for the long haul?
That didn't happen. The Aggies went 11-2 in their first season in the league, beat No. 1 Alabama and took home sports' most prestigious individual award, the Heisman Trophy, which went to quarterback Johnny Manziel.

And even though there remained a window of hope this season for attaining a berth to a BCS bowl for the first time since 1998 and potentially a second Heisman for Manziel, LSU ended those hopes emphatically on Saturday.

It helped illustrate two points: (1) The Aggies still have a ways to go to reach the level of the league's very best programs, and (2) once you get to the top, it's hard to stay there.

Take LSU as an example. The Tigers have been consistently among the SEC elite for the last decade-plus. They've won four SEC championships since the turn of the century (2001, 2003, 2007, 2011) and two BCS national championships (2003 and 2007). But the Tigers currently have the same 2013 record as the Aggies (8-3), the team they just beat.

Two weeks prior to Saturday, LSU was beaten and battered at the hands of No. 1 Alabama. The second half of the Crimson Tide's 38-17 win, and in particular the fourth quarter, was intriguing to watch as the Tide asserted its will on both sides of the football.

That was done to a program that's 92-24 in the Les Miles era.

Florida (4-7), is by all accounts, a mess right now. Florida was in the Sugar Bowl last season and was ranked No. 3 before taking a beating from Louisville. It's also a program with two BCS national titles in the last decade (2006 and 2008).

Building a program that succeeds at the level of Alabama and LSU takes time. It takes talent and years of strong recruiting classes. It takes stability in the coaching staff.

Early in their SEC membership, the Aggies are taking steps in that direction. The work on a $450 million renovation of Kyle Field, to turn it into a 102,500-seat palace, is under way and scheduled for completion in time for the 2015 season. The Aggies had the country's eighth-ranked recruiting class in the 2013 cycle, and they currently have the sixth-ranked class in 2014.

After a strong debut season in Aggieland, Texas A&M took care of head coach Kevin Sumlin with a raise to take his annually salary to $3.1 million, so that commitment is in place. Whether Sumlin, whose name is thrown around for other jobs almost annually, chooses to stay or make another move is another matter, but if he chooses to remain at A&M the potential for a power program under his watch appears to be there.

As for the current squad, Saturday's result and the Aggies' losses to Alabama and Auburn earlier this season have made a few things evident. The depth and experience needed on defense for consistent SEC success is not present yet. The Aggies are recruiting heavily on the defensive line, but it will take time for those players to be ready to contribute. The way Alabama, Auburn and LSU were able to run the ball (not to mention several other teams) when they had to shows the need for growth there.

The offense, while usually productive in its first two SEC seasons and even in the losses to the Tide and Auburn, can still improve. Even with a one-of-a-kind player like Manziel, who can mask deficiencies with his playmaking ability, the Aggies weren't able to fool LSU, a team with speed at all three levels on defense and a well-respected defensive coordinator, John Chavis. And Manziel likely won't be around next year, so the Aggies will have to progress with another quarterback, whether it's one of the current backups, Matt Joeckel or Kenny Hill, or incoming ESPN 300 recruit Kyle Allen.

It's not a given that all of those things will work out. Fortunes can change fast in this league, as Auburn and Florida have shown us this year. But regardless of how the Aggies end this season, they've had two winning campaigns to start their membership in the SEC. Dreams of BCS bowls, SEC championships and national championships apparently have to wait. In this league, it takes time.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Throughout his short collegiate career, there have been many terms used to describe Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Whether on or off the field, Manziel sparks discussion, but until recently, there was one word that wasn't frequently used when listing the traits that make the Heisman Trophy winner elite.

Toughness.

Despite his penchant for scrambling and running the football, the redshirt sophomore quarterback has been able to avoid significant injury through his first two collegiate seasons. Things seemed easy for him and he took every hit and got back up.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Juan DeLeon/Icon SMIJohnny Manziel has been banged up in recent weeks but said missing a game "really wasn't an option."
But in recent weeks, toughness has personified Manziel. After one particular tackle that led to an injury to his throwing shoulder in the fourth quarter of a 45-41 loss to Auburn on Oct. 19, Manziel was down, in visible pain. It became difficult for him even to throw the football.

Manziel missed just a little more than five minutes of game time before returning to finish the game.

And despite his status being questionable and little practice time throughout the following week as he rehabilitated from the injury, Manziel started on Saturday in the Aggies' 56-24 win over Vanderbilt.

He didn't begin throwing until Wednesday and didn't participate in 11-on-11 practice until Friday during the Aggies' walk-through. But Manziel said he was planning to play all along.

"In my mind, I was always going to play," Manziel said. "It would take a lot to keep me off the field and away from these guys. They count on me and they expect me to be there. If I have to come in and get treatment and do whatever I have to do to get back, I have to do it for those guys. This offense and this team means everything to me, so to miss a game, that really wasn't an option for me."

Throughout the week, coach Kevin Sumlin called Manziel's status "hopeful." While Sumlin is known to selective about releasing injury information about his players, he admitted Saturday that Manziel was truly a game-time decision.

When Manziel woke up on Saturday morning, he informed the coaching staff of soreness that he felt in the shoulder, but once he participated in warmups before the game, Manziel felt good enough to go.

"I was a little concerned," Sumlin said. "We really didn't make a decision until warmups. People thought I was being coy, but we didn't really know. We worked [backups Matt] Joeckel and Kenny Hill the whole week."

And it's not simply noteworthy that Manziel has played through pain the last two weeks; he has played at a high level while doing so. After returning for the final 9:06 against Auburn, he completed 9-of-10 passes for 102 yards and ran for a touchdown. On Saturday against Vanderbilt, he remained a pocket passer for most of the day (he carried the ball four times for a career-low 11 yards) and completed 25-of-35 for 305 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception in roughly two-and-a-half quarters of work.

"It just really wasn't in our game plan [against Vanderbilt] for me to run," Manziel said. "My shoulder is just a little sore. I don't know if it was bruised or what all was going on. It kind of got squished when I went down last week against Auburn. But it didn't cause me too many problems [in the game], so that was a positive."

When Manziel led the Aggies' to a come-from-behind win over Ole Miss -- a night in which he briefly after grabbed his left knee in what turned out to be more of a scare than a serious injury -- Sumlin called Manziel "one of the greatest competitors that I've ever been around." Manziel's determination to play the last two games, regardless of the circumstances, seems to support that thought.

"My dad and family were a little cautious about me coming out because they didn't know how severe it was but in my mind, I was always going to play," Manziel said. "I wasn't going to leave these guys without being out there."

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