Texas A&M Aggies: Nate Askew

It was quite the week for Texas A&M football in relation to the NFL draft.

The Aggies had three players taken in the draft's first round on Thursday, marking just the second time in school history the program had that many first-round selections in one draft. It was also the fourth time in school history the team produced two top-10 picks in the same draft. The Aggies were the only team in the 2014 draft with two top-10 picks and one of only two (Louisville being the other) with three first-round picks. This was also the fourth consecutive year the Aggies have produced at least one top-10 pick.

After the draft's completion, eight more Aggies reached agreements with NFL teams as undrafted free agents and will pursue pro careers. Here's a recap of where all the NFL-bound Aggies landed:

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Elsa/Getty ImagesOffensive lineman Jake Matthews was the first Aggie off the board in the NFL draft, going No. 6 overall to the Falcons.
Draft picks

OT Jake Matthews: Atlanta Falcons (first round, sixth overall)
There's a long line of pro-football-playing Matthews men and Jake is the latest. The 6-foot-5, 308-pound offensive tackle can stake his claim to being the highest-drafted Matthews in the family's well-documented NFL history. His father, NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, was the previous high pick, chosen ninth overall in the 1983 draft. The Falcons hope Jake will help provide more protection for franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, and Matthews has all the makings of a 10-year pro. Matthews could be the team's left tackle of the future.

WR Mike Evans: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (first round, seventh overall)
It seems fitting that analysts' go-to NFL comparison for Evans was Vincent Jackson, because now those two will be in the same huddle for the Buccaneers. Evans completed his compelling story, going from humble beginnings and obstacles to overcome while growing up in Galveston, Texas, to star basketball player to unlikely, under-the-radar football recruit to All-American receiver to now, top-10 draft pick. It looks like Evans will be a good fit in Tampa and could start rather quickly.

QB Johnny Manziel: Cleveland Browns (first round, 22nd overall)
Manziel was the most-talked-about prospect on the draft's first night, and though he waited longer than he would have liked, he finally found a landing spot in Cleveland. Thursday officially closed the book on what was one of the most memorable collegiate careers of any player in recent memory. Manziel helped lead A&M to great heights and brought the program unprecedented exposure in its first two SEC seasons, including a Heisman Trophy. Now Johnny Football takes his game to the highest level, and it seems everyone will be watching to see how he fares in his new home.

Undrafted free agents

LB Nate Askew: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Askew, who had one of the better pro day performances at the Aggies' showcase on March 5, completes an interesting journey at Texas A&M that saw him go from seldom-used receiver to starting outside linebacker who made the play that sealed the Aggies' thrilling Chick-Fil-A Bowl victory.

TE Nehemiah Hicks: Miami Dolphins
Hicks will join his former Texas A&M teammate, quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in South Beach.

DB Toney Hurd Jr.: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After undergoing offseason surgery and missing the Aggies' first pro day, Hurd was able to work out for scouts on March 27 (the same day as Manziel and Evans). The versatile Hurd, who played cornerback, safety and special teams at A&M, did enough to warrant an opportunity from the Buccaneers.

CB Tramain Jacobs: Baltimore Ravens
A reserve cornerback who proved to be a valuable rotational player -- and even started two games -- for the Aggies, Jacobs landed with the Ravens.

LB Steven Jenkins: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers certainly took a liking to the Aggies. Including Jenkins, the former A&M starting outside linebacker and impact player, four Aggies are headed to Tampa. Jenkins returns to his home state, where he played his prep ball in Pensacola, Fla.

WR Travis Labhart: Houston Texans
Labhart was a great story, a seldom-used walk-on who emerged into a scholarship player as a senior and eventually a starter, then wound up finishing second on the team with eight touchdown receptions. Now he gets the chance to pursue his future in his home state with the Texans.

RB Ben Malena: Dallas Cowboys
A running back who did more than just carry the ball, Malena brings his versatile skill set back to his home region, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (Malena played his high school ball nearby in Cedar Hill, Texas).

WR Derel Walker: Tennessee Titans
Another player who came a long way (receivers coach David Beaty raved of Walker's progress from his arrival to the end of his senior season, when he was a starter), Walker will get a chance to pursue the NFL with the Titans.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Jake Matthews bypassed his first opportunity to enter the NFL draft for two reasons.

One was to move over to left tackle after spending the previous three years as a right tackle and show NFL personnel he was versatile enough to handle both. The other was to play on the same offensive line with his younger brother, Mike, Texas A&M’s starting center in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsJake Matthews felt that his pro day at Texas A&M on Wednesday went well.
By the end of the season and throughout the pre-draft process, Jake Matthews appears to be plenty happy with the decision he made to return to Aggieland for his senior year. On Wednesday, the latest in a long line of football-playing Matthews men took another step toward his future as a pro, headlining Texas A&M’s pro day at McFerrin Athletic Center.

Because he performed all drills last month at the NFL scouting combine, the 6-foot-5, 308-pound Matthews did not perform any of the same testing measures on Wednesday but performed several offensive line drills for scouts and NFL player personnel people.

“I thought I did well,” Matthews said afterward. “They put me through a bunch of different stuff and showcase what I'm capable of and that I'm able and I thought it went well."

After the pro day, he met with the St. Louis Rams and said he did some work on the whiteboard, among other things. The son of NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, Jake has numerous people in his own family to draw advice from in these types of situations.

"It helps a lot,” Matthews said. “It's kind of like I've been training for this process for my whole life. I think we calculated it earlier and I'm the seventh Matthews to go into the NFL. It's really humbling, especially being a part of this family and all the tradition with football that we have and such a great background: I'm truly blessed to be a part of it."

The opportunity to spend 11 out of 13 games starting at left tackle was something Matthews felt was valuable when it came to assessing his NFL future.

"It helped a lot, especially after playing three years of right tackle showing I was capable of going over and playing well on the left side,” Matthews said. “[It showed] how versatile I am and that I'm able and can do anything teams want me to do."

Most projections have Matthews going in the top 10 of the draft and possibly being the first offensive tackle drafted. He wasn’t the only potential first-round pick present at the pro day on Wednesday -- quarterback Johnny Manziel and receiver Mike Evans were in attendance too -- but both were simply there to support their other teammates performing and did not work out for scouts or NFL personnel. Both are performing at their own pro day on March 27 at Texas A&M and performed at the NFL combine last month.

Representatives from all 32 NFL teams were present at Texas A&M’s pro day.

Other Aggies performed at the pro day included Nate Askew, defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, cornerback Tramain Jacobs, linebacker Steven Jenkins, receiver Travis Labhart, running back Ben Malena and receiver Derel Walker. Because of their rehabilitation from injuries, tight end Nehemiah Hicks and defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. did not perform, and Ennis -- who is recovering from knee surgery -- performed only in the bench press.

Askew had perhaps the most impressive day among Aggies outside the “big three” projected first-rounders. The linebacker, who began his Texas A&M career as a receiver, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds and recorded a 38-inch vertical while measuring 6-foot-3 and weighing 241 pounds.

Malena, the Aggies’ leading running back the last two seasons, clocked 4.54 seconds in the 40 while checking in at 5-8 and 194 pounds. He also had the second-most repetitions in the bench press, lifting 225 pounds a total of 22 times.

Texas A&M pro day on tap

March, 5, 2014
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Scouts and player personnel people from across the NFL will descend on Aggieland today when Texas A&M hosts its annual pro day at 9:30 a.m., one of two pro days on deck for the Aggies this month.

The Aggies’ biggest names are all expected to be present at the McFerrin Athletic Center -- quarterback Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews -- though Manziel and Evans won’t be working out for scouts until March 27.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin is expecting all NFL teams to be represented at Texas A&M’s pro day, which will feature a dozen players.

“Ever since we’ve been here every team shows up, with a couple of different representatives,” Sumlin said. “We had a couple guys who did real well at the combine. Obviously, Mike was here last week and was real pleased with how he did things. I talked to Johnny [on Sunday] night and he’ll be back in town. I think it’s big when you have those types of marquee players [like them] and Jake. It creates opportunities for other players who weren’t at the combine and I think that’s a big deal.”

Other Aggies who will be present and are expected to work out are linebacker Nate Askew, defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, tight end Nehemiah Hicks, defensive back Toney Hurd Jr., cornerback Tramain Jacobs, linebacker Steven Jenkins, receiver Travis Labhart, running back Ben Malena and receiver Derel Walker.

Evans, Manziel and Matthews are all projected first-round picks and the fact that their presence brings plenty of NFL personnel is a positive, Sumlin said. The same has happened in the past with previous high draft picks who came out of Texas A&M.

“I forget how many guys we got that got into [NFL training] camp but it was a large number of guys that at least got an opportunity that maybe they wouldn’t have had if there’s not a Luke Joeckel here, if there’s not those types of guys,” Sumlin said. “It attracted a lot of guys and just about all of those guys got in camp which is, after that, that’s about all you can ask. Can they all make it? No. But it gave them an opportunity and I think that’s the bigger picture than just the three guys that went to the combine.”

Manziel did almost everything except throw at the NFL scouting combine, running a 4.68-second 40-yard dash and a 4.03-second 20-yard shuttle. He had a 31 inch vertical jump, his height was measured at 5-foot-11 inches and his weight 207 pounds.

Evans measured at 6-5, 231 and ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash and recorded a 37-inch vertical jump. Matthews measured at 6-5, 308, had a 30 inch vertical and performed the three-cone drill in 7.34 seconds.

The pro day begins at 9:30 a.m. and is closed to the public.
Editor's note: This is the third part of a weeklong series looking at five position battles to watch in spring practice, which begins Feb. 28 for Texas A&M.

When it comes to linebackers, the 2013 season was one of change for Texas A&M, at least when compared to 2012.

[+] EnlargeDonnie Baggs
Sam Khan Jr./ESPNSenior Donnie Baggs could get the first crack at Texas A&M's starting strongside linebacker job.
After a 2012 season in which the linebackers were a model of consistency with then-seniors Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart and then-junior Steven Jenkins, 2013 brought much more shuffling.

With Jenkins the only returning starter among the linebacker corps, youth and/or inexperience was served. The Aggies went through an early-season change at middle linebacker, started a converted receiver at strongside linebacker at times and threw some true freshmen into action early for myriad reasons, whether it was injury, suspension or ineffectiveness.

This season, and particularly this spring, linebacker, particularly the strongside position, will be a compelling position to watch.

With Darian Claiborne likely to start at weakside linebacker and Jordan Mastrogiovanni projected to be the starter at middle linebacker going into spring football, it leaves several candidates to battle for the strongside linebacker job.

The candidates will be numerous. Donnie Baggs, who will be a senior, ended the 2013 season as the No. 1 player on the depth chart at the position and should be a factor in the race. In 12 games last season, playing both outside and middle linebacker, Baggs had 30 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, though he began the year as the starter at middle linebacker before being replaced by Claiborne, who had a strong freshman season.

Shaan Washington, who earned playing time as a true freshman on both special teams and as an outside linebacker, is another to watch. Washington appeared in 12 games and garnered three sacks and four tackles for loss while compiling 26 tackles.

Outside linebacker Tommy Sanders, a junior college transfer who was in his first season in Aggieland last year, started in place of a suspended Jenkins early in the season and received playing time as Jenkins’ backup at weakside linebacker and could serve in that role to Claiborne this year as well. Last year’s strongside linebackers, Baggs (6-foot-1, 230 pounds), Washington (6-3, 220) and Nate Askew (6-4, 235), were slightly heavier or larger in stature than Sanders (6-2, 220), though.

Could A.J. Hilliard be a candidate? He is also a little smaller (6-foot-2, 210), than the aforementioned names, but the transfer from TCU is an intriguing possibility. An athletic linebacker, he received plenty of practice time on the second team during spring football in 2013 but had to sit out the fall per NCAA transfer rules. Hilliard was a player that head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff recruited when Sumlin was at Houston before Hilliard eventually chose TCU, and he’ll have a chance to compete somewhere in the linebacker corps.

When the summer arrives, the Aggies will also welcome two incoming outside linebacker recruits in ESPN 300 prospect Otaro Alaka and ESPN 300 prospect Josh Walker. So when preseason training camp begins in August, it stands to reason that those two will get a chance to compete for a spot as well. But when spring practice begins later this month, there should be no lack of competition at outside linebacker.

Season wrap: Texas A&M

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With a preseason top-10 ranking and lofty goals coming off a smashing 2012 season, things didn't work out the way Texas A&M had hoped in 2013. There was no BCS bowl game or division championship as the Aggies finished 9-4.

But it was still an interesting, compelling and productive season in Aggieland as Texas A&M is ahead of schedule when it comes to SEC success. Beating a ranked team would have been a nice feather in their caps, but the Aggies weren't able to do it. Nonetheless, recruiting is strong, the facilities are being upgraded and the buzz around the program is at levels rarely seen before.

Offensive MVP: No doubt it was quarterback Johnny Manziel. He improved as a sophomore in several passing statistics from his Heisman Trophy-winning season in 2012, and as Manziel went, so did the Aggies. Mike Evans is a close second, but Manziel was still the main man with 4,873 total yards and 46 total touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: Considering the struggles of the unit, it's not easy to pick one. But we'll give the nod to true freshman linebacker Darian Claiborne. He was moved into the starting lineup at a new position (middle linebacker) midway through the season and became a major contributor, finishing third on the team with 89 tackles and leading the team with seven tackles for loss.

Best moment: The Chick-Fil-A Bowl. The Aggies trailed by 21 points at halftime, then proceeded to come from behind and win 52-48. There were too many great individual moments in that game to pick just one, from Manziel's hurdle that turned into a touchdown pass to Travis Labhart, to Toney Hurd Jr.'s interception return that gave the Aggies the lead to Nate Askew's interception that sealed the win.

Worst moment: The trip to Death Valley on Nov. 23. With their BCS bowl hopes still alive, Texas A&M was pounded 34-10 by LSU. Manziel and Evans never found a rhythm, the offense never got going and LSU dominated.

A&M LB Jenkins managing ups, downs

November, 15, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The linebacker position has been one of change for Texas A&M this season. With some early season struggles, an injection of youth and some growth needed, it has been an area where defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and linebackers coach Mark Hagen have tinkered to find the right combination of players. The group as a whole has had its fair share of ups and downs this season.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jenkins
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesSince returning from suspension, Steven Jenkins has been a key part of Texas A&M's defense, both on and off the field.
The same could be said for the elder statesman of the group, senior Steven Jenkins. Though Snyder feels like lately, that Jenkins, the most veteran presence in the group, is trending up.

"Up and down," Snyder said when asked to assess Jenkins' season. "I think he's coming on a little bit [lately]."

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Jenkins has started the last eight games for the Aggies (he missed the first two, the result of a suspension for violations of Texas A&M athletic department rules and regulations) and is second on the team in tackles with 69, while also tied for second in tackles for loss (five). He has been productive, though not necessarily always consistent. When he's at his best, he might be the best defensive player the Aggies have.

Jenkins has kept a positive outlook and consistent approach throughout this season.

"You have to keep trying to get better every week," Jenkins said. "Everyone has their highs and lows, a good day and a bad day. You just have to keep a positive attitude moving forward and try to get better each week."

Knowing there were a lot of young players and newcomers among the A&M linebackers, Jenkins wanted to step into more of a leadership role. Teammates have noticed his effort in that area.

"He wasn’t a very vocal guy at the beginning of the year, but he’s really opened up and he’s been a great leader for us in the linebacker unit," senior linebacker Nate Askew said. "On the backend, everybody talks and everybody communicates, and that’s the most important thing. We need to communicate."

Snyder said he has noticed Jenkins getting tired toward the ends of games recently and he might start working in true freshman Jordan Mastrogiovanni into the lineup more at middle linebacker while sliding starting middle linebacker Darian Claiborne back to his natural position of weakside linebacker, which is usually manned by Jenkins. That would enable Jenkins to get a breather and be fresher for the fourth quarter of games.

Now in his third year in Aggieland after transferring from Coffeyville Community College, Jenkins is continuing to work and trying to improve. He’s also making an impact. Jenkins had an interception return for a touchdown in Texas A&M's thrilling win at Ole Miss in 2012 and has had a plethora of big-time hits or tackles for loss accumulated over the last two seasons.

When it comes to his setback that kept him on the sideline to start the season, Jenkins said he "definitely took some life lessons and learned from it." If the Aggies are going to finish the way they hope to, winning their final two games later this month at LSU and at Missouri, Jenkins and the linebackers probably have to play a key role in that.

The senior simply wants to push forward, play well and have fun while doing so.

"I'm just trying to lead by example for the younger guys, trying to bring energy to the field so we can have some Aggie swag," Jenkins said with a smile. "Just have fun on the field. We do make mistakes but move on from it. ... Just have fun and go out there and try to win."

Reason for optimism for A&M defense?

October, 30, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M's defense has taken a beating – on the field and off – throughout the season.

On the field, it has been the statistically the worst in the SEC in total defense, yards per play, rushing defense and near the bottom in several other categories. The national rankings in many areas have been in the 100s. As a result, the unit has taken a heap of criticism, especially when compared with the team's high-powered offense which puts up points in bunches.

[+] EnlargeHoward Matthews
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsHoward Matthews and the Aggies had their best defensive performance of the season in the win over Vanderbilt. Matthews had 14 tackles and an interception.
But on Saturday in a 56-24 win over Vanderbilt, the Aggies' defense got up off the mat and punched back, putting together a strong performance against the Commodores. Texas A&M allowed only 329 total yards, 95 rushing, forced three turnovers and had a season-high seven sacks.

For once, the defense was a source of positive discussion.

"I feel like we finally put together a complete game," senior linebacker Nate Askew said. "There weren’t a lot of blown coverages or assignments gap-wise. That was the biggest thing and having fun out there."

The sack totals were particularly eye-opening because Texas A&M had been one of the country's worst in generating a pass rush before Saturday. The Aggies had seven sacks total entering Saturday's game, but matched the season tally in one day.

The reason? More blitz calls from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who said he finally felt comfortable dialing up more pressure. As the defense continued to see players go in and out of the lineup all season for various reasons (suspensions, injuries, inept play), it was a challenge to get a group of 11 players that Snyder felt he could trust to be in the right place in the right time, especially considering how much youth is on that side of the ball (11 freshmen exist in the two-deep depth chart).

But as players begin to settle into their roles and get more comfortable, especially in the secondary, Snyder is beginning to feel more comfortable taking risks. The group back there on Saturday – cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris along with safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven – were the projected four starters at the beginning of the year but have rarely been on the field together for one reason or another.

"We need to stay healthy and keep the young DBs coming along and learning," Snyder said. "There is a degree of difficulty for the back end to do some of the things we do and to have those guys all in place helped a lot."

It also helped that Vanderbilt's starting quarterback on Saturday, Patton Robinette, was a freshman making his first career start, though Snyder said the game plan appeared to be the same as the previous week when the Commodores beat Georgia. Considering that Texas A&M struggled to stop virtually everybody this season, including FCS team Sam Houston State and Rice, whom it gave up 306 rushing yards to in the season opener, any positive sign is a good one for the Aggies.

So is Saturday's performance reason for optimism with the A&M defense or will they simply revert back to previous ways moving forward? It might be hard to tell this week, because the No. 12 Aggies host a struggling nonconference opponent in UTEP (1-6). Should the Aggies repeat what they did on Saturday for a second straight week, however, they could build some momentum to take into the home stretch of their conference slate as they finish up the year against Mississippi State, LSU and Missouri.

If the Aggies can stay healthy and keep the personnel consistent on that side of the ball, Snyder can continue to be aggressive in his calls. That aggressiveness was one trait of the 2012 A&M defense, which was surprisingly good despite question marks on the defensive line, about depth in general and was a key part to Texas A&M's inaugural 11-2 campaign in the SEC.

With an open date following the Aggies final two home games before they have to hit the road for battles at LSU and Missouri to close out the year, the defense will need to continue to improve if the Aggies have hopes of winning the remainder of their games.

"I think at this point what happens is for them to have some success Saturday I thought was important and hopefully we were better," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We were not great by any means and hopefully because of some success, particularly by the young guys and some success as a defense, we'll continue to get better and gain some confidence from that because that's going to be important moving forward."

Why A&M has so much youth on defense

October, 25, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The words "youth" and "inexperience" are frequently used to describe the Texas A&M defense this season.

The struggles are significant. The Aggies rank near the bottom of the FBS in most defensive statistical categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the five teams that have allowed more yards per game than the Aggies -- New Mexico State, Idaho, California, Nevada and Indiana -- have a combined record of 8-27.

Texas A&M is fortunate enough to have a 5-2 record (2-2 in the SEC). It certainly helps to have one of the nation's most high-powered offenses and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Johnny Manziel).

For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff, it has been a challenge from the start of the season. Suspensions, injuries and ineffectiveness are all to blame.

The Aggies currently have 11 freshmen in their defensive two-deep depth chart. Two true freshmen (defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne) are starting. The four defensive line first-team spots include Golden and two sophomores. At linebacker, a former receiver who moved to linebacker this offseason (Nate Askew) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Of the seven linebackers on the Aggies' two-deep, only one (Steven Jenkins) started a full season at the position before this year.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin's first signing class that was completely under his watch had 32 members, 18 of whom were on defense. Of those 18, a dozen have already played this season.

But how did the Aggies get to this point, playing this many freshmen and newcomers? There are some juniors and seniors on the field, but there aren't nearly as many as there were a year ago when the Aggies went 11-2 in their debut season in the SEC.

In 2012, the Aggies were fortunate to have the benefit of some good leaders on defense and others who were productive. At linebacker, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart both provided leadership and production. Along the defensive line, Spencer Nealy made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle effectively despite not having the ideal size for the position. Steven Terrell was a steady and heady player at free safety. All four of those players were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. So was Dustin Harris, who didn't always start but played plenty at cornerback and was the team's primary punt returner.

One defensive player still remains from that 2009 class: defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who started last season and this year but suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 28 against Arkansas. But last year's A&M starting defense was more than half made up of what turned out to be a solid recruiting class on the defensive side of the ball.

So to understand why A&M is in the position it is now, take a look at the recruiting classes on defense since then:
  • In 2010, the Aggies signed seven defensive players and two more that were offensive players but eventually moved to defense. Defensive end Damontre Moore turned out to be a star, but declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. For a team that's lacking in its pass rush (only three FBS teams have fewer sacks than Texas A&M's seven this season) a guy like that could help. Of the remainders in that class, three are starting: Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel back, Gavin Stansbury at defensive end and Askew, who was recruited and spent his first three years at receiver, at strongside linebacker. Two others (defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and quarterback Clay Honeycutt, who's now a reserve safety) are playing but not starting. Nehemiah Hicks was considered to be either a defensive end or tight end and became a tight end. The other two players in the defensive class are no longer on the team.
  • The 2011 class -- the final class signed by former head coach Mike Sherman -- brought 13 defensive players. Deshazor Everett, a cornerback with ability to play safety, is currently the defense's best player. Safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven and linebacker Steven Jenkins also emerged as starters out of that group. One of the big fish landed late in that class, defensive end Brandon Alexander, has rarely played. He's now getting some playing time at tight end. Linebacker Donnie Baggs entered this season as the starting middle linebacker but is now a reserve. Tyrell Taylor is rotating at defensive end. The rest of the group hasn't made any impact at all. Five players in that group are no longer with the program.
  • The 2012 class, the first one Sumlin signed after essentially two months on the job, had some holdovers that committed to the program under Sherman. It is a mixed bag. Four of those players are starting as either true sophomores (Julien Obioha at defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle and De'Vante Harris at cornerback) or in one case, a senior (cornerback Tramain Jacobs, who was a junior college transfer). Defensive end Tyrone Taylor, brother of Tyrell, gets some playing time at defensive end. Edward Pope, who was a receiver/defensive back, is playing receiver for the Aggies. A car accident took away one member from that class -- defensive tackle Polo Manukainiu, who died in a crash in July and is being honored by the team every week this season. A spinal injury took away another member, linebacker Michael Richardson, who played as a freshman. He had successful surgery and was fortunate to not suffer any major physical issues, but is no longer playing football. Defensive back Kenneth Marshall, though on the team, was not part of the 105-man roster during preseason training camp. Linebacker Jordan Richmond transferred to Navarro College in the offseason and one player in the class, defensive tackle Edmund Ray, never made it to campus because of qualifying issues.

Smooth transition for A&M LB Askew

October, 8, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Texas A&M senior Nate Askew scored his first career defensive touchdown on Sept. 7, it was a big moment.

The outside linebacker, who spent his first three seasons playing receiver, is still working to improve and master his new position, which he switched to during the offseason.

[+] EnlargeNate Askew
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesNate Askew scored his first defensive touchdown against Sam Houston State.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin, who prompted the move, likes to joke with Askew about his 30-yard interception return for a touchdown against Sam Houston State.

"He's catching the ball better on defense and he's already scored more touchdowns [on defense than he did on offense] since I've been here," Sumlin said with a laugh. "I give him a hard time about that, but he doesn't think that's funny, by the way."

Jokes aside, Sumlin is right. Askew spent limited time as a receiver in 2012, Sumlin's first as head coach at Texas A&M. He finished the season with just three catches for 10 yards, appearing in 10 games. His only career offensive touchdown came as a sophomore in 2011 under former head coach Mike Sherman.

Having a 6-foot-4, 230-pound athlete who possesses speed and a vertical jump better than 40 inches standing on the sidelines didn't make sense to Sumlin, and for whatever reason, receiver wasn't working out for Askew. So Sumlin approached Askew this offseason with the idea of moving him to linebacker for his senior season.

"I didn't know what to think, honestly," Askew recalled thinking. "Linebacker? I don't know about this. I've never played defense before. I don't know how this is going to go."

Sumlin's message was that Askew could help on defense.

"He just told me I was an athlete and for whatever reason, things weren't working out at receiver position but he wanted to get his best guys on the field," Askew said. "He said he believed that I can contribute somewhere and he tried to figure out that place and he thought maybe linebacker would be the best position for me."

What sold Askew on the idea was spending practice time at outside linebacker and having some success as a pass rusher during spring football.

"I just went into it with an open mind. I was like, 'OK, I can't knock anything until I try it,'" Askew said. "So I thought I'd give it a try and see how it goes. I got out there the first practice and I actually liked it. ...[In the first practice] they had me pass rushing. I was able to use my speed off the edge and get around [Cedric Ogubehi] and Jake [Matthews] a few times and after that, I guess you could say it's like golfing. Hitting that first great ball draws you back into the game. That's what it did. I made that first pass rush and I thought, 'I can do this.'"

In the first five games, Askew has shown flashes of playmaking ability. Of his 14 tackles, three are tackles for loss, including a sack. In addition to his interception against Sam Houston State, he also has a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry.

On Sept. 28, he made his first career defensive start against Arkansas and he's listed as the starter on the Aggies' depth chart in advance of their road game at Ole Miss on Saturday.

"I think he's embraced it; he's playing with confidence," Sumlin said. "Has he made some mistakes? Sure. But he's moving along that way and I think the biggest positive is that he is helping us as a team [at linebacker] more than he was helping us at wide receiver."

The fact that Askew has contributed as much as he has is a testament to his athleticism and ability to adapt but also is a sign of the ever-shifting personnel on the Aggies' defense, which has struggled throughout the season and is 112th in yards allowed per game. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder & Co. are trying to find the best combination of players as youth and inexperience permeates the depth chart.

Askew is continuing to work at his craft. Former all-conference Aggies linebacker Sean Porter has been a significant resource for him. They used to be roommates and Porter also played strongside linebacker, which is what Askew is playing. Askew's desire for improvement is much like the Aggies' defense as a whole right now.

"Me and Sean had conversations for two hours on the phone just talking about the linebacker position, different things that came up at practice and how do you approach this and approach that," Askew said. "Since he perfected his craft so well at the 'Sam' position and I play the same position, I thought maybe I could pick his brain and do that."

SEC lunchtime links

September, 26, 2013
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We're a little closer to game day in the SEC. With several notable conference matchups on tap, here's look at some of the storylines, news and notes from around the league:
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Before Texas A&M made its SEC debut, many wondered about the Aggies' defense and whether it would be able to hold up in a line-of-scrimmage league like the SEC.

The unit performed well in its first year in the rugged conference, exceeding outsider expectations and becoming a key reason why Texas A&M was able to go 11-2.

This preseason brings -- in some ways -- feelings familiar to those at this time last year. The challenges for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff are, as he put it on the first day of preseason training camp earlier this month, "Exactly the same."

"We've got a lot of unknowns on defense," Snyder said.

[+] Enlarge Julien Obioha
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJulien Obioha's work ethic should be a building block for the Aggies.
Last August, there were a lot of unknowns for the Aggie defense, but several key players emerged and others surprised with their contributions. Defensive end Damontre Moore went on to have an All-American caliber season, leading the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks before declaring for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft.

Senior linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart provided production and leadership from their respective positions. Others, like defensive tackle Spencer Nealy and then-true freshman Julien Obioha produced beyond what was expected from them prior to the season. Defensive back Deshazor Everett proved versatile and valuable in the secondary, as did nickel cornerback Toney Hurd Jr.

This season, the Aggies are looking for more players to step up and answer questions like "Who is going to replace the production of Damontre Moore?" or "Where will the on-field leadership come from?"

The answer to the former question begins with Obioha.

A sophomore from Brother Martin High in New Orleans, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end started all 12 regular season games last season before missing the AT&T Cotton Bowl with a back injury. He sat out spring and spent the offseason getting healthy, but he's ready to go for what the coaches hope is a strong second season, improving on his 2012 totals (25 tackles, a sack, 1.5 tackles for loss, six pass breakups, four quarterback hurries, one forced fumble).

"When he first got here, nobody knew who he was," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He would be the last freshman that anybody thought would have started every game for us last year. I didn't see anybody last year say 'What about Julien Obioha? How's he coming?' All he did was start the Florida game and start every game during the regular season. He's a smart guy, a hard worker, a tough guy. He's played as much football in the SEC as anybody we have. That's amazing for a true freshman."

Matching what Moore did won't be easy. He was a force last year, posting 12.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Sumlin said replacing that type of production could be done in different ways.

"Either by personnel, with just moving Julien over there and trying some new guys or by scheme," Sumlin said. "Creating a different blitzer or a guy like [converted linebacker and former receiver] Nate Askew or somebody else. Right now we're evaluating the personnel and the scheme to create that kind of stuff."

Last year, the Aggies were solid in several key areas. In scoring defense, they were 26th in the country, allowing 21.8 points per game. Their third-down defense was among the best nationally. They were 16th overall and fourth in the SEC on third-down conversions, allowing a conversion just 32.4 percent of the time.

On third-and-short situations, the Aggies ranked even higher. They were No. 1 in the SEC and No. 5 nationally on 3rd-and-5 or fewer yards, allowing conversions 44.6 percent of the time. Florida State, North Carolina State, TCU and Oregon State were the only teams better than Texas A&M in those scenarios. You don't achieve those numbers without getting solid work from your defensive line. Combine those numbers with one of the nation's best offenses and it's easy to see why the Aggies were so successful.

If you listen to defensive line coach Terry Price, though, it doesn't sound like he's preaching those statistics. Instead, he's pointing on the opposite end of the spectrum to motivate his group.

[+] EnlargeTexas A&M's Kevin Sumlin
John David Mercer/US PRESSWIREThe success of Kevin Sumlin's defense may depend on its new contributors.
Because of the loss of Moore, the graduation of Nealy and a perceived lack of depth along the front four, Price showed his players what others think of them.

"When you look at all the ESPNs and all the magazines and they have us ranked as the worst D-line in the SEC, I mean, everywhere you read it," Price said. "Two or three different places I've read that we're the worst D-line in the SEC. You have to form an identity. That means we're going to have to outplay folks and we're going to have to be the hardest working group and we're going to get some things done."

Obioha, Price said, embodies the kind of work ethic that will help the front exceed outsider expectations.

"To me, he is what we live by and our motto as a D-line is," Price said. "Our identity has to be the hardest playing D-line in this league. One thing that he does every single day in practice and every single game, he lays it on the line and plays hard every snap."

As for leadership, coaches and teammates have often pointed to Hurd and middle linebacker Donnie Baggs as players who have taken that role. Baggs was a reserve linebacker a year ago but appeared in 12 games and started one; Hurd is a senior who played every game, started seven and was productive throughout the 2012 season.

In addition to two new starting linebackers, the status of Everett and safety Floyd Raven for the start of the season is still uncertain after offseason arrests. Both were suspended during the summer after their arrests but returned to practice for preseason training camp. Sumlin said on Tuesday that a decision on whether they'll miss any games hasn't been made yet. Senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, a returning starter who also had an offseason arrest, is suspended for the Aug. 31 season opener against Rice.

Those situations combined with the natural attrition through graduation and the draft means plenty of new faces will be on the two-deep depth chart and see the field. The presence of newcomers can be seen during camp, where true freshmen have accounted for more than half of the second-team defense at times during 11-on-11 drills in recent weeks.

"We've got a bunch of new guys," Sumlin said. "Good news is that they're talented, but they just haven't played. They're learning on the run. The new guys, we're throwing it all at them. There's a lot of defense in, but the challenge is just like there is every year. We've got some new guys but I think the good news is that they're talented and they're working hard and they're understanding."

Aggie Snapshot: LB Nate Askew 

May, 30, 2013
5/30/13
12:00
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During the summer, GigEmNation will take a closer look at returning starters and other key players on the two-deep for Texas A&M -- excluding the Aggies' 2013 recruiting class -- that could make notable impact this fall in our Aggie Snapshot series. Starting with No. 1 De'Vante Harris, the series will follow the roster numerically through our final analysis of No. 95 Julien Obioha.

No. 9 Nate Askew
Senior linebacker


TAMU draft hopefuls to watch for 2014 

April, 29, 2013
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Texas A&M had five players chosen in the 2013 NFL draft last week: offensive tackle Luke Joeckel (No. 2 overall, Jacksonville), running back Christine Michael (62nd overall, Seattle), defensive end Damontre Moore (81st, New York Giants), linebacker Sean Porter (118th, Cincinnati) and receiver Ryan Swope (174th, Arizona).

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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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."

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