Texas A&M Aggies: Otis Jacobs
The Tigers' success, conference affiliation and game day atmosphere are just a few of the unique advantages for natives of the Pelican State.
"When Darian was in January of his junior year (of high school) and LSU lost the national championship game to Alabama, you would have thought his best friend died the next day at school," Blanchard said. "He was a big LSU fan. You can't grow up in Southeast Louisiana and not have some kind of attachment or an eye on the prize, however you want to say it, [to LSU]."
Claiborne, a true freshman, is now the starting middle linebacker for No. 12 Texas A&M, which heads to Death Valley on Saturday to play No. 22 LSU. But Port Allen is fewer than seven miles from the LSU campus, so it's understandable how he could have envisioned a future with the Bayou Bengals.
But Texas A&M’s staff developed a strong relationship with Claiborne, a three-star prospect. Furthermore, the Aggies made a strong impression and made it clear they wanted him while LSU didn’t officially extend an offer. The Aggies’ diligence paid off because Claiborne has played a key part on the A&M defense.
In recent years, Texas A&M has had success recruiting the state of Louisiana. Texas is and will continue to be the home base for Texas A&M recruiting for good reason -- it's fertile recruiting ground that most colleges attempt to pick from, because of the vast number of players and caliber of talent the state produces. But Louisiana is also known for producing high-caliber recruits as well and head coach Kevin Sumlin has made sure to make "The Boot" part of his recruiting footprint.
Currently, the Aggies have nine players that are from Louisiana on the roster and all of them are on the Aggies' two deep. Some of them have been recruited by the current staff, others are holdovers from the previous staff, but all of them currently contribute on the field.
All nine are defensive players and five of them are regular starters: Claiborne, defensive back Deshazor Everett, defensive ends Julien Obioha, safety Floyd Raven and defensive end Gavin Stansbury. The others have played key roles: true freshman cornerback Noel Ellis has seen significant time in recent weeks and is the Aggies' future at the nickel cornerback position. Cornerback Tramain Jacobs started six games this season while the Aggies' dealt with injuries in the secondary and has been a reliable rotation player among the cornerbacks. True freshman linebacker Shaan Washington has found his way onto the field in a special teams capacity but also saw time at linebacker early in the year and defensive tackle Ivan Robinson has been a part of the rotation at his position when healthy.
Stansbury has emerged as a playmaker while Obioha and Raven have each been a steady presence at their respective positions.
Even when he was at Houston, where the Cougars put their primary focus on their own city, Sumlin's staff would travel across the border to recruit talent out of Louisiana. But in the SEC it's a different story, because the caliber of player Texas A&M is searching for is often the same that LSU is trying to keep in state.
With the Tigers being the signature program in Louisiana, it makes it all the more difficult to pull a kid out of the state when LSU wants him.
The Aggies are experiencing that in their early SEC years. In this recruiting cycle, the Aggies are going after some of Louisiana's finest, like ESPN 300 athlete Speedy Noil and ESPN 300 defensive end Gerald Willis III. The Aggies are also trying to make inroads with the top 2015 prospects from the state, like receiver Tyron Johnson.
All have LSU offers and the battle for Noil and Willis III has been hotly contested and will be until signing day approaches.
But the Aggies have found success in recruiting prospects from the state that might have been overlooked or not as heavily pursued. If those players continue to play like Claiborne, the in-state powerhouse will start taking notice.
"Yeah, we've run across them at times," said LSU coach Les Miles of seeing A&M recruiting in Louisiana. "We recognize some of the [players] that they have there, and we wish them the very best. It's an opportunity to play in this league, and we're for that."
The first Aggie to make contact was cornerback Tramain Jacobs. Defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. followed him by wrapping up Jones for a tackle. If Hurd would have been unable to wrap him up, cornerback Deshazor Everett was nearby, and so was linebacker Steven Jenkins.
The common thread among the above names? They're all either regular starters or players who have started before for the Aggies.
Special teams -- kickoff and punt coverage units in particular -- are a place where many non-starters find their homes, and Texas A&M is no different. But the Aggies' coaching staff is also liberal about using its best players when the need arises.
The Alabama game was a prime example. With the threat of a return man such as Jones, who returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the Crimson Tide's season-opening win against Virginia Tech, Texas A&M special teams coordinator Jeff Banks wanted to ensure he had the best players available to prevent Jones from making a game-breaking play. The Aggies got the desired result, as Jones finished with 83 yards on four kickoff returns and just 5 yards on his one punt return.
"We're always going to use the best players," Banks said. "Coach Sumlin's an advocate of 'Jeff, you just tell me who you need and who you want and that's how we're going to do things.'"
Banks said offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder or any of the other A&M assistants also have no qualms about the policy. Since he has been at Texas A&M, Banks said not one coach has said a word about who he can use or not use on special teams, whether it's in the return game or punt or kick coverage.
That luxury is something Banks, who is in his first year in Aggieland, hasn't always had in his career as a special teams coach.
"Usually you get a deal where it's 'Hey, take that guy off of there,' or 'Hey, don't use that guy,'" Banks said. "And here's my deal with that: That's fine. Because I try to be as flexible as I can because we're dealing with 60-80 people and players that have to go in and out, seniors, veterans, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, true freshmen, you've got to coach what you can get and get the best on the field.
"But you also have to be careful because if you practice them in training camp for 30 days and then you get them in the first week and someone says 'Oh no, he can't play on that many special teams,' now you're playing a guy with no experience.'"
So the planning has to begin in August when preseason training camp starts. Banks tries to get a feel for which newcomers have the size, speed or physicality to contribute, and the first week of camp is largely spent trying out numerous players in different roles to get a feel for who he can rely on. The rest of training camp is about getting those that are going to make his two-deep on special teams as many repetitions as possible so that he's comfortable with who is out there come the start of the season.
Playing offensive and defensive starters is nothing new for a Sumlin-coached team. It was something done regularly at Houston when he was there. One of the Cougars' special teams aces in their 12-1 season in 2011 was running back Michael Hayes, who played a major role in the Cougars' backfield, but could regularly be seen making tackles in punt coverage.
That attitude has carried over to Texas A&M. McKinney, who also coaches running backs, made it clear to his position group in the spring of 2012 that they would be expected to contribute on special teams. Players accepted the challenge, and Ben Malena and Trey Williams became key players on special teams.
Malena eventually emerged as the starting running back for the Aggies last season and remains that this season but can be seen on the kickoff return team making blocks and last season spent time covering kicks and punts at times, too.
"You have to realize that special teams wins and loses games," Malena said. "You need the best players out there, whether you're a starter or just a special teams guy. If you're the best player at that position, we need you on the field to help us win. I just took that to heart and will do anything for my team to win."
The example set by players with that attitude has an effect on the younger players, many of whom have a role on special teams. Many true freshmen such as Darian Claiborne -- who started at linebacker last week -- linebacker Shaan Washington, safety Jonathan Wiggins and cornerbacks Alex Sezer and Tavares Garner are already playing key roles on coverage units, and the example set by their elders is important.
"It's huge," Banks said. "They see Ben in practice, they see Jenkins in practice, they see those guys doing special teams drills at a high level. Howard Matthews, De'Vante Harris, Floyd Raven when he was healthy. That's huge. That's bigger than anything I can say. When they go out there and they give us great effort as a staff, that sells it and now you get the buy-in of the younger guys."
Banks said it helps increase the desire for the younger players to contribute, particularly in high-profile games.
"You see the Alabama game and go 'Man, I want to be out there,'" Banks said. "Tavares Garner's a prime example. He gets substituted in for Deshazor Everett and he's like 'Man, I know Deshazor's a veteran guy and he's going to make the play, but I want to be in there.' Then he gets in there and makes a tackle."
There's a balance to be struck, however. Playing starters constantly on coverage teams can fatigue them, especially if they're playing a large amount of snaps on offense or defense. So Banks is conscious to employ the personnel wisely.
"You can't wear a guy out because a Deshazor Everett or a Toney Hurd is so good at everything, you can't overuse them and start them on four special teams and expect them to play 60-80 snaps on defense," Banks said. "There's kind of a responsibility on my end, because I've gotten the leeway from the head football coach and the coordinators to use whoever we want. I think it's really important that you don't take advantage of that deal either."
Complementing players such as Sam Moeller, who has been the Aggies' special teams player of the week twice already this season and doesn't have a major role on defense, with some of these starters are what help the Aggies find a mix that Banks and Sumlin hope lead to one them having one of the best special teams units in the SEC.
"With Coach Sumlin being as awesome as he is about letting us use whoever we need to in order to be the No. 1 team, special teams-wise, in the conference, I think we've got a good mix of him and I of making sure we have the right guys on there, but also give an opportunity to guys who maybe aren't starting on offense or defense," Banks said.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M held its regularly scheduled weekly news conference on Tuesday in advance of its season opener against Rice on Saturday. While many wonder about the status of quarterback Johnny Manziel, there are other things to keep an eye on. Here are five storylines facing the Aggies as they await the Owls at Kyle Field:
1. Will Manziel play?
That's what Texas A&M fans and much of the college football wants to know: will Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel start on Saturday for Texas A&M? The question remains unanswered officially. Athletic director Eric Hyman released a statement on Monday evening indicated that he instructed the coaching staff and players to not comment on Manziel's status. When Kevin Sumlin was asked about it on Tuesday he said "We're not discussing that....I can't talk about how that decision is going to be made and what goes into that decision. I said from day one, the first day [of training camp], that there will be a lot of people involved in that decision. So what goes into how that decision's made, obviously I can't discuss." So for now, the wait continues.
2. What if Manziel doesn't play?
At this point, the Aggies turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kenny Hill. Both received praise from coaches and teammates alike on Tuesday. Senior running back Ben Malena said he believes the team will be comfortable with whoever is taking snaps on Saturday. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said offensively, the Aggies would still remain the same. Joeckel brings the presence of a pocket passer who has already spent a year learning the offense while Hill is a dual threat who can run and throw and has had to learn the offense quickly. But on Tuesday, the Aggies appeared confident in both of them should either be pressed into duty.
3. New faces
Sumlin advised fans attending Saturday's game to "buy a program or bring a flip card," because of how many newcomers will see time on the field. Of the 31 players who signed with the Aggies in February, Sumlin said he expects at least 10 to play a role this season, and perhaps as many as 15. Some of the notable newcomers to look for on Saturday include freshmen receivers Ricky Seals-Jones and LaQuvionte Gonzalez, tight end Cameron Clear, who was a juco transfer, linebacker Tommy Sanders -- also a juco transfer -- and true freshman linebacker Shaan Washington. Look for even more newcomers to get looks on special teams, including some of the aforementioned names.
4. Missing personnel
There are suspensions facing three defensive players: senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, junior cornerback Deshazor Everett and junior safety Floyd Raven, all three of whom had off-the-field legal trouble this offseason. Ennis and Raven will miss the entire game; Everett will miss a half. Ennis is a starter, so that means you could see a true freshman -- either Isaiah Golden or Hardreck Walker -- in his place when the Aggies go to four defensive linemen. In place of Everett, also a starter, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that the Aggies will rotate cornerbacks. Expect to see a heavy dose of Tramain Jacobs but possibly some freshmen such as Alex Sezer, Victor Davis or Tavares Garner as possibilities.Raven isn't listed as the starter at free safety like he was coming out of spring football. Instead, it's junior Clay Honeycutt, who Snyder was complimentary of on Tuesday. Honeycutt, a former high school quarterback at Dickinson (Texas) High, has come a long way according to Snyder and has earned himself the start against Rice.
Also of note, running back Brandon Williams [foot surgery] might be limited. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said "I wouldn't expect to see a lot from Brandon on Saturday."
5. Familiar foes
The Aggies and Owls haven't met on the field since the Southwest Conference folded in 1995, as both teams were part of the now-defunct league, but the coaching staffs do have recent history. David Bailiff is in his seventh season at Rice, a rival of Houston, where Sumlin was the head coach for four seasons (2008-2011). Snyder also stood on a sideline opposite Bailiff when Snyder was the head coach at Marshall from 2005-09. Sumlin's staff also recruited Rice starting quarterback Taylor McHargue when Sumlin was with the Cougars. So there is plenty of familiarity, at least in terms of coaching staffs, between the two squads.
No. 7 Tramain Jacobs
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Two starting linebackers, both of whom emerged as leaders for the 11-2 Aggies, were seniors (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart). So was the starting free safety (Steven Terrell) and one defensive tackle (Spencer Nealy). The player who emerged as the team's leader in several statistical categories was a junior and third-year letterman, Damontre Moore.
"Coming into the spring, we basically have been trying to find our new leaders," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "Vocal leaders, people that lead by example. We have a couple of people that are falling into that role. Donnie Baggs, Howard Matthews, Deshazor Everett and I've also been one of the people that are trying to step into this new role. We're trying to find new leaders for the defense and for the team next year."
Baggs is the first team middle linebacker -- the same position Stewart was in last year -- so his emergence is key. The new blood replacing the other departed seniors, and Moore, are all young or inexperienced or both.
Matthews, who started the Aggies' last four games at strong safety and played in 12, has probably made the biggest transformation. At the start of last season, he wasn't even on the two-deep. By season's end, he became a key player and this spring, Snyder and defensive backs coach Marcel Yates are looking to him to help others, like junior Floyd Raven, who has moved to free safety from cornerback.
He did so when he was the head coach at Houston and is continuing that trend at Texas A&M. While at Houston, the Cougars signed at least a pair of junior college prospects in each of Sumlin's final three signing classes.
Cameron Clear | 6-6, 285, TE
Arizona Western College
Returning TEs: Nehemiah Hicks, Caleb Little, Daniel Inglett
Other committed TEs: Derrick Griffin
Where Clear might fit: Tight ends aren't used heavily in Sumlin's offense but they are used, whether it's in the running game or lining up next to the quarterback as the second back in a two-back set, which the Aggies used on occasion with Hicks and Michael Lamothe this year. There's a chance for Clear to come in and see the field quickly since Lamothe is graduating and Hicks is the only returnee that gained significant playing time on offense. Little saw action in three games while Inglett, a walk-on, saw action in two. Griffin is more of a receiver than a tight end when he arrives.
Kenny Flowers | 6-2, 228, OLB
Hutchinson Community College
Returning OLBs: Donnie Baggs, Steven Jenkins*, Michael Richardson, Jordan Richmond, Tyrone Taylor, Shaun Ward
Other committed OLBs: None
Where Flowers might fit: Jenkins is the only returning starter among the above names and Baggs made some forward strides this year, starting in place of Jenkins when he served a one-game suspension. Richardson appeared in nine games while Ward appeared in seven. There's plenty of competition for Flowers, but if he comes in and impresses, he can be in the mix.
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