Texas A&M Aggies: Ricky Seals-Jones
As the Texas A&M sophomore dominates defensive backs weekly, defensive coordinators shift their game plans to pay more attention to the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Evans. Rightfully so, because if proper attention isn't paid, he'll make opponents pay, as he did to Auburn (287 receiving yards, four touchdowns) or No. 1 Alabama (279 receiving yards). In eight games, Evans has nearly matched his 2012 season-long receiving yardage total with 1,101 yards (he had 1,105 in 2012) and has more than doubled his touchdown total from last year's 13-game campaign (11 this season after five in 2012).
Other than Evans, this year's crop of receivers was a mix of returnees who have received only modest or no playing time and a batch of newcomers, as the Aggies signed six receivers in their 2013 recruiting class.
So far, the Aggies seem to be finding contributors.
The most consistent of the supporting cast has been junior Malcome Kennedy. Best known for catching the Aggies' final touchdown in their 29-24 upset win over Alabama in 2012, he is second to Evans with 43 receptions, 447 yards and four touchdowns. Kennedy has provided a consistent, middle-of-the-field target for Johnny Manziel this season, stepping into Swope's old 'Y' receiver position.
From week to week, the players who have emerged have varied. Senior Derel Walker (30 catches, 414 yards, two touchdowns) appears to have an increasing role in the offense as an outside receiver, with at least four catches in three of the last four games, including two touchdowns against Vanderbilt. Senior Travis Labhart has emerged lately, catching 20 passes in his last three games after only three receptions in the first five games of the season.
Early in the season, sophomore Sabian Holmes was targeted several times and a true freshman, Ricky Seals-Jones, had a smashing debut against Rice before a knee injury ended his season.
"That's what our philosophy is based on," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We need good players at all those positions instead of just one. Otherwise you get the double team and then, 'Now what?' We've got good running backs that can catch it out of the backfield and put pressure on you that way, but in order to be a complete offense we've got to get production from our other receivers."
The Aggies got that against Vanderbilt, with Kennedy hauling in a team-high eight passes, Evans catching five and Walker with four. As the season wears on, even more players are finding themselves in the mix, such as true freshman LaQuvionte Gonzalez. Though most of the time he has seen has been on special teams as a kick returner or running fly sweeps, Gonzalez got into the mix on Saturday and caught four passes for 52 yards and his first career touchdown. With his speed and quickness, he has the look of someone who will fit nicely in the offense moving forward.
And, as Sumlin noted, running backs are a factor in the passing game as well.
"We've got a number of guys that we feel good about going in and out of the game and we need to have that this time of year," Sumlin said. "Because of what we do, all those guys have to be able to execute the offense, catch the ball, hang on to it, because you can't play one guy the way we go up and down the field. We had 78 snaps [Saturday]. We've got to be able to develop some depth, and I'm pleased with how those guys have come along."
Seals-Jones, who suffered a knee injury in the season-opening win over Rice on Aug. 31, might be a candidate for a medical redshirt, Sumlin said. Seals-Jones had surgery on his injured knee Friday and likely won't make the road trip to Arkansas this weekend.
"The decision hasn't been made completely, but I would anticipate the possibility of a medical redshirt because he falls in that category," Sumlin said. "I sat and talked with his dad and talked with him last week. The situation is yeah, he wants to play, but lose a year where you came back from surgery … he has another spring, he gets really, basically, this whole experience back and has four more years and like I told him. That seemed to have worked out well for Mike Evans [who redshirted his freshman year]."
In order to qualify for a medical hardship waiver, a player can't play in more than three contests or 30 percent of the season. Seals-Jones played in the Aggies' season opener against Rice and on Sept. 14 against Alabama but missed the A&M's game against Sam Houston State and SMU.
Sumlin said he understands Seals-Jones' desire to play, but wants to make sure he doesn't lose a season of eligibility while not being 100 percent.
"Just because you don't play your freshman year, it doesn't mean you can't play," Sumlin said. "There's a lot of different circumstances in there. Guys want to play and I appreciate that. But those kinds of decisions are mutual and I think he understands, after looking at it, I would think that we're going to pursue the medical redshirt because for him and he falls under that category."
Seals-Jones, who was the No. 61 player in the 2013 ESPN 300 and the No. 8 receiver in the country, caught a 71-yard touchdown pass in the season-opening win over Rice. He has three receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown this season. A four-star prospect from Sealy, Texas, Seals-Jones impressed the coaching staff during preseason training camp with his athleticism combined with his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame.
Righting the ship on D: This is a real opportunity for the Aggies to have a strong defensive performance. Though they've struggled, the Aggies are deeper and have a more talented roster than SMU. Though the same could be said in the Aggies' first two games, they were hamstrung by not having all of their available personnel because of suspensions. They're in the bottom 20 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game and total yards allowed per game. If the Aggies don't start finding their footing this week at home against a non-conference foe that's not the caliber of most SEC teams, it's a huge concern to take into the rest of their SEC schedule, which begins next week at Arkansas.
Meeting of innovative minds: Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff are familiar with the faces on the opposite sideline, particularly SMU head coach June Jones and offensive coordinator Hal Mumme. Jones and Sumlin squared off annually when the two were coaching in Conference USA and Mumme is considered the godfather of the "Air Raid" scheme from which many of the offensive principles that A&M uses originate from. Jones is an old Run-and-Shoot coach, so bringing Jones and Mumme together is an intriguing mix.
Home sweet home: The Aggies have yet to leave Kyle Field this season. The SMU game will serve as their fourth consecutive home game. The Aggies have eight this year, but hit the road for two games after this weekend. Since Sumlin took over, the Aggies haven't lost on the road; all three losses have come at home. Still, you won't hear the coaches or players complaining; they prefer playing in front of the 12th Man. Plus, they're doing so in front of a team they beat 48-3 in Dallas last year, so there's no upset alert here, barring unforeseen circumstances.
Key injuries: Texas A&M will be without freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones, who had knee surgery on Saturday, and safety Floyd Raven (collarbone), who was injured in Week 2 against Sam Houston State. Seals-Jones showed promise in the season opener, catching a 71-yard touchdown pass, but the Aggies have a lot of receiving options, so one of their other young freshmen such as LaQuvionte Gonzalez or Jeremy Tabuyo could see increased action in Seals-Jones' absence. Raven missed last week's game against Alabama and the Aggies are thin at free safety. Clay Honeycutt is the starter and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said this week that they are experimenting with shifting cornerback Deshazor Everett to safety. Everett spent time at both corner and safety last season when the Aggies were looking to solve depth issues in the secondary, so it's something he's familiar with.
This game has been analyzed, dissected, debated for months. It has been the most anticipated regular season game since 2011's "Game of the Century" between Alabama and LSU.
Here are a few things that I think are important to remember about the big showdown between the Aggies and Crimson Tide, which kicks off at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday:
- No matter what happens, there's a lot of season still left: This is not an elimination game for the SEC West or SEC title. The winner does get a significant leg up in the SEC West race by defeating one of the top teams in the division and the loser is at a disadvantage because it will have to hope the winner gets knocked off a couple of times down the road. But it's important to remember that Alabama has 10 games left after Saturday and the Aggies have nine. Even the winner is assured nothing except being 1-0 in SEC play and having a tiebreaker over the team they just defeated should they wind up with the same conference record at the end of the season.
- It should be great theater: To me, the buildup has been so monumental that this is no longer a game. It's an event, a television show or a film. The main characters are Johnny Manziel, Kevin Sumlin, Nick Saban and AJ McCarron. There's one heck of a supporting cast. I'll let you all decide who the protagonists are and who the antagonists are. Chances are whatever happens will be analyzed endlessly That's part of the fun, because it creates drama. Expect the broadcast to break some ratings records and Kyle Field to be packed to the gills.
- This is a huge day for A&M recruiting: No matter the result of the game, this is already a win for Texas A&M on the recruiting front. The Aggies are expecting roughly 75 recruits in attendance, many of them among the top players in the country. The fact that they've gotten some of those big names to Aggieland is already a win, because it means A&M is a serious player for those elite prospects. A win would boost their chances with some of those players, but don't kid yourselves, prospects don't put a ton of stock into one game result. A win would prove to many onlookers that A&M is here to stay when it comes to contending for SEC titles, but even with a loss, recruits will experience a gameday atmosphere and buzz unlike any seen before because of the unprecedented buildup to the game.
Now for a few keys to watch:
- Alabama's running game vs. Texas A&M's defense: Both of these units come into the game with question marks. The Crimson Tide averaged just 2.5 yards per carry in their season-opening win over Virginia Tech; the Aggies have allowed an average of 273 rushing yards per contest to Rice and Sam Houston State. The Aggies get back almost their full complement of defensive starters with the exception of Floyd Raven (collarbone injury), so the defense should be improved, but it's no certainty yet since this will be their first game action together this season. Will the O-line, running back T.J. Yeldon and the Tide be better running the football?
- Watch the 'Y' Last season, Texas A&M receiver Ryan Swope had a huge game against the Crimson Tide, catching 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown while playing the 'Y' receiver, which is the slot receiver to the right of the formation. Can the Aggies get similar production out of junior Malcome Kennedy and true freshman Ricky Seals-Jones in that role, or will the Crimson Tide keep them quiet and force Manziel to go elsewhere? We know Mike Evans will be Manziel's top target but you can't throw to him every down.
- Big plays for Amari Cooper? Like Swope for A&M, Cooper had a huge day for the Crimson Tide. He caught six passes for 136 yards and a touchdown, including two catches of 50-plus yards in the fourth quarter. Can he produce a similar effort, or will the Aggies do a better job of defending the explosive sophomore? There are some concerns with the play and depth at safety currently. Look for junior cornerback Deshazor Everett -- the Aggies' best corner -- to line up against him early and often. The two were matched up several times in last year's contest.
It's the lifeblood of a program. As players graduate or move on, new ones must come in to keep success going.
And this weekend could be the biggest yet when it comes hosting recruits.
While the college football world has long awaited the Alabama-Texas A&M rematch, the A&M staff has spent months preparing for the recruiting aspect of this weekend.
Roughly 75 recruits are expected to be in attendance for Saturday's highly-anticipated game between the No. 1 Crimson Tide and the No. 6 Aggies.
"I think [the game has] already had an impact," Sumlin said. "We have a large number of prospects that are going to be here. The move to the SEC has obviously been a boost for us. I think it wouldn't be as big of a boost if we didn't have some sort of success in the league last year. We didn't have all the success we wanted. We were extremely competitive and won a big game last year. But all that being said, I think the ability to compete and win in this league has really helped us too, in recruiting."
And that's the key. Without the 11-2 record, the Heisman Trophy run for Johnny Manziel or all the attention coming to the program as a result of that success in the SEC, widely considered the country's best conference, this weekend might not have been as big.
While the number of recruits who will be in attendance is impressive, so are the names. Topping that list are a host of highly-regarded 2014 ESPN 300 prospects: defensive end Myles Garrett, athlete Speedy Noil, safety Jamal Adams, defensive tackle Gerald Willis III, athlete Davion Hall, safety Edwin Freeman are among those expected. All of them are top 100 recruits.
“It’s going to be great, knowing A&M is in our top three," said Noil, who is making the trip with Willis, his high school teammate. "I want to see what they offer as an offense.”
Said Willis: “It’s going to be crazy. I’m very excited.”
A host of 2015 ESPN Junior 300 prospects are also expected in attendance. Receiver Tyron Johnson, outside linebacker Malik Jefferson, defensive end Anthony Wheeler and quarterback Kyler Murray are just a sampling of the impressive juniors that will make the trip.
If there's any doubt as to how important recruiting is to the Texas A&M staff, take this as evidence: Sumlin and defensive line coach Terry Price were out on the trail Thursday night via helicopter and trekked to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to see a prospect, fewer than 48 hours before one of the biggest games in program history.
The target? Garrett, the No. 7 player in the 2014 ESPN 300.
Coach Price and I strapped in headed to the Metroplex to find the next great Aggie! http://t.co/8d1BG3goMT
— Kevin Sumlin (@CoachSumlin) September 12, 2013
The swaggerchopper has landed. #swag http://t.co/n18uhrZ8nY
— Coach Terry Price (@Coach_TPrice) September 13, 2013
Sumlin and offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney also made a helicopter trip to Houston to see then-uncommitted 2013 ESPN 300 receiver Ricky Seals-Jones and 2013 Texas A&M quarterback commitment Kohl Stewart on a nationally-televised game between Sealy (Texas) High and Houston St. Pius X. Seals-Jones eventually committed and signed with the Aggies; Stewart signed but chose to play professional baseball after being chosen fourth overall in the MLB draft this summer.
While the Aggies continue to strengthen their position in recruiting statewide, their longtime rival, Texas, has a lot of question marks at the moment. After a decisive loss to BYU, the Longhorns fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. While the schools don't play each other anymore, they still battle for the same recruits. A win this weekend would further strengthen Texas A&M's position in the talent-rich Lone Star State.
This weekend has become something of a perfect storm for the Aggies. The chance to make a statement on a national level is there, with the eyes of fans across the country watching, not to mention dozens of recruits at Kyle Field to experience it all.
"You don't have a stage like this for this weekend if you're not a competitive program," Sumlin said. "And I think the high school coaches in this state do a fantastic job of coaching and regionally, recognizing that. And I think student-athletes are recognizing that, too, that we've got a great situation here from a stability standpoint, from a support standpoint, from a facilities standpoint and from a league standpoint.
"You don't have to go 700-800-900 miles away anymore to get all those things. That has been a big selling point for us since we've gotten here and I think that message has been driven home every week that we play in the SEC, not just play but play in meaningful games on big stages."
With the Crimson Tide coming to Kyle Field for a rematch with the Aggies, anticipation has built throughout the offseason. The Tide are again No. 1, defending their BCS championship from a year ago and the Aggies still have their linchpin, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who made his most compelling case for the trophy that afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
As the heavily hyped clash approaches, let's look back at some of the keys to last year's game and how they might affect the rematch.
1. Credit to the Texas A&M defense
When dissecting Texas A&M's upset of Alabama last season, many cite the Aggies' offensive explosion en route to a 20-0 first-quarter lead as one of the most difficult things for Alabama to deal with. And while the Aggies used creative playcalling and personnel packages, their fast pace and precision execution to score three touchdowns on their first three drives, the Aggies' defensive effort had as much -- or more -- to do with their ability to take that kind of commanding lead.
The Crimson Tide's next offensive drive started on a much better note for Alabama, with Lacy gaining 23 yards on his first two carries. But everything halted as the Aggies created a turnover when quarterback AJ McCarron tried to find Kenny Bell in the middle of the field. As a McCarron pass hit Bell in the chest, safety Howard Matthews delivered a hard, clean hit to Bell, who dropped the pass. Porter was there to intercept the pass, and that set up the A&M offense with great field position after a 16-yard return to the Alabama 41.
One of the key players throughout the day for the Aggies' defense was defensive tackle Spencer Nealy. A former defensive end who moved to defensive tackle at the start of the 2012 season despite lacking what would be considered "SEC size" for a tackle, Nealy played an integral role in the Aggies' run defense. Evidence of that was on display at the start of the Crimson Tide's third drive of the game.
On the first play of the drive, Alabama handed off to T.J. Yeldon on the left side and the 6-foot-5, 277-pound Nealy, who lined up at nose tackle on that play and for much of the day, used his quickness to beat center Barrett Jones and tackled Yeldon for a loss of 4 yards. The Crimson Tide went three-and-out on that drive as well as the Aggies forced McCarron's hand with a safety blitz and Matthews got into the backfield untouched, forcing an incomplete pass. The defensive effort by the Aggies forced McCarron to start the game 1-of-5 passing for 5 yards.
And even though the Tide were able to gather their bearings and make a strong comeback with some big plays on offense, the Aggies still found ways to make plays on defense. Matthews plugged a gap on third-and-2 when Yeldon tried to cut back for first-down yardage, holding the Crimson Tide to a third-quarter field goal. Safety Steven Terrell stripped Yeldon in the fourth quarter on the play after a 50-yard pass from McCarron to Amari Cooper. And of course, cornerback Deshazor Everett picked off McCarron on the Tide's final offensive play with 1:36 remaining.
The drawback for Texas A&M in the rematch is that many of the above names are gone. Nealy, Porter, Terrell and other key players -- such as defensive end Damontre Moore and linebacker Jonathan Stewart -- have graduated. They've been replaced by younger, more inexperienced players who have taken their lumps in the first two games. The Aggies also haven't had their full complement of defensive players because several served suspensions in the first two games. Saturday will be the first opportunity for all of their key guys to play together this season.
Lacy is gone for the Tide, as are several offensive linemen. The Tide struggled in that area in their season-opening win against Virginia Tech. So there will be adjustments on both sides with the differences in personnel.
2. Finding the "Y"
Manziel went to receiver Ryan Swope, the "Y" receiver who lines up in the slot on the right side of the offensive formation, early and often against the Crimson Tide. Early in the game the passes were of the short, quick variety, hitch routes that gained incremental yardage, almost like running plays.
Swope graduated as well, but look for the guy who made the catch on the play after Swope's 42-yard reception -- Malcome Kennedy -- to be a factor. Kennedy caught a 24-yard touchdown pass on the next play and having experience in a game like that can only help him this Saturday. The question is, can Kennedy bring the kind of consistency that Swope did in catching 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown against Alabama?
And should he be healthy for the game, 6-foot-5 freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones could be a factor at that position as well. Seals-Jones missed the Sam Houston State game last Saturday with a knee injury.
3. McCarron can scramble, too
While Manziel is known for his scrambling, McCarron showed he has good mobility as well.
McCarron isn't nearly as fleet of foot, but he did show the ability to escape pressure and make quality throws. On two instances in the Crimson Tide's first scoring drive, he evaded the Aggies' pass rush and found Cooper for a first-down completion.
In the second half, McCarron scrambled and tried to find Cooper. He avoided an interception from Everett (who was ruled out of bounds on the catch), but nevertheless, scrambling is a tool McCarron can use if the Aggies dial up extra pressure Saturday.
4. Defending Manziel on the ground
But the Tide did a much better job containing Manziel in the final two quarters. In the second half, he finished with 10 rushing yards on nine attempts.
This season, Manziel is making an effort to improve as a pocket passer without taking away his playmaking ability. The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator and playcaller (Clarence McKinney) and a new quarterbacks coach (Jake Spavital). It will be interesting to see how much running Manziel does Saturday and how Alabama handles it.
5. Big plays in the Alabama passing game
Cooper, now a sophomore for the Tide, had a huge game in last year's matchup, catching six passes for 136 yards.
He had a catch of 50 yards and a 54-yard touchdown reception, both in the fourth quarter. The first came on an out-and-up, when he beat Everett one on one. The next one came when the Aggies sent Everett on a cornerback blitz and Cooper beat Matthews deep for a touchdown.
But silence is a key word in describing some of the growing pains the Aggies had to go through in their season-opening win against Rice on Saturday, as they played 16 true freshmen, 11 of which were defensive players.
A&M coach Kevin Sumlin illustrated that point thusly:
"We had a couple situations where a couple guys actually froze up out there and wouldn't even open their mouths and couldn't get lined up," Sumlin said after Saturday's 52-31 victory. "The D-line said they couldn't hear and then one of them admitted to me "Coach, I just didn't say anything. I was just standing there.'"
Not exactly what a coach is looking to hear from defensive players, particularly when facing a no-huddle offense. Communication, especially in those situations, is key for a defense.
The Aggies coaches did what they could to prepare their newcomers, but some lessons are only learned the hard way.
"It's like anything else," Sumlin said. "As a coach, you try to prepare guys for all situations, but until the live bullets are flying, you don't know. It'll get better as it goes on, but I think the experience that we gained from today will help us down the road, a bunch. Particularly [in the front seven] because that's where most of the guys are gone."
The struggles were clear. As the defense tried to find its footing, Rice showed the ability to move the ball with ease. The Owls finished the game with 509 total offensive yards, including 306 rushing. The last time they gave up that many offensive yards was in their marathon battle against Louisiana Tech last October (615) and they haven't allowed that many rushing yards since a 66-28 drubbing at the hands of Oklahoma on Nov. 8, 2008.
True freshman played on the defensive line (Jay Arnold, Isaiah Golden, Daeshon Hall and Hardreck Walker), at linebacker (Darian Claiborne, Jordan Mastrogiovanni, Shaan Washington) and defensive back (Noel Ellis, Tavares Garner, Alex Sezer Jr. and Jonathan Wiggins).
"There's no way to duplicate the tempo and the emotion [of a game]," Sumlin said on Tuesday. "You know what you're doing, but the pressure to perform in that environment can be very, very difficult on a young guy, and that's what experience is all about."
Offensively, the Aggies were much better off. Even though Matt Joeckel made his first career start at quarterback, he's a junior who has spent more than a year practicing in the offense and he had at least seen some game time. Center Mike Matthews, who received high praise from Sumlin on Tuesday, also played in games and traveled with the team last season.
The true freshmen who saw the field for the first time on offense were all receivers: Ricky Seals-Jones, Jeremy Tabuyo, LaQuvionte Gonzalez and Ja'Quay Williams. But because there were more experienced players surrounding them on Saturday, not to mention Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel entered the game in the third quarter, the transition was smoother for the Aggies' offense.
In total, 21 newcomers saw the field for Texas A&M on Saturday, many in significant roles. Plenty will log significant time this Saturday against Sam Houston State, as four players received two-game suspensions and won't be back until Sept. 14 against Alabama. With a signing class of 31 players in February, there was no question the Aggies were going to need some of the newcomers to contribute. By being forced to play so many in the first game, Sumlin feels like it could be a positive later in the season.
"[It's] a real, real learning experience," Sumlin said. "I think for those guys, that's going to pay dividends for us down the road."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- There are several reasons Texas A&M was so highly thought of and had lofty expectations coming into the 2013 season.
The No. 7 Aggies, who were ranked in the top 10 of both preseason polls (they were No. 6 in the coaches' poll), returned a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, a plethora of running backs and an All-America caliber tackle, and play a style of offense that many SEC teams -- defending champion Alabama included -- find hard to defend.
And while there were several positives to take away from Texas A&M's season-opening 52-31 win over Rice on Saturday at Kyle Field, the win also illustrated that the Aggies still have a long way to go in several areas if they plan on fulfilling championship expectations.
The Aggies had eight players miss at least the first half of Saturday's game. Four were suspended for "violating Texas A&M athletics department rules and regulations." Three were suspended after offseason arrests and Manziel was suspended for the first half after "inadvertent violations" that occurred as a result of signing autographs after the conclusion of an NCAA investigation.
That was also part of Manziel's message, according to Sumlin, to his teammates when he addressed them on Friday as part of the requirements of restoring his eligibility.
"Actions just like today and just like other guys on this team, those actions may be actions that you think just hurt you, but they end up hurting the whole football team," Sumlin said. "That was the real gist of [Manziel's] message to the team. That everybody's individual acts affect the team. When that happens, it's not good."
Of the suspended players, five were defensive starters (defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris, linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive end Gavin Stansbury). Another, Floyd Raven, is a key player expected to contribute this fall and was one time projected to start at free safety before Clay Honeycutt wound up first on the depth chart after a strong training camp.
As a result, the Aggies' defense was filled with true freshmen and newcomers getting significant playing time on Saturday and ended up surrendering 509 total offensive yards. Now, Rice is a good team in Conference USA that could contend for the league title, but it’s not nearly the caliber of opponent Texas A&M will see on its SEC schedule. The Owls ran for a whopping 306 yards -- six yards a carry -- and appeared able to run right at the Aggies' defense.
The Aggies struggled with missed tackles and missed assignments, which are to be expected when you have a significant number of 18- and 19-year-olds on the field.
"We played 20 guys out there that had never played before," Sumlin said. "Is that an excuse for our play? No. I think we learned from today."
The Aggies regain the services of Ennis and Raven next week, though Everett will again have to sit out a half, by rule, because he was ejected in the second half after being called for a targeting penalty. The other four suspended -- Jenkins, Harris, Stansbury and receiver Edward Pope -- won't return until Sept. 14 when the Aggies host No. 1 Alabama.
But there were plenty of positives to be seen as well, most notably in the win column. Backup quarterback Matt Joeckel showed he was capable of moving the offense, leading the Aggies to 28 first-half points while putting up more than respectable numbers (14-of-19 passing, 190 yards). Joeckel's lone touchdown pass was a 71-yard catch-and-run completion to an apparent star in the making, 6-foot-5, 240-pound true freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones.
Players who are considered to be among the team's leaders, running back Ben Malena (100 total offensive yards, two touchdowns) and Mike Evans (84 receiving yards, two touchdowns) played their roles aptly. The kicking game was consistent as Taylor Bertolet was perfect on all his kick attempts, something he struggled with last season. And as Sumlin noted, the positive to having so many young players on the field on defense means they'll have a chance to learn from their mistakes and develop. Though there were struggles, they came up with turnovers and still did enough to win.
Most importantly, the Aggies got their quarterback, Manziel, back on the field in the second half and he looked like the player who captivated the nation a season ago. He was 6-of-8 passing for 94 yards with three touchdown passes and showed his trademark scrambling ability, though Rice did a solid job of keeping him from running too wild.
This is a team that has encountered a lot this offseason. From the headlines Manziel made and the NCAA investigation, to the suspensions and most importantly, the death of a teammate -- Polo Manukainiu -- the Aggies have already dealt with their fair share of adversity.
The Aggies honored Manukainiu on Saturday by wearing decals with his number, first name and a Tongan-inspired design on their helmets and electing sophomore defensive tackle Alonzo Williams to wear Maunkainiu's No. 90. The team will elect a different defensive lineman to do so each week as a nod to Manukainiu and his family that he is "still out there with us," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said.
This team has lofty goals. Hurd mentioned Saturday the team would wear the Manukainiu decal "each and every week, leading [up] to the national championship." If they plan to get there, they have a lot of work still to do.
Daniel, via Twitter (@badger_daniel): After seeing what (LaQuon) Treadwell can do in last night's game, does Ole Miss have the best SEC receiving duo?
Sam Khan Jr.: First of all, allow me to say this: Laquon Treadwell looks like he's going to be a star, and really quickly. His size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) and hands are terrific -- the one-handed catch he made was wonderful. After catching nine passes for 82 yards last night, I suspect Hugh Freeze and Co. will try to continue to get the ball in his hands. Most of his damage was done on two third-quarter drives, but those were both crucial drives because it helped Ole Miss narrow a 21-10 deficit to 28-25, setting the stage for the dramatic finish.
To answer your question, I think it's too early to definitively call Treadwell and junior Donte Moncrief the best receiving duo in the conference, because I want to see Treadwell play more and show that he can bring good production consistently, something Moncrief did last season. I think it's safe to say they'll be one of the best and if Treadwell continues to progress, they could take that title. Alabama's going to have an argument with Amari Cooper and a number of others you could fill-in-the-blank with (it could be Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones, Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White or even a newcomer). Vanderbilt has Jordan Matthews and we'll see if senior Jonathan Krause can develop into a reliable No. 2 -- the Commodores are without normal No. 2 receiver Chris Boyd, who is suspended after being indicted earlier this month in connection with the rape case that involved four other Vanderbilt players. Keep an eye on Georgia (Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett) and Texas A&M (Mike Evans, Malcome Kennedy or perhaps Ricky Seals-Jones if they break out) too. But you might be on to something, because Moncrief is already a star. If Treadwell becomes one too, look out SEC West.
Carlos, via Twitter (@catorano): Which new coach will have the most success in his first year in the SEC?
Sam Khan Jr: Personally, I think it will be Gus Malzahn at Auburn. One advantage he has is familiarity with the program, since he was with the Tigers for three seasons and helped them to a BCS title. He was only gone for a year, so he's certainly familiar with much of the personnel too. His offense is effective and the cupboard isn't bare in terms of talent; Auburn has recruited well, turning in top 20 classes each of the last four years. There's a lot of buzz about the arm strength starting quarterback Nick Marshall has and if he can get the Tigers tempo moving fast early on, I think Auburn might be able to make a little bit of noise.
Matthew, via Twitter (@MVPenergy): % likelihood we will see ALL 3 TAMU QBs when #JohnnyFootball is sat down 1/2 (way through the) 4th QTR
Sam Khan Jr.: I'm docking you points for not first asking "Who's going to start?" because that's what everyone wants to know. But you're forgiven. I think there's a decent chance we see all three of Texas A&M's scholarship quarterbacks in the Aggies' season opener against Rice. Coach Kevin Sumlin has been tight-lipped about who will get the nod and I know the coaching staff has been discussing different plans, but my hunch is that junior Matt Joeckel gets the start because he already has some game experience. True freshman Kenny Hill is the current "quarterback of the future" for the Aggies, however. I've never known Sumlin to be a two-quarterback guy or rotate them, but this could be a special case because of the circumstances. And I would not be surprised at all if it was Hill who trotted out first. Either way, once the third quarter arrives, we all know who comes in: Johnny Manziel. And I think, even if it's a blowout, Manziel will play at least a quarter.
Josh, via Twitter (@JoshAgof11): Realistic chance of (Aggies) running the table? Like what I've heard for both sides of the ball.
Sam Khan Jr.: I think it's going to be difficult, but not impossible. Of course, Texas A&M must first get through the showdown on Sept. 14 with Alabama. If they get through that, the toughest obstacles left in the regular season, in my opinion, are road games at Ole Miss and LSU. I'm sure many remember what it took for the Aggies to escape Oxford, Miss., with a win after turning the ball over six times and Death Valley is nothing to mess with, particularly for a night game (which, I suspect it would be if the Aggies were to roll into the LSU game undefeated). Then if you get through all that, you have to beat an SEC East team in the SEC title game, probably Georgia, South Carolina or Florida. It's really difficult to do. Alabama has won three of the last four national titles and two of those seasons they lost a regular season game. I won't count it out because Manziel is that special and that offense is powerful. But with a lot of youth and newcomers seeing the field on defense and whether there's improvement in the kicking game are the wild cards.
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.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Just like the quarterback for whom he became a favorite target, Mike Evans was a relative unknown outside of Aggieland at this time a year ago.
A redshirt freshman without much organized football under his belt -- he played just a year of varsity football at Ball High in Galveston, Texas -- Evans became much more well known to the college football world as Johnny Manziel's favorite target in 2012.
This spring, Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital used a unique term to describe what Evans -- who led the Aggies with 82 receptions and 1,105 receiving yards in 2012 -- became to the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
"I call him his 'Panic guy,' " Spavital said. "When you're in a panic, you turn and you find Mike Evans and throw it at him. And he did a lot of that last year."
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Evans won't surprise anybody this season, as opponents are now well aware of what he can do. Whether it was making a clutch catch to help the Aggies pull out a comeback win at Ole Miss, using his physicality to stiff-arm his way past smaller defensive backs or simply becoming a consistent option for Manziel, the sophomore receiver is looking to build off a strong first season.
And yes, he can get better, according to his coaches. That's not an ideal thought for opposing secondaries.
"Probably the biggest thing for himself [that he can improve] is route running," receivers coach David Beaty said. "Just the art of route running and understanding how to control that big ole body and play with bent knees, his posture being a little bit lower, really being able to use that tool, playing lower and creating more explosiveness."
Beaty would like to see Evans improve near the goal line as well.
"With his 6-5 frame, we need more production from him down by the red zone," Beaty said. "He should be a human red-zone highlight film himself. We need him to step up and do that, along with the rest of the guys -- it's not just going to be Mike. But we've got to be able to throw it up to that big sucker and have him come down with it."
Aside from Evans, there are openings for three starters at receiver because of graduation.
The heir apparent to Ryan Swope, who was the team's second-leading receiver last year and leader in touchdown receptions, is junior Malcome Kennedy.
Perhaps best known for making the touchdown catch that gave the Aggies their final points in a 29-21 upset win at No. 1 Alabama, Kennedy is the new starter at Swope's old 'Y' receiver position, which is essentially the slot receiver to the right side of the offensive formation. Kennedy's goals are clear.
"Being a playmaker," he said. "I made a few plays last year, but people only saw a few of them: the Alabama play and a few plays against Missouri. I'm ready to be a go-to guy. The position that I play, the 'Y' for Texas A&M, that's the go-to man."
Senior Derel Walker, who had an impressive spring game, has been working as the first-team outside receiver opposite Evans during preseason training camp and could be the starter there. Beaty called Walker the "brightest surprise" of his group since spring. At the other slot position opposite Kennedy, sophomore Sabian Holmes has received much of the first-team work in camp after playing part time last season as a true freshman.
And the six freshmen who were part of the Aggies' top-10 recruiting class that signed in February are making their presence felt as well. One in particular that has caught the eye of almost everyone during camp is former Sealy (Texas) High School standout Ricky Seals-Jones.
If there's anyone on the Aggies roster that could compare to Evans in body type it's Seals-Jones, whom Evans called "bigger" than him earlier this month. At 6-5 and now 240 pounds, Seals-Jones was an ESPN 300 selection who was ranked as the No. 8 receiver in the country coming out of high school.
"The guy's all muscle," strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson said. "This guy is 18 years old and he looks like a grown man. Chest, abs, everywhere there are muscles. I just have to make sure for 70, 80, 90 snaps that he can keep rolling."
Head coach Kevin Sumlin said that Seals-Jones, who has practiced a lot as the 'Y' with the second team, will get plenty of playing time.
"He's got real ability," Sumlin said. "He's very athletic, but he's got to learn the nuances of the position. He's seeing a lot of different blitzes; we're throwing things at him. I think with Malcome in there right now, it's giving us some flexibility that he doesn't have to start right away. We can kind of bring him along, which is good with him. But he's definitely going to have a role in our three and four-wide and maybe even some two-wide package, but he's got real talent and he's working on it.
"He's big and he's fast and he's got real good hands."
LaQuvionte Gonzalez, a quick, versatile weapon out of Cedar Hill, Texas, who was also an ESPN 300 recruit, figures to have a role. So does four-star signee Ja'Quay Williams out of Georgia. And the Aggies figure to use more tight ends in their attack this season with the return of senior Nehemiah Hicks and the addition of 6-foot-7, 270-pound Cameron Clear out of Arizona Western College.
If training camp is any indication, Manziel will have plenty of quality targets in addition to Evans this fall.
Tony (Richmond, CA): Can [Johnny] Manziel simply turn the switch on after a tumultuos offseason? Or will his erratic behavior trickle into the regular season, resulting in disappointment for himself and Aggie fans?
Sam Khan Jr.: That's what we'll find out. I think there is evidence to suggest he can flip the switch (see: Cotton Bowl vs. Oklahoma). The good thing for him is that it's not like he didn't get any work done in the offseason. Whenever he was in College Station in the summer, he was at workouts and 7-on-7s and he spent some of his own time working with his private quarterbacks coach, George Whitfield. I think he'll be ready when Aug. 31 arrives.
DerekAggie06 (ATX): You can only pick one on each side (no pressure), so which incoming freshman makes the most immediate impact on offense and defense in fall camp?
Sam Khan Jr.: One on each side: I'll pick Ricky Seals-Jones on offense and Isaiah Golden on defense. The reason? Both have bodies that almost nobody else on the roster does. Golden is a legit-size SEC defensive lineman, and Seals-Jones' only possible body comparison (height, weight) at receiver is Mike Evans.
Bobby (Dallas): Which one of the four running backs do you think will be the biggest difference maker?
Sam Khan Jr.: Brandon Williams. I think he's the best combination of running, catching and game-breaking speed of the group. Plus he has good size.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Going back to his time at Houston, Sumlin has long been a "best players play" coach, regardless of age or experience. If a player can help his team win and does the right things, that player will see the field.
So it stands to reason that more than one freshman will have an impact this fall. But who will have the greatest impact?
Several true freshmen who have a chance to impact the Aggies are already on campus -- linebackers Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade, defensive tackle Jordan Points, cornerback Alex Sezer and receiver Ja'Quay Williams -- but for this exercise we'll look at only those who aren't yet on campus.
The candidates are still plentiful. At defensive tackle, the Aggies could use more depth. ESPN 150 defensive tackle Justin Manning and ESPN 300 defensive tackle Isaiah Golden are prime candidates to make an impact. ESPN 300 cornerback Noel Ellis is a tremendous playmaker in the return game and in the secondary, though the Aggies do have more returning starters in the defensive backfield than any position group on defense. At defensive end, the Aggies are searching for someone to help replace the production of Damontre Moore. Could Jay Arnold or Daeshon Hall help in that role next season? Perhaps.
But the one place where it stands to reason that there will be spots up for grabs and several incoming freshmen to battle for them is receiver. The Aggies only return one starter from last season's quartet (Mike Evans), so there are other spots up for grabs for takers.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
This week’s targets: The Aggies are looking at a mix of guys across different classes and positions currently. 2014 placekicker Aaron Medley (Lewisburg, Tenn./Marshall County) said he got a visit from Texas A&M special teams coordinator Jeff Banks on Friday. When Medley called Banks on Monday to follow up, Banks told him he had an offer. Banks and offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney journeyed to Katy (Texas) High School on Tuesday for the Tigers' spring game to see 2015 running back Rodney Anderson, whom the Aggies have offered, as well as several other Katy prospects. McKinney checked on Crosby (Texas) High School receiver and Utah commit Raelon Singleton on Monday. Another receiver the Aggies are keeping an eye on and checked out last week is South Houston (Texas) High School 2014 receiver Elton Dyer. 2015 receiver Kemah Siverand (Houston/Cypress Ridge) said the Aggies stopped by his school on Tuesday and defensive backs coach Marcel Yates recently spoke with 2014 receiver Darius Hammond (Livonia, La./Livonia) on the phone after seeing his spring game last week.
Area of interest: Texas A&M is hammering the Houston area hard right now as the spring evaluation period hits the homestretch. It is a priority area for the Aggies and head coach Kevin Sumlin has acknowledged as much numerous times during his tenure in Aggieland. With more than 150 high schools within a 70-mile radius of downtown Houston, it's a hotbed for talent that's only about 90 minutes from College Station, Texas, depending on which part of town you're in. The Aggies' highest-ranked recruit in 2014 class (ESPN 150 linebacker Hoza Scott) and in 2013 (ESPN 150 receiver Ricky Seals-Jones) are both from the area surrounding Houston. Nine players in the 2013 signing class were Houston-area products.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider