Texas A&M Aggies: Taylor Bertolet

A&M special teams steadily improving

November, 14, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Even though Texas A&M sophomore running back and kickoff return specialist Trey Williams had a touchdown return nullified for a penalty, special teams coordinator Jeff Banks didn't rant to Williams about the miscue. He didn't have to.

[+] EnlargeSam Moeller
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsThe Aggies special teams unit, seen here blocking a punt against Mississippi State, has come up big in recent weeks.
"I told him 'I hate it for you because you took away what a great play you made. That's punishment enough. I don't need to yell at you,'" Banks recalled telling Williams.

Early in the fourth quarter of the Aggies' 51-41 win over Mississippi State last Saturday, Williams returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. As he approached the goal line, he kept in the air, diving in the end zone, but officials ruled it "unsportsmanlike conduct" as part of a new rule established in recent seasons. The fact that Williams began the act before the end zone meant the penalty would be enforced from that spot. The Aggies scored a few plays later and head coach Kevin Sumlin discussed the matter on the sideline with Williams shortly thereafter, but on Monday, Banks credited his return man anyway.

"I felt bad for Trey but yesterday, I rewarded him with an award [Monday] for having a [100]-yard return for a touchdown," Banks said. "I think he knows enough what happened. I'm sure he'll be on a 'Not Top 10,' or a 'C'mon Man!'"

Jokes and penalties aside, it was part of a solid special teams performance for Banks' group, something that turned out to be significant in Saturday's win. Throughout the season, the Aggies have had their ups and downs in the third phase of the game, but lately it appears they're steadily improving.

Banks noted in recent weeks that his kickoff return group was getting closer and closer to breaking free for a score. When it finally happened, it was the result of Williams' ability, blocking and coaching.

"This was a team that was pretty good at kickoff coverage, but at the same time they had done something different every week," Banks said. "And Trey Williams is phenomenal in improvisation and being able to make people miss in short space and get to the open field. So it was a combination of both of those things."

Because of the different looks Mississippi State showed every week in covering kickoffs, Banks chose to have his group block man-on-man rather than try to scheme something in particular to generate a return. It paid off.

Perhaps the most significant progress on special teams has come in the kicking game. After an inconsistent start to the season on field goals and point-after-touchdown kicks by placekicker Taylor Bertolet (which followed a rough freshman season), Banks made a change, going with walk-on Josh Lambo.

Since taking over, Lambo is 6-of-7 on field-goal attempts and 39-of-40 on PATs. Both misses were the result of miscues on holds. His success includes a game-winning 33-yard field goal as time expired at Ole Miss on Oct. 12.

Bertolet still has a role in the kicking game, serving as the kickoff specialist. He's averaging 62.4 yards per kickoff and has 34 touchbacks to his credit.

"It's huge peace of mind, both on kickoff and the field-goal kicking situation, to know what we're getting every game and to know that they can do it at a high level," Banks said. "I think that's probably more of why I'm feeling so good now. Taylor Bertolet's kicking off really well, kicking to the corners when we need him to, kicking it out [of the end zone] when we need him to and then Lambo's kicking really well. He just hasn't had a lot of opportunities to kick field goals. ... I'm looking forward to him being a big factor in the next two weeks."

And in each of the past two weeks, the Aggies have also come up with a blocked punt. They started the UTEP game on Nov. 2 by blocking a punt on the Miners' first possession that turned into a safety. On Saturday against Mississippi State, they did it again ... and again ... got two points.

"They run several different protections, this last team, and we didn't know which one they would run, so we had to bring an overload type of a block that would block it versus every protection," Banks said. "We got lucky that they switched their protection completely and we wound up getting two guys free as opposed to one. There were some schematics involved with that."

The performance is certainly something that made Sumlin happy.

"I thought all in all, it was another really good performance by our special teams unit again," Sumlin said. "We blocked a punt and a field goal. We had a great kickoff return. All those things helped us win that football game. Across the board, we did some things that were really good, but I thought our special teams unit was exceptional.”

Lambo an unlikely hero for Texas A&M

October, 15, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The scene was one Josh Lambo might never forget.

As his game-winning 33-yard field goal sailed between the uprights with triple zeroes on the clock and fell to the turf at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss., Lambo ran toward the Texas A&M sideline and performed a soccer-style celebratory slide, an homage to his pre-A&M background.

[+] EnlargeJosh Lambo
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisWalk-on kicker Josh Lambo was the Aggies' hero as he hit a 33-yard field goal to win the game vs. Ole Miss.
Aggies mauled him, screaming, yelling and jumping in joy as they reveled in the satisfaction of again escaping with a hard-fought 41-38 win over Ole Miss. They lifted Lambo into the air and as the seconds passed, coaches and players came to Lambo to hug him, congratulate him, thank him.

Even Johnny Manziel, the Aggies' all-everything player and Heisman Trophy winner, approached the walk-on kicker. With his hand clutching the back of Lambo's head to bring him in close, Manziel shared more than a few private words into Lambo's left ear mere feet away from the goal posts that Lambo successfully split moments before.

It was a scene Lambo would have never pictured a couple years ago while playing goalkeeper for Major League Soccer squad FC Dallas.

"I could say I've had better [nights] but I'd probably be lying to you," Lambo said.

The journey to that moment is an unlikely one for the walk-on kicker. Before arriving in Aggieland in 2012, Lambo never put on football pads. He was a soccer player from Wisconsin and found his way to Texas through the 2008 MLS Super Draft, when FC Dallas selected him eighth overall in the first round.

Lambo was with the club through 2011. Before his final season, he was having a meal in a diner with his mother when she suggested he return to his home state and give college football a try. Lambo dismissed the idea initially.

"My mom said 'Come kick for the Badgers. Come back up to Madison,'" Lambo recalls. "I said 'No mom, there's no way I can kick. It's too boring, they don't do anything.'"

But throughout his last season with FC Dallas, he said the thought nagged at him. After his time with the club was up and he didn't get a new contract, he passed on other contract offers from other clubs and decided to give it a shot. He got in touch with former Wisconsin kicker Taylor Mehlhaff and asked if Mehlhaff could teach him how to placekick. Mehlhaff obliged and Lambo began training.

He walked on with the Aggies in 2012 and didn't see any on-field action but competed for a job during preseason camp prior to this season and became the backup to returning starter Taylor Bertolet. When Bertolet struggled early in the season on point-after-touchdown kick attempts, the staff turned to Lambo for that duty.

His first career attempt against SMU on Sept. 21 was unsuccessful as the result of a bobbled hold, but his next attempt went smoothly and his first field goal attempt that night, from 40 yards away, was also good.

Lambo has held on to field goal and PAT duties ever since, while Bertolet continues to handle kickoffs. But the transition Lambo had to go through to transition from goalkeeper on the soccer pitch to placekicker on the gridiron was a significant one.

"The biggest difference was definitely the pads and the helmet and having a snap and a hold," Lambo said. "Going toward a target where there's not a ball and then there's suddenly a ball appears and then you have to kick it, that took a little bit of time. I think my first couple of kicks with a snap and a hold here were pretty ugly last fall in 2012. But I kept on working at it and it paid off."

On Saturday, with the game tied at 38 and time ticking down, coach Kevin Sumlin knew where his offense had to go in order to get within range for a game-winning kick by Lambo. Special teams coordinator Jeff Banks told Sumlin prior to the game that the 33-yard line would be the goal, which would give Lambo a 50-yard attempt.

"I was not quite comfortable with the 33-yard line," Sumlin said with a laugh. "So we kept running the ball."

The Aggies eventually reached the 15, setting Lambo up for a 33-yard attempt. He drilled it, said after the game it was his "best kick" of the night and carved himself out a small spot in Aggie lore.

"I'm just really appreciative of the coaching staff giving me a chance to prove my worth and show them what I can do," Lambo said. "Unfortunately the circumstances came to where I got to go in [earlier in the season], but you know, whenever I got my chance, I knew I was going to take it and I just praise God that I've been able to utilize my opportunities."

Assessing the Aggies after five games

September, 30, 2013
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Texas A&M is 4-1 after its first five games of the season. The Aggies split their first two SEC games and get a brief break with an open date this weekend. With the bulk of their league schedule coming up after the off week, let's analyze where the Aggies are and what's ahead:

The good

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M's Mike Evans might be the best receiver in the nation and a Heisman candidate.
Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans: These two had high expectations coming into the season based on their 2012 performances, and you could argue that they have exceeded them thus far in 2013, especially Evans. The sophomore receiver is making his case to be considered among the best receivers in the country, if not the best. Only Oregon State's Brandin Cooks has more receiving yards than Evans' 691, but Evans's schedule includes Alabama, which he torched for a school-record 279 yards. Manziel ranks in the top 10 nationally in several categories, including total offense, passing efficiency, QBR, touchdowns responsible for and passing yards. He has made a concerted effort to become a better pocket passer, showing more patience when dropping back, but it hasn't taken away from his signature scrambling ability that makes him such an offensive force. If the Aggies continue to win and these two continue to play as they have, one could make the argument that both deserve to be in the Heisman Trophy discussion.

The offensive line and running game: There were some questions coming into the season about how the Aggies' offensive line would fare after losing Luke Joeckel to the NFL draft and center Patrick Lewis to graduation. So far, the Aggies have continued to shine in this area. The protection provided to Manziel when he passes has been stellar, and the Aggies have not had much trouble running the football, averaging 221.4 yards per game. On Saturday against Arkansas, the Aggies actually had more rushing yards than passing. And the last two weeks, we've seen the coaching staff use all four scholarship running backs (Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams) effectively. Malena continues to be a steady force, Carson has provided a hammer who can break tackles and get short yardage but is explosive enough to get chunks as well, and the Williamses are both explosive talents with a lot of speed.

Deshazor Everett: The junior defensive back has been the Aggies' best defensive player this year. Though cornerback is his usual home, he moved to safety for the last two weeks to help alleviate some issues in the secondary. He performed well in both positions, is second on the team with 31 tackles and leads the team with two interceptions, including a pick-six against Arkansas. If the Aggies had more Everetts, their defense would be better off.

Play-calling: The offensive staff, led by offensive coordinator and play-caller Clarence McKinney has done a solid job of ensuring the offense utilizes its many weapons. There has been plenty of balance in the play calls (Texas A&M has run the ball 202 times and attempted 179 passes), the pace of the offense remains high, and it appears the Aggies have had an answer for almost anything opposing defenses have thrown at them. The one game in which the Aggies came up short was due to two turnovers against No. 1 Alabama.

The bad

The defense: To say the Aggies have struggled defensively is an understatement. Texas A&M is 112th nationally in yards allowed per game (476.8), 109th in yards allowed per play (6.59), 107th in rushing yards allowed per game (214.8) and 94th in passing yards allowed per game (262). Some of those struggles were the result of missing personnel in the first two games because of suspensions, but that's not an excuse anymore. Alabama and Arkansas both moved the ball with relative ease against the unit. In the second half against Arkansas on Saturday, the A&M defense did show the ability to get some key stops and make a few plays, so that might be encouraging, but it will have to build on that when it faces Ole Miss on Oct. 12.

The kicking game: The Aggies had to make a change at place-kicker, removing Taylor Bertolet from PAT and field-goal duty and replacing him with walk-on Josh Lambo. The issues haven't just been with the actual kickers, but there were also a couple of botched holds in the first four games. Leaving points on the board might not cost Texas A&M against nonconference foes like Sam Houston State or SMU, but it will cost them in SEC play if it continues to happen. Is Lambo the answer? He had a solid day on Saturday against Arkansas, going 6-for-6 on PATs and hitting a 39-yard field goal. So far he's 2-for-2 on field goals and 7-for-8 on PATs with his only miss coming as the result of a fumbled hold.

What's ahead

Texas A&M has a chance to heal up some injuries this week, which is critical after three starters -- defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, linebacker Darian Claiborne and Evans -- got banged up. Safety Floyd Raven, who has been out with a collarbone injury, continues to make progress in hopes of a return before long.

With the meat of the SEC schedule coming up, the Aggies have to get better on defense if they hope to realize some of their season goals. The offense continues to put up 40 points per game, but if for some reason it has an off night, A&M has to be able to rely on the D to help it pull through. Aside from the kicking game, special teams has been solid overall, and if Lambo is the answer at place-kicker, that's a positive for A&M moving forward.

Perhaps most notably, the drama is behind the Aggies. The constant headlines and media circus that followed the team, specifically Manziel, is in the rearview mirror. Led by Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies handled it well and didn't allow it to distract them from the task at hand.

Five things: Texas A&M-Arkansas

September, 28, 2013
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — No. 10 Texas A&M (3-1, 0-1 SEC) comes to Razorback Stadium to face Arkansas (3-1, 0-0) at 6 p.m. tonight. Both teams are trying to claim their first SEC wins this season, so let's look at five things to watch tonight:

1. Arkansas running game vs. A&M run D: The Razorbacks have the nation's No. 5 and SEC's No. 1 rusher in freshman Alex Collins (481 yards), who became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three consecutive 100-yard rushing games. New Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is a believer in running the football and they'll look to run right at the Aggies, who rank 103rd nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (218.25). A&M, which allowed more than 200 rushing yards to its first three opponents, allowed just 93 last week, but the Razorbacks run the ball much more than SMU. Rutgers had some success last week against the Razorbacks' rushing attack, holding Collins and sophomore Jonathan Williams to just a combined 3.6 yards per carry. Regardless, this will be the matchup to watch.

2. Razorbacks get their QB back: After missing the loss to Rutgers with a bruised throwing shoulder, Arkansas regains the services of starting quarterback Brandon Allen tonight. Head coach Bret Bielema tweeted the news on Friday night. Allen got hurt Sept. 14 in a 24-3 win over Southern Mississippi and backup A.J. Derby filled in during Allen's absence. Getting Allen back is certainly a positive for Arkansas.

3. A&M kicking game: After holding the starting placekicking job since the start of last season, Taylor Bertolet is now in a battle to keep kicking. He was removed from the Aggies' win over SMU last week for sophomore walk-on Josh Lambo. Bertolet missed back-to-back PAT attempts that prompted the change, and now both coach Kevin Sumlin and special teams coordinator Jeff Banks acknowledge that it's an "ongoing competition" between the two. Lambo came in and connected on a 40-yard field goal and was 1-for-2 on PATs, though his missed kick was the result of a botched snap. It will be interesting to see who takes which kick attempts tonight.

4. Status quo for the O?: The Aggies' high-powered offense has been productive throughout this season as quarterback Johnny Manziel has showed improvement as a passer, Mike Evans has emerged as perhaps one of the nation's best receivers, and the running backs and offensive line have both performed solidly. The Aggies have produced at least 400 offensive yards in 16 straight games dating back to last season and have only once failed to reach that number under Kevin Sumlin.

5. Road success: A Sumlin-coached team hasn't lost a game away from its home stadium since 2010, winning 13 straight. The Aggies were undefeated on the road and won their neutral site bowl game last season, but tonight will be the Aggies' first game on the road this season in what should be a raucous atmosphere at Razorback Stadium. Can the Aggies continue their road success?

Planning for success: Texas A&M

September, 26, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M resumes SEC play this week when it travels to Fayetteville, Ark., for a matchup with Arkansas. The No. 10 Aggies (3-1, 0-1 SEC) bounced back from their Alabama loss with a 42-13 win over SMU last week. Here are some keys for the Aggies heading into the weekend:

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M's run defense will face a huge test in Arkansas and freshman running back Alex Collins.
1. Be ready for the running game: Arkansas, under new coach Bret Bielema, will look to run it right at the Aggies' defense. Most of this season, that has been a recipe for success for A&M opponents, as the Aggies rank 105th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (218.25). The good news for the Aggies is that the totals allowed have come down from week to week. After 306 rushing yards allowed to Rice, it was 240 to Sam Houston State, 234 to Alabama and a season-low 93 to SMU. If the Aggies can keep that trend going, it will be extremely helpful.

2. Communicate: The Aggies' early defensive struggles were in part because of missing personnel in the first two games due to suspensions. This will be the third week with the Aggies' having most of their first-teamers available, and communication continues to be key. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder have both said that the communication has improved significantly the last two weeks and Snyder specifically cited the secondary and its ability to adjust within drives last week against SMU to reduce errors and missed assignments. The more the Aggies play together, the better the communication will get.

3. Solidify the kicking game: Texas A&M sophomore Taylor Bertolet was removed from placekicking duties after missing two extra-point attempts against SMU and replaced with Josh Lambo. Sumlin and special teams coordinator Jeff Banks call placekicker an "ongoing competition" between the two as a result. Lambo showed some ability in his Aggies debut, but it will be interesting to see who takes the first PAT or field goal attempt on Saturday.

4. Clean up O-line mistakes: The offensive line played well against Alabama but had a few self-inflicted errors, namely penalties, against SMU last week. It'll need to clean that up this week and continue to protect well and open holes in the running game, which it's done well for the most part this season. Arkansas has shown an ability to get to the quarterback early this season, so playing at a high level in that area is important.

5. Max effort from the defensive line: Snyder said he has challenged his starting defensive linemen to play every snap this week. There might not be as much rotation on the defensive line because said Snyder wants to see defensive tackles Kirby Ennis and Alonzo Williams and defensive ends Julien Obioha and Gavin Stansbury out there against Arkansas' offensive line as much as possible.

'Ongoing competition' at kicker for A&M

September, 24, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The applause at Kyle Field were loud and boisterous.

After three consecutive point-after-touchdown kick attempts failed in Texas A&M's 42-13 win over SMU on Saturday, the volume level of the exuberant Aggies when Josh Lambo put one through the uprights with 11:34 remaining in the third quarter were nearly as high as it was when running back Ben Malena put six points on the board right before it.

Such is the life of the Texas A&M kicking game right now, where every point is appreciated.

Lambo, a sophomore walk-on, is now in what coach Kevin Sumlin called Tuesday an "ongoing competition," for placekicking duties with former starter Taylor Bertolet.

The transition took place on Saturday when the Aggies struggled on extra points. Bertolet missed consecutive attempts in the first half, reminiscent of his struggles in 2012 when he was 67-of-74 on PATs and 13-of-22 on field goal attempts. He is 23-of-26 this season on PATs and 2-of-3 on field goal attempts, with his lone miss being a 31-yarder against Sam Houston State.

After an inconsistent season in 2012 and some early struggles in the Aggies' first four games, the coaching staff decided to try someone new in Lambo, who competed with Kyle Serres during training camp.

"What we're doing is based on competition," Sumlin said Tuesday. "The ability to play in games and based on how you compete during practice and your success rate during practice, so that's where we are.

"That will continue to be the case. It won't change this week or next week. That's a work in progress. I think there's some things that both guys do that are positive, but in this business, life pays off on results, so that's where it is."

Lambo's first PAT attempt Saturday failed because of a fumbled snap by holder/punter Drew Kaser, but he connected on his next attempt as well as a 40-yard field goal late in the third quarter against SMU. Struggles with the hold is also something seen earlier this season.

"Drew's had a couple of those. ... The whole operation has to work," Sumlin said of the kicking game. "Those are things people take for granted. It's like any other position, where you have dropped balls -- concentration is part of that. We'll get that fixed and get that addressed. Like I said, competition is good for everybody."

Bertolet continued to handle kickoffs, as he has since last season. But at least for now, it looks like he has company in the kicking game in Lambo, a Middleton, Wis., product who transferred to A&M from Collin College.

"We're going to keep the competition up just like we do at every position," Sumlin said after Saturday's game. "The guys who compete earn the spot. Lambo came in and did a good job [Saturday]."

What we learned: Week 4

September, 22, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M rolled to a 42-13 win against SMU on Saturday at Kyle Field to improve to 3-1 on the season. Here's what we learned:

The A&M defense can make plays: The Aggies made a few lineup changes, most noticeably shifting cornerback Deshazor Everett to safety and starting true freshman Darian Claiborne at middle linebacker, and the moves appeared to pay dividends. Texas A&M allowed 434 yards but 142 of those came in the fourth quarter with the game well out of reach. They held SMU to 5-of-16 on third down conversions, reminiscent of their success in that area last season. SMU didn't score a touchdown when the game was still in doubt, and though you can quibble about the quality of A&M's opponent, the Aggies hadn't stopped anybody -- even an FCS foe -- before Saturday. So the D was a positive.

Malcome Kennedy continues to emerge: After catching three touchdowns last week, Kennedy led the team in receiving on Saturday with six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. Mike Evans is the go-to guy, but Kennedy is beginning to prove that he is a capable complement, something the Aggies' coaches hoped for and expected given his offseason progress.

The kicking game is still an issue: Sophomore Taylor Bertolet missed consecutive point-after-touchdown kick attempts on Saturday, and that prompted his removal from PAT and field-goal duty for the rest of the game. Junior kicker Josh Lambo took over those duties and connected on a 40-yard field goal and was 1-for-2 on PATs, with his only miss being the result of a bobbled ball by holder Drew Kaser. Whether Lambo is the answer remains to be seen, but the Aggies have to improve in that area because leaving points on the field is cause for trouble in SEC play. Sumlin called the situation "a competition."

Aggies' defense shows progress in win

September, 22, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Coming off a thriller that few will soon forget, No. 10 Texas A&M had a few questions to answer going into Saturday's battle with SMU.

Though it's way too early to surmise that they've permanently answered some of those questions, the Aggies certainly took steps toward a few solutions in their dominant 42-13 win over the Mustangs at Kyle Field.

The biggest question about the Aggies after three games surrounded their defense, or lack thereof. If Texas A&M (3-1) couldn't prove that it could get stops against an opponent like SMU (the Aggies already allowed significant yardage to Rice and Sam Houston State, though the unit was shorthanded for both games), when would it ever show that? The rest of A&M's SEC schedule is coming, starting with a road game at Arkansas on Sept. 28.

Fortunately for the Aggies, the unit showed some progress.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett's move to safety this week was one of several moves that help jumpstart the Texas A&M defense.
Though SMU compiled 292 yards in the first three quarters as A&M built a 42-6 lead, the Aggies were stellar on third downs, holding the Mustangs to just four conversions on its first 14 attempts in that span and 5-of-16 for the game.

"We looked pretty fast out there tonight," Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "There were times where we looked extremely fast, which is what I was hoping was the case. We still have some areas that we've got to work on, but it was a much better game from our sideline tonight."

Snyder made two key personnel changes this week. He moved starting cornerback Deshazor Everett to safety to help address the issues the Aggies have had in coverage and he inserted true freshman Darian Claiborne into the starting lineup at middle linebacker.

"I think we have the right guys on the field right now," Snyder said. "[Claiborne] needs to play and needs to be on the field. He was able to make the adjustment from [weakside linebacker] to [middle linebacker] in a week. … I was really proud of him. He handled getting the front [seven] set, he brought a lot of energy, he's a lot like Steven Jenkins and I was very, very happy with that."

Everett spent time at both cornerback and safety last season, so it's not an unfamiliar move for the junior. By moving him back there, the Aggies moved third cornerback Tramain Jacobs to the starting lineup next to De'Vante Harris, and he didn't appear to miss a beat. Everett said because SMU runs an offense similar to A&M's, the transition was smooth.

"It was pretty simple," Everett said. "I see those formations a lot and I know what the safety's checks are to me at corner. … It kind of helped me because I know where the corner is going to be and where I should be if I were a corner, to want safety help."

Was Saturday a sign that a cure-all is coming to a defense that ranked in the bottom 20 in the nation in total yards allowed and rushing yards allowed coming into the game? Far from it. But it was a much-needed positive performance from a group that has struggled through youth, inexperience and missing personnel because of suspensions or injuries in the first three games. On-field communication and the ability to make adjustments in the first three games was a chore simply because of the lack of consistency in starting personnel from week to week.

"In the first couple, three weeks … there were a lot of moving parts and guys out there just worrying about doing their job, not being able to communicate," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "There's definitely a comfort factor with having all your pieces back and being able to not only play that play but also make adjustments as the game moves on."

With the Aggies resuming SEC play next week in Fayetteville, Ark., having some success on defense is key.

Offensively, the Aggies ran smoothly, as they have most of the year. Quarterback Johnny Manziel threw strikes when he stayed in the pocket and chewed up rushing yards when he darted out of it. His night, which included 244 passing yards, 102 rushing yards and three total touchdowns, was done by the 10:06 mark of the third quarter with the Aggies leading 39-6. Malcome Kennedy (six catches, 83 yards) continued to show that will be a legitimate receiving threat to complement star sophomore receiver Mike Evans and the running game was productive and efficient, led by Manziel and Ben Malena (13 carries, 71 yards, two touchdowns).

The win wasn't without its warts though. Like SMU, the Aggies were heavily penalized (there were 29 accepted penalties in the game, 13 of which went against the Aggies for 114 yards) and the kicking game continues to be a struggle. Sophomore place-kicker Taylor Bertolet missed back-to-back point-after-touchdown kick attempts in the first half and was replaced thereafter by junior walk-on Josh Lambo. And what happened when Lambo entered the game? Holder Drew Kaser bobbled a snap -- the second time that's happened this season -- and as a result, Lambo's first PAT attempt failed.

When Lambo connected on a PAT after a Malena touchdown run with 11:34 remaining in the third quarter, it almost seemed as if the cheers for Lambo were as loud as those for Malena's touchdown. Finding a solution at place-kicker is critical if the Aggies expect to remain contenders in the SEC West. Against SMU, those points left on the field didn't matter. Against Ole Miss or LSU on the road later this season, they might.

Sumlin, when asked who will be kicking field goals and PATs moving forward, called the situation "a competition."

"We're going to keep the competition up just like we do at every position," Sumlin said. "Lambo came in and did a good job. … It's just like any other position. … We evaluate guys every week, no matter what the position, so there will be competition there."

But the Aggies made some plays on defense. They forced a turnover that led directly to points when defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. jolted the ball loose from receiver Jeremiah Gaines, a fumble that Everett returned for a 12-yard touchdown. Linebacker Tommy Sanders intercepted a pass late, and though he fumbled, freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall was able to scoop it up for a 39-yard return. The secondary was tested a few times in the first half by SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert (37-of-62 passing, 310 yards) but passed with flying colors when it came to third downs or plays near the end zone or red zone.

"I feel like going back into SEC play [next week] it was great for us to come and play well," Hurd said. "It was great for our defense to put a good showing out tonight."

Planning for success: Texas A&M

September, 12, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The most anticipated game of Texas A&M's young season is just two days away as the reigning BCS champion and No. 1 team in the country, Alabama, comes to Kyle Field.


The No. 6 Aggies (2-0), who upset Alabama last season, hope to repeat that feat, this time in front of their home crowd. Here are a few keys for the Aggies:

1. Stop the run: Texas A&M's depleted defense struggled to stop Rice and Sam Houston State from running the ball effectively in the first two games of the season, allowing an average of 273 yards per game. That puts them near the bottom nationally, ranking 115th in the country. Alabama has bigger offensive linemen, better running backs and more overall talent than the Aggies' first two opponents, so the task of shutting down the Crimson Tide on the ground is a tall one. However, there are a few things to keep in mind: Alabama's offensive line struggled in its season-opening win over Virginia Tech. The Crimson Tide are more of a traditional power-running team, while Rice (read-option) and Sam Houston State (traditional option) forced the Aggies to play more assignment football. And Texas A&M has yet to have its full complement of defensive players available due to suspensions. On Saturday, the Aggies will have most of their starters available, with injuries being the only hindering factor.

2. Take care of the football: Last season when the Aggies went into Bryant-Denny Stadium and upset the Crimson Tide, they won the turnover battle, big time. Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron threw two interceptions and the Aggies stripped the ball away from running back T.J. Yeldon. Meanwhile, the Aggies had no turnovers. The final one they forced, an interception by Deshazor Everett, essentially clinched the win.

3. Control tempo: Alabama coach Nick Saban stressed earlier this week that the pace of Texas A&M's offense is not as much of an issue, but rather how well the Aggies execute. Well, one of the primary factors that makes the Aggies offense successful is that they execute at a high level and they do it in a hurry. When the Aggies were able to push the tempo to a high level in the first quarter of last year's match, they jumped out to a 20-0 lead. But don't forget the defense, which stopped the Crimson Tide on its first three drives to help the Aggies jump out to that lead.

4. Win special teams: One thing that stood out about Alabama's season-opening win over Virginia Tech was the play of its special teams. Alabama receiver/return specialist Christion Jones finished with 209 combined return yards and two touchdowns: a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown. So the Aggies' coverage teams must be in top form to keep Jones in check. Also, the Aggies' kicking game must improve. Placekicker Taylor Bertolet missed a 31-yard field goal and punter/holder Drew Kaser bobbled a snap on a point-after-touchdown kick. Bertolet missed a field goal and extra point in last year's Alabama game. Leaving points on the board can't happen if the Aggies expect to repeat victory.

5. Beware Amari Cooper: In last year's meeting, Cooper exploded for six catches, 136 yards and a touchdown. That included receptions of 50 yards and a 54-yard touchdown, both of which came in the fourth quarter while the Tide were attempting their comeback. At 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds, Cooper is an explosive talent with the ability to make big plays. Aggies cornerback Deshazor Everett matched up with Cooper a lot last season, expect more of the same on Saturday.

6. Let Johnny be Johnny: The Aggies have a lot of talent on offense -- three returning offensive linemen, led by tackles Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi; four talented running backs: Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams; and Mike Evans is big, physical weapon in the passing game. But Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy for a reason, and his performance against Alabama was the primary reason last year. If he can repeat that type of performance or even improve on it, the Aggies will be in great shape.

Planning for success: Texas A&M

September, 5, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- After a season-opening win against Rice, Texas A&M looks for a 2-0 start as it hosts FCS foe Sam Houston State on Saturday at Kyle Field.

While the Aggies are heavy favorites, players say they're still preparing for the Bearkats as if they were a conference opponent. Here are a few keys to success this weekend for the Aggies:

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Dave EinselTexas A&M had its way with Sam Houston State last season, but recent upsets by FCS teams have the Aggies on notice.
1. Beware the upset: Head coach Kevin Sumlin said on Tuesday that he had no problem getting his players' attention when it comes to Sam Houston State after the first weekend of college football yielded seven wins for FCS teams over FBS foes, with three of those upsets coming against teams in the "power five" conferences. Sumlin specifically cited North Dakota State's road win over Kansas State for one primary reason: North Dakota State faced Sam Houston State in the FCS national championship game last season (North Dakota State won 39-13). Sam Houston State has been to the FCS national title game two years in a row, so the Bearkats aren't an easily dismissed lower-division team.

2. Watch the video: Another point Sumlin hammered home was the fact that Sam Houston State outscored Texas A&M by more than three touchdowns in the final quarter-and-a-half last season when the Aggies put their backups in the game. "A lot of those guys that were backups, in my opinion, lost the second half 28-6," Sumlin said. "And when you turn on that film of the guys who were in the game in the second half, you saw a lot of those guys playing last Saturday [against Rice]. That gets their attention, that's got our attention."

3. Improvement from youth: The Aggies played 16 true freshman and 21 newcomers total in their win over Rice. There were plenty of struggles -- particularly on defense, where 11 true freshmen saw action at some point -- as the young players adjusted to live action. Now that there's a game under their collective belt, Sumlin expects improvement from that group. The sense of urgency in preparation this week should have gone up a few notches for those players and thus help them play better this week.

4. Regaining personnel: Texas A&M had a host of suspensions in its season-opener, but the Aggies will get a few of those players back this week. Starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis returns and that should be a significant help to the run defense. Safety Floyd Raven is back as well. Cornerback Deshazor Everett, who missed the first half of the Rice game, will miss the first half of the Sam Houston State game because he was ejected in the second half for targeting by the officials and must sit the first two quarters on Saturday by rule. But having him back out there in any capacity will help, particularly since the other starting corner, De'Vante Harris, is serving the second of a two-game suspension, as are three others (defensive end Gavin Stansbury, linebacker Steven Jenkins and receiver Edward Pope).

5. Ground and pound: Those are terms not necessarily synonymous with the Aggies' offense, but it ran the ball with plenty of success in the win over Rice. Texas A&M compiled 202 rushing yards, averaged 5.2 yards per rush and got solid efforts from both starting running back Ben Malena (82 rushing yards, 18 receiving yards, two total touchdowns) and transfer Tra Carson (14 carries, 76 yards, two touchdowns). Another transfer, Brandon Williams, joins the fray this week to help bolster the Aggies' ground attack.

6. Good special teams work: The Aggies were just about perfect on the special teams end of things on Saturday. Punter Drew Kaser averaged a whopping 62.7 yards per punt, which included a long of 76. Placekicker Taylor Bertolet was perfect on all his kicks (seven extra points, one field goal), something that he couldn't always say last season. That will be important for the Aggies to continue all season if they want to reach some of their lofty goals.

7. Let Johnny be Johnny: Texas A&M's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel, played well in his short stint (6-of-8 passing, 94 yards, three touchdowns) against Rice. He showed a desire to stay and throw from the pocket once he got rid of the early nerves of entering the game at halftime and the Aggies simply need to let him continue to do what he does best -- make plays.


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.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Eric GayThe good news is Johnny Manziel looked like his Heisman Trophy winning self once he got in the game. The bad news is the Aggies look like they still have lots of work to do if they want to win titles.
One of those areas is maturity. Head coach Kevin Sumlin discussed that after the game, and while he was specifically addressing it in relation to the ejection of freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall and the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty drawn by quarterback Johnny Manziel after a touchdown pass, Sumlin's words can apply across the board.

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.

Notes from Aggies' open scrimmage

August, 19, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M had its first open scrimmage of training camp on Saturday. About 10,000 fans showed up to watch the workout at Kyle Field, and there was plenty to take away from the practice. Here are five things of note:

1. Clarity in the quarterback situation?

[+] EnlargeMatt Joeckel
Icon SMIJunior Matt Joeckel took more reps with the first team Saturday, but the backup quarterback battle remains undecided.
Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin's commentary after the scrimmage didn't provide much real insight when it comes to who is leading the battle for the backup quarterback job. The competition continues between junior Matt Joeckel, redshirt freshman Matt Davis and true freshman Kenny Hill.

If we're to make a judgment based on how repetitions played out in Saturday's scrimmage, Hill looks to have a real shot at the job. He was the only one of the three to play a series with the first-team offense, something he did twice on Saturday, which is notable. Earlier in the week, quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said that Hill was getting extra reps because he wasn't as experienced in the offense as Joeckel and Davis, thus he needs them. So keep that in mind.

Joeckel led two lengthy scoring drives, while Davis' two series were brief three-and-outs. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel got plenty of time with the first team, but his playing status is still unclear amid an NCAA investigation. When asked if the school was any closer to a decision on whether Manziel will play Aug. 31, Sumlin said it's "probably no different than it was the first time we talked about it."

2. Key injury

Starting cornerback Deshazor Everett was on the sideline in street clothes with a wrap around his right hand. The injury? A broken thumb, according to Sumlin. The head coach wouldn't comment on whether Everett is expected to miss any game time because of the injury. A decision on his status (as well as that of safety Floyd Raven's) is still pending after both had offseason arrests. Sumlin said on Thursday that he still needs to visit with athletic director Eric Hyman regarding a decision on what, if any, further disciplinary action will be taken with Everett and Raven.

3. Defense progressing

With a lot of newcomers or players playing in new, more prominent roles, there are a lot of questions on defense. If Saturday's scrimmage is any indication, there's progress being made on that side of the football. The defense was able to generate pressure on the quarterback and even come up with two turnovers when Manziel was running the show. Steven Jenkins made an interception, newcomer at linebacker Tommy Sanders recovered a fumble and returned it for what would have been a score if not blown dead and defensive end Tyrone Taylor came up with a pair of sacks.

4. Receivers emerging

[+] EnlargeMalcome Kennedy
Sam Khan Jr./ESPNReceiver Malcome Kennedy ''has come light years since last summer," coach Sumlin said.
One player who has gotten positive reviews in both the spring and fall is junior Malcome Kennedy. Best known for the touchdown catch that gave the Aggies their final points in the upset win over No. 1 Alabama last year, Kennedy figures to be the starter at the 'Y' (Ryan Swope's old position), and Sumlin on Saturday called him the "most improved player on the team."

Sumlin said, "He has come light years since last summer. ... He continued to build confidence down the stretch and became a real leader for us this summer. I think you can see the confidence that he has playing and the confidence that the quarterbacks have in him."

Also, true freshman LaQuvionte Gonzalez wowed the fans on hand by making some nice moves and showing off some speed on a 40-yard reception.

5. Mixed bag on special teams

Placekicker Taylor Bertolet is still recovering from offseason surgery (special teams coach Jeff Banks said earlier in the week that he has no concerns whether Bertolet will be ready for the season opener on Aug. 31), so Josh Lambo and Kyle Serres have been competing at that spot. Lambo got the lion's share of the work on Saturday, and Sumlin called the kicking game "spotty." Point-after-touchdown kicks were fine, but Lambo was 2-for-5 on field goals.

On the flip side, the punting by Drew Kaser drew rave reviews, as he boomed about four punts. "We're working on coverage, because of how far he's punting the ball," Sumlin said. "I'm not complaining."

In the punt return game, cornerback De'Vante Harris showed off some nice moves. He's one of several competing for that job.

Notes from week 1 of TAMU camp

August, 12, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The last week was filled with discussion about off-the-field matters for Texas A&M, from the allegations against quarterback Johnny Manziel to the funeral for teammate Polo Manukainiu, who died in a car accident on July 29.

Last week was also the first week of practice in preseason training camp for Texas A&M. Now we turn our focus to the field and look at some of the things we've learned from the first week of practice:

Johnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel looked sharp during the first week of practice despite all of the off-field hoopla surrounding him.
1. No drama for Johnny on the field

If the stories about the NCAA's investigation into allegations that he profited for autographs bothered Manziel, you couldn't tell by watching him practice. He looked like an even better version of the Manziel that observers came to know en route to him becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. He was accurate during 11-on-11 sessions, showed good command of the offense and even showcased his trademark scrambling ability to buy time to throw when plays broke down. Head coach Kevin Sumlin said Manziel has gotten better in several areas, including his understanding of the offense.

2. Receivers taking shape

When the first team worked out in 11-on-11 during the open-to-the-media portions of practice last week, the first-team group of receivers regularly featured four players: returning starter Mike Evans, sophomore Sabian Holmes, junior Malcome Kennedy and senior Derel Walker. While it might be too early to say with certainty that those will be the starting four the Aggies trot out on Aug. 31, but it might be safe to assume they'll be heavily in the rotation come the start of the season.

3. Obioha making smooth transition

One of the primary questions to be answered on defense centers around who will replace the production of defensive end Damontre Moore, who entered the 2013 NFL draft and is now with the New York Giants. Obioha has slid over to the rush end position occupied by Moore last season, and the reviews so far are positive for the sophomore. He started last season as a true freshman. Sumlin called him tough guy and hard worker and hopes he can continue to improve every game, like he did a season ago. Others will be counted on to help put pressure on the quarterback but Obioha will be a key piece.

4. Key players recovering from injuries

Sophomore running back Brandon Williams and kicker Taylor Bertolet were among the players to miss practice time last week because of injuries. Williams wore a walking boot and is recovering from offseason surgery on his foot, according to Sumlin, but should be ready for the Rice game on Aug. 31. Sumlin didn't expand on why Bertolet wasn't participating or when he'll be ready and most of the placekicking repetitions were taken by sophomore Josh Lambo and senior Kyle Serres, so that's worth monitoring.

5. Battle for backup quarterback job continues

If the first week is any indication, the battle for the backup quarterback job is wide open. During open portions of practice, there were instances where both redshirt freshman Matt Davis and junior Matt Joeckel got to work with the second group. Toward the end of the week, it appeared Davis got the first opportunity with the second group more often, but the battle will continue to go on. Also keep an eye on true freshman Kenny Hill. The Southlake (Texas) Carroll product doesn't have as much experience as the aforementioned two, but he is a true dual-threat with a good arm and good mobility and time in a similar scheme at Carroll.
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. 24 Taylor Bertolet
Sophomore kicker


Impact thus far: As a redshirt freshman, Bertolet was 13-of-22 on field goals (59.1 percent). On point-after-touchdown kick attempts, Bertolet was 67-of-74. He handled all 103 kickoffs, averaging 63.1 yards per kick and recording 65 touchbacks. Consistency was perhaps his biggest issue. Though he showed an accurate deep leg (he was 3-for-4 from 50 yards or further out), he had significant trouble from 30-49 yards, where he was 2-for-9 on field goals.

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

This week’s targets: The Aggies are 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.

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