Texas A&M Aggies: Tommy Sanders
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.
"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."
Johnny Manziel: In his first start of the season, Manziel was efficient, effective and productive. The sophomore quarterback was 28-of-41 passing for 403 yards and three touchdowns, and he rushed for 36 yards and another touchdown. It's the seventh game in the last two seasons that he has thrown for at least three touchdowns and rushed for at least one. He leads the nation in those occurrences during that time span. He clearly made efforts to stay in the pocket more, but he also showed his signature scrambling ability. He also was smart enough to throw the ball away when nothing was there. His one interception could be attributed to a bad playcall, coach Kevin Sumlin said.
Mike Evans: He continues to be Manziel's favorite target. The sophomore receiver had team highs in catches (seven) and receiving yards (155). He made some impressive hauls and had a good night beating man coverage, which is what the Bearkats mostly threw at Evans. He also continues to be a good blocker in the running game and good in getting yards after the catch.
Tommy Sanders: The Aggies didn't have a strong defensive effort and struggled defending the run, but Sanders showed significant improvement from week one. Of the junior linebacker's five tackles, three were tackles for loss. The Aggies can benefit from continued progress by the junior-college transfer as he is going to be a regular in the lineup this season.
Rice compiled 509 offensive yards, 306 of which were chewed up on the ground, against Texas A&M in its season opener. The most important stat -- the score, 52-31 in favor of the Aggies -- was what mattered in the end but with a defense that was gutted by suspensions and filled with newcomers playing for the first time, it provided for some early growing pains for Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder.
Of the 16 true freshmen that saw the field in the Aggies' opener, 11 were defensive players. That doesn't include yet another newcomer, junior college transfer linebacker Tommy Sanders, meaning a dozen defensive players who appeared on Saturday were newcomers.
The Aggies have FCS opponent Sam Houston State this week, but they still won't have their full arsenal of defensive players. Cornerback De'Vante Harris, linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive end Gavin Stansbury -- all three of whom are starters -- will miss the game while serving the second of a two-game suspension for violating athletic department rules. Cornerback Deshazor Everett will miss the first half because he was ejected for targeting in the second half of the Rice win and, by rule, must sit out the first half of this game as a result. Freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall will also miss the first half after being ejected in the second half for throwing a punch at Rice player.
While the Aggies are heavily favored and the losses are unlikely to keep Texas A&M from winning this week, it does pose an interesting dilemma for Snyder and his staff moving forward. The first time the full complement of defensive players will be available for the Aggies will be Sept. 14, for the showdown against Alabama.
"The good thing is we're going to be fresh, that's for sure," Snyder joked. "We're going to be injury-free and we're going to be fresh."
Snyder noted that the advantage for Alabama in that regard might not be as significant since the Crimson Tide have an open date this weekend, so they'll only have one more game under their belts than the Aggies' suspended players do come next weekend. Those players are still practicing -- with the second-team -- and getting repetitions in the meantime.
There were some short-term struggles with so many new bodies on the field, even in play-calling. Snyder said he couldn't "get in a rhythm," calling plays because of how many new pieces and moving parts there were.
"[Rice] came out and showed us some things that we had not seen and not having a veteran group, I can't call timeout and run out on the field and say 'Hey, they're getting in diamond formation and running three levels, or they're getting three out into the flat weak,'" Snyder said. "Those are things that we had to get adjusted."
Snyder was encouraged by how much better the defense performed in the second half, making adjustments and responding to the coaching given at halftime. The unit came up with two turnovers and didn't allow the Owls to score in the first three series of the third quarter. Snyder looks as the growing pains and the game experience that freshmen like linebacker Darian Claiborne, cornerback Alex Sezer and a host of others received as an advantage down the road.
"We're building depth right now for our future, for the rest of this season," Snyder said. "So what might be hurting us right now, in the future is going to help us. We've got to live with that and we've got to deal with that."
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.
1. Clarity in the quarterback situation?
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
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.
Every team has its own goals and standards that it feels it needs to meet to achieve ultimate goals. But there's certain criteria that has been consistent in recent years, criteria that every BCS champion has met since 2006, according to ESPN's Mike Rothstein.
If those criteria were to hold true again this season, what are the Aggies' chances of meeting them? Let's take a look:
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In all its crystal glory, college football's national championship trophy made a brief stop at Kyle Field on Saturday.
Parked on the sideline for a live television shot during Texas A&M's Maroon-and-White spring football game, as well as for photo opportunities for those who walked by, it was a seemingly symbolic placement of the sport's most coveted piece of hardware, mere feet from a team that might have a realistic chance to hoist it next January.
But that's many months away. In the meantime, the nation got its first extended glimpse of the 2013 Aggies, a team that could be ranked in the preseason top five come August. The score was Maroon (offense) 43, and White (defense) 23, but that mattered little. What the record crowd of 45,212 came to see was how the Aggies looked and, more specifically, what their reigning Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel, would do.
Johnny Football didn't disappoint. He was 24-of-30 for 303 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against an overmatched second-team Aggies defense. He got out of the pocket and scrambled a few times (three carries, 18 yards), but that was not going to be part of the show today in the interest of keeping him healthy. Nobody was going to touch Manziel, although he almost found himself in harm's way when he tried to throw a cut block on sophomore defensive back Sam Moeller to pave the way for a Brandon Williams touchdown.
Just one of those "Johnny Football" moments for the redshirt sophomore.
"I went up and apologized to Sam after it," Manziel said. "The way I am and the way my motor drives me, it was just an instinct play. As much as Coach [Kevin] Sumlin was shaking his head and wasn't happy about it, it was more of 'Hey, in a game, this is how it would have been.' It just naturally took over for me."
He stayed healthy, as did most of the players who participated. The only notable injury to come out of Saturday's scrimmage was an MCL sprain for junior linebacker Tommy Sanders, who'll be ready in the fall.
Several other things about the 2013 Aggies became clear on Saturday. Williams showed why he was such a coveted recruit coming out of Brookshire (Texas) Royal High School, racking up a team-high 59 rushing yards on seven carries and catching three passes for 29 yards while recording a rushing and receiving touchdown. The Aggies' starting running back from 2012, Ben Malena, is back, as is Trey Williams, who contributed as a true freshman. Adding Williams and Oregon transfer Tra Carson to the mix (both sat out per NCAA transfer rules last season) adds more dimensions to the Aggies' backfield and their offense.
"Brandon Williams is very talented. He's a home run threat from anywhere on the field," Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "We plan on [using all four backs]. ... It's a good problem to have. The thing about those four guys, is that they all bring something different to the table."
While the defense didn't have its best day, its performance can be taken with a grain of salt with three surefire starters sidelined by injury, and another two defensive linemen who have taken first-team reps also sitting out. The unit out there Saturday wasn't exactly what will suit up for the Aggies this fall.
What the Aggies are hoping to develop is leadership. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that safety Howard Matthews is emerging as a leader, as is middle linebacker Donnie Baggs. Having that presence is critical because the Aggies waved goodbye to two of their best defensive leaders, linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, who both graduated.
That said, plenty of the signs Aggies fans were looking for were present on Saturday. Manziel looked in top form. So did sophomore receiver Mike Evans. The offensive line -- though missing soon-to-be first-round pick Luke Joeckel and graduated center Patrick Lewis -- is coming together well. The remainder of a top-10 recruiting class is on the way in the fall and could produce a few more quick contributors.
Manziel will go back to work and team up with George Whitfield Jr., the private quarterback coach he worked with last summer. Manziel said he's ready to eliminate any doubts about what is ahead for him and this year's Texas A&M squad.
"The big conversation that [Whitfield and I] had before Alabama was 'Be a dragon slayer, slay the dragon,' " Manziel said. "Now there's a big dragon out there for us with all the people that are doubting A&M and all the people that are doubting me, (saying) that last year was a fluke. So that's a chip on my shoulder and that's a dragon we need to slay this year."
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But he might have the biggest load to carry this spring and fall for the Aggies. And it's a critical role, one that demands success if Texas A&M is to consider the 2013 season a success on defense.
Turn your eyes to that group on the Coolidge Grass Practice Fields this spring and what you see -- at least in terms of personnel -- is significantly different than what you would have seen at this time last year. A unit that was considered a strength coming into the 2012 season, with two experienced seniors (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart) leading the way is now a group in transition, with two new starters and several players who weren't even on the Texas A&M campus prior to January. And that includes the position coach, Mark Hagen, who is in his first year with the Aggies.
Earlier this spring, head coach Kevin Sumlin joked that he doesn't talk to Hagen much because Hagen's too busy melding all the new players together.
"I don't talk to him much because he's busy," Sumlin said with a laugh. "His plate's full, he's running around, he's meeting, he's chasing guys all over the place."
But the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Baggs is at the center of it all -- literally and figuratively. Not only is he responsible for getting acclimated to a new role, he's also the point man for getting the rest of the front seven lined up properly before the offense snaps the football. That task is easier for someone like Stewart, who was an experienced senior with plenty of football under his belt, than it is for Baggs, who has never been a regular starter.
The same can be said for new coaches.
Texas A&M has three new position coaches this spring -- special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Jeff Banks, linebackers coach Mark Hagen and quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.
Banks, who filled the void left by new Nevada head coach Brian Polian, brings plenty of experience to the table, especially since Banks was an all-conference punter himself at Washington State.
"We talked about replacing Brian with a guy who's just as capable, and Jeff is that," Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He's got a wealth of experience, he's a former kicker/punter. He can be a technician and can help our guys. I think he's brought a different kind of scheme in all four phases. He's had the ability to keep their interests. Sometimes, change is good."
Sumlin said through the first nine practices, he is seeing some improvement from kicker Taylor Bertolet, who showed inconsistency during his redshirt freshman season in 2012. Bertolet was 13-of-22 on field goals (59.1 percent) and 67-of-74 on point-after-touchdown kicks last year.
"Just like quarterbacks and receivers, they have the opportunity to continue their craft all summer," Sumlin said. "So that will be an ongoing work. But definitely there's been some improvement, particularly with Taylor."
"He's got a bunch of young guys," Sumlin said. "He's got Donnie Baggs, who has not played a whole lot of football around here at Texas A&M. He's got two guys who should be going to the prom next month at linebacker in Brett Wade and Reggie [Chevis]. And then he's got a junior college transfer [Tommy Sanders], who just got here. I don't talk to him much because he's busy. His plate's full; he's running around, he's meeting, he's chasing guys all over the place."
"You throw Shaun Ward in there and guys who haven't played a bunch. With Jenkins out, that's given all those guys a lot of turns, [including] Nate Askew, who we moved from wide receiver."
Sumlin said he's seen some positive signs from Hagen and his young linebackers.
"It's really good for a new coach because those guys aren't used to doing a lot of things," Sumlin said. "He has a lot of energy and obviously those guys have made really good strides during the course of spring."
Askew making progress: One of the many new faces at linebacker is one that was on offense last year: Nate Askew.
Before the spring, Askew moved to linebacker from receiver. Sumlin said he's seen Askew make improvement during the spring.
"It's going good," Sumlin said. "Some good, some bad. He's been over there nine practices in pads and the great thing about it has been his attitude and how he's approached the position, how he wants to get better, how he hasn't shied away from contact."
At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Askew brings size and athleticism to the position.
"He's one of the top athletes on this whole team," Sumlin said. "He can really, really help us if he continues to get better the way he's gotten better the last couple of weeks."
Many of those changes could be seen on the initial 2013 depth chart released by head coach Kevin Sumlin. There are some absent names because of injuries and there's a long way to go before definitive statements can be made, but it certainly gives us some players and things to keep an eye on moving forward. Among them:
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With a trio of upperclassmen as starters, including two senior leaders in Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, it was one area the Aggies defensive coaches didn't have to worry too much about.
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When the dust settled and it added one more player to the fold -- four-star defensive end Daeshon Hall, who flipped from Washington to the Aggies -- that much was still true. Every A&M commit that received a letter of intent signed on the dotted line.
Once the fax machine at the Bright Football Complex stopped, the result was a top-10 class.
But A&M coach Kevin Sumlin made it clear, as a member of the Southeastern Conference, that this class can only be a beginning for Texas A&M if it wants long-term success.
"We're still playing catch up in the SEC," Sumlin said. "I just came from upstairs and on ESPN we're ranked eighth in the country in recruiting. Then I look up at the next page and we're like fifth in our league. We're getting there, but we still have a ways to go."
Sumlin is right -- Alabama (No. 1), Florida (No. 2), Mississippi (No. 5) and LSU (No. 7) all finished ahead of the Aggies in this year's ESPN class rankings. But the Aggies recruited on the level of the other SEC big dogs, thanks in large part to the success it had in year one in its new conference.
The Aggies finished with 32 total players -- 31 signees and one transfer. Nine players are already on campus taking classes and working out in preparation for spring football. The other 23 signed on Wednesday, with Hall's signature putting a cherry on top of the class.
There are many reasons that Texas A&M was able to pull in a class of this caliber.