Texas A&M Aggies: Tra Carson

Editor's note: We’re taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Friday we'll go through each week of the schedule, starting with the season-opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2013 overall record: 9-4
2013 SEC record: 4-4, third in the Western Division
Record all time against Alabama: 2-4
Last meeting: Lost 49-42 in 2013

Starters returning
Offense: 6; Defense: 10; Kicker/punter: 2

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesKenny Hill, or whomever takes over as the Aggies QB, will have plenty of weapons available.
Top returners
OT Cedric Ogbuehi, C Mike Matthews, WR Malcome Kennedy, CB Deshazor Everett, S Floyd Raven

Key losses
QB Johnny Manziel, WR Mike Evans, OT Jake Matthews, RB Ben Malena, WR Travis Labhart, NG Kirby Ennis, LB Nate Askew, CB Toney Hurd

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Johnny Manziel (923 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel (4,114 yards, 37 TD, 12 INT)
Receiving: Mike Evans (1,394 yards)
Tackles: Steven Jenkins* (96)
Sacks: Shaan Washington*, Gavin Stansbury (3)
Interceptions: Howard Matthews*, Nate Askew (3)

What they're saying
"No doubt, our safety play has got to improve and our D-line play has got to improve. We will have more depth up front, but we'll have more pieces. We just have to get the right pieces in place and get them ready to go,” said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin

Three things to watch:

1. Johnny ain’t the problem: Forget Johnny Manziel for a moment. Believe me, we’ll have time for him later. Finding his successor at quarterback isn’t the biggest problem Sumlin faces in 2014. Instead, it’s the defense, the one that looked utterly lost against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and finished 109th in the country in total defense (behind four other Lone Star State schools: North Texas, Texas State, Texas and Texas Tech). There were injuries, sure, and there were a lot of young players on the field, but there’s no excuse for giving up 32 points per game. The secondary was porous, the tackling terrible and the pass-rush non-existent. But this year is supposed to be better, right? Well, maybe not. Offseason troubles have thrown a huge wrench into a defense that was supposed to be a year wiser and more matured. Two starters (Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden) were dismissed from the team, and a third starter, defensive end Gavin Stansbury, got himself arrested on assault charges.

2. Back to Johnny: We weren’t going to make you wait that long to discuss the loss of Manziel. A lot of Alabama fans should be relieved to know he’s gone. His theatrics won’t stress the Crimson Tide any longer. But even as his Heisman Trophy and 5,037 total yards of offense head to Cleveland, the offense he leaves behind in College Station shouldn’t be overlooked. Even with starting wideouts Mike Evans and Travis Labhart gone, there is more than enough talent on campus for Sumlin to cobble together a formidable offense, whether the starting QB is sophomore Kenny Hill or the freshman Kyle Allen. The Aggies are loaded at running back with three talented options there (Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams). And at receiver, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Veterans Malcome Kennedy and Edward Pope are just the tip of the iceberg. Freshmen Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil are the real weapons. Seals-Jones is a clone of Evans, a 6-foot-5 giant who will tower over defensive backs. Noil, the No. 1-rated athlete in the ESPN 300, looks like the SEC’s next Percy Harvin, a terror with the ball in his hands. Johnny is gone but with so many weapons and a strong offensive line (thanks to Cedric Ogbuehi’s return), the Aggies shouldn’t miss a beat.

3. How to break through: There’s an argument to be made that Texas A&M is the most overhyped program in the SEC. Yes, Manziel was a revelation. And, yes, the Aggies were competitive the minute they joined the league. But nonetheless, the wins simply haven’t been there. You’ve got to finish higher than third in your own division before you start becoming a power in the conference -- or nationally, for that matter. It’s Year 3 under Sumlin, which means it’s time to start capitalizing on potential and turn it into production. Sumlin realizes this. This spring he told ESPN, “It's kind of hard to have a target on your back when you finished third in your own division. I think the reason people would say that [we've got a target on us] is because we had unexpected success. But we're trying to go from third to first.” Sumlin knows, “We haven’t arrived in this league.” But they could soon. With the shadow of Johnny Football no longer looming, it will be interesting to see where the program goes next. The offense should be more balanced and run-oriented, a fact that should help the defense stay off the field. If Mark Snyder can turn things around on that side of the ball, then things could get really interesting. The West will still be an uphill battle for the Aggies, but it might be enough to bridge the difference between potential and production.
We've already ranked all 14 running back groups in the SEC. Now it's time to check out who we think will be the 10 best running backs in the league this fall when it comes to production and team value:

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley has been slowed by injuries but still projects to be the best back in the SEC in 2014.
1. Todd Gurley, Jr., Georgia: Nagging injuries have slowed Gurley, but he still has more than 2,300 career rushing yards and almost 30 touchdowns. The Heisman Trophy candidate is built to pound but can break big runs in an instant. He has averaged 6.1 yards per carry, has 13 100-yard rushing games in his career and is also extremely active in the passing game, where he has 558 career receiving yards. Gurley wants to run tougher and harder this year, which is just plain scary.

2. T.J. Yeldon, Jr., Alabama: After registering 1,235 yards last year, Yeldon became the first back in school history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in his first two seasons. Yeldon has had his fumbling issues, but when he’s in control he’s extremely tough to stop with the strength he has to grind out yards. Add on his speed and elusiveness, and Yeldon has no problem making defenders look silly.

3. Derrick Henry, So., Alabama: OK, so all the excitement around him stems from an incredible high school career and a superb bowl performance. But we saw so much power and finesse in all 161 yards of total offense he had in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Henry is the total package and an every-down back who can push his way through the line of scrimmage like a tank but is also deadly in space. Don’t be shocked if he eats up a big chunk of Yeldon’s carries.

4. Mike Davis, Jr., South Carolina: You could easily put him higher because of pure, brute strength and his speed and elusiveness. After rushing for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, Davis’ stock in this league has skyrocketed. Last season, Davis rushed for 100 or more yards seven times.

5. Alex Collins, So., Arkansas: The prize of Bret Bielema’s first recruiting class, Collins became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games and the first true freshman in the NCAA to record three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had nine in a row in 2004. Collins fell off after a great start but still finished with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson could be primed for a breakout 2014 season in a featured-back role.
6. Tra Carson, RJr., Texas A&M: Carson wasn’t asked to do a lot last year (329 yards and seven touchdowns on 62 carries), but that will change with Ben Malena gone. Carson will no longer be viewed as just a short-yardage guy. He has a ton of power but also can explode out of the backfield and make plays in the passing game. He’s also deceptively elusive in open space.

7. Jonathan Williams, Jr., Arkansas: Like Collins, he started the 2013 season off fast with three straight 100-plus-yard games. He finished the year with 900 yards and four touchdowns but could be even better in 2014. Having Collins play better shouldn’t hurt, either, because of how well they complement each other. While Collins is capable of big plays with his speed, Williams is more of a power runner.

8. Leonard Fournette, Fr., LSU: No, he hasn’t touched the ball at the college level or gone through practice with the Tigers. But he was the nation's top-rated prospect in the 2014 class and ran for almost 1,800 yards as a senior in high school. He rushed for more than 7,600 yards in his high school career and was ready to run at the college level before his senior prom. He’s built like a truck and will run like one with the Tigers.

9. Cameron Artis-Payne, Sr., Auburn: The Tigers won’t have a problem spreading the wealth around at running back this fall, but Artis-Payne is built to carry the load. Corey Grant is used as more of a speed back in this offense, while Artis-Payne is more of an every-down back for the Tigers, and his downhill style should thrive with more touches.

10. Kelvin Taylor, So., Florida: Taylor has NFL blood coursing through his veins, and people in Gainesville hope to see more of his father, Fred Taylor, out of him this fall. He progressed as last season went on and finished with 508 yards and four touchdowns. Taylor is faster and more agile now and has the chance to be a true game-changer in a more wide-open offensive scheme.
Today, we continue our look at each position in the SEC by checking out quite the loaded group: Running backs.

SEC games are won and lost in the trenches, but the league has always poked its chest out from the running back position.

This season is no different, as the league is once again loaded here:

Alabama's TJ Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJunior T.J. Yeldon leads an Alabama running back corps that might be the best in the nation.
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide might have the nation’s best backfield. T.J. Yeldon enters the 2014 season with 2,343 career rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, while sophomore Derrick Henry, who might be the most talented back on the roster, excels as a bruiser and a cruiser with his pounding frame and elite speed. Junior Kenyan Drake provides a nice change-of-pace with his elusiveness, and the Tide will grind away with mammoth Jalston Fowler.

2. Georgia: When healthy, Todd Gurley is arguably the country’s best running back. He has that rare combination of size, speed and explosion that make him a terror for defenses. Even with nagging injuries, Gurley has 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Fellow junior Keith Marshall proved to be a great complement to Gurley with his explosiveness, but is coming off a devastating knee injury. Expect freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to get chances, along with youngsters Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman.

3. South Carolina: Junior Mike Davis has the skill to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. He can pound away with his strength and break the big run. He has nearly 1,500 career yards and the talent to make this his last year in college. There isn’t a lot of drop off with Brandon Wilds, either. Injuries have been an issue for him, but when he’s on the field, he usually outworks opponents. He’s also a good blocker and a receiving threat. Shon Carson has shown flashes, but has to put it all together. Keep an eye on David Williams, who could be the back of the future.

4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t do a lot of good things on offense last season, but Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams presented a formidable duo for opposing defenses. Together, they rushed for 1,985 yards and eight touchdowns. The second number has to increase this season, but if the line improves, these two should produce plenty of headaches this fall. Korliss Marshall only played in eight games last year, but people around the program think he’s the biggest home run threat at running back.

5. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is gone, but the backfield should be fine by committee. Tra Carson has what it takes to be a bellcow back with his blend of power, explosion and elusiveness. The Aggies could have a solid one-two-punch with Carson and Trey Williams, who might be the most gifted of A&M’s backs. Brandon Williams and James White should get carries too. White looks like the back of the future and is an every-down pounder, while Brandon Williams might be the fastest of the bunch.

6. Auburn: What Tre Mason did last year was nothing short of impressive, and the system he ran will only benefit the guys after him. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for more than 600 yards last season and each had six touchdowns. Artis-Payne could carry the load, while Grant is used as more of the speed back. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could get some carries, but keep an eye on true freshman Racean Thomas, who could really challenge Artis-Payne.

7. LSU: Jeremy Hill might be gone, but Terrence Magee could start for a handful of SEC squads. He rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season and stole some carries from Hill here and there throughout the season. He isn’t easy to take down and is more elusive than Hill was. But he’ll certainly be pushed by freshman Leonard Fournette, who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. Senior Kenny Hilliard returns with more than 1,000 career rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

8. Florida: This might the Gators’ deepest position. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor started to get more comfortable last season and is faster and more agile right now. He’s trying to be more of an every-down back and carry the load, but will get plenty of help from Mack Brown and Matt Jones. Brown has really turned things around in the last year, while Jones should be 100 percent after knee surgery this spring. The wild card could be freshman Brandon Powell, who could be a real threat in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRussell Hansbrough could be on the verge of a breakout season for Missouri.
9. Missouri: The Tigers might have a gem in junior Russell Hansbrough. He isn’t the biggest back, but he blends power and speed and churned out 6.0 yards per carry last season. Hansbrough is primed for a breakout year and will have a good complement in Marcus Murphy, who is an extremely explosive player at running back and in the return game. Redshirt sophomore Morgan Steward, who is bigger than Mizzou’s typical backs, but might be the fastest of the bunch.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels have a solid duo to work with in juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Both registered more than 500 yards last season and were neck-and-neck for most of the spring. Expect an attack by committee where Walton has more of the flash and Mathers uses more power. Jordan Wilkins is a really physical back who is more of a grinder than the other two. There isn’t a workhorse, but all these guys fit what Hugh Freeze wants to do on offense.

11. Mississippi State: Another team with a potentially deadly duo headlining its backfield. Josh Robinson was third on the team last season with 459 yards, but averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He packs a punch and can break the big plays. Nick Griffin had a great spring, but has dealt with multiple ACL injuries. Having him healthy for the first time is huge. There’s excitement about Brandon Holloway moving to running back, and youngsters Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams could get chances this fall.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats have plenty of questions on offense, but there’s hope at running back. Sophomore Jojo Kemp led the team in rushing last season (482), but will battle Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, who might be able to do a little more with his athleticism and speed. Josh Clemons is back after sitting out two seasons with injuries, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams will give Kentucky good depth.

13. Tennessee: Senior Marlin Lane has a ton of experience and will relied on even more with Rajion Neal gone, but inconsistency has always been something that has hurt Lane. He’s yet to hit 700 yards in a season, but he’s shown flashes his entire career. Freshman Jalen Hurd, who has great size and athleticism, is being viewed as the real deal in Knoxville and will have very opportunity to grab a good amount of carries this fall after enrolling early. Him taking the starting job wouldn't surprise anyone.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason was pleased with where his running backs were coming out of the spring. Junior Brian Kimbrow, who has a ton of wiggle and speed, is stronger, which should help him between the tackles. The Commodores could have a future star in redshirt freshman Ralph Webb and veteran Jerron Seymour, who led Vandy with 716 rushing yards, is back, giving Vandy some good depth to start the season.
Now the real fun begins.

Mid-October is a time when teams start to separate themselves. Heading into Week 7 last season, Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Florida were all in the top 20 of the AP poll. Then Georgia and Florida lost, starting a downward trend that neither could reverse. Meanwhile, Auburn improved to 5-1 and didn’t lose another game until the BCS National Championship.

What will happen on Oct. 11 of this year? Where should fans go to see the season-defining games?

If you’re just now jumping on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting our top destinations for each week of the season. So far, we’ve been to Athens, Auburn, Starkville, Tuscaloosa, Houston, Nashville and Norman, Okla. We’ve got six weeks down and eight to go.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 7:

Oct. 11
Alabama at Arkansas
Auburn at Mississippi State
LSU at Florida
Georgia at Missouri
Louisiana-Monroe at Kentucky
Ole Miss at Texas A&M
Chattanooga at Tennessee
Charleston Southern at Vanderbilt

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Ole Miss at Texas A&M

This week’s pick comes with purely selfish reasons. I missed out on experiencing the old Kyle Field, so I figure I need to visit the new one. Hopefully the press box will still sway along with the Aggie War Hymn. Whatever happens during the actual game is a bonus, pure and simple.

And what a bonus it should be. This game should be an offensive connoisseur’s dream. The officials can shut off the play clock. No defense required here.

Even with Johnny Manziel gone, I expect Texas A&M’s offense to be quite potent. People forget that Kevin Sumlin was a highly regarded offensive mind before Johnny Football. Nick Saban tried to hire him at LSU. Plus, Sumlin has plenty to work with this season, starting with the young wide receiver tandem of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil. With Josh Reynolds and Kyrion Parker also in the mix, the Aggies have quite the formidable group of pass catchers. Throw in a running back group that goes three deep with Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams, and whoever starts under center should be in a good position to move the chains.

Ole Miss, on the other hand, has the same potential on offense, with a seasoned quarterback to lean on. Bo Wallace is the most experienced passer in the SEC today, and with Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram to throw to, he is primed for a big senior season. An offensive line minus three starters from a season ago is cause for concern, but by Week 7, there should be some chemistry there.

Therefore, even though I like Ole Miss’ defense with the Nkemdiche brothers, Cody Prewitt and Serderius Bryant, I’m looking for an offensive shootout come Oct. 11. If I’m going to the Lone Star State, I expect no less.

Greg Ostendorf’s pick: LSU at Florida

Alex, you can have your shootout. I’d rather see a knock-down, drag-out fight in which the final score is 9-6. Call me old school. I love defense, and this year’s LSU-Florida game features two of the better defenses in the conference and a handful of potential first-round draft picks, including Dante Fowler Jr., Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Mills.

The two permanent cross-division rivals have not scored more than 23 points combined in their last two meetings, and this one should be no different.

The Gators will be battle-tested after back-to-back road games at Alabama and at Tennessee, but if they can get out of that with a split and start the season 4-1, you'd better believe that Ben Hill Griffin Stadium will be rocking. And why have it any other way in our first trip to the Swamp?

Can you imagine if Brandon Harris wins the job at LSU? That means the Tigers could have a true freshman quarterback and a true freshman running back, Leonard Fournette, starting in their backfield. Those two alone could be worth the price of admission, especially to see how they react to the raucous atmosphere. I guess that’s why you sign up to play in the SEC.

And if she’s not in Fayetteville, Ark., we might even see April Justin at the game. She’s the mother of Alabama star Landon Collins and Florida freshman Gerald Willis III, but deep down, she’s a die-hard LSU fan. Remember how happy she was when Willis picked the Gators on national TV? Exactly.

But let’s get back to the game. I expect both offenses to struggle. I expect there to be plenty of turnovers, and I expect it to come down to a last-minute field goal or a fake field goal, depending on how Les Miles is feeling that day. What more could you ask for?
On Thursday we took a look at five players on the Texas A&M defense who could see increased roles this fall. Today, we'll look at the offense. With three former A&M offensive stars as well as a few rookie free agents pursuing NFL careers, there should be plenty of new faces on the field in the fall. Some have seen the field before, but others are newcomers who arrived in January. Here are five to watch as we chug along the offseason toward the beginning of preseason training camp in August:

[+] EnlargeKyle Allen
AP Photo/Eric GayKyle Allen, a high school All-American, hardly looks like a true freshman and is challenging for the starting QB spot at A&M.
QB Kyle Allen: As one of the most talked about recruits in the Texas A&M's 2014 recruiting class, Allen is someone that Aggies are watching closely. Allen, a true freshman, is competing with sophomore Kenny Hill for the starting quarterback job and though Hill has the edge in experience, Allen showed progress in the spring. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital tested Allen by giving him a large menu of offensive options and though there were some natural growing pains early, the nation's No. 1-ranked pocket passer in the 2014 class showed maturity beyond his years and progressed well as spring football drew to a close. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Allen also gained extra practice time when Hill had to sit out the final week-plus of spring football while serving a suspension (Hill has since been reinstated). The quarterback battle will play out into August and Allen looks like a worthy challenger to Hill, who got playing time last season in mop-up duty.

RB Tra Carson: Among the players on this list, Carson has played the most, but because the backfield was crowded with options (Ben Malena, Trey Williams, Brandon Williams and quarterback Johnny Manziel also received carries), Carson didn't get too many carries last season. He wound up with 62 totes and averaged 5.3 yards per carry and scored seven touchdowns, and showed flashes in late-season games against Missouri and Duke that he has plenty of ability. He had a strong spring, is good carrying the football as well as in pass protection, which is important in the Aggies' offense. With Manziel and Malena gone and a lot of carries to go around, Carson looks like a prime candidate to emerge from his third-and-short and goal-line role into something much bigger this season.

OG Garrett Gramling: A fifth-year senior, Gramling proved this spring that he'll be a serious candidate for a starting spot somewhere along the line this fall. He was a reserve last year who started in two games (Vanderbilt and UTEP) and filled in for an injured Jarvis Harrison midway through the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and performed well. With Harrison sitting out this spring recovering from shoulder surgery, Gramling stepped back into that left guard spot and played well all spring. With four of five starters returning on the offensive line, there's only one spot to fight for but how the position battle plays out at right tackle will dictate whether a guard spot is available. If there is one, Gramling should challenge for it. If not, he's a valuable reserve to have.

WR Speedy Noil: The five-star recruit arrived in College Station, Texas, with plenty of hype and didn't disappoint. His nickname gives off a pretty good hint at what he brings to the table -- he's an explosive player. He seems to be a natural fit for the Aggies' offense and looks like someone who will contribute right away as a true freshman.

WR Joshua Reynolds: Perhaps the least ballyhooed of the 2014 crop of receiver recruits for the Aggies, Reynolds quickly proved worth some attention. Though slender in frame (6-4, 190 pounds), he has a large catch radius and uses his height well. He has a year of college football experience under his belt (he spent last season at Tyler Junior College) and found himself getting time with the first-team offense as spring football progressed. Regardless of whether he challenges for a starting job, he has the look of someone who could find himself in the receiver rotation, especially if he's able to add some weight this summer.

Editor's note: This week we'll take a brief look at Texas A&M players who surprised us with their performances during spring practice, which wrapped up for the Aggies earlier this month.

Texas A&M isn't hurting for talent at running back. The Aggies have had strong depth at the position since coach Kevin Sumlin arrived.

This season is no different. Even though one back graduated (Ben Malena), three lettermen return from a season ago: Tra Carson, Brandon Williams and Trey Williams.

But it's the fourth scholarship back, one who redshirted a season ago, who opened eyes during spring football for the Aggies: James White.

"I think the surprise has been James White," Sumlin said in late March. "He has really come on to be pretty solid. He's a guy that's going to play special teams for us this year and then we'll see where he fits in this group. James does everything pretty good. He's big enough at 215, 220 [pounds]. He has soft hands, is a good runner, a good blocker, so he's another guy that gives us a mix."

Because of the presence of three players who have SEC experience in Carson and the Williamses, there likely won't be many spare carries to go around, but White has shown he can contribute in several ways. While working on special teams, White has been part of the kickoff return team in a role similar to that of Malena the past two seasons and Carson last season.

At 6-foot, 218 pounds, White has good size and a wide range of skills to go with that size. The depth and versatility he can provide will be welcome in the SEC, where the Aggies have shown it isn't easy to get through a season without incident. Last season, Carson, Brandon Williams and Trey Williams all missed at least two games while recovering from injuries. All four active scholarship backs on the roster were used last season. Don't be surprised if that's the case this fall, too.

Throughout the spring, White showed he's ready to contribute.

"He's picked up on the offense," running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "The tools are there. He can run the ball, he's big, he's physical, he can catch it as well as any of those guys. Just learning the offense and protection is really important for him to pick up right now."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- With a backfield as deep as Texas A&M's was in 2013, it wasn't easy to find a healthy number of carries for everyone.

Four scholarship running backs, all with different talents, shared carries not only with each other, but with quarterback Johnny Manziel, who was the team's leading rusher and had the most carries of any Aggie each of the last two seasons.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson is making a push for more carries in Texas A&M's backfield rotation.
For instance, Tra Carson's role primarily consisted of short-yardage situations, including third downs and goal-to-go scenarios. Given his size (6 feet, 230 pounds), it seemed appropriate. But in several instances, including late in the season against Missouri and in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Duke, Carson showed he was more than a power back: he had some agility and speed also.

"Maybe y'all should have [been surprised] because y'all hadn't seen me do it," Carson told reporters last week. "But I wasn't surprised."

With Manziel and running back Ben Malena -- last season's leader in touches and yards among the running backs -- having moved on, there are likely to be more touches to go around this fall for the running backs: Carson, Brandon Williams, Trey Williams and redshirt freshman James White.

Carson put together a solid spring and is positioning himself to be more than a situational back this fall.

"He's really smart, he understands what we're doing," running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "He's running the ball really well right now, and as you know, when he gets that opportunity to get in the secondary he can really hurt you."

When he arrived in Aggieland, Carson needed some work and patience. A transfer from Oregon, he had to sit out the 2012 season per NCAA transfer rules. McKinney said there was some obstacles for Carson, but he waited his turn and met that challenge head on.

"Tra's biggest issue when he first got here has been conditioning," McKinney said. "He's lost about 15 pounds since he's been here. He's picked up our offense."

Carson said he was initially drawn to Oregon coming out of high school because of his friendship with current NFL running back LaMichael James, who hails from the same high school that Carson does -- Texarkana (Texas) Liberty-Eylau -- and was playing for the Ducks at the time Carson committed.

Though he appeared in 10 games as a true freshman, Carson decided Oregon wasn't the right fit and decided to return to the Lone Star State.

"For me, it was the weather, it was too far away from home," Carson said. "I wasn't ready to make that adjustment as an 18-year-old kid out of high school. Now that I'm matured, it's just different."

Carson said he and James remain close friends to this day.

Now a junior, Carson is working to be a well-rounded player -- not just a running back -- for the Aggies. He played on special teams last season and continued to get work in that phase this spring, earning practice time as a member of the kickoff return team, though not as the primary return man. Malena served a similar role last season.

With 58 carries in 11 games last season, Carson has yet to be a full-time player. If Carson has to carry an increased load this season, McKinney has no doubt that he can.

"He just understands what we're doing really well," McKinney said. "He's really great in protection. He's not just a big back that's in the third-down and goal-line package. He's a guy who can make people miss and he can play in our open sets as well as our big sets. He's a complete back."

SEC's lunchtime links

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LSU and Ole Miss will hold their spring games on Saturday, with six more teams set to play their games next Saturday. As spring practice winds to a close at many of the schools around the conference, let's take a look at some of today's headlines.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Running back is one of positions on Texas A&M's roster with few, if any, real question marks or concerns heading into 2014.

There is talent and depth. Most of the returning players have experience. The main question might be which player emerges as the most reliable and productive.

The candidates are plenty, though, and that's pleasing to head coach Kevin Sumlin.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson has had a good spring, but still faces plenty of competition to be Texas A&M's first-string running back.
"We feel real good with our depth at running back," Sumlin said.

Junior running back Tra Carson has been the most consistent of the group this spring. Sumlin has praised his work several times in recent weeks, and the 6-foot, 230-pound Carson seems to be positioning himself well for the fall.

"I think Tra Carson has been very, very solid," Sumlin said. "I think James White has progressed and is probably a little bit further ahead than I thought he would be. Brandon Williams is doing well. Trey Williams -- they're all good backs. It depends on what you want to do."

Both Trey Williams and Brandon Williams had to miss brief portions of spring practice with minor injuries, but they have returned. Sumlin noted earlier this spring, particularly when Trey Williams was out, that every day he missed was "not helping his cause." Since returning, both have been able to shoulder more of the workload in practice.

"Trey's healthy and has been involved in the return game, obviously," Sumlin said. "Brandon has come back. We worked Tra Carson pretty hard early. Those guys missed a little bit, so Tra Carson's getting a little bit of a rest right now and they're catching up. But we know what we've got in those three guys."

Trey Williams is the returning yardage leader of the group, with 407 yards and six touchdowns on 58 carries last season. Carson is the returning leader in touchdowns (7) and logged 329 yards on 62 carries in 2013. Brandon Williams contributed but didn't play as much as Carson or Tra Williams, logging 44 carries for 269 yards and a score.

But with Malena (115 carries last season) gone, there are carries available. It's reasonable to expect the returning trio will get more carries, but don't count out White, a redshirt freshman, being a factor as well based on his spring performance.

"I think the surprise has been James White," Sumlin said. "He has really come on to be pretty solid. He's a guy that's going to play special teams for us this year, and then we'll see where he fits in this group. James does everything pretty good. He's big enough at 215, 220 [pounds]. He has soft hands, is a good runner, a good blocker, so he's another guy that gives us a mix."

Sumlin expects all of them to push each other as the Aggies wrap up spring practice and continue preparing for the 2014 season.

"That competition will continue and they know that," he said. "It's good for all of us to have to compete for playing time, and that's what happens in a real program."
Editor's note: This is the third part in a weeklong series of predictions for Texas A&M spring football practice, which begins on Friday.

Texas A&M is not hurting for talent at running back.

It is perhaps the deepest position on the Aggies' roster and typically has been since Kevin Sumlin arrived prior to the 2012 season. The team has consistently used a rotation of running backs and that is likely to be the case this season, with the junior trio of Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams all returning and redshirt freshman James White joining the fray.

The previous two seasons saw Ben Malena emerge as the No. 1 running back in terms of workload and total production, but Malena has bid Aggieland farewell.

With Malena gone (as well as quarterback Johnny Manziel, who led the team in rushes each of his two seasons as quarterback), there are many carries up for grabs for the returning backs. Who will get the lion's share this fall?

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson's combination of size and speed make him a prime candidate to become Texas A&M's featured running back.
That can be a game-to-game, or even series-to-series, decision for the offensive coaching staff because all of the above names are talented. But if I had to guess which back might emerge as the next one to lead the Aggies in rushing attempts, Carson comes to mind.

He's the biggest back of the group, checking in at 6-foot-1 and around 235 pounds. He showed the ability last season to not only be a short-yardage back, but also illustrated his knack for getting larger chunks of yards by consistently breaking tackles.

The Texarkana (Texas) Liberty-Eylau product will never be confused with Trey Williams or Brandon Williams in terms of pure speed, so it would be unreasonable to expect him to start breaking off 60-yard runs. But he had a carry of 10 or more yards in eight of the 11 games in which he appeared last season, including touchdown runs of 29 yards and 21 yards in the final two games of the season. He finished last season with 329 yards and seven touchdowns on 62 carries.

His size and physicality makes him an ideal between-the-tackles back, and running backs coach Clarence McKinney noted last season that Carson has the best hands of the running back group. So even though he hasn't been used much in the passing game (Carson had three catches last season), McKinney's words suggest that Carson can fill that role when needed.

Trey Williams (58 carries, 407 yards, six touchdowns in 2013) is probably the most elusive back of the group and showed that in several opportunities last season. He'll continue to be a significant part of the Aggies' attack and likely could see his touches increase also with Malena and Manziel gone. His smaller frame (5-8, 195) is something to keep in mind when it comes to workload, however, and Williams has dealt with nagging injuries throughout his A&M career.

Brandon Williams had a lot in terms of expectations going into last season, but a foot injury during preseason camp disrupted his season's start. Once he got on the field, carries came sparingly (44 attempts). But he has appealing speed and playmaking ability, so it will be interesting to see how his workload is affected and where he winds up in the pecking order.

In A&M's uptempo offense, there is no such thing as an "every-down back," though Malena was as close to one as the Aggies had the last two seasons. I'm betting Carson is the most likely to emerge as the next one in that role this spring and fall.

Style and substance for A&M RB Malena

November, 13, 2013
11/13/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- For his last walk through the tunnel at Kyle Field, senior running back Ben Malena felt like he needed a grand entrance.

[+] EnlargeBen Malena
AP Photo/David J. PhillipBen Malena knows how to have fun, but he's also proven to be a strong leader for Texas A&M.
As part of senior day on Saturday, the Aggies' last game at home this season, each senior was introduced one-by-one and given a chance to be applauded by the crowd. So Malena, with the flair and flamboyance that has been his signature all season, walked in with the flashiest entrance of all.

When Kyle Field public address announce Chace Murphy introduced Malena, his teammate -- sophomore running back Tra Carson -- walked through the tunnel with a black cape, with the words "CASH OUT KING" in bold gold text, all caps.

Like a boxer stepping into the ring for a championship bout, Malena strutted in behind Carson, with his right hand in the air, fingers rubbing together for the "Cashing out" sign that has become a signature move for Malena and the Aggies when they score touchdowns. Of course, it wasn't complete without his headband, which has also become a Malena signature, with the hashtag "#CASHOUTKING" draped across the forehead.

Not a bad way to enter for the final time in front of the home crowd.

"I was sitting there talking to my roommate, and I figured if they're going to give me an opportunity to run out like they do in the NFL and call people one by one, I've got to do something crazy," Malena said after the game on Saturday. "I had my roommate do it and thanks to Tra Carson. He helped me out with walking it out. It was pretty cool."

With cameras trained on virtually his every move each Saturday, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel gets the majority of the national attention/discussion for his on-field actions, but it's Malena who has displayed the most style and flair among the Aggies this season. And he's become a fan favorite while doing it.

"Day to day, I guess he's kind of like Superman and Clark Kent," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said with a laugh. "You don't notice him during the day. You don't notice him in meetings. You don't notice him at practice. He doesn't say a whole lot. But when the lights come on and it's time to play that game, he's a different person."

But there is substance to accompany Malena's style. He's perhaps the most consistent of the team's four scholarship running backs when it comes to production. He leads the team in rushing touchdowns (nine) and has been a steady, though not necessarily explosive presence, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.

He's a threat in the passing game as a receiver, catching a pass in all but one game this season and he's the best pass-protecting running back the Aggies have. He also is a willing special teams player, be it on kickoff return or kick or punt coverage -- whatever the coaching staff asks of him.

But probably his most talked-about quality among A&M players and coaches is his leadership.

"He's had some great moments here," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He's really been an emotional leader for us, maybe not as much as y'all see during the game, but in particular during practice time and in the offseason. There's a reason he's a captain and a reason why he plays a lot of special teams. He's been a leader by example, and this year he's been a vocal leader."

The style part seems to come naturally to Malena. He's been "cashing out" for years, even back to his early seasons at A&M when he was wearing No. 23 (he wore No. 1 in 2012 and this season). In an in-stadium jumbotron segment called "Ask the Aggies" that plays during home games, several teammates called Malena one of the "coolest" players on the team. And he likes to have fun with it, evidenced by his answer when a reporter asked him before senior day what his headband would say.

"I can't give that information out," Malena said smiling. "I change it up sometimes. I can't give the senior day bandana away. [My teammates] ask me every week, 'What's it going to say this week? I say 'Man, if I tell you, I have to kill you. You just have to wait until Saturday.'"

Malena enjoyed his senior day to the fullest, jumping into the crowd to celebrate the Aggies' win over Mississippi State with fans after the game. He even tossed his bandana into the crowd as he walked toward the locker room.

"I figured, why not?" Malena said. "Might as well jump in the stands and enjoy this moment."

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- No. 15 Texas A&M (7-2, 3-2 SEC) looks to make it three in a row while Mississippi State is looking for its third win in four games when the two meet this afternoon at Kyle Field. Here's five things to keep an eye on:

1. Last game at Kyle Field for some Aggies: It's senior day at Texas A&M today and 13 seniors will have their last game in the maroon and white, notably offensive tackle Jake Matthews, running back Ben Malena and linebacker Steven Jenkins. But could it also be the last game at Kyle Field for a pair of redshirt sophomores, Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans? Both are draft eligible after this season. Neither has indicated a surefire decision as of yet, but considering how coveted they'll be as prospects, it's likely something they'll both take under serious consideration. Today will also be the last time Kyle Field looks the way it does, as some major work will begin soon as part of the $450 million renovation project on the stadium.

2. Dak Prescott will play: The Mississippi State quarterback has had an emotional week. His mother Peggy lost a more than year-long battle to cancer on Sunday and coaches and teammates joined Prescott at her funeral on Tuesday. He returned to practice on Wednesday, and Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger on Thursday that Prescott will play today. He's a dual-threat quarterback who leads the Bulldogs in rushing with 568 yards and 10 touchdowns. Given his difficult week, his presence could be a significant emotional boost for the Bulldogs.

3. Continued improvement on D? Texas A&M has looked like a different defense lately, having strong performances the last two weeks against UTEP and Vanderbilt. The Aggies held each team to fewer than 330 yards of offense, fewer than 130 rushing yards and combined for nine sacks in those two games. It certainly doesn't hurt that they faced a backup quarterback each week and Mississippi State, with Prescott at the helm, will likely bring a tougher challenge. This should be a solid test to see how much progress the A&M defense has truly made.

4. Handling Mississippi State's front seven: The Bulldogs are one of the bigger teams the Aggies will face this year, offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said earlier this week. The Bulldogs can generate a pass rush and have had 16 quarterback hurries in their last three games. They're also efficient at getting three-and-outs, holding opponents to three offensive plays or fewer 36.4 percent of the time, or 4.5 drives per game, which is second in the SEC behind Alabama.

5. Key players returning for A&M: The Aggies will get the services of offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and defensive tackle Alonzo Williams back today, according to Kevin Sumlin. Both have missed the last two games with injuries. Ogbuehi will slide back in his right tackle spot and the offensive line will go back to normal after shuffling in Ogbuehi's absence. Williams will plug back in next to true freshman Isaiah Golden and give the Aggies a playmaker as well as some much-needed depth on the defensive interior. The status of running back Tra Carson (sprained neck) who was injured against UTEP, is uncertain, though Sumlin said earlier in the week that Carson "wants to play."

Running back depth key for A&M

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Coming into this season, there was much discussion from Texas A&M coaches about its options in its offensive backfield.

[+] EnlargeTrey Williams
AP Photo/Eric Christian SmithTexas A&M's Trey Williams is averaging 7.6 yards per carry.
The stable of running backs the Aggies was both deep and talented this summer. Ben Malena was the returning starter of the group, the senior who found his way into the starting lineup a year ago, and Trey Williams, who contributed as a freshman, was back for what he hoped would be a super sophomore season.

A pair of sophomores, Tra Carson and Brandon Williams, joined the group. Both had to sit out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, as Carson transferred from Oregon and Williams from Oklahoma.

How carries would be divided was a frequent question from fans. All four were talented and highly touted recruits coming out of high school, and there was no question each had the ability to earn playing time.

But because of injuries, the Aggies haven't always had all four backs healthy and available for the entire season. Because of that, the depth they have built has become valuable as players shuffle in and out of the lineup.

On Saturday, in the Aggies' 57-7 victory over UTEP, Carson gave the Kyle Field crowd a scare after being carried away on a stretcher. Fortunately for the Aggies, Carson only had a sprained neck, but it underscores how critical it has been to the Aggies to have so many options.

"It's really helpful to have more than one guy," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "If you've got one guy and he goes down, you're scrambling for the next guy. Our situation, it's unfortunate that Tra had the injury that he went down with, but the next guy up is just as good, if not better. That's a really good position to be in as a running backs coach."

Early in the season, it was Trey Williams and Brandon Williams who battled through ailments. Brandon Williams had offseason foot surgery and missed the season opener against Rice. Trey Williams battled an ankle injury that caused him to miss the Aggies' games against Sam Houston State and Alabama. Carson has appeared in every game this year, though his status for Saturday's game against Mississippi State is uncertain.

The only player who hasn't missed game time because of an injury is Malena, who has 456 yards and eight touchdowns, best among the Aggies' running backs.

As Trey Williams (297 yards, five touchdowns) has become more and more healthy, his per-carry production has improved. He is averaging a team-high 7.6 yards per carry and has shown the explosiveness that the Aggies hoped to see when they recruited him at out of Spring (Texas) Dekaney High School.

Carson (269 yards, five touchdowns) has served as a hammer, a back who can get it done between the tackles. The contributions of Brandon Williams (206 yards, one touchdown) wasn't as significant at midseason, and he did not get any touches at Ole Miss or against Auburn. But he has carried the ball 16 times in the last two weeks, and he scored a touchdown against Vanderbilt.

Not surprisingly, quarterback Johnny Manziel is again the team's leading rusher (564 yards, eight touchdowns) but having a host of guys to hand off to has been valuable to A&M's offensive success and running game, which ranks 25th in the country (210.78 yards per game) and fourth in the SEC.

Tra Carson's injury not serious

November, 3, 2013
11/03/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- It was a scary moment for all involved and the thousands watching -- those that remained at Kyle Field and at home -- as Texas A&M sophomore running back Tra Carson lay on the turf before being strapped to a backboard and carted off the field.

In the aftermath, it appeared that Carson's injury isn't as serious as the scene suggested, according to head coach Kevin Sumlin.

Carson, who suffered an injury in the neck area, didn't have to go to the hospital and was allowed to go home after getting attention from the training staff and medical personnel. Sumlin said Carson was sitting up in the locker room and had feeling in all his extremities. X-rays were negative.

"Really they were precautionary measures out there," Sumlin said after the game. "Any time you have something like that where a player complains of something in his neck [you want to be careful]. He was in pain out there, which, at first, you think that's a bad situation, but that's a lot better than not having feeling or numbness or anything like that. We'll see where he is but all signs, right now, point to nothing very serious and not nearly as bad as it looked at the beginning."

Carson suffered the injury with 13:43 remaining in the fourth quarter after being tackled at the Texas A&M 30. Upon hitting the ground, Carson sat up and grabbed the area left of his lower neck before laying back on the turf and briefly writhing in pain before the training staff attended to him.

After several minutes on the turf, in which Kyle Field became silent, Carson had his head and neck immobilized and was strapped to a backboard before being loaded onto a cart and taken to the training room.

Fortunately for the Aggies, those measures were exactly what Sumlin said they were: precautionary.

"It was kind of scary," senior running back Ben Malena said after the game. "I just went and talked to him awhile ago in the locker room, and he's fine. He's walking around, talking and giggling with everybody. They just wanted to keep him down and cart him off for precautionary reasons."

Carson is fourth on the team in rushing this season with 269 yards. The transfer from Oregon has five touchdowns and is one of four running backs the Aggies use regularly. Carson scored a touchdown on a 1-yard run in the second quarter of the Aggies' 57-7 win over UTEP on Saturday.

After the game, Carson posted a message on his Twitter account.


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has a saying that is echoed by his players, especially at this time of the season.

"It's about us."

The message is clear and self-explanatory. And if the Aggies are going to do what they hope to -- win out the remainder of the season -- Sumlin wants them to take heed of those three words.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesTexas A&M signal-caller Johnny Manziel threw four more touchdown passes on Saturday night. He now has 26 TD passes on the season, matching his total from 2012.
On Saturday night, in a 57-7 win over UTEP at Kyle Field, it was all about the Aggies, who took care of business by dominating a beaten-up team. What's interesting is that No. 12 A&M (7-2) has the same record as it did at this time a season ago. The feelings are different, but that's partially because last season the Aggies exceeded expectations. Few outside of this town expected them to do much better than 6-6 or 7-5 in their first season in the SEC. This season, the bar was set so high that the same record at the same point seems almost pedestrian.

And while their own preseason goals -- an SEC championship and a run at a BCS national championship -- are out the window, there are still things left for Texas A&M to play for. If the Aggies win the remainder of their games, who knows? They might just sneak their way into their first BCS bowl since 1998.

The final three-game stretch is a challenging one. The Aggies host Mississippi State next weekend, then are off the following week before the difficulty level ramps up with trips to LSU and Missouri to close out the season. Both of those teams are still playing for a chance to go to Atlanta to play in the SEC title game, and in order to knock them off in their respective stadiums, the Aggies will have to put together a complete game, for four quarters -- something they really haven't done yet this season.

But in the past two weeks, in a 56-24 victory over Vanderbilt and on Saturday in the blowout win over UTEP, the Aggies have begun inching closer to playing that type of game. Throughout the first seven games, the defense was mostly poor while the offense carried the load. Special teams had issues, too, as the Aggies battled an inconsistent situation at place-kicker before moving Josh Lambo into the role, one that he has taken and run with.

The past two weeks, the Aggies defense has performed admirably. It had probably its best all-around performance against the Commodores, and on Saturday, against a much weaker opponent, the Aggies really only had one bad drive on defense, the nine-play, 73-yard touchdown drive that gave the Miners an early 7-2 lead.

UTEP, which came into the game without starting quarterback Jameill Showers (shoulder injury), couldn't move the ball with consistency against A&M when the Aggies began to rack up points. On top of that, A&M's defense was ball-hawking in the second stanza, coming up with three turnovers. The offense turned those into 21 points and blew the game open. UTEP finished with just 198 total yards, and life was understandably difficult with backup Blaire Sullivan running the offense. Still, this is an Aggies defense that had trouble stopping virtually everybody earlier this season.

"We've been having great practices the last few weeks," junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury said. "Also, I think it has to do with confidence. You have to have confidence in yourself and in your team to have a great game."

While the defense has stepped up its efforts the last two weeks, the offense has had its hiccups. Last week it was bitten by the turnover bug, giving the ball away four times. On Saturday against the Miners, the Aggies seemed out of sync in the first quarter. Quarterback Johnny Manziel and receiver Mike Evans couldn't get on the same page, though opportunities were there. The Aggies punted twice in the first quarter -- a rarity for them in any single frame.

What began as a snoozer with Texas A&M's offense sputtering turned into a rout with an explosive second quarter by the Aggies, who outscored UTEP 27-0 in the second quarter to take a commanding 36-7 halftime lead. From there, no doubt remained of the outcome as Manziel led two more scoring drives in the third quarter before calling it a night, after throwing for four touchdowns and running for two, including an impressive 49-yarder that looked like the 2012 version of Manziel.

The A&M special teams started well, meanwhile, blocking a punt that led to a safety and giving the Aggies an early 2-0 lead. But the unit had its issues, too. Punter Drew Kaser, who serves as the holder on point-after-touchdown kicks and field goals, bobbled a snap, which left a point off the board. Freshman LaQuvionte Gonzalez also muffed a punt in the second half, though the game was well in hand.

Those are issues that have to be rectified if the Aggies hope to close out the final three-game stretch with three wins. They still haven't put a good performance from all three phases together on one night, though they might be inching closer to doing so.

"It's hard to say, when you win 57-7, to say that you didn't play a complete game," Sumlin said. "As a coach, there's some positives there. Our guys understand that we can be better than we were tonight."

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