Texas A&M Aggies: Travis Labhart

It was quite the week for Texas A&M football in relation to the NFL draft.

The Aggies had three players taken in the draft's first round on Thursday, marking just the second time in school history the program had that many first-round selections in one draft. It was also the fourth time in school history the team produced two top-10 picks in the same draft. The Aggies were the only team in the 2014 draft with two top-10 picks and one of only two (Louisville being the other) with three first-round picks. This was also the fourth consecutive year the Aggies have produced at least one top-10 pick.

After the draft's completion, eight more Aggies reached agreements with NFL teams as undrafted free agents and will pursue pro careers. Here's a recap of where all the NFL-bound Aggies landed:

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Elsa/Getty ImagesOffensive lineman Jake Matthews was the first Aggie off the board in the NFL draft, going No. 6 overall to the Falcons.
Draft picks

OT Jake Matthews: Atlanta Falcons (first round, sixth overall)
There's a long line of pro-football-playing Matthews men and Jake is the latest. The 6-foot-5, 308-pound offensive tackle can stake his claim to being the highest-drafted Matthews in the family's well-documented NFL history. His father, NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, was the previous high pick, chosen ninth overall in the 1983 draft. The Falcons hope Jake will help provide more protection for franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, and Matthews has all the makings of a 10-year pro. Matthews could be the team's left tackle of the future.

WR Mike Evans: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (first round, seventh overall)
It seems fitting that analysts' go-to NFL comparison for Evans was Vincent Jackson, because now those two will be in the same huddle for the Buccaneers. Evans completed his compelling story, going from humble beginnings and obstacles to overcome while growing up in Galveston, Texas, to star basketball player to unlikely, under-the-radar football recruit to All-American receiver to now, top-10 draft pick. It looks like Evans will be a good fit in Tampa and could start rather quickly.

QB Johnny Manziel: Cleveland Browns (first round, 22nd overall)
Manziel was the most-talked-about prospect on the draft's first night, and though he waited longer than he would have liked, he finally found a landing spot in Cleveland. Thursday officially closed the book on what was one of the most memorable collegiate careers of any player in recent memory. Manziel helped lead A&M to great heights and brought the program unprecedented exposure in its first two SEC seasons, including a Heisman Trophy. Now Johnny Football takes his game to the highest level, and it seems everyone will be watching to see how he fares in his new home.

Undrafted free agents

LB Nate Askew: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Askew, who had one of the better pro day performances at the Aggies' showcase on March 5, completes an interesting journey at Texas A&M that saw him go from seldom-used receiver to starting outside linebacker who made the play that sealed the Aggies' thrilling Chick-Fil-A Bowl victory.

TE Nehemiah Hicks: Miami Dolphins
Hicks will join his former Texas A&M teammate, quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in South Beach.

DB Toney Hurd Jr.: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After undergoing offseason surgery and missing the Aggies' first pro day, Hurd was able to work out for scouts on March 27 (the same day as Manziel and Evans). The versatile Hurd, who played cornerback, safety and special teams at A&M, did enough to warrant an opportunity from the Buccaneers.

CB Tramain Jacobs: Baltimore Ravens
A reserve cornerback who proved to be a valuable rotational player -- and even started two games -- for the Aggies, Jacobs landed with the Ravens.

LB Steven Jenkins: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers certainly took a liking to the Aggies. Including Jenkins, the former A&M starting outside linebacker and impact player, four Aggies are headed to Tampa. Jenkins returns to his home state, where he played his prep ball in Pensacola, Fla.

WR Travis Labhart: Houston Texans
Labhart was a great story, a seldom-used walk-on who emerged into a scholarship player as a senior and eventually a starter, then wound up finishing second on the team with eight touchdown receptions. Now he gets the chance to pursue his future in his home state with the Texans.

RB Ben Malena: Dallas Cowboys
A running back who did more than just carry the ball, Malena brings his versatile skill set back to his home region, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (Malena played his high school ball nearby in Cedar Hill, Texas).

WR Derel Walker: Tennessee Titans
Another player who came a long way (receivers coach David Beaty raved of Walker's progress from his arrival to the end of his senior season, when he was a starter), Walker will get a chance to pursue the NFL with the Titans.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Will it be the pro day to end all pro days? The buildup certainly lends itself to such hyperbole.

There will be live national coverage, on television and the web. There will be countless hours of analysis on the airwaves in the aftermath -- and there already has been in the lead up to the event. Political figures, past and present, will be in the house. Johnny Manziel even got to spend time with a former president on Wednesday. Later in the day, Manziel's visit with Jon Gruden for Gruden's QB Camp will air on ESPN (you can get a sneak peek here). It's, as one NFL coach called it, "Johnny Day."

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergAfter participating in several drills at the NFL combine, Johnny Manziel will throw for NFL scouts at his pro day.
In case you were unaware (if you follow college football or the NFL draft closely, it's hard not to be aware), Johnny Football's biggest job interview to date takes place at 11 a.m. at Texas A&M's McFerrin Athletic Center.

At the NFL scouting combine last month, Manziel did almost everything except throw for the 32 teams on hand. Thursday, he will finally display the fruits of the intensive labor he has put into his right arm (as well as his footwork, accuracy, arm strength and mental capabilities) over the last 10 weeks.

In mid-January, less than a week after officially declaring for early entry into the NFL draft, Manziel headed west for San Diego, the city that would become his training ground to prepare for the combine and pro day. Working with his personal quarterback coach, George Whitfield Jr., Manziel went to work in what they dubbed "Dime City," hoping to prove to the NFL, and specifically the Houston Texans, that the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner is worth the No. 1 overall pick.

"I want them to say absolutely, without a doubt, with 100 percent certainty, that I'm who they want," Manziel told the Houston Chronicle and Fort Worth Star-Telegram in February. "I want everybody from the janitor at Reliant Stadium to the front-office executive assistant all the way up to [owner] Bob McNair to say, 'This kid is 100 percent, can't miss. This is who we want being the face of our program. We want the Texas kid staying in Texas and leading the Texans.'”

Thursday, personnel from the Texans and almost every other NFL team will be present. Texans general manager Rick Smith, head coach Bill O'Brien and quarterbacks coach George Godsey will be there watching closely. Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer will not be, but there won't be a shortage of pro personnel. NFL.com's Gil Brandt put the over/under on NFL folks at 125.

Manziel won't be the only one they are there to see, either. Receiver Mike Evans -- who like Manziel, did not work out at Texas A&M's first pro day on March 5 -- will also perform for the scouts on hand. A projected first-round pick, Evans has the opportunity to add to his already storybook career, one that includes him going from high school basketball star with no varsity football experience to one of the best receivers in college football.

Because Manziel is expected to be taken early and not every team needs a quarterback, there will be as many -- perhaps more -- eyes on Evans. Projected initially to be a mid-first round pick, some felt his performance at the combine last month might have given off a good enough impression to help Evans work his way into the top 10. Either way, there are plenty of teams that feel they might have a shot to take him.

At 6-foot-5 and 231 pounds, with a 37-inch vertical and a 40-yard dash time of 4.53 seconds, Evans has the physical tools coaches desire and was extremely productive in the SEC despite having only four years of football experience.

Joining the two projected first-rounders in the pro day performance will be their Texas A&M teammates, running back Ben Malena, receivers Travis Labhart and Derel Walker and tight end Nehemiah Hicks. Whitfield has been in town with the group this week working with them on the pro day script.

Texas A&M defensive back Toney Hurd Jr., who had to sit out the Aggies' March 5 pro day while awaiting medical clearance from offseason surgery, also plans to perform for scouts.

But the nation's attention will be on Manziel. He's a polarizing figure in this draft, just like he has been throughout his college career, for many reasons: his height (5-11 3/4), his scrambling ability, his tendency to orchestrate seemingly impossible plays and the headlines he has made, particularly off the field. The predictions and opinions about his future run the gamut, from those who feel he will excel at the next level to those who believe he will be a bust. Can he make all the throws? He has the opportunity to answer those questions now.

His accomplishments at Texas A&M are well-documented, but what kind of impression will he leave for his future employers? Most of his life, Manziel has been at his best when the lights have been brightest. A coach who knows him better than most expects that to be the case once again.

"I'm not going to be shocked when he does well," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Some other people may but it won't shock me at all when he does well."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As Texas A&M began its ninth practice of spring football on Monday, Johnny Manziel briefly roamed the sideline before hitting the turf for a pre-workout stretch.

Earlier that morning, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback was in Kevin Sumlin's office, catching up with his former head coach.

And in the afternoon, prior to his workout, he made headlines across the Internet with this viral video of him displaying his athleticism with a multitude of dunks.

Yes, it was just like old times in Aggieland for Manziel.

The difference this time is, he wasn't suiting up for practice with the Aggies. Instead, he was utilizing the facilities where he launched his memorable college career to prepare for the latest "most important day" of his young career, his pro day workout in front of NFL personnel on Thursday.

Though he has spent most of his time since January in San Diego, working with private quarterback coach George Whitfield and Aggies teammate Mike Evans (who will also perform on Thursday), Manziel is finding respite in the place he spent the last three years.

"It was kind of startling to open the door and see him there," Sumlin said of seeing Manziel in his office first thing Monday morning. "Obviously, he feels at home."

Manziel and Sumlin caught up briefly and the quarterback inquired on the team's practice times so he could schedule his workouts with Whitfield and a host of familiar A&M teammates like Evans, Travis Labhart, Derel Walker and Ben Malena.

Sumlin made sure to mention Manziel's television commercial debut, a McDonald's spot featuring LeBron James.

"We just talked about pro day, we talked about a lot of things," Sumlin said. "I haven't seen him since the first week of spring football, before spring break. I congratulated him on his commercial (laughs). We just talked about a couple things and asked him how he was doing. He wanted to know what time we were practicing and whether we were indoors or outdoors because he was going to come in and throw a little bit beforehand and come out and watch practice. Just regular stuff."

On Thursday, both Manziel and Aggieland will be the center of attention as he throws for NFL personnel who will be on hand. Evans -- who like Manziel is projected to be a first-round pick -- will also get a chance to shine since he didn't work out in the Aggies' first pro day on March 5. The pair's aforementioned workout partners will also be a part of the pro day script and will have the opportunity to prove their worth to those on hand.

There will be plenty of eyes on Manziel in particular, including those of the Houston Texans, who hold the No. 1 pick in the draft.

"I'm happy for him now," Sumlin said. "This will be a big day for him. The exposure, the bright lights, the video, the brand -- that carries worldwide and that's a big deal for everybody concerned."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Jake Matthews bypassed his first opportunity to enter the NFL draft for two reasons.

One was to move over to left tackle after spending the previous three years as a right tackle and show NFL personnel he was versatile enough to handle both. The other was to play on the same offensive line with his younger brother, Mike, Texas A&M’s starting center in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsJake Matthews felt that his pro day at Texas A&M on Wednesday went well.
By the end of the season and throughout the pre-draft process, Jake Matthews appears to be plenty happy with the decision he made to return to Aggieland for his senior year. On Wednesday, the latest in a long line of football-playing Matthews men took another step toward his future as a pro, headlining Texas A&M’s pro day at McFerrin Athletic Center.

Because he performed all drills last month at the NFL scouting combine, the 6-foot-5, 308-pound Matthews did not perform any of the same testing measures on Wednesday but performed several offensive line drills for scouts and NFL player personnel people.

“I thought I did well,” Matthews said afterward. “They put me through a bunch of different stuff and showcase what I'm capable of and that I'm able and I thought it went well."

After the pro day, he met with the St. Louis Rams and said he did some work on the whiteboard, among other things. The son of NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, Jake has numerous people in his own family to draw advice from in these types of situations.

"It helps a lot,” Matthews said. “It's kind of like I've been training for this process for my whole life. I think we calculated it earlier and I'm the seventh Matthews to go into the NFL. It's really humbling, especially being a part of this family and all the tradition with football that we have and such a great background: I'm truly blessed to be a part of it."

The opportunity to spend 11 out of 13 games starting at left tackle was something Matthews felt was valuable when it came to assessing his NFL future.

"It helped a lot, especially after playing three years of right tackle showing I was capable of going over and playing well on the left side,” Matthews said. “[It showed] how versatile I am and that I'm able and can do anything teams want me to do."

Most projections have Matthews going in the top 10 of the draft and possibly being the first offensive tackle drafted. He wasn’t the only potential first-round pick present at the pro day on Wednesday -- quarterback Johnny Manziel and receiver Mike Evans were in attendance too -- but both were simply there to support their other teammates performing and did not work out for scouts or NFL personnel. Both are performing at their own pro day on March 27 at Texas A&M and performed at the NFL combine last month.

Representatives from all 32 NFL teams were present at Texas A&M’s pro day.

Other Aggies performed at the pro day included Nate Askew, defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, cornerback Tramain Jacobs, linebacker Steven Jenkins, receiver Travis Labhart, running back Ben Malena and receiver Derel Walker. Because of their rehabilitation from injuries, tight end Nehemiah Hicks and defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. did not perform, and Ennis -- who is recovering from knee surgery -- performed only in the bench press.

Askew had perhaps the most impressive day among Aggies outside the “big three” projected first-rounders. The linebacker, who began his Texas A&M career as a receiver, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds and recorded a 38-inch vertical while measuring 6-foot-3 and weighing 241 pounds.

Malena, the Aggies’ leading running back the last two seasons, clocked 4.54 seconds in the 40 while checking in at 5-8 and 194 pounds. He also had the second-most repetitions in the bench press, lifting 225 pounds a total of 22 times.

Texas A&M pro day on tap

March, 5, 2014
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Scouts and player personnel people from across the NFL will descend on Aggieland today when Texas A&M hosts its annual pro day at 9:30 a.m., one of two pro days on deck for the Aggies this month.

The Aggies’ biggest names are all expected to be present at the McFerrin Athletic Center -- quarterback Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews -- though Manziel and Evans won’t be working out for scouts until March 27.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin is expecting all NFL teams to be represented at Texas A&M’s pro day, which will feature a dozen players.

“Ever since we’ve been here every team shows up, with a couple of different representatives,” Sumlin said. “We had a couple guys who did real well at the combine. Obviously, Mike was here last week and was real pleased with how he did things. I talked to Johnny [on Sunday] night and he’ll be back in town. I think it’s big when you have those types of marquee players [like them] and Jake. It creates opportunities for other players who weren’t at the combine and I think that’s a big deal.”

Other Aggies who will be present and are expected to work out are linebacker Nate Askew, defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, tight end Nehemiah Hicks, defensive back Toney Hurd Jr., cornerback Tramain Jacobs, linebacker Steven Jenkins, receiver Travis Labhart, running back Ben Malena and receiver Derel Walker.

Evans, Manziel and Matthews are all projected first-round picks and the fact that their presence brings plenty of NFL personnel is a positive, Sumlin said. The same has happened in the past with previous high draft picks who came out of Texas A&M.

“I forget how many guys we got that got into [NFL training] camp but it was a large number of guys that at least got an opportunity that maybe they wouldn’t have had if there’s not a Luke Joeckel here, if there’s not those types of guys,” Sumlin said. “It attracted a lot of guys and just about all of those guys got in camp which is, after that, that’s about all you can ask. Can they all make it? No. But it gave them an opportunity and I think that’s the bigger picture than just the three guys that went to the combine.”

Manziel did almost everything except throw at the NFL scouting combine, running a 4.68-second 40-yard dash and a 4.03-second 20-yard shuttle. He had a 31 inch vertical jump, his height was measured at 5-foot-11 inches and his weight 207 pounds.

Evans measured at 6-5, 231 and ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash and recorded a 37-inch vertical jump. Matthews measured at 6-5, 308, had a 30 inch vertical and performed the three-cone drill in 7.34 seconds.

The pro day begins at 9:30 a.m. and is closed to the public.

TAMU to-do list: Find a go-to WR

January, 23, 2014
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Editor's note: This is the third part of a week-long series looking at the five most pressing concerns Texas A&M faces this offseason.

While quarterback Johnny Manziel dominated the headlines in his brief, two-year career at Texas A&M, he had a lot of help on offense.

One of the most important weapons Manziel had at his disposal was receiver Mike Evans.

[+] EnlargeRicky Seals-Jones
AP Photo/Eric GayRicky Seals-Jones has the size and speed to take over as the Aggies' top playmaker at receiver.
The pair came to Aggieland in the same recruiting class, redshirted the same season and built a strong rapport as scout-team players in their first season.

Once they hit the field together in 2012 as redshirt freshmen, Evans quickly became Manziel's go-to receiver.

In two seasons, Evans caught 151 passes for 2,499 and 12 touchdowns. In 2013, he emerged as one of the nation's best receivers with a school-record 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns, which earned him a spot at the finalists' table for the Biletnikoff Award.

But like Manziel, Evans declared for early entry into the NFL draft. That brings us to our next item on the Texas A&M offseason to-do list, which is finding the next No. 1 receiver.

Because of the way the Aggies have recruited the last two seasons, they will have no shortage of options at the position. In addition to the receivers who were already on campus, the Aggies signed six receivers in the 2013 recruiting class and in the 2014 class, four prospects will wind up at receiver.

And it won't just be Evans' production that needs to be filled. The Aggies are saying goodbye to three starters as two others (Travis Labhart and Derel Walker) were seniors. Malcome Kennedy (60 receptions, 658 yards, seven touchdowns) is the lone returning starter and returning statistical leader in each major receiving category.

As an inside receiver who became a reliable target for Manziel, it stands to reason that Kennedy will see more opportunities. But who replaces Evans at outside receiver?

Ricky Seals-Jones, the Aggies' top-ranked recruit in the 2013 class, is an intriguing option, though it isn't necessarily a guarantee that he lines up outside. During preseason training camp last season, Seals-Jones received practice time at both inside receiver and outside receiver and made his biggest play of the season, a 71-yard touchdown reception against Rice, as an inside receiver.

He missed most of the season with a knee injury, but no matter where he lines up, he figures to play a prominent role in the offense in 2014 and could be a prime candidate to be a go-to guy with his size (6-foot-5, 240) and speed.

Several young receivers played in 2013 and will compete for the chance to start in 2014, such as LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Ja'Quay Williams, Jeremy Tabuyo and Edward Pope, all of whom were freshmen last season. Sabian Holmes, who will be a junior, and redshirt freshman Kyrion Parker could also be factors in the offense next season.

A lot of eyes will be on the offensive gem of the 2014 recruiting class though: ESPN 300 five-star athlete Speedy Noil. A high school quarterback at New Orleans Edna Karr, Noil is ranked as the No. 1 athlete in the country and will play receiver for the Aggies. Noil began classes earlier this month and will participate in spring football, giving the country's No. 7 overall player a head start when it comes to finding himself on the field in 2014.
jmJackson LaizureTake Johnny Manziel and the Aggies out of College Station and great things happen, as Texas A&M has a perfect 9-0 record away from Kyle Field since Kevin Sumlin took over.
If this is in fact Johnny Manziel's farewell tour with Texas A&M, it's only fitting that he do it, well, on the road.

Obviously, you can't really do an actual tour without hitting the road, but Manziel and the Aggies are done with their 2013 days at Kyle Field … and that's a good thing.

While Kyle Field has always stood as one of the best college football environments -- and a tough venue for its visitors -- the Aggies have had much better success in big games away from home since the Manziel-Kevin Sumlin era began last season. In the past two seasons, Texas A&M has gone 9-0 in road and neutral site games, compared to 10-4 (the only four losses under Sumlin) at home. While the Aggies have averaged five more points (48.3-43.8) and have an average points per game margin of 22.4 at home, Texas A&M has averaged 34 more yards (587.7-553.7) and is 4-0 in games decided by seven points or less on the road, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

At home, the Aggies have gone 0-4 in games decided by seven points or less.

So with trips to No. 22 LSU (7-3, 3-3 SEC) and No. 8 Missouri (9-1, 5-1) looming, the Aggies shouldn't fret over their last two games. In fact, they should smile and embrace their hostile surroundings.

"I feel like when we go on the road, it's us against the world," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr said. "We go into the stadium with a mindset that we have to come out here on top. Coach Sumlin has instilled in us that we have to focus and keep the same mindset, just like we're playing at home, but we're away."

But their road mindset is actually better. The Aggies should definitely avoid stowing their home mindsets in their carry-on luggage. They need whatever swagger and confidence that only comes with playing on the road because it has been lethal thanks to Manziel and Sumlin.

In A&M's nine wins away from College Station, Manziel has averaged 288.7 passing yards and 128.6 rushing yards with 31 total touchdowns. His lowest adjusted road QBR came at Ole Miss last year (84.5), while his lowest home QBR is 25.8, which he had in last season's loss to LSU.

Manziel is an animal in his own right, but when he's away from home, he has a Godzilla effect. He led A&M to its historic 29-24 win over No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa last year, led thrilling comeback wins over Ole Miss in Oxford twice and registered a bowl-record 516 yards of offense in a rout of Oklahoma in last years AT&T Cotton Bowl.

The Manziel-led Aggies are also 4-0 with an average margin of victory of 15 against ranked teams on the road, as opposed to losing all four games at home to ranked teams by 19 total points.

"You go on the road, you try to create your own energy," Sumlin said. "We don't make a big deal about road trips. That's part of it. As a competitor, the same type of enthusiasm you get from the home crowd, from an electricity standpoint, you ought to be able to utilize that on the road, and I think our team does a good job of that."

Saturday presents a unique experience/challenge for the Aggies. Tiger Stadium is no walk in the park; it's a trek through a savage jungle. LSU is 55-7 at home under coach Les Miles, including 27-7 in SEC play. The Tigers have also lost just one home game since 2009.

One does not simply walk into Tiger Stadium, but the Aggies don't seem fazed by raucous environment they're strolling into.

"It'll be a tough challenge, but it's an exciting one, one that we're all looking forward to," senior receiver Travis Labhart said.

"It's a good feeling to know that when you go on the road that it's just you and your teammates -- band of brothers -- and we go out and play our hardest and luckily we've prevailed so far with Coach Sumlin [on the road]."

For junior receiver Malcome Kennedy, playing on the road is intoxicating. Instead of battling the crowd, he chooses to admire them, and inhales their energy.

"You just look around and you see the crowd and, a lot of the times, I don't know if other players get the feeling but I get the feeling that they're cheering for me," Kennedy said. "It's something weird. Different players have different methods of approaching it but it's a very awesome experience."

Former walk-on Labhart emerges at A&M

November, 12, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — With Texas A&M locked in a tight battle at Ole Miss at halftime, receivers coach David Beaty went to head coach Kevin Sumlin and said he was going to make a change at one of the inside receiver positions.

Beaty's desire was to insert Travis Labhart, a senior who has had one of the more unique journeys among the Aggies, into the lineup. Looking for more production from the 'H' receiver position, Beaty believed Labhart would be the one who could deliver.

"[Sumlin] looked back at me and said, 'He'll be great,' " Beaty recalls. "'Put him in there and let's roll.'"

[+] EnlargeTravis Labhart
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTravis Labhart, a walk-on who wasn't even on the 105-man roster in 2011, earned a scholarship and is now a starter at wide receiver at Texas A&M.
The rest is history. Labhart hauled in eight receptions that night and finished with a then-career-high 97 yards. He since has become one of the most reliable receiving targets for quarterback Johnny Manziel.

In the Aggies' last five games, the 5-foot-9, 182-pound Labhart has 30 receptions, more than sophomore standout Mike Evans, the team's leading receiver. The outsized production Evans had early in the season has forced opposing teams to devote more attention to him, opening the middle of the field for others. Labhart has taken advantage.

On Saturday against Mississippi State, he had 102 receiving yards and two touchdowns on six catches in a 51-41 victory. Not bad for a guy who was a walk-on a year ago.

"At this time of year, if you're going to continue to win, you have to have guys that play at a high level that maybe before the year you didn't even talk about," Sumlin said. "Every team, across the board, if you're trying to get to double-digit wins or play at a championship level, very few teams have the same 22 guys across the board in this league at the end of the year, or even the middle of the year.

"He's worked very hard -- [a] non-scholarship player that worked his way into that. Didn't back off once that happened. Continued to play and earn the respect of his teammates. ... So when he went in the game [against Ole Miss], for him to have the type of success he had is a surprise to a lot of people, but not guys on the team, because he practices like that."

Labhart wasn't recruited out of Whitesboro (Texas) High School and initially sought to walk on to the men's basketball team. While he waited for an opportunity to try out in his freshman year, he found a spot on the women's basketball practice squad, which consists of men. He did that for a brief period before deciding to try to walk on to the football team. With encouragement from his high school coach, Eddie Gill, Labhart decided to give it a try.

He was able to find a spot but didn't make the 105-man training camp roster in his first season, which was coach Mike Sherman's final season. Labhart did make it last season, Sumlin's first, and played sparingly. This year, Labhart came in ready to contribute in training camp. He learned every receiver position and started the season as Evans' backup, but his versatility allowed him to become an option at other areas.

He impressed the coaching staff enough to earn a scholarship before the season. He's currently fourth on the team with 33 catches for 442 yards and five touchdowns, but virtually all those numbers have come in the last five games. Labhart started the last two games.

"You always want to be involved with the offense or defense," Labhart said. "You always want to be a guy and not just be someone who sits on the sidelines. This year I really tried to focus on the offseason and put in a lot of work.

"... I started out as a backup to Mike and I knew I wasn't going to get much time there, but you just kind of keep plugging away and luckily I was able to get that [chance] and it's just been a blessing, going out every night and playing your hardest, knowing that you gave your best individual performance to help your team."

A senior, Labhart played his final game at Kyle Field on Saturday. He never imagined that would happen.

"It's a dream come true," Labhart said. I was here for so many games when I was little with my granddad in the stands. I never, in a million years, thought that I would be on Kyle Field, and now I take it for granted because I'm used to it. But when I was little, it was such a big deal. I would have never imagined being out there and just getting to play and contribute to the team."

SEC helmet stickers: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
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With apologies to Nick Saban, AJ McCarron, T.J. Yeldon, C.J. Mosley and all of the pageantry that accompanied the SEC's annual marquee regular-season matchup, there were just too many noteworthy performances to go handing out helmet stickers to the rolling Tide's usual suspects.

Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: With two touchdown passes in an easy 45-6 rout of Appalachian State on Saturday, Murray broke the 17-year-old SEC record of Florida's Danny Wuerffel (1993-96) for the most career TD passes. Murray entered the game already holding the SEC career marks for total offense and passing yards. The senior completed 19 of 26 passes for 281 yards in three quarters of work.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: Ho-hum. Another week, another compelling argument in the sophomore's case for a second straight Heisman Trophy. Against Mississippi State on Saturday, Johnny Football threw for 446 yards with five touchdown passes (never mind those three interceptions). Honorable mention goes to senior Travis Labhart, once a walk-on, now a scholarship guy who has emerged as a key contributor at receiver. Manziel completed six passes to Labhart for a career-high 102 yards and two touchdowns.

Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn: The former Georgia Bulldog and former juco quarterback accounted for 214 of Auburn's 444 rushing yards, running for two touchdowns and passing for another in the No. 9 Tigers' 55-23 dismantling of the home-standing Volunteers. Marshall posted a 99.6 Total QBR despite completing only 3 of 7 passes, but Gus Malzahn didn't need to throw with the success the Tigers were having on the ground. Marshall's 214 yards were the third-most by an SEC quarterback in a game over the last 10 seasons, behind only Heisman winners Manziel (229 yards vs. Oklahoma in 2012) and Cam Newton (217 vs. LSU in 2010).

Missouri's offense: The No. 8 Tigers encountered little resistance in their first league game in the Bluegrass State. Freshman quarterback Maty Mauk threw five touchdown passes to tie Chase Daniel's school record in Mizzou's 48-17 romp past Kentucky. Dorial Green-Beckham broke through in a big way. The 6-foot-6 sophomore, who was the nation's No. 1 wide receiver prospect in the Class of 2012, had seven catches for 100 yards and four touchdowns. Not to be outdone, running back Henry Josey ran 11 times for 113 yards and two TDs, including an 86-yarder. The Tigers remain a half-game ahead of idle South Carolina in the East division.

Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: Even in a 51-41 road loss to Texas A&M, a special heartfelt helmet sticker goes out to Prescott, who lost his mother last Sunday to her battle with cancer. Tyler Russell got the start after Prescott missed the week of practice before Saturday's game, but the two rotated, with Prescott getting the majority of the snaps. The Aggies had difficulty slowing him in the running game, as Prescott ran 16 times for 154 yards (9.6 yards per carry). He was 14-of-26 passing for 149 yards and two touchdowns. It was certainly a determined and inspiring performance under the most difficult of circumstances.

Week 11 helmet stickers

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M won its third straight game, a 51-41 decision over Mississippi State on Saturday at Kyle Field. Let's hand out a few helmet stickers:

Johnny Manziel: He compiled 493 offensive yards and threw for five touchdowns. It was his fifth career 400-yard passing game, fourth this season. Yes, he threw three interceptions, but he made enough positive plays to make up for them. Another productive day for Johnny Football.

Travis Labhart: What a story he is. From walk-on to scholarship player, from backup to starter and key contributor. Labhart continues to get better from week to week. On Saturday he had a career high 102 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions.

Malcome Kennedy: Kennedy led the team in receptions (eight) and had 96 yards and two touchdowns, one to get the Aggies on the board in the first quarter and one to start their scoring in the third quarter. He has been a reliable pass-catching option all year and has -- like Labhart -- taken advantage of the space given by teams who choose to double cover Mike Evans.

Week 10 helmet stickers

November, 3, 2013
11/03/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M took care of business on Saturday night, routing UTEP 57-7 before 87,126 at Kyle Field.

Let's hand out a few helmet stickers from the winning effort:


Johnny Manziel: The Heisman Trophy winner showed shades of his 2012 self when he sprinted down the middle of the field en route to a 49-yard touchdown run. He finished 16-of-24 passing for 273 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 67 yards and two scores. He now seems to be showing few ill effects from the shoulder injury suffered against Auburn.

Travis Labhart: The senior receiver caught four passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns and was the Aggies' leader in receiving yards for the night. When Manziel and Mike Evans couldn't connect early, Labhart was there to pick up the load.

Darian Claiborne: The true freshman linebacker continues to shine. He had a team-high 12 tackles and a forced fumble that the Aggies recovered and later turned into a touchdown. His performance has been crucial since he has entered the starting lineup at middle linebacker.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — One of the byproducts of Mike Evans' dominant showing at receiver this season is an opportunity for others to contribute.

As the Texas A&M sophomore dominates defensive backs weekly, defensive coordinators shift their game plans to pay more attention to the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Evans. Rightfully so, because if proper attention isn't paid, he'll make opponents pay, as he did to Auburn (287 receiving yards, four touchdowns) or No. 1 Alabama (279 receiving yards). In eight games, Evans has nearly matched his 2012 season-long receiving yardage total with 1,101 yards (he had 1,105 in 2012) and has more than doubled his touchdown total from last year's 13-game campaign (11 this season after five in 2012).

[+] EnlargeMalcome Kennedy
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M junior wide receiver Malcome Kennedy is second on the team with 43 receptions.
Coming into this season, the Aggies knew they had to find other reliable options in the passing game. When Evans was a freshman last season, there were three seniors to accompany him in the starting lineup: Ryan Swope, Uzoma Nwachukwu and Kenric McNeal.

Other than Evans, this year's crop of receivers was a mix of returnees who have received only modest or no playing time and a batch of newcomers, as the Aggies signed six receivers in their 2013 recruiting class.

So far, the Aggies seem to be finding contributors.

The most consistent of the supporting cast has been junior Malcome Kennedy. Best known for catching the Aggies' final touchdown in their 29-24 upset win over Alabama in 2012, he is second to Evans with 43 receptions, 447 yards and four touchdowns. Kennedy has provided a consistent, middle-of-the-field target for Johnny Manziel this season, stepping into Swope's old 'Y' receiver position.

From week to week, the players who have emerged have varied. Senior Derel Walker (30 catches, 414 yards, two touchdowns) appears to have an increasing role in the offense as an outside receiver, with at least four catches in three of the last four games, including two touchdowns against Vanderbilt. Senior Travis Labhart has emerged lately, catching 20 passes in his last three games after only three receptions in the first five games of the season.

Early in the season, sophomore Sabian Holmes was targeted several times and a true freshman, Ricky Seals-Jones, had a smashing debut against Rice before a knee injury ended his season.

"That's what our philosophy is based on," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We need good players at all those positions instead of just one. Otherwise you get the double team and then, 'Now what?' We've got good running backs that can catch it out of the backfield and put pressure on you that way, but in order to be a complete offense we've got to get production from our other receivers."

The Aggies got that against Vanderbilt, with Kennedy hauling in a team-high eight passes, Evans catching five and Walker with four. As the season wears on, even more players are finding themselves in the mix, such as true freshman LaQuvionte Gonzalez. Though most of the time he has seen has been on special teams as a kick returner or running fly sweeps, Gonzalez got into the mix on Saturday and caught four passes for 52 yards and his first career touchdown. With his speed and quickness, he has the look of someone who will fit nicely in the offense moving forward.

And, as Sumlin noted, running backs are a factor in the passing game as well.

"We've got a number of guys that we feel good about going in and out of the game and we need to have that this time of year," Sumlin said. "Because of what we do, all those guys have to be able to execute the offense, catch the ball, hang on to it, because you can't play one guy the way we go up and down the field. We had 78 snaps [Saturday]. We've got to be able to develop some depth, and I'm pleased with how those guys have come along."

Planning for success: Texas A&M

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M has been down this road before.

The question of whether quarterback Johnny Manziel will play on Saturday is one that remains unanswered, but the Aggies have been through this type of uncertainty once already this season.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesIf Johnny Manziel can't go on Saturday, the Aggies say they are comfortable with his backups getting the job done.
They're preparing accordingly.

Manziel, who suffered an apparent right shoulder injury in last week's game against Auburn, is receiving treatment and rehabilitating daily in hopes of starting this Saturday when the Aggies host Vanderbilt. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin called Manziel's status "hopeful" a couple times this week but has offered little more than that.

The Aggies had uncertainty before their season opener against Rice as the school, the team and Manziel awaited the results of an NCAA investigation into an autograph-signing controversy surrounding the Heisman Trophy winner. The team allowed both junior Matt Joeckel and freshman Kenny Hill to compete for the backup job. The announcement of a half-game suspension was delivered three days before the game. Later that week, the Aggies tabbed Joeckel as the starter for the game, and he played a solid first half against Rice.

Both have seen action this season and when Manziel exited the game at the 14:36 mark in the fourth quarter of the Aggies' 45-41 loss to the Tigers, it was Joeckel who entered in his place. Joeckel was 1-of-3 passing for 12 yards in his brief appearance before Manziel returned with 9:06 remaining.

"Matt was called and has been in the fire before," Sumlin said. "We put him in on a third down situation [Auburn] territory. Kenny was chomping at the bit to go, and our practice rotation will change a little bit depending on what Johnny can or can't do as far as practice goes [this week]."

When asked earlier this week whether he would consider playing Manziel on Saturday even if he didn't practice throughout the week, Sumlin said "We'll see."

No matter what Manziel's status turns out to be, the Aggies will have a solid plan. Should Joeckel get the nod, he's started a game before, and the Aggies are in the friendly confines of Kyle Field on Saturday so that helps. He has appeared in three games this season, completed 19-of-31 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown.

Should Hill happen to be pressed into action, he too has played in some live action. He made his debut in Week 2 against Sam Houston State, led a touchdown drive on his first possession and is 6-of-11 passing for 83 yards in his two appearances this season.

"I was very pleased with them," quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said earlier this month when asked about his two backup quarterbacks. "I thought Joeckel earned the right to get in there and compete, and he started the Rice game. I thought he did a great job moving the ball. And then Kenny coming in during the Sam Houston State game and throwing a touchdown and moving the ball, they both still have a long ways to go ... but I've got to be pleased with how they performed."

Neither necessarily brings the unique skill set to the table that Manziel does, but teammates and coaches alike say they're confident in whomever calls the signals come Saturday.

"We have great backups in Matt and Kenny," senior receiver Travis Labhart said. "I am comfortable with those other guys, and I know the other receivers are. But obviously you want Johnny back there because of who he is."

SEC lunchtime links

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
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No, I'm not going to stand up here and scream, "Hump Day!" like that lazy camel. Instead, I'll simply point out that since it is Wednesday we're only some 24 merciful hours away from a quality college football game between No. 10 Miami and North Carolina. And I think we can all agree that watching football is much more enjoyable than watching an animal sell us insurance.
  • ESPN's Mark May and Lou Holtz debated whether Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron was the most valuable player in college football this past weekend. What was McCarron's response? Pretty much what you'd expect: "It's an honor but I'd be the first one to tell you I'm nothing without these guys."
  • Nick Marshall will start at quarterback for Auburn against Texas A&M this weekend, but Jeremy Johnson is supposed to play too. It will be interesting to see how he's used. As coach Gus Malzahn put it, "We don't want to give all our secrets away."
  • Arkansas is standing by its struggling quarterback with a road trip to Alabama coming this Saturday. Brandon Allen hasn't played well of late, but coach Bret Bielema insists, "There's no doubt in my mind that he gives us the best option, 100 percent."
  • Steve Spurrier did what any good coach should when he stood up and vouched for his quarterback. South Carolina's Connor Shaw isn't viewed as an NFL prospect, but Spurrier believes he should be.
  • "How does he exert control on me?" Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease responded when asked whether coach Will Muschamp, a defensive guy at heart, was handcuffing his play-calling. After struggling offensively, it's easy to see why people are trying to connect the dots as to why.
  • A roster decimated by injuries has left Ole Miss with few options.
  • "It's really not anything magical," Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham explained. There are reasons why the defense has struggled, but it all comes down to execution.
  • Texas A&M senior wide receiver Travis Labhart took the long road to College Station. When teammates kidded him about acting like he'd been in the endzone before, his response was classic: "And I was just like 'I haven't.' Not in five years."
  • It's easy to look at Johnny Manziel and the wealth of talent in College Station and ask how much coach Kevin Sumlin really has to do with Texas A&M success. When answering that question, though, you come to the conclusion that he's an elite coach.
  • Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson is ready for his rematch with South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney.
  • The circumstances are irrelevant. The fact that there were any empty seats in Tigers Stadium when Florida came to town reflected poorly on LSU football.
  • In following Missouri's blueprint, Vanderbilt hopes to turn up the pressure on Georgia and quarterback Aaron Murray.
  • As reports of his injury status circulated Saturday, Missouri quarterback James Franklin was totally in the dark. His phone dead, he focused solely on what would come next. While he heals, he says he's looking to help Maty Mauk under center.

What we learned: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
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So the Aggies had to endure another thriller in order to pull out a 41-38 road win at Ole Miss. Here are three things we learned from the win:

Johnny Manziel is tough: The Heisman Trophy winner got beat up some against the Rebels. He apparently hurt his left knee in the first half, but after applying a brace, returned to put together a masterful performance. He took some big hits in the fourth quarter, but Manziel kept getting up and put his team in position to win.

The Aggies can rely on receivers not named Mike Evans: Evans has been Manziel's go-to guy but on Saturday it was Travis Labhart who led the team in receiving with eight catches for 97 yards. Malcome Kennedy added seven receptions for 89 yards, and Derel Walker had five for 72. So Manziel was able to spread the wealth to guys other than Evans, who had four catches for 46 yards.

The defense can get a key stop or two but still needs a lot of improvement: When the Aggies had to have a stop on Ole Miss' last offensive possession, the defense got that. But it was another rough night for a struggling A&M defense. The first half wasn't so bad. but Deshazor Everett got sidelined for a bit by an injury and there were some big plays given up in the second half, especially in the passing game. Overall the Aggies allowed 462 yards, including 329 passing. The Aggies got key stops against Arkansas as well, but the defense has to be better start to finish.

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