Texas A&M Aggies: Uzoma Nwachukwu
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- While several Texas A&M NFL draft hopefuls ran routes and caught passes, the throws were from a face familiar to Aggieland.
One by one, the crisp, well-spun tosses from former Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson fell into the hands of guys like Ryan Swope, Christine Michael, Uzoma Nwachukwu and Kenric McNeal -- each of whom recently wrapped up their Aggie careers.
While Texas A&M's pro day on Friday at the McFerrin Athletic Center was a showcase for the Aggies' 2013 class of prospects, it was also a chance for Johnson to show his retooled throwing motion to the nearly 50 NFL personnel on hand, representing all 32 NFL teams.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Most people might have been surprised by his 40-yard dash time at the NFL scouting combine, but Ryan Swope wasn't.
Neither was his head coach at Texas A&M, Kevin Sumlin.
After putting together impressive testing marks at the scouting combine, the 6-foot, 206-pound receiver, who broke several school records while at Texas A&M, gave all 32 NFL teams an up-close-and-personal look at just how skilled and athletic he is during Texas A&M's pro day on Friday at the McFerrin Athletic Center.
The receiver, who ran a 4.34-second 40-yard dash at the combine, the second-best time of all players there, didn't test again but did positional drills, catching passes from former Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson. Swope apparently impressed in that regard as well.
"When you look at him, watching his athleticism, watching him run around when he runs routes, I thought that was impressive to see," Oakland Raiders head coach and former Texas A&M player Dennis Allen said. "You can see it on tape, his toughness and his love of the game. But getting the chance to see him in person and see his athleticism was impressive."
There’s no point in trying to sugarcoat this for Texas A&M: The Aggies have become the hunted.
A year after the real training began for their official move to the SEC from the Big 12, the Aggies enter spring practice with loftier expectations and more eyes fixated on them. They can no longer be considered the supposed ragtag group that was expected to struggle for relevance in their new home.
After shocking their new conference mates with 11 wins, including one over eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, A&M enters spring figuratively glancing over its shoulder.
"Now that we know for a fact that we have enough talent and a new group of guys coming in, we know that this year we have a target on our back,” rising senior running back Ben Malena said. “The workouts have stepped up even more. The work ethic of the team collectively has stepped up even more. Coach [Kevin] Sumlin, he's let us know that last year's success was last year's success, but this year's success is gonna be even harder because now you have a target on your back."
Teams don’t lead the SEC in scoring (44.5 points per game), rushing (242.1 yards per game), passing (316.5 YPG) and total offense (558.5 YPG) in their first season in a new conference without feeling the heat in Year 2. And this league intends to bring more than just the heat to the Aggies.
If A&M is going to make strides in 2013, it has to push for conference supremacy. It'll have to be better than it was in 2012, and it'll have to pursue dethroning the mighty Crimson Tide. It's a tough job, but it really is the next step.
To do that, Sumlin and his crew will have to work even harder than they did last season. Players will have to be willing to sweat, bleed and push even more as the Aggies enter spring shorthanded once again.
Defensively, five starters from the front seven are gone, including All-America defensive end Damontre Moore and top-notch linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Dustin Harris and Steven Terrell must also be replaced in the secondary.
“We got a lot of young guys -- a bunch of new guys,” defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said of his defense.
And those youngsters need to learn quickly because the injury bug attacked the defense this spring, especially up front. It’s a necessary evil, but getting young players these kinds of reps excites Snyder because it helps with depth, which the Aggies need.
Not only did A&M lose two valuable linebackers but a wide receiver was moved to the position this spring and linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt was replaced by Mark Hagen, giving the Aggies even more change to deal with.
"There will be some challenges there,” Snyder said about the new faces on defense, “but that's what makes spring ball fun."
What will also be fun is finding out who the new leaders are.
Senior Toney Hurd Jr., who is battling for a starting safety spot, has been pegged as one of those new leaders. He’s always led by example, and Hurd knows younger players are looking up to veterans like him. He’ll have to come through because, although the talent might be there, inexperience needs guidance.
"I wouldn't say I'll be this year's Sean Porter, but I'll be this year's Tony Hurd Jr.,” he said. “I'll give the vocal leadership when needed.”
Some interesting months lie ahead for the Aggies, as they look to make more upward moves in 2013. But before A&M can worry about challenging Alabama -- or anyone, really -- Sumlin needs his team to get better. He needs youngsters to take advantage of more reps and he needs the veterans to evolve on the field and in the locker room.
It sounds clichéd, but it's true.
To be elite again and embrace this new-found target on its back, A&M needs even more resolve and toughness in Year 2. And to Sumlin, it’ll be quite an uphill battle.
"We're nowhere near that stage,” he said. “I've said that from every standpoint, from every aspect of this program, we're still playing catch-up to everybody in the SEC.
"From my standpoint it's always a new team, it's always a new personality. As coaches, what you're trying to do is figure out where you are, who can do what and put them in the best position to try to win games."
Three of the top four receivers from 2012 [in terms of receiving yards] and four of the top six will not be back in 2013. Senior starters Ryan Swope (72 catches, 913 yards), Uzoma Nwachukwu (26 catches, 485 yards) and Kenric McNeal (19 catches, 265 yards) have all graduated and freshman Thomas Johnson (30 catches, 339 yards) withdrew from school in November and appears unlikely to return.
OFFENSE: Remember how the Aggies' offense was supposed to struggle without Ryan Tannehill running things and a redshirt freshman replacing him at quarterback? Yeah, that really worked out. Thanks to the minds of Kevin Sumlin, offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and a Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel, the Aggies ran over most of their new opponents in 2012 with the SEC's top offense. Texas A&M averaged a league-high 558.5 yards per game (third nationally). The Aggies also led the SEC in rushing (242.1), passing (316.5) and scoring offense (44.5). A&M registered more than 400 yards in 12 games and more than 600 yards in seven games. Johnny Football became the first freshman to ever win the Heisman and broke the SEC record for total offense with 5,116 yards (3,706 passing and 1,410 rushing). He also totaled 47 touchdowns and led the SEC in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns (21). Manziel had a special year, but he also got help from a dynamic receiving duo in freshman Mike Evans and senior Ryan Swope, who combined to catch 154 passes for 2,018 yards and 13 touchdowns. Uzoma Nwachukwu only caught 26 passes, but he added seven more receiving touchdowns. When Manziel wasn't darting past or slipping by defenders, A&M's running game mostly went through running back Ben Malena, who finished the year with 808 yards and eight touchdowns. Christine Michael added 12 more rushing touchdowns. A&M was also equipped with one of the top offensive lines in the country led by Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Grade: A+
DEFENSE: The Aggies ranked seventh or lower in the SEC in the four major defensive categories, including ranking 12th in pass defense (250.7 yards per game). Teams scored 36 touchdowns on the Aggies and averaged 21.8 points per game. The Aggies surrendered 20-plus points in seven games, including allowing 57 points in a back-and-forth win over Louisiana Tech. A&M might have had some issues when it came to slowing down the yardage and points, but in its two losses, the Aggies allowed just 20 and 24 points. The Aggies gave up 390.2 yards per game and grabbed just 16 takeaways. Defensive end Damontre Moore became a real star. He was one of the top defenders in the country, tying for eighth nationally with 12.5 sacks and seventh with 21 tackles for loss. He also led the Aggies with 85 total tackles and nine quarterback hurries. The defense, which was relatively young in the back end, might have had a little more bend than the coaches would like, but it rarely broke down and held an Oklahoma offense to just 13 points in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Grade: B-
OVERALL: The Aggies were supposed to struggle in their first year in the SEC, but flourished instead. Johnny Football was a major reason why, but Sumlin instilled an extremely tough personality during spring ball that carried over to the season. Alabama might have been crowned college football's national champion, but after a 41-13 beat down of Oklahoma, the Aggies made a solid case for being the nation's top team -- and A&M was the only team to top the Crimson Tide with a 29-24 win in Tuscaloosa. The defense needed to be bailed out by the offense at times, but even with no bye week during the regular season, the Aggies never seemed to slow down. If not for the opener against Louisiana Tech being postponed, the season might have been even better with a game under the Aggies' belt before taking on Florida. A&M wasn't as sharp against LSU, but was in serious contention for a BCS bowl game late in the year. Grade: A
Help is on the way: At defensive tackle, A&M scored commitments from ESPN 150 defensive tackle Justin Manning and ESPN 300 defensive tackle Isaiah Golden. Three-star prospect Hardreck Walker and three-star Jordan Points (who is already on campus) round out that group. There are six linebackers in the class, led by ESPN 300 ILB Jordan Mastrogiovanni. Three are already on campus and enrolled: Brett Wade, Reggie Chevis and Tommy Sanders. At receiver, the Aggies have plenty. Ricky Seals-Jones tops the list, prep school standout Ja'Quay Williams is already in school, and there's a pair of three-star receivers as well. Not to mention, No. 1 tight end prospect Derrick Griffin would be a receiver at A&M if he makes it in, and athlete LaQuvionte Gonzalez likely would be an inside receiver.
Other key commits: A pair of Under Armour All-Americans, guard Joas Aguilar and cornerback Noel Ellis, plus a U.S. Army All-American, safety Kameron Miles, round out a group 10 prospects that are among ESPN's top 300. Two quarterbacks are in the class (Kohl Stewart and Kenny Hill), but it's worth keeping an eye on them as Stewart is a potential high MLB draft pick and Hill took official visits to Baylor and Kansas State. Eight early enrollees in the class are already on campus (Chevis, Points, Sanders, Wade, Williams, Cameron Clear, Alex Sezer and Jeremiah Stuckey), and there are plenty of promising three-star commits, including guys like cornerback Tavares Garner and outside linebacker Darian Claiborne.
Other key targets: There aren't a ton of targets left for the Aggies at this point. Their focus is on a small handful of guys. Adding a defensive end would be ideal for the Aggies, and they're pursuing Washington commit Daeshon Hall and USC commit Torrodney Prevot in that regard. Hall visited recently, and Prevot could soon. They are also still looking at another receiver. Former USC commit Sebastian LaRue is one of those targets, and he was in on an official visit recently. They are also looking at Florida State commit Levonte Whitfield, who said he plans to officially visit Feb. 1.
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From Manziel Fan Club (@JFFootball2): Who do you think replaces EZ [Uzoma Nwachukwu] and Ryan Swope next year as starters. And [what will be] the role of Tra Carson and Brandon Williams next year?
From Rusty Woolley (@RWoolley7780): Is Johnny Manziel still wearing a knee brace after the injury scare against Mizzou? Has he said if there are any lingering concerns?
Sam Khan Jr.: The knee doesn't seem to be an issue. Manziel didn't appear to have a knee brace on during the open-to-the-media portion of Sunday's practice (practices since then have been closed) and I haven't heard anything said about it. It wasn't deemed serious at the time and it shouldn't be a factor come game time.
From Brian (@vonderlic): Are there any Army All-Americans or Under Armour All-Americans that you expect to commit to A&M? I've read comments from people speculating.
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Highlights: Redshirt freshman Mike Evans was a pleasant surprise this season for the Aggies. He led the team in catches (75) and receiving yards (1,022), becoming just the third Texas A&M player to haul in 1,000 or more receiving yards in a season. He's big (6-foot-5, 218 pounds), fast and physical, rarely running out of bounds voluntarily. Senior Ryan Swope recovered from a few early-season games with low statistical outputs to become one of Johnny Manziel's most trusted and consistent target as the year progressed. Swope was second on the team in receptions (64) and yards (809) and had a team-high seven touchdown receptions and made some huge catches down the stretch. Senior Uzoma Nwachkwu also had a nose for the end zone, catching six scores. Sophomore Malcome Kennedy emerged throughout the the season as a reliable target and caught the memorable touchdown pass against Alabama that served as Texas A&M's final points in the upset win.
Lowlights: The lack of production early in the season by receivers not named Mike Evans wasn't necessarily their fault. As head coach Kevin Sumlin often said, "Guys were open; we just weren't finding them." Much of that had to do with Manziel getting used to and comfortable with the offense while taking care of the ball since the coaches were adamant about him not being reckless and turning it over. Thomas Johnson was a bright spot in terms of the ability he showed as a true freshman but his brief disappearance near the end of the season leaves questions about his future. Sumlin has said only that Johnson is with his family in Dallas and has not commented on Johnson's future with the team.
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When Texas A&M traveled to Dallas to take on SMU, redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel made one of the "Wow" plays that makes fans and observers wonder, "How did he do that?" in the third quarter of the Aggies' 48-3 victory. Part of the reason Manziel is nicknamed "Johnny Football" is because of plays like this.
Texas A&M was leading 20-0 and facing third-and-9 at the SMU 42. Manziel dropped back and SMU linebacker Taylor Reed found a hole in the middle of the offensive line, shot the gap and had a clear shot at Manziel and a sack.
Manziel had other ideas. He spun out of the would-be sack and sprinted left as SMU linebacker Ja'Gared Davis sprinted toward him. Before Davis could get there, Manziel leaped off one foot, leaned forward and fired a pass over a leaping Davis. The pass hit senior receiver Kenric McNeal directly on the No. 5 on his jersey and he turned toward the end zone. He sprinted the final 29 yards untouched for the 42-yard touchdown.
It was one of many highlight-worthy plays of the day for Manziel, but it was probably the most impressive, considering how accurate the throw was after he dodged two defenders.
"With Johnny, of course, he's Captain Amazing back there, not getting sacked," senior receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu said after that game. "Johnny Football, Captain Amazing, I'm pretty sure next week we'll have another [nickname] for him. It's a growing legend going on."
Nwachukwu was right. It was a legend that only grew bigger as the season wore on.
The program sought out a new head coach, having dismissed Mike Sherman, who went 25-25 in four seasons there. The crosshairs in the process appeared to be set on Houston's Kevin Sumlin, who went 35-17 through four seasons in Houston and lifted the Cougars high into the national rankings in both 2009 and 2011.
The last 365 days, give or take a few, have been transformative for the program. Sumlin has injected an energy and swagger into the program that has fueled the Aggies' 10-2 season. After graduating a top-10, first-round pick at quarterback (Ryan Tannehill), a redshirt freshman named Johnny Manziel has stepped in and shattered records and become a Heisman Trophy candidate. Texas A&M is ranked in the top 10 (No. 9) and the recruiting momentum that the Aggies are building is strong, as they're quickly becoming a premier destination for recruits by offering the combination of quality facilities, college football's premier conference and a chance to win in that conference.
What a difference a year makes.
Some of the things the Aggies accomplished this season seemed like pipe dreams at the start of the year. A potential Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback? Going into fall camp, Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury had not even named a starter at the position, with redshirt sophomores Jameill Showers and Matt Joeckel battling Manziel.
Even for the quarterback himself, often called by his nickname, "Johnny Football," it's a little unbelievable.
"It’s crazy," he said "It’s so surreal for me to even be mentioned in the same category or in the same sentence as the Heisman Trophy. It would be a dream come true for me to even go to New York and sit down, after years and years of watching guys that I looked up to get dressed up and sit on the front row and hope that their name is called. So for me, it would be a dream come true and something that I would cherish forever."
While Manziel has played a major role in the Aggies' success, so has the leadership of the team -- and not just Sumlin and the coaching staff, but the senior class of players. Guys like linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, safety Steven Terrell, defensive tackle Spencer Nealy, center Patrick Lewis, receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu and cornerback/return specialist Dustin Harris have been a big reason the Aggies are a top-10 team this year.
For starters, Sumlin said, they bought in to what the new coaching staff was selling and the idea that they could be successful in the SEC, despite what others said.
"It really was just guys having faith; belief without proof," Sumlin said. "Coming into the year, we really didn't care what everybody else's expectations were ... I think that what these seniors have done is to really set the tone for how to do things away from Saturday. There was a big change in that type of culture."
Sherman said something interesting in his final news conference as the Aggies' coach, after flatly stating that he felt he didn't deserved to be fired.
"I feel like the program is definitely headed in the right direction and I hope the next coach appreciates the opportunity he's going to get to work with these players," he said.
Though some changes fueled this signature season, the first since 1998 in which the Aggies have won 10 games, it turns out Sherman was right.
While many had questions about what could be for the Aggies in the SEC, the players were confident. When asked after the final game of the season whether he could have imagined the season turning out the way it has, Porter took it a step further, demonstrating the confidence the team carried throughout the year.
"It's not as good as I thought it could be," Porter said. "Like Jonathan said, we thought we were going to win all of our games. We truthfully thought that. A lot of people were giving us crap about it at the beginning of the season. I remember going into SEC media day and all those guys in there were looking at me like we were going to be some kind of doormat or something, but this entire time we've had a lot of confidence, and we have confidence in the type of players that we have. I've said it since the beginning of the season: We have the same caliber of athletes as anybody does in the nation. I think this was a great season for us to come out and prove that, and A&M is just going to go up from here."
Score: Texas A&M 28, Missouri 0
Result: Pass completion from Corbin Berkstresser to Marcus Lucas, fumble, recovered by Toney Hurd.
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Situation: Texas A&M ball, first-and-goal at the Sam Houston State 7 (10:28 left, first quarter)
Score: Texas A&M 0, Sam Houston State 0
Result: 7-yard touchdown pass from Johnny Manziel to Mike Evans.
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Going into the final week of the regular season, Texas A&M is in the top 10, near the top of its division and going for its 10th win, which would be a first since 1998.
Spirits are high in Aggieland with the team's record-setting quarterback taking his league by storm and respect being paid across the country for the resurgence of Texas A&M football.
This is what many Aggies thought it would be like a year ago.
Going into the 2011 season, Texas A&M was ranked in the top 10 and a BCS bowl-caliber team. Then after a slew of second-half collapses, the season's high hopes were deflated, as was the team.
Coming into this season with a new coach (Kevin Sumlin), a new league (the Southeastern Conference), new uniforms and a new feeling, the Aggies swore it was different. A season-opening loss to Florida that involved Texas A&M relinquishing a second-half lead made some wonder whether it was just talk and if these were the same Aggies.
Now 11 games into the season and coming off its ninth win, a 47-28 victory over the FCS's third-ranked team, Sam Houston State, one thing is clear: this team is different.
"With all the criticism and people trying to talk about what happened in the past in the second half and all the other stuff, these guys didn't let that affect them this year," Sumlin said. "I think every week we've gotten a little bit better. It sets you up for the last game of the year and who knows what will happen?
"You've got Missouri coming in here for a conference football game and you win that game, who knows?"
On Saturday, the game was never in any real doubt for the 87,101 on hand. The No. 8 Aggies, who were coming fresh off an upset road win over then-No. 1 Alabama, were heavily favored against their lower-division foes. It took a quarter for things to click, but once they did, the Aggies looked like they have all season.
Manziel, who was brilliant against Alabama, did little to hurt his Heisman chances. That is, unless, you count his unglamorous missed point-after-touchdown kick attempt in the third quarter.
Sumlin allowed his redshirt freshman quarterback to try the kick after he threw an 89-yard touchdown pass to Uzoma Nwachukwu on the first play of the third quarter to give the Aggies a 40-0 lead. Manziel, who lined up straight behind the ball like an old-fashioned kicker, missed the PAT attempt wide right.
"It's a long season," Sumlin said. "We've gone 11 straight weeks without a bye. There's different things that go on and we try to keep the energy level up, keep it fun. It was something that he had been working on for a couple of weeks and he made one the other day. He made one on Thursday. We thought we'd give it a shot."
Sumlin laughed at the notion that the fluttering wide-right attempt would cost Manziel votes.
"I don't know that it'll cost him anything," Sumlin said. "Like I said, there are things that go on within the game, within the week just to keep guys having fun. I think what you see about this team more than anything else is that they're playing with a lot of energy, particularly the guys that played all year in some really tough ballgames."
Manziel finished 14-of-20 for 267 yards with three touchdowns and an interception and ran for 100 yards and two more touchdowns on 16 carries. He became the first SEC player, first freshman in FBS history to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a season. He's the fifth FBS player to do it after Vince Young (Texas), Dan LeFevour (Central Michigan), Colin Kaepernick (Nevada) and Chandler Harnish (Northern Illinois).
Record breaking has been the norm for the dual-threat sensation, and his teammates are hopeful that Manziel can win the award not just for himself, but for the team.
"We just try to play hard for him," senior center Patrick Lewis said. "We want to block hard for any quarterback that's back there and knowing all the things that he can do with the football, we just try to block to the whistle. We want him to win the Heisman. That would be good for him and also good for us because we helped him get there. We just play hard and we don't worry about it. If it comes, it comes. If it doesn't, then we'll probably be a little disappointed but we'll be alright."
Because of the deflating finish to the 2011 season, the graduation of a first-round pick at quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) and the entry into college football's premier conference, expectations by observers nationwide weren't high for this year's Aggies. But the coaches and players had expectations of their own and with one more win to go until they hit 10, they seem to be meeting their own and righting some of the wrongs of last season in the process.
"It's amazing," senior linebacker Sean Porter said. "We're very, very excited about it. We went through a lot of ups and downs last year and we thought we had a really good team last year, too. It was kind of the same feeling before this season. But last year we couldn't do it and [now] we just feel like we're on the right track."
The No. 8 Aggies recorded their fourth straight win, a 47-28 victory over the FCS's third-ranked team, Sam Houston State, before 87,101 on Saturday at Kyle Field.
Let's glance at the notables from the game:
It was over when: The Aggies' offense stepped on the field for the third quarter. Already holding a 34-point lead, A&M quickly turned it to 47-0 by scoring on its first two plays of the second half -- an 89-yard touchdown pass from Johnny Manziel to Uzoma Nwachukwu and and 80-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Jameill Showers to LeKendrick Williams.
Game ball goes to: Stop me if this is beginning to sound like a broken record ... Manziel. The redshirt freshman quarterback didn't really do anything to hurt his Heisman Trophy candidacy as he was 14-of-20 passing for 267 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. He became the first freshman in NCAA history to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards and also broke the FBS freshman rushing and total offense yardage marks.
Key stat: 20.6, the average yards per completion for the Aggies. Big plays were the theme for the Texas A&M offense, particularly in the passing game. In addition to two third-quarter touchdown passes, Mike Evans had receptions of 33 and 20 yards.
What it means: The Aggies are now one win away from 10. If they are able to get a win next week versus Missouri, it would be the first time since 1998 that the Aggies have won 10 games in a season. A win would also ensure the Aggies finish no lower than second in the SEC West, which is well above the preseason expectations many pundits had.
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