Texas A&M Aggies: Zaycoven Henderson

When it comes to Texas A&M's spring, the first question surrounding the Aggies often relates to the quarterback battle and who is in the lead to succeed Johnny Manziel.

The next question is usually relates to the defense, and how much better -- if at all -- the unit will be after a disastrous 2013 season.

While neither can be definitively answered, when it comes to the defense, there is at least some reason for optimism coming out of spring football. The Aggies can't get much worse than they were a year ago, when the ranked last or near last in the SEC in virtually every major statistical category, but there were signs during spring practice that indicate that brighter days are ahead for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder's group.

One reason the Aggies have to feel better about their defense is the experience they'll have. Last year the root of the struggles seemed to be the youth and inexperience up and down the depth chart, with the Aggies having as many as a dozen freshmen in the defensive two-deep.

Though the Aggies will still be relatively young in some areas (particularly linebacker), most of the players who are candidates to start or see significant time were thrown in the fire last season.

Middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni is a perfect example. Though he'll only be a sophomore this fall, he started against Alabama last Sept. 14 and in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Duke. Mastrogiovanni called it "overwhelming," but as the guy getting first-team work at his position this spring, coaches have heaped praise upon the former ESPN 300 prospect.

Should defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne return from suspensions (both missed the spring after February arrests), they too will benefit. Both started a large portion of the season as true freshmen.

Other players who could be in position to contribute, such as linebacker Shaan Washington or cornerback Noel Ellis, weren't starters but saw enough field time to give them a taste of what life in the SEC is like.

Add to those young players a host of returning veterans, such as the starting secondary of Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris, Howard Matthews and Julien Obioha, Gavin Stansbury and Alonzo Williams and the Aggies can begin piecing together a more experienced defense.

With so many players returning (nine starters return from last year's defense) and a top-five recruiting class on the way, the Aggies will continue to add to their talent level on defense. One defensive player is already on campus (defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson) and showed flashes of his potential during spring football.

With players like defensive end Myles Garrett, the nation's No. 4 overall prospect, ESPN 300 athlete Nick Harvey, who will be a defensive back at Texas A&M and other ESPN 300 prospects like Deshawn Washington, Otaro Alaka, Qualen Cunningham, Armani Watts and Josh Walker, competition will only increase when preseason training camp starts.


The increased depth on the defensive line could be the biggest factor in helping the defense improve. Snyder indicated how critical it was earlier this month.

"Up front for the first time, we're going to be able to roll people," Snyder said. "I told [defensive line coach] Terry [Price] … that when we get to the fall, we're going to have to practice our rotations, which is a great thing."

For the Aggies, there really is nowhere to go but up defensively. They could be another year away from being the kind of defense they hope to be, but the developments this spring suggest at least some improvement is in order in 2014.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Building the proper depth along the offensive and defensive lines has been one of Texas A&M's chief goals since joining the SEC.

In a league often dominated by line-of-scrimmage play, the Aggies know they have to be up to par if they want to be long-term contenders in the conference. On the offensive line, that hasn't been an issue. They've stayed relatively healthy and had high-level players across the front five.

Zaycovian Henderson
William Wilkerson/ESPNEarly enrollee Zaycoven Henderson is making an impact at Texas A&M.
On defense, it's another story.

While the Aggies had the luxury of a mostly veteran line and a highly productive defensive end in Damontre Moore in 2012, their inaugural SEC season, the 2013 season brought something totally different. The Aggies were young, inexperienced and not particularly deep as they continued to recruit in an effort to get better numbers on the defensive line.

After the Aggies' 13th practice of the spring on Wednesday, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder indicated that they're making progress toward that effort.

"Up front for the first time, we're going to be able to roll people," Snyder said. "I told [defensive line coach] Terry [Price] yesterday that when we get to the fall, we're going to have to practice our rotations, which is a great thing."

Snyder and Price could look at opponents such as Alabama, Auburn and LSU last season with envy. Those programs have enough talent on their defensive fronts to freely substitute and not worry about a drop-off in level of play. Texas A&M hasn't had that luxury the last two seasons, but with a heavy focus on defensive line recruiting in recent seasons and a highly regarded group coming in from the 2014 recruiting class, the Aggies are taking steps toward having that ability.

One benefit is that the Aggies return virtually their entire defensive line from 2013. Those same players who were rushed into duty as youngsters, such as defensive tackles Isaiah Golden and Hardreck Walker and defensive ends Daeshon Hall and Jay Arnold, will no longer be freshmen and have a year of SEC experience under their belts.

Add into the mix five-star prospect Myles Garrett, ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham and four-star defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson as part of a five-man defensive line class, and suddenly the pieces begin to come in place.

Garrett, Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson are a trio of defensive ends due in Aggieland in the summer and it has pushed the incumbent defensive ends, such as junior Julien Obioha, to raise their level of play this spring.

"Obioha's fighting for his life because competition makes us all better and he knows what's coming," Snyder said.

Henderson is the only one of the five defensive line recruits to enroll in January and he'll be joined in the summer by Deshawn Washington. Henderson has already made waves in his short time on campus, but he still has progress to make this summer.

"(The new) guys, (they) don't know how to practice. (Henderson is) a little bit out of shape," Snyder said. "He does have a big rear end and he's a plugger in the middle. When he's fresh, he's not bad. ... Right now he's three plays and he's done. He's going to bring some beef up front for us."

Veterans such as Obioha, senior defensive end Gavin Stansbury and junior defensive tackle Alonzo Williams, who have two years of experience, are expected to have significant roles again this season. With those returnees, a redshirt freshman entering the mix [Justin Manning], the returning youngsters and incoming recruits on the way, the future on the defensive front looks a little bit better for the Aggies after a disastrous 2013 on defense.

"We're not there," Snyder said of the defensive depth. "We still need another recruiting class, but we're way, way, way closer."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M’s work toward putting a defensive product on the field that is drastically better than the one that lined up in 2013 is among the most important offseason tasks.

Climbing out of the SEC cellar in major defensive statistical categories is critical if the Aggies wish to succeed in the SEC West. Central to that goal is the performance of the Aggies’ defensive line, a unit that is a work in progress this spring.

[+] Enlarge Julien Obioha
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJulien Obioha is a season contributor on the Aggies' DL. Now he's looking for some help.
There’s a mix of missing bodies due to injury (defensive ends Jay Arnold, Daeshon Hall and Tyrone Taylor) as well as one to a suspension (Isaiah Golden, who recently withdrew from school but is expected back). That has given a chance for new faces to get turns in the rotation and show their worthiness to the coaching staff.

“Zaycoven [Henderson] has continued to impress,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said of the true freshman, who enrolled in January.

Henderson, at 6-foot-1 and 310 pounds, appears to be a possible instant-impact player. The four-star 2014 prospect, who was previously committed to TCU and Texas before eventually landing in Aggieland, brings the size and ability the Aggies need to improve their quality and depth at defensive tackle. That’s significant for a run defense that allowed 222 rushing yards per game and ranked 110th nationally (as well as last in the SEC) in that area.

Another defensive tackle making waves this month is one from the previous recruiting class: 2013 signee Justin Manning.

Ranked as the top defensive tackle in the state of Texas in his class, and the ninth-best nationally, Manning didn’t see a snap of game action last fall while he redshirted. But Golden’s absence has allowed Manning to get some time in the two-deep this spring and show the improvements he has made.

“[He] showed some twitch that he had in high school,” Sumlin said. “He lost a little weight; when he got here he was out of shape. He has come on.”

If Henderson and Manning can contribute, that helps bolster the Aggies up the middle, where they already have veteran Alonzo Williams and sophomore Hardreck Walker, who also contributed as a true freshman. With ESPN 300 defensive tackle DeShawn Washington arriving this summer and Golden expected to return, the Aggies could begin to show the kind of depth Sumlin has been pining for since taking over the program.

At defensive end, there’s a mix of veterans and youth. Julien Obioha, who has been a starter since his true freshman season, is now a junior. Senior Gavin Stansbury is coming off his best season in Aggieland, showing flashes of his potential last fall. Senior Tyrell Taylor is back also and has been getting turns this spring.

The two young players at the position who are sitting out with injuries this spring -- Arnold and Hall -- both saw time as true freshmen last season, suggesting a promising future for each. And in the summer, the Aggies will welcome the services of five-star recruit Myles Garrett as well as ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham and three-star prospect Jarrett Johnson.

Obioha said he is looking forward to the increased depth.

“I’m really excited,” he said. “My first couple of years here I had to play 60-70 plays [per game] and you don’t want to play that much. When you think about a two-deep or a three-deep, you want to play maybe 35 plays and having those 35 plays be where you can come 100 percent every play and you’re not tired.”

Defensive line coach Terry Price’s message to his group this spring has been clear.

“Last year, bottom of the SEC, bottom 25 in the nation, that’s not going to happen this year, that’s been the message,” Obioha said. “We’re going to be completely different this year from the bottom to the top and it all starts with the D-line.”
With Texas A&M taking a brief hiatus from the field concurrent to the school's spring break this week, we'll look back at notes and nuggets from the first five practices of spring football for the Aggies. Here's the second installment:

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M defensive line coach Terry Price sent a clear message to his players this spring: Being where they were last year is not going to cut it this season.

The Aggies defensive line was part of a defense that ranked last in the SEC and in the bottom 30 nationally in many statistical categories.

"We're going to be completely different from last year, from the bottom to the top," junior defensive end Julien Obioha said.

Zaycovian Henderson
William Wilkerson/ESPNEarly enrollee Zaycoven Henderson is making an impact at Texas A&M.
Part of the Aggies' hopes for improvement stems from the influx of arriving talent, augmenting the defensive line's quality and depth. The Aggies signed five defensive linemen in the 2014 recruiting class, and four are on their way this summer. One is already on campus, and he's making waves in his short time practicing with the team: Zaycoven Henderson.

The four-star prospect from Longview (Texas) High School was the lone early enrollee among the Aggies' defensive line recruits, and stood out in the Aggies' first scrimmage of the spring on Thursday.

"Zaycoven Henderson was noticeable," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He was with the [second team], but he's a guy that really needs the summer to get into football-playing shape, but there's no doubt that he's a very, very talented young man and is benefiting from graduating early."

At 310 pounds, Henderson certainly has the size desired for his position. Teammates have noticed his ability as well.

"That guy is very, very strong," Obioha said. "He has meat and potatoes. Henderson is just a strong guy. Strong, fast, athletic -- whatever is good about a D-lineman, Henderson has right now."

Given his good start to spring practice, it might not be a surprise to see Henderson earn some time with the first team when the Aggies return to the field next week. Obioha noted that Henderson's work ethic appears to be good, and his passion for improvement is evident.

"He's young and he's hungry to learn right now," Obioha said of Henderson. "That's one of the best things about him; he wants to get better. He has all the talent in the world. If he keeps his ambition up, he can do whatever he wants."

That's good news for Price and the A&M defensive line, which needs all the help it can get if it's going to improve this fall.

Opening spring camp: Texas A&M

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
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Schedule: The Aggies begin spring practice on Friday and will go through the first week of April, while taking off spring break week in between. Because of the redevelopment project of Kyle Field, the Aggies will not have their annual maroon-and-white spring game.

What’s new: The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator (Jake Spavital, previously A&M's quarterbacks coach) and a new secondary coach (Terry Joseph, previously at Nebraska and replacing departed secondary coach Marcel Yates, who is now at Boise State). Aside from that, the coaching staff stayed stable and most of the newness will come on the field, as the Aggies face life post-Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews.

[+] EnlargeCedric Ogbuehi
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherWhoever Texas A&M names at quarterback will have Cedric Ogbuehi protecting him at left tackle.
On the move: Offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi moves from right tackle to left tackle to fill the void left by Jake Matthews. On defense, linebacker Darian Claiborne -- who started nine games at middle linebacker -- moves to his natural position of weakside linebacker.

New faces: Texas A&M had seven recruits who enrolled in January and who will be available for spring football: quarterback Kyle Allen, junior college offensive linemen Jermaine Eluemunor and Avery Gennesy, offensive lineman J.J. Gustafson, defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, receiver Speedy Noil and junior college receiver Joshua Reynolds.

Also, outside linebacker A.J. Hilliard -- a transfer from TCU -- will go through his second spring in Aggieland, but 2014 will be the first year he is eligible to play for A&M after sitting out the 2013 season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Question marks: Some of the biggest question marks going into spring practice are related to off-the-field issues. Head coach Kevin Sumlin hasn't publicly commented on defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and Claiborne, both of whom were arrested over the weekend on separate charges. Athletics department policy calls for them to be suspended immediately and indefinitely while things are sorted out, but how much time will they miss this spring? As for on the field, most of the questions exist on a defense that was last in the SEC in points allowed, yards allowed, rushing and red zone efficiency last season. Will the young defensive line show improvement? Will the secondary play, specifically from the safeties, get better? Can two new faces at linebacker help the cause?

Key battle: The main one everyone will watch is at quarterback, where senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and Allen will square off. At right tackle, expect the junior college transfers, Eluemunor and Gennesy, to compete for the starting job initially. There are receiver positions up for grabs and a host of candidates. There's a spot at strongside linebacker up for grabs as well.

Breaking out: With Mike Evans gone, there are a lot of catches and yards to be had. Only one starter returns at receiver (Malcome Kennedy), but look for one of the young up-and-comers to break out. That guy could be Ricky Seals-Jones, who missed most of last season with a knee injury that he suffered in the season opener against Rice. Seals-Jones is big (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), fast and can be a matchup problem wherever the Aggies put him. Also keep an eye at running back for potential breakout players. The team's two leading rushers the last two seasons -- Manziel and running back Ben Malena -- are gone, so someone has to get those carries. Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams will get the chance to prove their worth, and someone will emerge as the No. 1 back on the depth chart.

Don’t forget about: Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris. For much of last season, you could say Everett was the Aggies' best and most versatile defensive player, flip-flopping from cornerback to safety and vice versa. His versatility gives the Aggies options in the secondary. Harris showed significant improvement last season as a sophomore over his true freshman season in 2012, when he started right out of the gate. If those two remain at corner, their veteran presence will provide some stability in the defensive backfield, and both have shown the ability to be playmakers.

All eyes on: The coordinators. Mark Snyder had a strong first season as the Aggies' defensive coordinator in 2012, but last season's defensive performance had Aggies frustrated. Everyone, including Snyder and his staff, is looking for significant improvement from a group that will be a year older after having a dozen freshmen on the defensive two-deep depth chart at times last season. On offense, Spavital takes over as the play-caller, a duty he assumed before the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. He'll call the plays straight from the sideline and, as the quarterbacks coach, should have a symbiotic relationship with Manziel's successor. It will be interesting to see what wrinkles are added to the offense and what it transforms to under the 28-year-old's watch.
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With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at which programs compiled the nation's best overall position classes in 2014. For the full top position classes series, click here.

Quarterbacks: Florida
The Florida Gators had a major need at quarterback in the Class of 2014, and Will Muschamp and staff more than filled it, signing two of the nation’s top signal-callers. Third-ranked dual-threat prospect Will Grier (Davidson, N.C./Davidson Day School) is already on campus and preparing for spring practice, while No. 7 dual-threat prospect Treon Harris (Miami/Booker T. Washington) was a huge signing-day flip from Florida State. Both prospects are great athletes who are accustomed to operating up-tempo offenses. This should also help newly hired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will install a similar scheme in Gainesville.


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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: Round one of the new Charlie Strong-Kevin Sumlin recruiting rivalry goes to Texas A&M, as the Aggies were able to flip Zaycoven Henderson in what will go down as one of the wildest recruiting stories of the season; Bobby Petrino's hiring at Louisville received mixed reviews from coaches and recruits; and what type of recruiter is Michigan getting with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier?

Aggies win first battle against Strong
College football’s second season is known for plenty of twists and turns, but few will match the bumpy ride that four-star defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson (Longview, Texas/Longview) gave Texas and Texas A&M fans Wednesday. Henderson, the No. 36 defensive tackle, decommitted from Texas, then recommitted to the Longhorns, only to flip to Texas A&M in less than a 24-hour span. Henderson’s decision came in the wake of coaching changes at Texas and the Horns chances slipped majorly when defensive line coach Bo Davis accepted a position at USC. It also marks the first victory for A&M coach Kevin Sumlin over new Texas coach Charlie Strong. Henderson is an early enrollee that was scheduled to start classes in Austin next Monday, but now he’ll be attending classes in College Station. Henderson originally committed to TCU last February but decommitted in September. On Dec. 9, Henderson gave Texas his verbal pledge during a ceremony at his school.

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Texas' loss is Texas A&M's gain.

The Aggies added four-star defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson (Longview, Texas/Longview) to their recruiting class Wednesday, capping off an eventful last 24 hours for the heavily courted prospect.

Henderson, originally a Texas commitment, decommitted then recommitted to Texas in less than a 24-hour span. The change of heart came in the wake of coaching changes at Texas with the addition of Charlie Strong as head coach and the departure of Henderson's future position coach at Texas, Bo Davis, who accepted a similar position at USC.

Two sources with knowledge of the commitment confirmed the news to ESPN.com and Henderson posted the news on his Twitter account Wednesday night. Longview head coach John King also confirmed the news to ESPN.com via text message.

This will be the third time Henderson has committed to a school. Henderson originally committed to TCU last February but decommitted in September. On Dec. 9, Henderson gave Texas his verbal pledge during a ceremony at his school. He chose Texas over Baylor and Texas Tech.

Henderson, an early enrollee who is 6-foot-1 and 318 pounds, was expected to leave for Austin, Texas, on Friday and start classes on Jan. 13. He has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Coming into Wednesday, Texas A&M held the nation's second-ranked recruiting class. Henderson is the Aggies' 22nd commitment and is the fifth defensive lineman to commit. He is the second defensive tackle head coach Kevin Sumlin has brought into the class, joining ESPN 300 prospect DeShawn Washington (Nederland, Texas/Nederland).

Henderson is ranked 36th nationally among defensive tackles and is the No. 47 prospect overall in the state of Texas.

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