Texas A&M Aggies: Ben Malena
2012 conference record: 6-2 (tied for second, West Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1
QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews, WR Mike Evans, DT Kirby Ennis, OLB Steven Jenkins, CB Deshazor Everett, S Howard Matthews
LT Luke Joeckel, C Patrick Lewis, WR Ryan Swope, DE Damontre Moore, OLB Sean Porter, MLB Johnathan Stewart, FS Steven Terrell
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Johnny Manziel* (1,409 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel* (3,706)
Receiving: Mike Evans* (1,105)
Tackles: Damontre Moore (85)
Sacks: Damontre Moore (12.5)
Interceptions: Deshazor Everett* and Steven Terrell (2)
1. Johnny Football: The Aggies are in the rare position of returning the previous season's Heisman Trophy winner. Heading into his sophomore season, Texas A&M is hoping that quarterback Johnny Manziel can be even better than he was a season ago. This will be his second year in the offense and for quarterbacks who have played in this system, year two is typically a season in which they progress significantly as passers. That's one of Manziel's primary goals, even though he'll still run when the time calls for it. As long as he's healthy and playing well, things bode well for the Aggies.
2. Experienced secondary: Last season, the defensive backfield was young and inexperienced. This fall, there are still young players back there, but it is the most experienced unit on the Aggies' defense. Three of the four starters in the secondary from the AT&T Cotton Bowl are back: Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris and Howard Matthews. Junior Floyd Raven has moved from cornerback to free safety and appears to have the skill set (range and tackling prowess) to fit into the position well.
3. Loaded backfield: The Aggies have four good options in their offensive backfield for Manziel to hand off or throw to. Starting running back Ben Malena returns, as does Trey Williams, who returned kicks and received carries as a true freshman. Add to the mix a pair of transfer backs who sat out last season, Brandon Williams (Oklahoma) and Tra Carson (Oregon) and the Aggies have a quartet that gives them a multitude of options.
1. Front seven: The Aggies are looking for someone to replace the production that third-round NFL draft pick Damontre Moore brought last season. Moore led the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks a year ago. Also, with two senior leaders gone from linebacker (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart) Texas A&M not only has to replace the bodies but also the leadership. Because of injuries, the Aggies were thin up front in the spring but when all their key players return in the fall, it will ease at least some of those concerns. Keep an eye on names like defensive end Julien Obioha (who started opposite Moore last year), defensive tackle Alonzo Williams and linebacker Donnie Baggs as players who have a chance to see their contributions increase significantly this year.
2. New receivers: Only one starting receiver returns from last year's squad: Mike Evans. Four of the top six players in receiving yardage are no longer on the roster, including second-leading receiver Ryan Swope. So who will Johnny Manziel throw to? Keep an eye on guys like Malcome Kennedy, who caught a fourth-quarter touchdown against Alabama last season, Derel Walker, who had a strong spring game, Edward Pope, who was a star on the scout team when he redshirted last year and a host of recruits from the 2013 class like Ja'Quay Williams and ESPN 150 duo Ricky Seals-Jones and Sebastian LaRue. Developing other reliable pass-catching options is critical, so keep an eye on how they use the tight ends with newcomer Cameron Clear (6-7, 270) on campus.
3. Kicking game: One player who fans kept a close eye on this spring was kicker Taylor Bertolet. In his redshirt freshman season, the strong-legged kicker struggled with consistency, hitting just 13-of-22 field goal attempts and missing seven point-after attempts. With a new special teams coordinator (Jeff Banks) who has college punting and kicking experience around to guide him, the Aggies are looking for an improvement from Bertolet this fall. Also the Aggies are working in a new punter, Drew Kaser, who takes the reins after senior Ryan Epperson graduated.
Who could be candidates to have their names called at this time next year, when the 2014 NFL draft arrives? Here are some names to know, both seniors and non-seniors:
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In all its crystal glory, college football's national championship trophy made a brief stop at Kyle Field on Saturday.
Parked on the sideline for a live television shot during Texas A&M's Maroon-and-White spring football game, as well as for photo opportunities for those who walked by, it was a seemingly symbolic placement of the sport's most coveted piece of hardware, mere feet from a team that might have a realistic chance to hoist it next January.
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesQB Johnny Manziel (right) was 24-of-30 for 303 yards with three touchdowns in Texas A&M's spring football game.
But that's many months away. In the meantime, the nation got its first extended glimpse of the 2013 Aggies, a team that could be ranked in the preseason top five come August. The score was Maroon (offense) 43, and White (defense) 23, but that mattered little. What the record crowd of 45,212 came to see was how the Aggies looked and, more specifically, what their reigning Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel, would do.
Johnny Football didn't disappoint. He was 24-of-30 for 303 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against an overmatched second-team Aggies defense. He got out of the pocket and scrambled a few times (three carries, 18 yards), but that was not going to be part of the show today in the interest of keeping him healthy. Nobody was going to touch Manziel, although he almost found himself in harm's way when he tried to throw a cut block on sophomore defensive back Sam Moeller to pave the way for a Brandon Williams touchdown.
Just one of those "Johnny Football" moments for the redshirt sophomore.
"I went up and apologized to Sam after it," Manziel said. "The way I am and the way my motor drives me, it was just an instinct play. As much as Coach [Kevin] Sumlin was shaking his head and wasn't happy about it, it was more of 'Hey, in a game, this is how it would have been.' It just naturally took over for me."
He stayed healthy, as did most of the players who participated. The only notable injury to come out of Saturday's scrimmage was an MCL sprain for junior linebacker Tommy Sanders, who'll be ready in the fall.
Several other things about the 2013 Aggies became clear on Saturday. Williams showed why he was such a coveted recruit coming out of Brookshire (Texas) Royal High School, racking up a team-high 59 rushing yards on seven carries and catching three passes for 29 yards while recording a rushing and receiving touchdown. The Aggies' starting running back from 2012, Ben Malena, is back, as is Trey Williams, who contributed as a true freshman. Adding Williams and Oregon transfer Tra Carson to the mix (both sat out per NCAA transfer rules last season) adds more dimensions to the Aggies' backfield and their offense.
"Brandon Williams is very talented. He's a home run threat from anywhere on the field," Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "We plan on [using all four backs]. ... It's a good problem to have. The thing about those four guys, is that they all bring something different to the table."
While the defense didn't have its best day, its performance can be taken with a grain of salt with three surefire starters sidelined by injury, and another two defensive linemen who have taken first-team reps also sitting out. The unit out there Saturday wasn't exactly what will suit up for the Aggies this fall.
What the Aggies are hoping to develop is leadership. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that safety Howard Matthews is emerging as a leader, as is middle linebacker Donnie Baggs. Having that presence is critical because the Aggies waved goodbye to two of their best defensive leaders, linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, who both graduated.
That said, plenty of the signs Aggies fans were looking for were present on Saturday. Manziel looked in top form. So did sophomore receiver Mike Evans. The offensive line -- though missing soon-to-be first-round pick Luke Joeckel and graduated center Patrick Lewis -- is coming together well. The remainder of a top-10 recruiting class is on the way in the fall and could produce a few more quick contributors.
Manziel will go back to work and team up with George Whitfield Jr., the private quarterback coach he worked with last summer. Manziel said he's ready to eliminate any doubts about what is ahead for him and this year's Texas A&M squad.
"The big conversation that [Whitfield and I] had before Alabama was 'Be a dragon slayer, slay the dragon,' " Manziel said. "Now there's a big dragon out there for us with all the people that are doubting A&M and all the people that are doubting me, (saying) that last year was a fluke. So that's a chip on my shoulder and that's a dragon we need to slay this year."
There is plenty to take away from the first extended on-field look at the 2013 Aggies, but here are a few things that stood out:
Brandon Williams looks like a potential playmaker: The Brookshire (Texas) Royal graduate, who is nicknamed "Slim," showed some nice moves and ability when he was on the field Saturday. In a handful of touches, Williams showed good vision and speed and was able to beat a few defenders to the pylon for a touchdown run midway through the scrimmage. His initial action was with the second-team offense, but he received plenty of time with the first team as well. Naturally, Ben Malena was the traditional first-team back and Tra Carson got some repetitions as well [freshman Trey Williams, who has been injured all spring, did not participate]. But Williams looked a lot like someone who will get touches and be productive this fall.
Floyd Raven experiment at safety is showing progress: As defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and head coach Kevin Sumlin noted earlier this spring, there are two things Raven does really well that fit the free safety position: He has good speed and he can hit. On Saturday he showed a nose for the football, intercepting quarterback Johnny Manziel once and nearly doing it a second time later in the scrimmage. The junior certainly looks the part so far.
Offensive line set? Whenever the first-team offense was out on the field, the same group of five was out there: Jake Matthews at left tackle, Jarvis Harrison at left guard, Mike Matthews at center, Germain Ifedi at right guard and Cedric Ogbuehi at right tackle. The primary battles going into the spring were to be at center and right guard and so far, it appears Mike Matthews and Ifedi have a solid grasp on those spots.
Positive signs from the kicking game: Sure, the scrimmage doesn't count, but fans certainly had to be happy to see Taylor Bertolet connect on his kicks. The only miscue in the kicking game was a mistake by the holder, punter Drew Kaser, that forced Bertolet to stutter step before a kick that was blockes. But every other field goal and point-after-touchdown attempt that Bertolet tried went through the uprights. The sophomore is looking to bounce back from an inconsistent 2012 season in which he was 13-of-22 on field goal attempts and 67-of-74 on extra point tries.
The stars are still the stars: Manziel made some nice throws and though he did throw three interceptions -- some of which might have been forced since he wasn't really running the football himself -- he overall had a solid day. He certainly remembers how to get the ball to the Aggies' best receiver, Mike Evans, who probably had the most impressive day of anybody, catching two touchdowns and picking up where he left off from 2012.
Sure, there are holdovers that were around and played the year before, but all in all, he looks at each of his teams as a new one.
AP Photo/Michael PrenglerCan Texas A&M Johnny Manziel duplicate his Heisman-winning success in 2013?
Going along with this new Aggies team is a new set of expectations. At this time a year ago, many across the country thought Texas A&M was headed for a buzzsaw in the SEC and some even felt the Aggies would be fortunate to earn a bowl berth.
Instead, Texas A&M destroyed perception and created their own, new reality, one that had them finish the season fifth in the national rankings and winning 11 games for the first time since 1998.
As a result, the Aggies will enter this fall as a highly-ranked team in the preseason, perhaps in the top five, after being unranked going into last season. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel said the Aggies are trying to keep the same approach they did a season ago despite the change in outside perception.
"I feel like we're doing all right," Manziel said. "We're still out here just playing football, doing the same thing that we did last year. We didn't have a lot of expectations last year. There's a lot more talk this year. For us, it's just to continue to make sure that we do the things that got us to where we are today."
In many ways, the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback's change in status over the course of the last year is a microcosm of how perception and expectations of Texas A&M have changed. During spring football a year ago, few outside of College Station, Texas, or Manziel's previous Texas hometowns, Kerrville and Tyler, knew his name.
Now, he has a nickname -- "Johnny Football" -- that is known across the college football landscape. With a full offseason and a 13 games worth of game footage to break down Manziel's game, it's natural to think that opposing coaches, particularly those in the SEC, will be better prepared for Manziel, who befuddled defenses all last season.
Manziel, again, said he plans to keep doing what he has been.
"Coaches are going to scheme just like they always do," Manziel said. "Some might have one game [circled] on their calendar, but I highly doubt it. This was the same talk whenever we were in the Cotton Bowl and they [Oklahoma] had a month to prepare. That didn't really work out well for them.
"If they want three months, four months, whatever, we're OK with it. We're going to be here trying to get better and trying to make sure we're going to outplay them on Saturday."
Aggies' offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said he likes the position the team is in.
"I'd rather be in the position we are now than in the position we were in last year," McKinney said. "We'd rather be at the top, getting hunted. That means we're always out front, rather than not being ranked and having to climb so far."
The Aggies also know that because they are hunted, they must continue to push if they want to repeat or improve on last year's success.
"When Coach Sumlin first got here last year, he told us that we had enough talent to beat anybody," running back Ben Malena said. "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.
"The work ethic of the team collectively has stepped up even more. We know last year's success was last year's success, but this year's success will be even harder because now you have a target on your back."
The pair first crossed paths in the late 1990s. McKinney was a young, budding offensive coordinator at Houston's Booker T. Washington High School, while Sumlin was an assistant at Purdue, coaching wide receivers and serving as recruiting coordinator.
Sam Khan Jr./ESPNExpect Texas A&M to continue its up-tempo approach with new offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney.
"We were hanging out one day, and he told me at that time, that if he ever had an opportunity to hire me, he would," McKinney said.
About 10 years later, when Sumlin was putting together his first staff as a head coach at Houston, he lobbed a call to McKinney, who at the time had worked his way up the ladder in Houston coaching circles and was a successful head coach at his alma mater, Jack Yates High School, which sits literally across the street from the University of Houston campus.
Sumlin was making good on his word and offered McKinney a position as an assistant.
"He made the phone call and without hesitation, I asked him when I needed to show up for work," McKinney said.
The pair have worked together the last five years and had marked success, first, for four years at Houston and now at Texas A&M, where the Aggies put together a memorable 11-2 campaign that included a Heisman Trophy winner. Now, McKinney -- who started his college coaching career as Sumlin's running backs coach at Houston -- is now the man who will call the plays for the Aggies as their offensive coordinator in what is one of the most anticipated seasons in school history.
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.
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M has to replace a number of starters on offense, including left tackle Luke Joeckel.
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."
Whether it's the national perception of the program, expectations, or any number of other things, this does not appear to be the same program college football fans knew a year ago.
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesComing off an 11-2 season and a Cotton Bowl victory, the expectations have never been higher for Texas A&M.
He paused for five seconds.
"How about that? That was five seconds," Sumlin said as a few reporters chuckled and he began to laugh himself. "We don't have time for that."
Sumlin's point was that no, he hasn't thought about how different it is. He's too concerned trying to make sure the Aggies keep up in the ultra-competitive SEC.
Whether Sumlin and the Aggies like it or not, things are different and people are expecting more from Texas A&M than they did a year ago. At this time last year, some thought the Aggies would be lucky to go 7-5 in their inaugural season as SEC members and a few even figured the Aggies would be .500 or worse, or as Sumlin said "get their brains kicked in."
An 11-2 campaign and a Heisman Trophy-winner later, expectations have taken a complete 180. Now observers around the country are pegging the Aggies as a preseason top-five team for 2013 [they were fourth in ESPN's recent Way Too Early Top 25] and contenders for the SEC West, SEC and perhaps even BCS titles.
The Aggies' second-year head coach is not talking that way publicly, but instead is trying to make sure the Aggies keep pace with their conference foes.
"We're nowhere near that stage," Sumlin 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 a recruiting standpoint, we're top-10 in the country [but] we're fourth in our own division; fifth, by one standard. So we're still moving there. You look at our depth, we wouldn't be moving a wide receiver to linebacker if we had enough guys."
Still, how will Sumlin and his coaching staff deal with the heightened expectations when it comes to his players? This will be one of the most anticipated seasons in A&M football history.
"This is my second season. I couldn't tell you how hyped any season has been here before," Sumlin said. "It certainly doesn't affect me and it doesn't affect these [players] because they haven't been here as long as [some people]."
So far, the increased expectations and attention haven't appeared to have an adverse effect on the Aggies' biggest star, quarterback Johnny Manziel. Sumlin said all the offseason attention and scrutiny has "nothing to do with his performance level." His teammates say the Heisman Trophy winner hasn't changed.
"[He's] still the same guy," running back Ben Malena said. "Still works hard, still the leader of our offense, still the quarterback of our offense. The off-campus situation, we really can't speak to that because we're not Johnny Manziel. But as a player and as a leader, he's still the same guy that won a Heisman last year."
But Sumlin said he'd rather have it high expectations than no expectations.
"That's part of it," he said. "I would rather it be that way than nobody talk about us at all. It helps recruiting, it helps everything. So that's OK."
Malena said that last year's success has led to an increased work ethic as the team looks to build on its 2012 campaign.
"When Coach Sumlin first got here last year, he told us that we had enough talent to beat anybody," Malena said. "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. The work ethic of the team collectively has stepped up even more. We know last year's success was last year's success but this year's success will be even harder because now you have a target on your back."
John David Mercer/US PresswireQuarterback Johnny Manziel is undoubtedly the player to watch this spring, but who else will step up on offense for the Aggies?
On the mend: Sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha missed the Cotton Bowl with an injury, so his status this spring is up in the air. Sophomore linebacker Michael Richardson is recovering from a spine surgery.
On the move: Junior Cedric Ogbuehi is moving from right guard to right tackle and will take over for senior Jake Matthews, who will be sliding over from right tackle and stepping in at left tackle for Outland Trophy winner Luke Joeckel.
Prime positioning: Junior Deshazor Everett could play cornerback or safety. He started all 13 games last season, but shuffled between cornerback and safety. Junior Howard Matthews returns at safety after having a breakout 2012 season.
Question marks: The status of returning starter Kirby Ennis at defensive tackle is up in the air after his arrest and subsequent suspension from the team. He was arrested on a gun charge last month. Two other senior tackles -- Spencer Nealy and Jonathan Mathis -- are also gone. The Aggies will need some younger players to develop in the middle of that defensive line, and replacing Damontre Moore at end will also be a challenge. Sophomore Alonzo Williams could factor in at both end and tackle after playing some last season as a true freshman. He started for the injured Obioha in the Cotton Bowl.
New faces: Eight players from the 2013 class are already enrolled and will go through spring practice. Four linebackers are part of that group, and the Aggies lost two senior starters -- Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Tommy Sanders, one of the top-ranked junior college linebackers in the country, could be an immediate contributor as an outside linebacker. Freshman Reggie Chevis of Houston will get a long look at middle linebacker. Freshman Alex Sezer of Orange, Texas, could make a run at one of the starting cornerback jobs. Junior college newcomer Cameron Clear, who started his career at Tennessee, will be somebody to watch at both tight end and H-back.
Breaking out: There’s another Matthews on the horizon. Mike Matthews, the younger brother of Jake Matthews, is the front-runner to replace Patrick Lewis at center. The younger Matthews played some last season as a true freshman. Also, junior receiver Malcome Kennedy had a strong close to last season and will be looking to build off that momentum. The Aggies are losing three senior starters at receiver, including Ryan Swope.
Don’t forget about: Junior running back Brandon Williams is ready to go after sitting out last season. A transfer from Oklahoma, Williams could also be a factor on kickoff returns. He’s one of the most explosive players on the roster and has big play written all over him.
Backed up: The Aggies shouldn’t have any shortage of options at running back, even with Christine Michael departing. In addition to Williams, Oregon transfer Tra Carson will be eligible in 2013. At 240 pounds, he projects as the short-yardage guy. Sophomore Trey Williams rates up there with Brandon Williams as a solid breakout candidate and averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season on limited touches. Senior Ben Malena returns as the feature back. He was one of the more underrated running backs in the SEC last season with 808 rushing yards and eight touchdowns and is also a solid pass protector.
All eyes on: What does Johnny Manziel do for an encore, and how does he mesh with his new offensive coordinator? He set an SEC record with 5,116 yards of total offense last season and won the Heisman Trophy. Redshirt freshmen simply aren’t supposed to put up those kinds of numbers, but Manziel just got better and better as the season progressed. Now, the question becomes: How does he handle that success, and what kind of blow will it be for him to lose Kingsbury as his coordinator and quarterbacks coach? It certainly didn’t seem to faze him in the bowl game. The bigger question may be Manziel’s backup. Jameill Showers transferred to UTEP. Redshirt freshman Matt Davis will battle junior Matt Joeckel for that job.
So which returnees could be the breakout players of 2013? Here are five names to keep an eye on heading into Texas A&M spring practice, which begins on Saturday:
Ben Compton -- The 6-foot-4, 307-pound Compton made the move from center to guard last season and saw action in all 13 games. Though primarily a reserve guard, he does have the ability to play center, so expect him to be in the mix to battle for a starting spot somewhere on the interior offensive line. With Cedric Ogbuehi moving from right guard to right tackle, Compton could slide in as his successor at right guard.
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GigEmNation writer Sam Khan Jr. chatted with readers on Friday about Texas A&M football and recruiting. Here's the full transcript of the chat. Here's an excerpt from the chat:
Hallan (Boston): Does Manziel get another Heisman despite losing WRs and Joeckel?
Sam Khan Jr.: It won't be easy. Manziel is talented enough to do it, but it won't be good enough to go 11-2 again this year to win it. Because of the huge season the Aggies had last year, they probably have to be ranked in the top two at the end of the regular season for him to have a serious chance at winning it again. After seeing what I saw last year though, I'll never count against him.
Evan (CS): Will Zach Whitley make his decision before his senior season starts?
Sam Khan Jr.: Evan, when I visited with Whitley a couple of weeks ago, he told me he doesn't intend to decide until after his senior season. Now a lot of recruits say that, and things can change. Whitley said he's committed to his high school team and focused on that. If he wavers from that plan, we'll know by late spring/early summer. If in the summer time he still talks about waiting until the end of his senior season, then I'll for sure believe that.
Chad (Houston): What is the best way to utilize all of the playmakers on the RB depth chart next year? There are a couple of studs, but when you run 4- and 5-WR sets, you can't have a lot of RBs on the field also.
Sam Khan Jr.: Chad, that's going to be on Clarence McKinney and Kevin Sumlin. I think you could see some wrinkles like Houston used when they had three quality starting running backs in 2011 (Sumlin's last year at Houston). They had some diamond formation packages with all three running backs back there, and if any of them are good enough to split out at receiver, you can put those guys in motion in the passing game. More than anything, it's huge for their depth. Naturally, because of his size, I think you see Tra Carson (230-240 pounds) being more of a short-yardage, in-between-the-tackles type; Ben Malena probably remains the starter; and Trey Williams will probably continue to be a change-of-pace type. The wild card is Brandon Williams, who is extremely talented. He has the potential to be a game-breaker.
That statement turned out to be true as Ben Malena, Christine Michael and Trey Williams all saw work.
With Michael having graduated and preparing for the NFL, the Aggies return two players from the trio in Malena (who started nine games) and Williams. And that backfield will become even more crowded this fall when sophomores Tra Carson and Brandon Williams join the mix.
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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
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?
Sam Khan Jr.: I think Malcome Kennedy's emergence throughout the season means he'll certainly be a candidate to take Swope's role next season. The Aggies have a ton of receivers coming in the current recruiting class but I think Kennedy has already proven that he deserves time on the field and as long as he continues to show progress in the spring, summer and fall camp, it should be his job to lose. As for Nwachukwu's spot, I imagine Sabian Holmes, Ed Pope and Derel Walker are all possibilities. They're all young and unproven but they all have ability. That could also be a spot where one of the new recruits has a chance to fight for a job, perhaps someone like Ja'Quay Williams or Ricky Seals-Jones. As for Carson and Williams, my guess would be that Williams steps into a role similar to what Christine Michael had this year as the secondary back and a guy who can go between the tackles or hit the outside. I expect Ben Malena will still be the starter next year. Williams has a ton of ability though and if he can hold on to the football, I could see him push for a decent amount of carries. He's an explosive player. Carson, with his big body, my guess is he could have a role as a short-yardage guy.
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