Texas A&M Aggies: Damontre Moore
Two weeks ago, when the Aggies hosted Vanderbilt, they came up with seven sacks in a 56-24 win over the Commodores.
Last week against UTEP, the Aggies picked up two more sacks in a 57-7 victory. Suddenly, a team that struggled to get near the quarterback is showing signs of being able to do it with consistency.
"We've been able to turn it up a little bit," head coach Kevin Sumlin said.
One of the key figures in the Aggies' recent improvement is junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury. In the last two weeks, Stansbury has been a force, picking up a combined 16 tackles and three sacks, two of which came against Vanderbilt.
Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder felt like that game could be a turning point for Stansbury.
"He's got a different look in his eye," Snyder said. "He comes in here to meetings and he's bouncing around, having a game like that is really going to be good for his confidence too. Everybody needs that game."
The Aggies were efficient at getting to the quarterback last season behind the strength of defensive end Damontre Moore, who led the team with 12.5 sacks. Moore declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft and is now with the New York Giants.
Moore’s departure left a void in the production, and throughout the season, the Aggies have rotated players in and out of the lineup, with the primary three being Stansbury, sophomore Julien Obioha and true freshman Daeshon Hall. Each has had their ups and downs this season, but Stansbury's strong play as of late has been noticeable.
Hall and Obioha have also both picked up tackles for losses in each of the last two games, so it seems like the defensive ends are finding their groove.
Sumlin points out that just because the Aggies weren't racking up sacks, it doesn't mean they weren't getting a pass rush. They were struggling in other areas as well.
"I think early in the year, we had guys get loose, but because we were taking some other chances, we had no contain on the other side," Sumlin said. "So the quarterback flushes out the back door. Or we've got pressure here and we didn't hold our gaps in the middle and the quarterback just runs up the field. So the pressure has been there but the quarterback has escaped a bunch in the first part of the year.
"I think we've been a lot more sound in what we're doing and guys understand that 'Hey, just running to the quarterback isn't going to get it. These guys have a plan too.' They're going to take off and go somewhere. You need to maintain your gap structure, even in the pass rush. And I think that's really, really helped us."
Stansbury started the season off on a bad note, missing the first two games after being suspended for violating athletic department rules and regulations. He said he has played that much harder to "make up for it" and that he's working on continuing to develop. His three sacks are currently tied for the team lead.
"My thing is, I feel like I'm getting better but I need to improve every week," Stansbury said. "It's not a satisfying thing but it's getting better every week."
Stansbury said the intensity has been dialed up and that has led to the defensive line’s resurgence.
"Emotion and effort," he said. "Swarming to the ball. Just trying to get there. Everybody's playing with intensity and going off each other."
The No. 15 Aggies will have to continue that if they hope to keep having success when they host Mississippi State on Saturday at Kyle Field. They'll face a talented dual-threat quarterback in Dak Prescott.
As for Stansbury, much like Moore a year ago, Snyder thinks things might finally be clicking for his new star pass-rusher.
"I don't remember what game it was for Damontre last year but he had one of those games ... where he kind of turned it on and the ball started rolling for him," Snyder said. "Hopefully the same thing happens for Gavin."
With the Crimson Tide coming to Kyle Field for a rematch with the Aggies, anticipation has built throughout the offseason. The Tide are again No. 1, defending their BCS championship from a year ago and the Aggies still have their linchpin, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who made his most compelling case for the trophy that afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
As the heavily hyped clash approaches, let's look back at some of the keys to last year's game and how they might affect the rematch.
1. Credit to the Texas A&M defense
When dissecting Texas A&M's upset of Alabama last season, many cite the Aggies' offensive explosion en route to a 20-0 first-quarter lead as one of the most difficult things for Alabama to deal with. And while the Aggies used creative playcalling and personnel packages, their fast pace and precision execution to score three touchdowns on their first three drives, the Aggies' defensive effort had as much -- or more -- to do with their ability to take that kind of commanding lead.
The Crimson Tide's next offensive drive started on a much better note for Alabama, with Lacy gaining 23 yards on his first two carries. But everything halted as the Aggies created a turnover when quarterback AJ McCarron tried to find Kenny Bell in the middle of the field. As a McCarron pass hit Bell in the chest, safety Howard Matthews delivered a hard, clean hit to Bell, who dropped the pass. Porter was there to intercept the pass, and that set up the A&M offense with great field position after a 16-yard return to the Alabama 41.
One of the key players throughout the day for the Aggies' defense was defensive tackle Spencer Nealy. A former defensive end who moved to defensive tackle at the start of the 2012 season despite lacking what would be considered "SEC size" for a tackle, Nealy played an integral role in the Aggies' run defense. Evidence of that was on display at the start of the Crimson Tide's third drive of the game.
On the first play of the drive, Alabama handed off to T.J. Yeldon on the left side and the 6-foot-5, 277-pound Nealy, who lined up at nose tackle on that play and for much of the day, used his quickness to beat center Barrett Jones and tackled Yeldon for a loss of 4 yards. The Crimson Tide went three-and-out on that drive as well as the Aggies forced McCarron's hand with a safety blitz and Matthews got into the backfield untouched, forcing an incomplete pass. The defensive effort by the Aggies forced McCarron to start the game 1-of-5 passing for 5 yards.
And even though the Tide were able to gather their bearings and make a strong comeback with some big plays on offense, the Aggies still found ways to make plays on defense. Matthews plugged a gap on third-and-2 when Yeldon tried to cut back for first-down yardage, holding the Crimson Tide to a third-quarter field goal. Safety Steven Terrell stripped Yeldon in the fourth quarter on the play after a 50-yard pass from McCarron to Amari Cooper. And of course, cornerback Deshazor Everett picked off McCarron on the Tide's final offensive play with 1:36 remaining.
The drawback for Texas A&M in the rematch is that many of the above names are gone. Nealy, Porter, Terrell and other key players -- such as defensive end Damontre Moore and linebacker Jonathan Stewart -- have graduated. They've been replaced by younger, more inexperienced players who have taken their lumps in the first two games. The Aggies also haven't had their full complement of defensive players because several served suspensions in the first two games. Saturday will be the first opportunity for all of their key guys to play together this season.
Lacy is gone for the Tide, as are several offensive linemen. The Tide struggled in that area in their season-opening win against Virginia Tech. So there will be adjustments on both sides with the differences in personnel.
2. Finding the "Y"
Manziel went to receiver Ryan Swope, the "Y" receiver who lines up in the slot on the right side of the offensive formation, early and often against the Crimson Tide. Early in the game the passes were of the short, quick variety, hitch routes that gained incremental yardage, almost like running plays.
Swope graduated as well, but look for the guy who made the catch on the play after Swope's 42-yard reception -- Malcome Kennedy -- to be a factor. Kennedy caught a 24-yard touchdown pass on the next play and having experience in a game like that can only help him this Saturday. The question is, can Kennedy bring the kind of consistency that Swope did in catching 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown against Alabama?
And should he be healthy for the game, 6-foot-5 freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones could be a factor at that position as well. Seals-Jones missed the Sam Houston State game last Saturday with a knee injury.
3. McCarron can scramble, too
While Manziel is known for his scrambling, McCarron showed he has good mobility as well.
McCarron isn't nearly as fleet of foot, but he did show the ability to escape pressure and make quality throws. On two instances in the Crimson Tide's first scoring drive, he evaded the Aggies' pass rush and found Cooper for a first-down completion.
In the second half, McCarron scrambled and tried to find Cooper. He avoided an interception from Everett (who was ruled out of bounds on the catch), but nevertheless, scrambling is a tool McCarron can use if the Aggies dial up extra pressure Saturday.
4. Defending Manziel on the ground
But the Tide did a much better job containing Manziel in the final two quarters. In the second half, he finished with 10 rushing yards on nine attempts.
This season, Manziel is making an effort to improve as a pocket passer without taking away his playmaking ability. The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator and playcaller (Clarence McKinney) and a new quarterbacks coach (Jake Spavital). It will be interesting to see how much running Manziel does Saturday and how Alabama handles it.
5. Big plays in the Alabama passing game
Cooper, now a sophomore for the Tide, had a huge game in last year's matchup, catching six passes for 136 yards.
He had a catch of 50 yards and a 54-yard touchdown reception, both in the fourth quarter. The first came on an out-and-up, when he beat Everett one on one. The next one came when the Aggies sent Everett on a cornerback blitz and Cooper beat Matthews deep for a touchdown.
Coach: Kevin Sumlin (46-19 overall, 11-2 at Texas A&M)
2012 record: 11-2
Key losses: OT Luke Joeckel, DE Damontre Moore, LB Sean Porter, LB Jonathan Stewart, WR Ryan Swope
Key returnees: WR Mike Evans, DB Toney Hurd, QB Johnny Manziel, OT Jake Matthews, OT Cedric Ogbuehi
Newcomer to watch: RB Brandon Williams
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The status of quarterback Johnny Manziel. Looming over the Aggies is the NCAA investigation of Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, about whether he accepted payment for signing autographs. There's concern whether his eligibility for the upcoming season will be affected. If it is, the Aggies would have to turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or redshirt freshman Matt Davis at quarterback.
Forecast: If Manziel is cleared of any wrongdoing, then the Aggies are legitimate SEC West, SEC championship and perhaps BCS National Championship contenders. They'll likely be favored in every game except their home matchup against Alabama on Sept. 14, and perhaps the game at LSU on Nov. 23, one of the two teams they lost to last season.
Aside from Manziel, the biggest on-field questions for the Aggies are on defense. Three of their most productive players from 2012 -- defensive end Damontre Moore, and linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart -- are now in the NFL. The Aggies are young and inexperienced in the front seven, and the status of two starting defensive backs (cornerback Deshazor Everett and safety Floyd Raven) are still to be determined after offseason arrests.
Still, with the return of Manziel, leading receiver Mike Evans and three offensive linemen, the Aggies have the offensive personnel to compete with any team in the country. They proved as much in their upset of eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last season. If the defense can make the kind of strides it did a season ago, when the Aggies had depth questions and concern about size up front in a line-of-scrimmage league, then Texas A&M can seriously contend.
If Manziel's eligibility is affected as a result of the NCAA investigation, the Aggies have no quarterback on the roster who has started a college game. Joeckel and Davis will battle it out in training camp. While the Aggies can be a good team without Manziel, dreams of reaching the highest heights will be severely limited if he is forced to miss more than two games.
Every team has its own goals and standards that it feels it needs to meet to achieve ultimate goals. But there's certain criteria that has been consistent in recent years, criteria that every BCS champion has met since 2006, according to ESPN's Mike Rothstein.
If those criteria were to hold true again this season, what are the Aggies' chances of meeting them? Let's take a look:
Going back to his time at Houston, Sumlin has long been a "best players play" coach, regardless of age or experience. If a player can help his team win and does the right things, that player will see the field.
So it stands to reason that more than one freshman will have an impact this fall. But who will have the greatest impact?
Several true freshmen who have a chance to impact the Aggies are already on campus -- linebackers Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade, defensive tackle Jordan Points, cornerback Alex Sezer and receiver Ja'Quay Williams -- but for this exercise we'll look at only those who aren't yet on campus.
The candidates are still plentiful. At defensive tackle, the Aggies could use more depth. ESPN 150 defensive tackle Justin Manning and ESPN 300 defensive tackle Isaiah Golden are prime candidates to make an impact. ESPN 300 cornerback Noel Ellis is a tremendous playmaker in the return game and in the secondary, though the Aggies do have more returning starters in the defensive backfield than any position group on defense. At defensive end, the Aggies are searching for someone to help replace the production of Damontre Moore. Could Jay Arnold or Daeshon Hall help in that role next season? Perhaps.
But the one place where it stands to reason that there will be spots up for grabs and several incoming freshmen to battle for them is receiver. The Aggies only return one starter from last season's quartet (Mike Evans), so there are other spots up for grabs for takers.
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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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Two starting linebackers, both of whom emerged as leaders for the 11-2 Aggies, were seniors (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart). So was the starting free safety (Steven Terrell) and one defensive tackle (Spencer Nealy). The player who emerged as the team's leader in several statistical categories was a junior and third-year letterman, Damontre Moore.
"Coming into the spring, we basically have been trying to find our new leaders," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "Vocal leaders, people that lead by example. We have a couple of people that are falling into that role. Donnie Baggs, Howard Matthews, Deshazor Everett and I've also been one of the people that are trying to step into this new role. We're trying to find new leaders for the defense and for the team next year."
Baggs is the first team middle linebacker -- the same position Stewart was in last year -- so his emergence is key. The new blood replacing the other departed seniors, and Moore, are all young or inexperienced or both.
Matthews, who started the Aggies' last four games at strong safety and played in 12, has probably made the biggest transformation. At the start of last season, he wasn't even on the two-deep. By season's end, he became a key player and this spring, Snyder and defensive backs coach Marcel Yates are looking to him to help others, like junior Floyd Raven, who has moved to free safety from cornerback.
"The fortunate thing is we don't have to play tomorrow, thank goodness," he said. "We've got a ways to go."
"We may be a little further along, but we still have a long way to go," he said.
What Snyder and the Aggies' defense accomplished last year was significant. There were numerous questions about that side of the football going into Texas A&M's 2012 season, namely depth across the board and in particular, the defensive line.
Those questions were answered throughout the year as Snyder's unit played above expectations. Damontre Moore broke out as a star at defensive end, the defensive line stayed mostly healthy and performed well in its first season in the SEC, a league known for line-of-scrimmage play. Players like Spencer Nealy and Kirby Ennis were strong on the interior line, while leadership came from linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart.
The result was a unit that was among the best in the nation on third down (16th), one of the better scoring defenses in the country (26th) and a unit that was solid against the run (35th).
Many of those key players are gone. Moore declared for the NFL draft; Nealy, Porter and Stewart were all seniors. A unit that may have been considered the weak link a year ago -- the secondary -- might actually be a strength this fall. The charge this year for Snyder and his staff is to reconstruct the front seven.
But his performance at the NFL scouting combine last month -- specifically in the bench press -- affected him differently. It humbled him significantly.
"I was really disappointed, upset," Moore said on Friday inside the McFerrin Athletic Center after Texas A&M's pro day. "I even cried like a little baby. I cried in the corner and then came back and start encouraging."
The 6-foot-4, 260-pound prospect laughed and smiled about it on Friday, because it's in the past now. During the Aggies' pro day, Moore put up a better number in the bench press -- 19 -- but it still wasn't an ideal performance. During the three-cone drill, he aggravated a hamstring injury that he suffered at the combine, so it wasn't his best output.
"I tweaked my hamstring but I fought through it and I feel like I put my best foot forward," Moore said. "At the end of the day, that's all you can do. I'll let God take over the rest."
Moore did not run the 40-yard dash in part because of the injury, standing pat with his time of 4.95 seconds that he posted in Indianapolis. The Dallas product added 10 pounds since the combine, weighing in at 260 on Friday. In the three-cone drill, most hand-timed in the high-4.2-second to low-4.3-second range in the short shuttle and about 7.0-7.1 seconds in the three-cone drill. He also participated in linebacker drills for 3-4 defensive teams that might look at Moore as a potential outside linebacker, a position he played at Texas A&M before 2012.
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."
Many of those changes could be seen on the initial 2013 depth chart released by head coach Kevin Sumlin. There are some absent names because of injuries and there's a long way to go before definitive statements can be made, but it certainly gives us some players and things to keep an eye on moving forward. Among them:
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Spring practice is rapidly approaching for Texas A&M. The Aggies hit the field for their first spring practice session on Saturday.
After a memorable 11-2 campaign that saw the Aggies impress observers in their first SEC season and redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel emerge as the Heisman Trophy winner, there's plenty to watch for in 2013.
Here are five storylines to keep an eye on as the Aggies begin spring drills:
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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.
First Month Standouts and Surprises
Final Tennessee 32 12 Georgia 35 Final Vanderbilt 7 Kentucky 17 Final/OT Arkansas 28 6 Texas A&M 35 Final Louisiana Tech 17 5 Auburn 45 Final Missouri 21 13 South Carolina 20 Final Memphis 3 10 Ole Miss 24 Final New Mexico State 7 17 LSU 63