Texas A&M Aggies: De'Vante Harris

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.
Nebraska secondary coach Terry Joseph is weighing a move from Lincoln to Texas A&M, saying on Saturday that he had been offered a position to coach defensive backs for Kevin Sumlin.

Formerly the secondary coach and recruiting coordinator at Tennesssee, Joseph came to Nebraska before the 2012 season. He told the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal-Star that he needed to speak with Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the visit this weekend to College Station.

“They offered me the job,” Joseph said to the newspaper. "It’s a lot of money, but I told Bo I would come back and talk to him before I took the job.

[+] Enlarge Stanley Jean-Baptiste
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsSenior CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste was part of a dramatically improved secondary under assistant coach Terry Joseph.
“Now, if you say, ‘It’s a lot of money and Nebraska isn’t going to match it?’ Then, yeah, it’s a done deal, because that’s what it comes down to, getting my contract extended and me getting a lot of money.”

How's that for a money quote?

Joseph earned $245,000 at Nebraska this year as part of a group that ranks third in the Big Ten in coaching staff pay. Former A&M secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, who left recently for Boise State, earned $308,200 on Sumlin’s staff.

Mitch Sherman, who covers Nebraska for ESPN.com, and A&M reporter Sam Khan discuss the situation:

How significant would the loss of Joseph rate for Nebraska?

Sherman: It’s a big deal. Under Joseph in two years, Nebraska ranked fourth nationally in opponent completion percentage. In 2012, it led the nation in that category. And in 2013, the Huskers ranked seventh in opponent third-down conversion rate in large part because of the work of his defensive backs. Cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste improved considerably under Joseph in addition to safety Corey Cooper, who developed into one of the Huskers’ top tacklers this year. In the Huskers’ TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl win over Georgia, cornerback Josh Mitchell intercepted a pass and recovered a fumbled punt return. And young players like LeRoy Alexander have shown signs of growth under Joseph’s watch. His secondary, over two years, easily rates as the most consistent area of a Nebraska defense that has undergone a transformation. Without him, the task to replace Evans and Jean-Baptiste turns much more complex.

Would the addition of Joseph rank as a big score for Sumlin and the Aggies?

Khan: Definitely. The secondary is an area that still needs improvement for the Aggies (all you had to do was watch the Chick-fil-A Bowl to figure that out), and the sooner the Aggies fill the void left by Yates, the better. But aside from on-field coaching, Sumlin puts a priority on guys who can recruit. Joseph clearly can. His background as a high school coach and a college assistant in the state of Louisiana is attractive to Sumlin and the Aggies because that's a state in which they're continuing to grow a presence. Several key defensive starters hail from "The Boot," and the Aggies are trying to go toe to toe with LSU and recently won a key battle in nabbing five-star athlete Speedy Noil. Joseph can likely help the Aggies efforts in recruiting that state.

How else has Joseph impacted Nebraska?

Sherman: He’s one of the Huskers’ top recruiters, landing prospects such as tight end Cethan Carter, defensive back Boaz Joseph and receiver Tre'Vell Dixon a year ago. Joseph helped land athlete Jaevon Walton and defensive backs Joshua Kalu and Trai Mosley in the unsigned 2014 class. His connections run deep in fertile Louisiana, where Joseph played baseball at Northwestern State and coached football in the high school ranks before a stint as the secondary coach at Louisiana Tech.

What would Joseph have to work with in Aggieland?

Khan: There's some depth in the defensive backfield at cornerback with starters Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris set to return in 2014. Behind those two are several young corners that were part of a large 2013 recruiting class haul, including Noel Ellis, Tavares Garner and Alex Sezer, all of whom saw playing time on either defense or special teams as true freshmen this season. Safety is another story. The Aggies do have returnees back there in Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt, but all of them struggled last season. Freshman Kameron Miles, who injured his knee in training camp and redshirted and 6-foot-3 freshman Jonathan Wiggins, who played in nine games mostly on special teams, should be ready to contribute come next season.

What would his absence mean for Nebraska?

Sherman: While never good to lose a coach in a lateral move, Sumlin is offering money the Huskers just may not want to match. Pelini is well connected and should find a solid replacement. But Joseph’s departure, inevitably, would raise questions about the staffers’ confidence in the stability at Nebraska after Pelini received a stay from the school’s administration at the close of a rocky regular season.

What would his impact mean at Texas A&M?

Khan: He would be a quality addition to the coaching staff and fulfills the requirements Sumlin looks for in assistants: someone who can be both a good on-field coach and a presence in recruiting. He has worked in the SEC and has a solid overall resume, so he should be a solid fit in Aggieland.

Reason for optimism for A&M defense?

October, 30, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M's defense has taken a beating – on the field and off – throughout the season.

On the field, it has been the statistically the worst in the SEC in total defense, yards per play, rushing defense and near the bottom in several other categories. The national rankings in many areas have been in the 100s. As a result, the unit has taken a heap of criticism, especially when compared with the team's high-powered offense which puts up points in bunches.

[+] EnlargeHoward Matthews
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsHoward Matthews and the Aggies had their best defensive performance of the season in the win over Vanderbilt. Matthews had 14 tackles and an interception.
But on Saturday in a 56-24 win over Vanderbilt, the Aggies' defense got up off the mat and punched back, putting together a strong performance against the Commodores. Texas A&M allowed only 329 total yards, 95 rushing, forced three turnovers and had a season-high seven sacks.

For once, the defense was a source of positive discussion.

"I feel like we finally put together a complete game," senior linebacker Nate Askew said. "There weren’t a lot of blown coverages or assignments gap-wise. That was the biggest thing and having fun out there."

The sack totals were particularly eye-opening because Texas A&M had been one of the country's worst in generating a pass rush before Saturday. The Aggies had seven sacks total entering Saturday's game, but matched the season tally in one day.

The reason? More blitz calls from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who said he finally felt comfortable dialing up more pressure. As the defense continued to see players go in and out of the lineup all season for various reasons (suspensions, injuries, inept play), it was a challenge to get a group of 11 players that Snyder felt he could trust to be in the right place in the right time, especially considering how much youth is on that side of the ball (11 freshmen exist in the two-deep depth chart).

But as players begin to settle into their roles and get more comfortable, especially in the secondary, Snyder is beginning to feel more comfortable taking risks. The group back there on Saturday – cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris along with safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven – were the projected four starters at the beginning of the year but have rarely been on the field together for one reason or another.

"We need to stay healthy and keep the young DBs coming along and learning," Snyder said. "There is a degree of difficulty for the back end to do some of the things we do and to have those guys all in place helped a lot."

It also helped that Vanderbilt's starting quarterback on Saturday, Patton Robinette, was a freshman making his first career start, though Snyder said the game plan appeared to be the same as the previous week when the Commodores beat Georgia. Considering that Texas A&M struggled to stop virtually everybody this season, including FCS team Sam Houston State and Rice, whom it gave up 306 rushing yards to in the season opener, any positive sign is a good one for the Aggies.

So is Saturday's performance reason for optimism with the A&M defense or will they simply revert back to previous ways moving forward? It might be hard to tell this week, because the No. 12 Aggies host a struggling nonconference opponent in UTEP (1-6). Should the Aggies repeat what they did on Saturday for a second straight week, however, they could build some momentum to take into the home stretch of their conference slate as they finish up the year against Mississippi State, LSU and Missouri.

If the Aggies can stay healthy and keep the personnel consistent on that side of the ball, Snyder can continue to be aggressive in his calls. That aggressiveness was one trait of the 2012 A&M defense, which was surprisingly good despite question marks on the defensive line, about depth in general and was a key part to Texas A&M's inaugural 11-2 campaign in the SEC.

With an open date following the Aggies final two home games before they have to hit the road for battles at LSU and Missouri to close out the year, the defense will need to continue to improve if the Aggies have hopes of winning the remainder of their games.

"I think at this point what happens is for them to have some success Saturday I thought was important and hopefully we were better," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We were not great by any means and hopefully because of some success, particularly by the young guys and some success as a defense, we'll continue to get better and gain some confidence from that because that's going to be important moving forward."

Why A&M has so much youth on defense

October, 25, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The words "youth" and "inexperience" are frequently used to describe the Texas A&M defense this season.

The struggles are significant. The Aggies rank near the bottom of the FBS in most defensive statistical categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the five teams that have allowed more yards per game than the Aggies -- New Mexico State, Idaho, California, Nevada and Indiana -- have a combined record of 8-27.

Texas A&M is fortunate enough to have a 5-2 record (2-2 in the SEC). It certainly helps to have one of the nation's most high-powered offenses and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Johnny Manziel).

For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff, it has been a challenge from the start of the season. Suspensions, injuries and ineffectiveness are all to blame.

The Aggies currently have 11 freshmen in their defensive two-deep depth chart. Two true freshmen (defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne) are starting. The four defensive line first-team spots include Golden and two sophomores. At linebacker, a former receiver who moved to linebacker this offseason (Nate Askew) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Of the seven linebackers on the Aggies' two-deep, only one (Steven Jenkins) started a full season at the position before this year.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin's first signing class that was completely under his watch had 32 members, 18 of whom were on defense. Of those 18, a dozen have already played this season.

But how did the Aggies get to this point, playing this many freshmen and newcomers? There are some juniors and seniors on the field, but there aren't nearly as many as there were a year ago when the Aggies went 11-2 in their debut season in the SEC.

In 2012, the Aggies were fortunate to have the benefit of some good leaders on defense and others who were productive. At linebacker, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart both provided leadership and production. Along the defensive line, Spencer Nealy made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle effectively despite not having the ideal size for the position. Steven Terrell was a steady and heady player at free safety. All four of those players were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. So was Dustin Harris, who didn't always start but played plenty at cornerback and was the team's primary punt returner.

One defensive player still remains from that 2009 class: defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who started last season and this year but suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 28 against Arkansas. But last year's A&M starting defense was more than half made up of what turned out to be a solid recruiting class on the defensive side of the ball.

So to understand why A&M is in the position it is now, take a look at the recruiting classes on defense since then:
  • In 2010, the Aggies signed seven defensive players and two more that were offensive players but eventually moved to defense. Defensive end Damontre Moore turned out to be a star, but declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. For a team that's lacking in its pass rush (only three FBS teams have fewer sacks than Texas A&M's seven this season) a guy like that could help. Of the remainders in that class, three are starting: Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel back, Gavin Stansbury at defensive end and Askew, who was recruited and spent his first three years at receiver, at strongside linebacker. Two others (defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and quarterback Clay Honeycutt, who's now a reserve safety) are playing but not starting. Nehemiah Hicks was considered to be either a defensive end or tight end and became a tight end. The other two players in the defensive class are no longer on the team.
  • The 2011 class -- the final class signed by former head coach Mike Sherman -- brought 13 defensive players. Deshazor Everett, a cornerback with ability to play safety, is currently the defense's best player. Safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven and linebacker Steven Jenkins also emerged as starters out of that group. One of the big fish landed late in that class, defensive end Brandon Alexander, has rarely played. He's now getting some playing time at tight end. Linebacker Donnie Baggs entered this season as the starting middle linebacker but is now a reserve. Tyrell Taylor is rotating at defensive end. The rest of the group hasn't made any impact at all. Five players in that group are no longer with the program.
  • The 2012 class, the first one Sumlin signed after essentially two months on the job, had some holdovers that committed to the program under Sherman. It is a mixed bag. Four of those players are starting as either true sophomores (Julien Obioha at defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle and De'Vante Harris at cornerback) or in one case, a senior (cornerback Tramain Jacobs, who was a junior college transfer). Defensive end Tyrone Taylor, brother of Tyrell, gets some playing time at defensive end. Edward Pope, who was a receiver/defensive back, is playing receiver for the Aggies. A car accident took away one member from that class -- defensive tackle Polo Manukainiu, who died in a crash in July and is being honored by the team every week this season. A spinal injury took away another member, linebacker Michael Richardson, who played as a freshman. He had successful surgery and was fortunate to not suffer any major physical issues, but is no longer playing football. Defensive back Kenneth Marshall, though on the team, was not part of the 105-man roster during preseason training camp. Linebacker Jordan Richmond transferred to Navarro College in the offseason and one player in the class, defensive tackle Edmund Ray, never made it to campus because of qualifying issues.

Texas A&M defensive struggles continue

October, 23, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As Texas A&M's defense took its lumps early in the season, battling through ever-shifting personnel from suspensions, injuries or necessary lineup changes, the hope was that as the season wore on the unit would get better.

[+] EnlargeTexas A&M Aggies defense
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsA lack of leadership has hurt Texas A&M's defense this season.
And up until their most recent game against Auburn, the Aggies showed some signs here and there that gave supporters a reason for optimism. Whether it was a strong second half against Arkansas, a good first half against Ole Miss or getting a stop when they absolutely needed it to secure a win, there was evidence that A&M was improving from the unit that had given up 306 rushing yards to Rice or was ravaged by Alabama for 568 total yards.

But in its 45-41 home loss to the Tigers on Saturday, Texas A&M took a step back in a few areas. The rushing yardage the Aggies allowed (379) was a season high. Auburn converted 50 percent of its third downs (7-of-14), and Alabama was the only other team to reach that rate (3-of-6). And the total yards A&M allowed was a season high (615).

Through seven games, this is the reality of the Texas A&M defense. While there are flashes of good, there is a lot of bad. Anyone waiting to see if this becomes a "good" defense might be left waiting for the remainder of the season. For every step forward, like the fact the defense forced four consecutive punts on Saturday, there seems to be a step or two back, like allowing 21 points in each of the past two fourth quarters.

In most major statistical categories, the Aggies rank near the bottom nationally. They are in the bottom 20 in total yards allowed per game (118th), rushing yards allowed per game (112th), passing yards allowed per game (103rd), first downs per game (113th), yards per carry (118th) and yards per play (115th).

It has had trouble generating a pass rush (Texas A&M's seven sacks this season are tied for 114th nationally) and has allowed 39 plays of 20 yards or more, which puts it at 105th. Other statistics, like points-per-drive (2.56, 110th), average yards allowed per drive (38.1, 114th) and the percentage of drives teams score touchdowns against the Aggies (33.3 percent, 109th) are also near the bottom.

The question of whether 41 points -- the defense's total on Saturday -- should be enough to win a football game has been raised recently in Aggieland. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder makes no bones about it.

"You should win a game if you score 40 points, period," Snyder said. "I understand the game's changed. It's hard to be a DC nowadays. It's extremely tough. I get that. But that's what the challenge is about."

Head coach Kevin Sumlin had a different retort.

"One more point than the opponent should be enough to win the game, regardless of the situation," Sumlin said. "We know where we are now as a team. So our offense understands that, our team understands that, and our job is to win or lose as a football team. So if you're deficient in one area, you understand that as a coach. You try to get that area better, but your goal is to win the game no matter what. Just like if we were deficient on offense, then it would be our defense's job to [surrender] one point less than whatever we could score."

Twice this season the Aggies have scored more than 40 points and lost -- Saturday and on Sept. 14 when they scored 42 and fell to Alabama. In fact, they've scored more than 40 points in every single game this season so that's not asking too much for this high-powered offense, which is averaging 46.9 per game.

But it appears that if Texas A&M wants to continue to win moving forward, it might have to be closer to its average or the 50-point mark (which it had surpassed twice earlier this season).

The Aggies have spent the bulk of the season with 11 freshmen in their two-deep depth chart, including two who are now starting. Having the same 11 guys on the field for back-to-back games has been a challenge.

The unit is also missing leadership. Last season, Texas A&M had the good fortune of seniors like linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart and defensive tackle Spencer Nealy, as well as junior Damontre Moore. With all of those guys gone, there's something missing that comes with the experience those players had. For instance, Snyder alluded to the fact that someone like Porter or Stewart could come off the field after a defensive series and tell the coaching staff what tendencies they were seeing from the offense or suggest playcalls. That's not happening this season with a young group of players, many of whom are simply just trying to do their job.

"It's more of us talking than it is them," Snyder said.

Snyder still sounds optimistic. He said the number of missed assignments they have has come down from the start of the season to now. As a unit, they're focusing on being opportunistic, meaning having a good third-down percentage and creating turnovers. Interestingly, those are two areas where the Aggies aren't in the bottom 20 or 25 nationally.

Their 41.1 percent rate of allowing third down conversions isn't ideal (80th) and not as good as last season (32.4 percent), but it could be worse. And the Aggies are doing well on turnover margin, tied for 39th with a plus-three in that department (12 takeaways to nine giveaways). Perhaps the biggest change for the Aggies is on third-and-5 or fewer, where they've allow 62.5 percent conversions (vs. 44.6 percent last year).

The players, for their part, are trying to stay positive mentally and focus on their next opponent.

"We're positive," sophomore cornerback De'Vante Harris said. "We're going to keep working, keep grinding....I have all types of faith in my team, my defensive squad, my coaches, everybody. We're just going to stay positive and stay hungry."
Deshazor Everett Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesTexas A&M's willingness to use starters such as safety Deshazor Everett (right) on special teams has allowed the Aggies to have one of the best units in the SEC.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Alabama receiver and return specialist Christion Jones carried the ball out of the end zone on the Crimson Tide's first kickoff return against Texas A&M on Sept. 14, he was quickly faced with a host of defenders.

The first Aggie to make contact was cornerback Tramain Jacobs. Defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. followed him by wrapping up Jones for a tackle. If Hurd would have been unable to wrap him up, cornerback Deshazor Everett was nearby, and so was linebacker Steven Jenkins.

The common thread among the above names? They're all either regular starters or players who have started before for the Aggies.

Special teams -- kickoff and punt coverage units in particular -- are a place where many non-starters find their homes, and Texas A&M is no different. But the Aggies' coaching staff is also liberal about using its best players when the need arises.

The Alabama game was a prime example. With the threat of a return man such as Jones, who returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the Crimson Tide's season-opening win against Virginia Tech, Texas A&M special teams coordinator Jeff Banks wanted to ensure he had the best players available to prevent Jones from making a game-breaking play. The Aggies got the desired result, as Jones finished with 83 yards on four kickoff returns and just 5 yards on his one punt return.

"We're always going to use the best players," Banks said. "Coach Sumlin's an advocate of 'Jeff, you just tell me who you need and who you want and that's how we're going to do things.'"

Banks said offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder or any of the other A&M assistants also have no qualms about the policy. Since he has been at Texas A&M, Banks said not one coach has said a word about who he can use or not use on special teams, whether it's in the return game or punt or kick coverage.

That luxury is something Banks, who is in his first year in Aggieland, hasn't always had in his career as a special teams coach.

"Usually you get a deal where it's 'Hey, take that guy off of there,' or 'Hey, don't use that guy,'" Banks said. "And here's my deal with that: That's fine. Because I try to be as flexible as I can because we're dealing with 60-80 people and players that have to go in and out, seniors, veterans, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, true freshmen, you've got to coach what you can get and get the best on the field.

"But you also have to be careful because if you practice them in training camp for 30 days and then you get them in the first week and someone says 'Oh no, he can't play on that many special teams,' now you're playing a guy with no experience.'"

So the planning has to begin in August when preseason training camp starts. Banks tries to get a feel for which newcomers have the size, speed or physicality to contribute, and the first week of camp is largely spent trying out numerous players in different roles to get a feel for who he can rely on. The rest of training camp is about getting those that are going to make his two-deep on special teams as many repetitions as possible so that he's comfortable with who is out there come the start of the season.

Playing offensive and defensive starters is nothing new for a Sumlin-coached team. It was something done regularly at Houston when he was there. One of the Cougars' special teams aces in their 12-1 season in 2011 was running back Michael Hayes, who played a major role in the Cougars' backfield, but could regularly be seen making tackles in punt coverage.

That attitude has carried over to Texas A&M. McKinney, who also coaches running backs, made it clear to his position group in the spring of 2012 that they would be expected to contribute on special teams. Players accepted the challenge, and Ben Malena and Trey Williams became key players on special teams.

Malena eventually emerged as the starting running back for the Aggies last season and remains that this season but can be seen on the kickoff return team making blocks and last season spent time covering kicks and punts at times, too.

"You have to realize that special teams wins and loses games," Malena said. "You need the best players out there, whether you're a starter or just a special teams guy. If you're the best player at that position, we need you on the field to help us win. I just took that to heart and will do anything for my team to win."

The example set by players with that attitude has an effect on the younger players, many of whom have a role on special teams. Many true freshmen such as Darian Claiborne -- who started at linebacker last week -- linebacker Shaan Washington, safety Jonathan Wiggins and cornerbacks Alex Sezer and Tavares Garner are already playing key roles on coverage units, and the example set by their elders is important.

"It's huge," Banks said. "They see Ben in practice, they see Jenkins in practice, they see those guys doing special teams drills at a high level. Howard Matthews, De'Vante Harris, Floyd Raven when he was healthy. That's huge. That's bigger than anything I can say. When they go out there and they give us great effort as a staff, that sells it and now you get the buy-in of the younger guys."

Banks said it helps increase the desire for the younger players to contribute, particularly in high-profile games.

"You see the Alabama game and go 'Man, I want to be out there,'" Banks said. "Tavares Garner's a prime example. He gets substituted in for Deshazor Everett and he's like 'Man, I know Deshazor's a veteran guy and he's going to make the play, but I want to be in there.' Then he gets in there and makes a tackle."

There's a balance to be struck, however. Playing starters constantly on coverage teams can fatigue them, especially if they're playing a large amount of snaps on offense or defense. So Banks is conscious to employ the personnel wisely.

"You can't wear a guy out because a Deshazor Everett or a Toney Hurd is so good at everything, you can't overuse them and start them on four special teams and expect them to play 60-80 snaps on defense," Banks said. "There's kind of a responsibility on my end, because I've gotten the leeway from the head football coach and the coordinators to use whoever we want. I think it's really important that you don't take advantage of that deal either."

Complementing players such as Sam Moeller, who has been the Aggies' special teams player of the week twice already this season and doesn't have a major role on defense, with some of these starters are what help the Aggies find a mix that Banks and Sumlin hope lead to one them having one of the best special teams units in the SEC.

"With Coach Sumlin being as awesome as he is about letting us use whoever we need to in order to be the No. 1 team, special teams-wise, in the conference, I think we've got a good mix of him and I of making sure we have the right guys on there, but also give an opportunity to guys who maybe aren't starting on offense or defense," Banks said.

Improvement needed from A&M defense

September, 16, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Coming into the season, there were plenty of questions about Texas A&M's defense.

It didn't seem much different from the circumstances a year ago. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder even said, on the first day of preseason training camp, that the challenges were "exactly the same."

By the end of 2012 the results were positive, with the Aggies performing much better on defense than many expected. If they're to do the same in 2013, they still have a long way to go. The Aggies statistically are among the worst defenses in the nation after a 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at Kyle Field.

"We're going to learn a lot of lessons come Monday when we watch this film," Snyder said. "Lots of lessons."

They had better, because on Saturday, once Alabama got its footing, it seemed able to do whatever it pleased. The Crimson Tide finished with 568 offensive yards -- 334 passing and 234 rushing. After forcing a punt on Alabama's first drive of the game, the Aggies allowed four consecutive touchdown drives, all of which covered 75 yards or more. In the second half, the Tide had three drives of 65 yards or longer, two that turned into touchdowns and another where the Aggies forced a turnover near the goal line.

[+] EnlargeMark Snyder
Sam Khan/ESPN.comMark Snyder's Texas A&M defense yielded 568 yards to Alabama on Saturday and gave up too many big plays.
One thing that stuck out to Snyder was how many big plays the Tide hit on. More than half of Alabama's yards (280) came on plays that gained 15 yards or more. Alabama had 11 such plays in the game.

"We knew it was going to be a day of big plays," Snyder said. "And I'm sure when I go back and look at the film, if you count up the number of big plays and subtract that yardage, you have a pretty good day. That's something we're going to have to learn from."

The Aggies generated virtually no pressure against Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. He was never sacked and the Aggies only recorded one quarterback hurry as a team, by defensive tackle Kirby Ennis. Pressure was one of the Aggies' strong suits last year behind the efforts of defensive end Damontre Moore, who now plays for the New York Giants.

"You can't let a great quarterback like AJ McCarron not even get hit or pressured at all," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "They ran a lot of play action, which doesn't help the defensive line get any pressure, but we've got to come up with a way to get pressure on the quarterback. He can't sit there all day. He's too good."

Senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. detailed the struggles of the secondary, which allowed a 44-yard touchdown pass on a fleaflicker and a 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the first half to Kenny Bell.

"First and foremost, hat's off to AJ McCarron and their offensive coordinator [Doug Nussmeier]," Hurd said. "They dialed up some great plays. In the back end, I feel like sometimes we had bad eyes. Sometimes we just didn't trust our keys and techniques and they got us on a few big plays. But I'm sure on Monday we'll get back to work and get those things figured out."

Defending the run wasn't much better for the Aggies and that's been a consistent problem through three games. A&M yielded 6.3 yards per rush attempt on Saturday and it marked the third consecutive game that the Aggies have allowed at least 200 rushing yards.

In their first two games, the Aggies were missing starters at defensive end (Gavin Stansbury), linebacker (Steven Jenkins) and cornerback (De'Vante Harris) because of suspensions. All three returned to the lineup against Alabama, but it didn't stem A&M's struggles.

"Give Alabama credit," Snyder said. "They did a nice job; they had some nice wrinkles. It's hard if you haven't been playing and you haven't seen them to kind of adjust to them. But that's no excuse. We have our guys back and we just have to play better, period."

As it stands currently, the Aggies rank 112th nationally in total defense (489 yards allowed per game), 111th in yards allowed per play (6.92), 115th in run defense (260 yards per game) and 81st on allowing third-down conversions (44 percent).

It's worth noting that the Aggies have a lot of youth and inexperience on the field after graduating key players and suffering a key injury (safety Floyd Raven). True freshman linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni made his first start Saturday; junior safety Clay Honeycutt was making only his second career start. There are 11 true freshmen on A&M's defensive two-deep roster. Growing pains are a part of the deal.

But they'll have to grow up quickly. A&M players and coaches spoke on Saturday of their lofty goals still being intact despite one loss. But the defense must improve significantly for them to have a chance at fulfilling those goals.

Snyder believes his unit has that opportunity.

"I told the kids, 'I know what it looks like and we've got a chance to be good,' " Snyder said. "I thought last year as the season went on, we learned [how to minimize big plays]. Our big-play numbers came down and we started playing better defense. So for us today, it was a matter of big plays on our side of the ball and allowed them to get into a groove running the ball once they got the lead."

Plenty to prove for Aggies' defense

September, 12, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Texas A&M went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and upset No. 1 Alabama last November, the Aggies' offense, and specifically quarterback Johnny Manziel, were lauded for their efforts in taking down the Crimson Tide.

Often overlooked was the play of Texas A&M's defense, which was integral in the Aggies' ability to jump out to the 20-0 lead that paved the way for the eventual 29-24 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

While nobody would confuse the Aggies' defensive efforts with that of the 1985 Chicago Bears that November day, A&M was opportunistic and effective.

On the first three drives of the game, the Aggies held the Crimson Tide to two three-and-outs and a turnover. The offense capitalized by scoring after each of those defensive stops to take the commanding three-score lead.

Turnovers were key for the Aggies throughout the game. They came up with three, the most the Crimson Tide committed since a 2011 season opener vs. Kent State, when Alabama committed five. Quarterback AJ McCarron hadn't thrown an interception in 2012 going into the game and threw two against the Aggies.

In several ways, the Aggies' ability to come up with stops and turnovers at key times was representative of what the unit accomplished as whole last season under defensive coordinator Mark Snyder. The defense came into the 2012 season with questions about depth and competitiveness in a line-of-scrimmage league like the SEC.

Those questions were answered resoundingly as the Aggies ranked highly in several key categories in 2012. They had the nation's 26th-best scoring defense (21.8 points per game) and one of the best third-down defenses, allowing conversions just 32.4 percent of the time (16th nationally, fourth in the SEC).

They were No. 1 in the SEC and No. 5 in the country on third-and-5 or fewer yards (44.6 percent conversion rate).

[+] EnlargeTexas A&M's Deshazor Everett
AP Photo/Dave MartinDeshazor Everett, whose interception against Alabama last year clinched the victory, expects the Aggies defense to keep getting better.
This season, with six key defensive players serving suspensions for part or all of the season opener against Rice and four more serving penalties for all or part of the second game against Sam Houston State, the numbers have taken a dip. On third down, the Aggies are tied for 73rd in the country, allowing a 39.4 percent conversion rate. On 3rd-and-5 or fewer yards, the Aggies are in the middle of the pack (59th, 52.9 percent conversion rate).

The Aggies are averaging 6.16 yards allowed per play, up from 5.22 last year.

Having almost the full complement of defensive players, including the return of starting linebacker Steven Jenkins, starting cornerback De'Vante Harris and starting defensive end Gavin Stansbury, should help the Aggies' defensive efforts.

"It'll be interesting once the game gets started," Snyder said. "They've got to knock a little bit of rust off. We've got a couple days here of practice first to get some of the rust knocked off. It was really good [Monday] to have our first unit out there together. It was very, very pleasing to see."

Starting safety Floyd Raven Sr. (collarbone) will miss the game because of his injury, and starting defensive end Julien Obioha's status is up in the air also. Cornerback Deshazor Everett said the country hasn't seen the Aggies' "real defense" yet.

"We can only progress, so I'm not going to say they've seen the real defense," Everett said. "But we have to get better, and we'll keep getting better, and this week of practice is crucial. But as a whole defense, we'll keep progressing and getting better."

Though the Aggies were able to intercept McCarron in the last meeting, Snyder said he expects the quarterback to be poised and confident coming into Saturday's game.

"He is a leader," Snyder said. "He runs their offense. He knows where his checkdowns are and obviously he is a great leader for them, because they have won a lot of football games. He drives that engine. He's the guy that's driving the car. And you can see his poise and patience, and it's hard to get him rattled. And if you do get him rattled a little bit, he has the ability to go over and sit down and get unrattled and come back out and play in his game. That's what I see in him."

The players know the national perception is that it's easy to move the ball on the Aggies, and because of the evidence presented by Rice (306 rushing yards) and Sam Houston State (240), it's hard to argue that, extenuating circumstances notwithstanding. But the players know the way to change what people think is by improving their play, starting Saturday.

"Yes. I think everyone looks at it that way," Everett said. "You can look at what a defense does well and what a defense doesn't do well, and you go off of that basically and see where you want to attack and what their weaknesses are. That's what we're trying to improve on, what our weaknesses are."

What we learned: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
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With Texas A&M sitting at 2-0 after a win over Sam Houston State on Saturday and Alabama looming, here are three things we learned about the Aggies:

The defense still needs work: The Aggies have allowed two teams to rush for at least 200 yards in consecutive weeks. Sam Houston State compiled 240 on the ground a week after Rice went for 306. With Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon and Co. coming to Kyle Field next week, that doesn't bode well. Here's one thing that could work in the Aggies' favor, though: Rice ran some read-option and Sam Houston State used a lot of option football as well. Alabama won't be using any of that; the Crimson Tide will try to run right at the Aggies, so schematically, it might not be as tough a task. But the caliber of opponent goes way up, so there's no doubt it's a tall task. The Aggies need all the bodies they can get, so they'll be happy to welcome back linebacker Steven Jenkins, defensive end Gavin Stansbury and cornerback De'Vante Harris, who all served two-game suspensions.

The offense is still explosive: Texas A&M rolled up 714 offensive yards on Saturday. Not only did quarterback Johnny Manziel impress, so did true freshman Kenny Hill, who came in and completed two big passes right away after entering the game (the second was a touchdown pass). The running game was solid for a second straight week, receiver Mike Evans continues to get better and the Aggies have plenty of weapons, as 11 different players caught a pass on Saturday.

Johnny's still Johnny: Manziel looked impressive in his first start of 2013. Since entering the game in the second half against Rice, Manziel has thrown for six touchdowns and completed 69 percent of his passes. His signature elusiveness was on display, and he showed a desire to stay in the pocket and made nice throws when he did.

Aggies host Sam Houston State tonight

September, 7, 2013
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After another week spent in the national discussion, Texas A&M gets to turn its focus back to the football field tonight when the Aggies host FCS squad Sam Houston State at 6 p.m. at Kyle Field.

The game serves as a rematch from a November clash last season, one that Texas A&M claimed 47-28.

The Aggies are heavy favorites, as expected, but coach Kevin Sumlin has hammered home two main points to his team in preparing for the Bearkats. One traces back to last season's battle.

Sam Houston State outscored the Aggies 28-6 once A&M's backups entered the game. Sumlin noted Tuesday that many of those that were on the field at that time have significant roles on this season's squad.

Also, seven FCS teams earned upsets over FBS teams in the opening week of the season. One of those teams was Sam Houston State's opponent in the FCS national championship game last year, North Dakota State, which went into Manhattan, Kan., last week and upset defending Big 12 champion Kansas State.

"Anybody who watched North Dakota State last week win their game last week, that'll get your attention in a hurry," Sumlin said. "They go to Kansas State and win. Then you turn on last year's Sam Houston-North Dakota State game and it's a heck of a ballgame. Our players get that."

Texas A&M comes into the game shorthanded in a few areas. Four players are serving the second of a two-game suspension for a violation of athletic department rules, three of whom are defensive starters: cornerback De'Vante Harris, outside linebacker Steven Jenkins, defensive end Gavin Stansbury and reserve receiver Edward Pope. The Aggies will also begin the game without the services of starting cornerback Deshazor Everett (targeting) and true freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall (throwing a punch). Both were ejected in the second half for their respective infractions and thus, by rule, must sit out the first half of tonight's game.

The Aggies do regain the services of starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis and safety Floyd Raven, both of whom served one-game suspensions as the result of offseason arrests. Tonight will also mark the first start of the season for quarterback Johnny Manziel, who was suspended the first half of the season-opening 52-31 win over Rice because of "inadvertent violations" discovered during an NCAA investigation that concluded last week.

So now that all the personnel issues are hashed out, here are some keys to look out for from Texas A&M:
  • Improvement on defense?: The Aggies yielded a whopping 509 offensive yards, including 306 on the ground, to Rice. Many of the struggles can be attributed to the fact that six key defensive players sat part or all of the game because of suspensions, and a total of 11 defensive true freshmen saw the field at some point. Against a veteran offense like Rice that's well-coached, that's a bad combination. But the Aggies need to show some improvement from game one to game two because some of those young players will have to play significant minutes later this season, starting next week in the Aggies' showdown against Alabama.
  • Assignment football: Sam Houston State an option attack which will require the Aggies to stay disciplined on defense and play assignment football. That should be useful experience for Texas A&M's young defensive players. The Bearkats return the two-time Southland Conference Player of the Year in running back Tim Flanders and starting quarterback Brian Bell, who has engineered 31 victories in the last three seasons. A transfer from Texas A&M, Chance Nelson, is also back after a freshman season that saw him record 671 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. That experience will help the Bearkats, who are have appeared in the FCS national championship game the last two seasons.
  • Keep the offense rolling: When Manziel took hold of the offense, he engineered four scoring drives and threw three touchdown passes, looking much like his 2012 self. Backup quarterback Matt Joeckel was solid in his starting debut, leading the Aggies to 28 first-half points. What is often overlooked is the Aggies' running game, which was productive in Week 1. Starter Ben Malena compiled 82 rushing yards and a touchdown while Tra Carson added 76 rushing yards and two scores. Sophomore transfer Brandon Williams is expected to play after healing up from offseason foot surgery, adding a dynamic option to the Aggies' backfield.

When it's all said and done, the Aggies are hoping to come away with a solid win to put themselves at 2-0 prior to their much-anticipated showdown with defending BCS champion Alabama.

Age, suspensions, challenge A&M D

September, 5, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The statistics weren't pretty.

Rice compiled 509 offensive yards, 306 of which were chewed up on the ground, against Texas A&M in its season opener. The most important stat -- the score, 52-31 in favor of the Aggies -- was what mattered in the end but with a defense that was gutted by suspensions and filled with newcomers playing for the first time, it provided for some early growing pains for Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder.

Of the 16 true freshmen that saw the field in the Aggies' opener, 11 were defensive players. That doesn't include yet another newcomer, junior college transfer linebacker Tommy Sanders, meaning a dozen defensive players who appeared on Saturday were newcomers.

[+] EnlargeAlex Sezer
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M freshman corner Alex Sezer got some much-needed game experience against Rice.
"They all had goods and bads, all the guys that played," Snyder said. "You could tell, pregame, over at the hotel there was a little bit of nervousness. You can imagine being 18 and being in front of all those people."

The Aggies have FCS opponent Sam Houston State this week, but they still won't have their full arsenal of defensive players. Cornerback De'Vante Harris, linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive end Gavin Stansbury -- all three of whom are starters -- will miss the game while serving the second of a two-game suspension for violating athletic department rules. Cornerback Deshazor Everett will miss the first half because he was ejected for targeting in the second half of the Rice win and, by rule, must sit out the first half of this game as a result. Freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall will also miss the first half after being ejected in the second half for throwing a punch at Rice player.

While the Aggies are heavily favored and the losses are unlikely to keep Texas A&M from winning this week, it does pose an interesting dilemma for Snyder and his staff moving forward. The first time the full complement of defensive players will be available for the Aggies will be Sept. 14, for the showdown against Alabama.

"The good thing is we're going to be fresh, that's for sure," Snyder joked. "We're going to be injury-free and we're going to be fresh."

Snyder noted that the advantage for Alabama in that regard might not be as significant since the Crimson Tide have an open date this weekend, so they'll only have one more game under their belts than the Aggies' suspended players do come next weekend. Those players are still practicing -- with the second-team -- and getting repetitions in the meantime.

There were some short-term struggles with so many new bodies on the field, even in play-calling. Snyder said he couldn't "get in a rhythm," calling plays because of how many new pieces and moving parts there were.

"[Rice] came out and showed us some things that we had not seen and not having a veteran group, I can't call timeout and run out on the field and say 'Hey, they're getting in diamond formation and running three levels, or they're getting three out into the flat weak,'" Snyder said. "Those are things that we had to get adjusted."

Snyder was encouraged by how much better the defense performed in the second half, making adjustments and responding to the coaching given at halftime. The unit came up with two turnovers and didn't allow the Owls to score in the first three series of the third quarter. Snyder looks as the growing pains and the game experience that freshmen like linebacker Darian Claiborne, cornerback Alex Sezer and a host of others received as an advantage down the road.

"We're building depth right now for our future, for the rest of this season," Snyder said. "So what might be hurting us right now, in the future is going to help us. We've got to live with that and we've got to deal with that."

Planning for success: Texas A&M

September, 5, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- After a season-opening win against Rice, Texas A&M looks for a 2-0 start as it hosts FCS foe Sam Houston State on Saturday at Kyle Field.

While the Aggies are heavy favorites, players say they're still preparing for the Bearkats as if they were a conference opponent. Here are a few keys to success this weekend for the Aggies:

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Dave EinselTexas A&M had its way with Sam Houston State last season, but recent upsets by FCS teams have the Aggies on notice.
1. Beware the upset: Head coach Kevin Sumlin said on Tuesday that he had no problem getting his players' attention when it comes to Sam Houston State after the first weekend of college football yielded seven wins for FCS teams over FBS foes, with three of those upsets coming against teams in the "power five" conferences. Sumlin specifically cited North Dakota State's road win over Kansas State for one primary reason: North Dakota State faced Sam Houston State in the FCS national championship game last season (North Dakota State won 39-13). Sam Houston State has been to the FCS national title game two years in a row, so the Bearkats aren't an easily dismissed lower-division team.

2. Watch the video: Another point Sumlin hammered home was the fact that Sam Houston State outscored Texas A&M by more than three touchdowns in the final quarter-and-a-half last season when the Aggies put their backups in the game. "A lot of those guys that were backups, in my opinion, lost the second half 28-6," Sumlin said. "And when you turn on that film of the guys who were in the game in the second half, you saw a lot of those guys playing last Saturday [against Rice]. That gets their attention, that's got our attention."

3. Improvement from youth: The Aggies played 16 true freshman and 21 newcomers total in their win over Rice. There were plenty of struggles -- particularly on defense, where 11 true freshmen saw action at some point -- as the young players adjusted to live action. Now that there's a game under their collective belt, Sumlin expects improvement from that group. The sense of urgency in preparation this week should have gone up a few notches for those players and thus help them play better this week.

4. Regaining personnel: Texas A&M had a host of suspensions in its season-opener, but the Aggies will get a few of those players back this week. Starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis returns and that should be a significant help to the run defense. Safety Floyd Raven is back as well. Cornerback Deshazor Everett, who missed the first half of the Rice game, will miss the first half of the Sam Houston State game because he was ejected in the second half for targeting by the officials and must sit the first two quarters on Saturday by rule. But having him back out there in any capacity will help, particularly since the other starting corner, De'Vante Harris, is serving the second of a two-game suspension, as are three others (defensive end Gavin Stansbury, linebacker Steven Jenkins and receiver Edward Pope).

5. Ground and pound: Those are terms not necessarily synonymous with the Aggies' offense, but it ran the ball with plenty of success in the win over Rice. Texas A&M compiled 202 rushing yards, averaged 5.2 yards per rush and got solid efforts from both starting running back Ben Malena (82 rushing yards, 18 receiving yards, two total touchdowns) and transfer Tra Carson (14 carries, 76 yards, two touchdowns). Another transfer, Brandon Williams, joins the fray this week to help bolster the Aggies' ground attack.

6. Good special teams work: The Aggies were just about perfect on the special teams end of things on Saturday. Punter Drew Kaser averaged a whopping 62.7 yards per punt, which included a long of 76. Placekicker Taylor Bertolet was perfect on all his kicks (seven extra points, one field goal), something that he couldn't always say last season. That will be important for the Aggies to continue all season if they want to reach some of their lofty goals.

7. Let Johnny be Johnny: Texas A&M's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel, played well in his short stint (6-of-8 passing, 94 yards, three touchdowns) against Rice. He showed a desire to stay and throw from the pocket once he got rid of the early nerves of entering the game at halftime and the Aggies simply need to let him continue to do what he does best -- make plays.


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- There are several reasons Texas A&M was so highly thought of and had lofty expectations coming into the 2013 season.

The No. 7 Aggies, who were ranked in the top 10 of both preseason polls (they were No. 6 in the coaches' poll), returned a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, a plethora of running backs and an All-America caliber tackle, and play a style of offense that many SEC teams -- defending champion Alabama included -- find hard to defend.

And while there were several positives to take away from Texas A&M's season-opening 52-31 win over Rice on Saturday at Kyle Field, the win also illustrated that the Aggies still have a long way to go in several areas if they plan on fulfilling championship expectations.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Eric GayThe good news is Johnny Manziel looked like his Heisman Trophy winning self once he got in the game. The bad news is the Aggies look like they still have lots of work to do if they want to win titles.
One of those areas is maturity. Head coach Kevin Sumlin discussed that after the game, and while he was specifically addressing it in relation to the ejection of freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall and the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty drawn by quarterback Johnny Manziel after a touchdown pass, Sumlin's words can apply across the board.

The Aggies had eight players miss at least the first half of Saturday's game. Four were suspended for "violating Texas A&M athletics department rules and regulations." Three were suspended after offseason arrests and Manziel was suspended for the first half after "inadvertent violations" that occurred as a result of signing autographs after the conclusion of an NCAA investigation.

That was also part of Manziel's message, according to Sumlin, to his teammates when he addressed them on Friday as part of the requirements of restoring his eligibility.

"Actions just like today and just like other guys on this team, those actions may be actions that you think just hurt you, but they end up hurting the whole football team," Sumlin said. "That was the real gist of [Manziel's] message to the team. That everybody's individual acts affect the team. When that happens, it's not good."

Of the suspended players, five were defensive starters (defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris, linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive end Gavin Stansbury). Another, Floyd Raven, is a key player expected to contribute this fall and was one time projected to start at free safety before Clay Honeycutt wound up first on the depth chart after a strong training camp.

As a result, the Aggies' defense was filled with true freshmen and newcomers getting significant playing time on Saturday and ended up surrendering 509 total offensive yards. Now, Rice is a good team in Conference USA that could contend for the league title, but it’s not nearly the caliber of opponent Texas A&M will see on its SEC schedule. The Owls ran for a whopping 306 yards -- six yards a carry -- and appeared able to run right at the Aggies' defense.

The Aggies struggled with missed tackles and missed assignments, which are to be expected when you have a significant number of 18- and 19-year-olds on the field.

"We played 20 guys out there that had never played before," Sumlin said. "Is that an excuse for our play? No. I think we learned from today."

The Aggies regain the services of Ennis and Raven next week, though Everett will again have to sit out a half, by rule, because he was ejected in the second half after being called for a targeting penalty. The other four suspended -- Jenkins, Harris, Stansbury and receiver Edward Pope -- won't return until Sept. 14 when the Aggies host No. 1 Alabama.

But there were plenty of positives to be seen as well, most notably in the win column. Backup quarterback Matt Joeckel showed he was capable of moving the offense, leading the Aggies to 28 first-half points while putting up more than respectable numbers (14-of-19 passing, 190 yards). Joeckel's lone touchdown pass was a 71-yard catch-and-run completion to an apparent star in the making, 6-foot-5, 240-pound true freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones.

Players who are considered to be among the team's leaders, running back Ben Malena (100 total offensive yards, two touchdowns) and Mike Evans (84 receiving yards, two touchdowns) played their roles aptly. The kicking game was consistent as Taylor Bertolet was perfect on all his kick attempts, something he struggled with last season. And as Sumlin noted, the positive to having so many young players on the field on defense means they'll have a chance to learn from their mistakes and develop. Though there were struggles, they came up with turnovers and still did enough to win.

Most importantly, the Aggies got their quarterback, Manziel, back on the field in the second half and he looked like the player who captivated the nation a season ago. He was 6-of-8 passing for 94 yards with three touchdown passes and showed his trademark scrambling ability, though Rice did a solid job of keeping him from running too wild.

This is a team that has encountered a lot this offseason. From the headlines Manziel made and the NCAA investigation, to the suspensions and most importantly, the death of a teammate -- Polo Manukainiu -- the Aggies have already dealt with their fair share of adversity.

The Aggies honored Manukainiu on Saturday by wearing decals with his number, first name and a Tongan-inspired design on their helmets and electing sophomore defensive tackle Alonzo Williams to wear Maunkainiu's No. 90. The team will elect a different defensive lineman to do so each week as a nod to Manukainiu and his family that he is "still out there with us," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said.

This team has lofty goals. Hurd mentioned Saturday the team would wear the Manukainiu decal "each and every week, leading [up] to the national championship." If they plan to get there, they have a lot of work still to do.

Notes from Aggies' open scrimmage

August, 19, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M had its first open scrimmage of training camp on Saturday. About 10,000 fans showed up to watch the workout at Kyle Field, and there was plenty to take away from the practice. Here are five things of note:

1. Clarity in the quarterback situation?

[+] EnlargeMatt Joeckel
Icon SMIJunior Matt Joeckel took more reps with the first team Saturday, but the backup quarterback battle remains undecided.
Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin's commentary after the scrimmage didn't provide much real insight when it comes to who is leading the battle for the backup quarterback job. The competition continues between junior Matt Joeckel, redshirt freshman Matt Davis and true freshman Kenny Hill.

If we're to make a judgment based on how repetitions played out in Saturday's scrimmage, Hill looks to have a real shot at the job. He was the only one of the three to play a series with the first-team offense, something he did twice on Saturday, which is notable. Earlier in the week, quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said that Hill was getting extra reps because he wasn't as experienced in the offense as Joeckel and Davis, thus he needs them. So keep that in mind.

Joeckel led two lengthy scoring drives, while Davis' two series were brief three-and-outs. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel got plenty of time with the first team, but his playing status is still unclear amid an NCAA investigation. When asked if the school was any closer to a decision on whether Manziel will play Aug. 31, Sumlin said it's "probably no different than it was the first time we talked about it."

2. Key injury

Starting cornerback Deshazor Everett was on the sideline in street clothes with a wrap around his right hand. The injury? A broken thumb, according to Sumlin. The head coach wouldn't comment on whether Everett is expected to miss any game time because of the injury. A decision on his status (as well as that of safety Floyd Raven's) is still pending after both had offseason arrests. Sumlin said on Thursday that he still needs to visit with athletic director Eric Hyman regarding a decision on what, if any, further disciplinary action will be taken with Everett and Raven.

3. Defense progressing

With a lot of newcomers or players playing in new, more prominent roles, there are a lot of questions on defense. If Saturday's scrimmage is any indication, there's progress being made on that side of the football. The defense was able to generate pressure on the quarterback and even come up with two turnovers when Manziel was running the show. Steven Jenkins made an interception, newcomer at linebacker Tommy Sanders recovered a fumble and returned it for what would have been a score if not blown dead and defensive end Tyrone Taylor came up with a pair of sacks.

4. Receivers emerging

[+] EnlargeMalcome Kennedy
Sam Khan Jr./ESPNReceiver Malcome Kennedy ''has come light years since last summer," coach Sumlin said.
One player who has gotten positive reviews in both the spring and fall is junior Malcome Kennedy. Best known for the touchdown catch that gave the Aggies their final points in the upset win over No. 1 Alabama last year, Kennedy figures to be the starter at the 'Y' (Ryan Swope's old position), and Sumlin on Saturday called him the "most improved player on the team."

Sumlin said, "He has come light years since last summer. ... He continued to build confidence down the stretch and became a real leader for us this summer. I think you can see the confidence that he has playing and the confidence that the quarterbacks have in him."

Also, true freshman LaQuvionte Gonzalez wowed the fans on hand by making some nice moves and showing off some speed on a 40-yard reception.

5. Mixed bag on special teams

Placekicker Taylor Bertolet is still recovering from offseason surgery (special teams coach Jeff Banks said earlier in the week that he has no concerns whether Bertolet will be ready for the season opener on Aug. 31), so Josh Lambo and Kyle Serres have been competing at that spot. Lambo got the lion's share of the work on Saturday, and Sumlin called the kicking game "spotty." Point-after-touchdown kicks were fine, but Lambo was 2-for-5 on field goals.

On the flip side, the punting by Drew Kaser drew rave reviews, as he boomed about four punts. "We're working on coverage, because of how far he's punting the ball," Sumlin said. "I'm not complaining."

In the punt return game, cornerback De'Vante Harris showed off some nice moves. He's one of several competing for that job.
The 2013 season is quickly approaching with Texas A&M players scheduled to report for fall training camp Aug. 4 and begin practicing Aug. 5. Much of the talk surrounding the Aggies this offseason is connected to its star quarterback, reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. But there are several other aspects of the team to keep an eye on as the Aggies try to build on their 11-2 campaign in 2012. Here are five storylines to watch, not Manziel-related, for fall practice.


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