Texas A&M Aggies: Howard Matthews
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.
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."
The defense: Taking a little copout here, but it's hard to single out one performance from the Aggies' defense. The unit has taken a ton of criticism, much of it justified, throughout this season. Yes, they were playing against a freshman quarterback who was making his first start, but considering the struggles this year, any positive performance is something to talk about. Junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury had two sacks and nine tackles. Safety Howard Matthews had a team-high 14 tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception return for a touchdown that changed the momentum early in the second half. Linebacker Steven Jenkins had an impressive day (eight tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss). The Aggies finished with seven sacks and held Vanderbilt to 95 rushing yards.
Johnny Manziel: Have to give him one after fighting through a right shoulder injury to put together a stellar performance. He was 25-of-35 for 305 yards and four touchdowns with an interception. He was sacked twice but avoided falling on the injured shoulder and made smart decisions, carrying the ball just four times. Other than the pick, which was perhaps forced into coverage, it's hard to ask for much more from Johnny Football.
Trey Williams: The sophomore running back is beginning to look like the best back this team has. He ran for 65 yards and a touchdown on just six carries (10.8 average), caught a pass for 19 yards and finished with 102 all-purpose yards. He might not be as proficient in pass protection as someone like Ben Malena, but he's definitely improved in that area since last year and his speed and elusiveness is hard to match.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Just like it has been all season, the attention going into Saturday was on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Was he going to play, or would he sit? How was his shoulder? As he often has this year, Johnny provided a lot of drama.
But the real story from the Aggies' 56-24 win over Vanderbilt at Kyle Field was the performance of the A&M defense. A unit that came into the game ranked 118th in total defense, and was in the bottom 20 nationally in most major defensive statistical categories, put together what was easily one of its best performances of the season.
After taking a gut punch from Auburn last week to the tune of 45 points and 615 yards (379 rushing), any positive sign is acceptable at this point.
"We need an example to show us how we should play, and now we have an example," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "We can always go back to the Vandy tape. This type of production we expect from the defense, and this is the standard that we expect from our defense. So, it was good to have a game like this."
There was an energy there that didn't seem to exist consistently in recent weeks for the Aggies' D. Howard Matthews (14 tackles, one interception return for a touchdown) played probably his best game of the season. The pass rush was relentless, led by Gavin Stansbury's two sacks, and the 12 tackles for loss. The unit matched its season total for sacks with seven against the Commodores and held an opponent to under 100 yards rushing for just the second time this season. It finally looked like the unit defensive coordinator Mark Snyder envisioned he'd have coming into the season.
"I dialed it up," Snyder said of what generated the consistent pass rush. "We pressured a lot more than we have pressured because we finally could. We felt like we finally got to the point where all the pieces were in place. We had practiced together, and I felt comfortable calling some pressures because everybody knew where they were supposed to be."
Much of that came from a few noteworthy personnel moves. True freshman cornerback Noel Ellis got plenty of time in place of Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel cornerback. Junior linebacker Donnie Baggs, who hasn't started since Sept. 14 against Alabama, got the starting nod at strongside linebacker. True freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall didn't start but saw heavy playing time rotating with starting ends Stansbury and Obioha. Starting defensive tackle Alonzo Williams missed the game with a foot injury, and junior Ivan Robinson replaced him.
The Commodores' best weapon -- receiver Jordan Matthews -- had a solid day (eight catches, 92 yards), but his longest reception was 21 yards. The biggest play came from Jonathan Krause on a 44-yard reception in the first half. Matthews, to his credit, became the SEC's career receiving yards leader with 3,172.
If the Aggies can build on this performance, the outlook for the rest of the season is bright.
Although the defense showed well, most eyes were on Manziel in the early going. For a guy with an injured throwing shoulder, it sure didn't seem to affect him. He completed his first 10 passes and led the Aggies to four consecutive touchdown drives to start the game.
Coach Kevin Sumlin was tight-lipped about Manziel's status all week leading up to the game, calling the Heisman Trophy winner "hopeful." He never budged from that statement but said Saturday that he wasn't playing coy and that Manziel was truly a game-time decision as he tried to recover from the shoulder injury he suffered last week.
Manziel began throwing Wednesday and participated in 11-on-11 drills Friday and even woke up Saturday with soreness. But he said there was no keeping him off the field.
"In my mind, I was always going to play," Manziel said. "It would take a lot to keep me off the field and away from these guys. They count on me, and they expect me to be there."
He completed 25 of 35 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. He ran much less than he usually does because it wasn't in the game plan, mostly to protect him from further injury.
Although Manziel was able to make every throw necessary to put the Aggies' offense in the right position, he got plenty of support from the running game as the Aggies combined for 189 yards, led by Trey Williams' 65 and Brandon Williams' 61.
It was far from a clean win. The Aggies committed five turnovers and allowed the game to get closer than it had to in the first half. But it's something they can build off of as they approach the homestretch.
"It's been a little frustrating as of late with some games a little closer than we wanted," Manziel said. "We felt we've played pretty good all around, but we just need to continue to get better. That's the thing. We're not where we were last year in every aspect of our game, but we have a coaching staff that won't quit until we're where we need to be."
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.
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.
No. 31 Howard Matthews
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No. 14 Floyd Raven
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No. 4 Toney Hurd Jr.
Senior defensive back
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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.
Raven was a backup at cornerback last season and moved to safety this spring. The Aggies thought about moving the 6-2, 190-pound Raven to safety last fall, but coach Kevin Sumlin said they didn’t feel as if he’d have enough time to get comfortable at safety.
“It was a heck of a lot easier to put him in and blitz and play man-to-man (as a corner),” Sumlin explained.
But with Steven Terrell departing, the Aggies were looking for a full-time free safety. Raven, with his size and athletic ability, made perfect sense.
He made a ton of plays this spring and helped to solidify the Texas A&M secondary, especially with junior Howard Matthews and senior Toney Hurd Jr., returning at safety.
“He’s a physical guy who just needed to learn the position and has tremendous range and the right size and the right attitude to be a really, really good safety,” Sumlin said. “For him to get all the reps he got this spring really helps us. With Howard Matthews coming back, and he played very well for us at the end of the year, that helps Floyd, too, to have some guys who it’s not their first time back there.”
Sumlin said the summer months will be equally valuable for Raven as he continues to develop the right rapport and communication with his secondary mates.
“Through the summer with players organizing 7-on-7’s, we look for him to get better and better as he goes, and certainly the consistency back there this spring with he and Howard at the safety position makes you feel a lot better as coaches now than we did at the beginning,” Sumlin said.
“We knew he had the talent and knew he had the skills, and after coming through the spring and seeing the way he practiced, we’re pleased with his progress.”
1. QB Johnny Manziel
It's worth noting that he faced a second-team defense and had little pass rush to disturb him in the Maroon and White game, but he still showed what Aggies fans hoped to see: accuracy, arm strength and no major mistakes. He's the straw that stirs the drink and will continue to this fall.
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In all its crystal glory, college football's national championship trophy made a brief stop at Kyle Field on Saturday.
Parked on the sideline for a live television shot during Texas A&M's Maroon-and-White spring football game, as well as for photo opportunities for those who walked by, it was a seemingly symbolic placement of the sport's most coveted piece of hardware, mere feet from a team that might have a realistic chance to hoist it next January.
But that's many months away. In the meantime, the nation got its first extended glimpse of the 2013 Aggies, a team that could be ranked in the preseason top five come August. The score was Maroon (offense) 43, and White (defense) 23, but that mattered little. What the record crowd of 45,212 came to see was how the Aggies looked and, more specifically, what their reigning Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel, would do.
Johnny Football didn't disappoint. He was 24-of-30 for 303 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against an overmatched second-team Aggies defense. He got out of the pocket and scrambled a few times (three carries, 18 yards), but that was not going to be part of the show today in the interest of keeping him healthy. Nobody was going to touch Manziel, although he almost found himself in harm's way when he tried to throw a cut block on sophomore defensive back Sam Moeller to pave the way for a Brandon Williams touchdown.
Just one of those "Johnny Football" moments for the redshirt sophomore.
"I went up and apologized to Sam after it," Manziel said. "The way I am and the way my motor drives me, it was just an instinct play. As much as Coach [Kevin] Sumlin was shaking his head and wasn't happy about it, it was more of 'Hey, in a game, this is how it would have been.' It just naturally took over for me."
He stayed healthy, as did most of the players who participated. The only notable injury to come out of Saturday's scrimmage was an MCL sprain for junior linebacker Tommy Sanders, who'll be ready in the fall.
Several other things about the 2013 Aggies became clear on Saturday. Williams showed why he was such a coveted recruit coming out of Brookshire (Texas) Royal High School, racking up a team-high 59 rushing yards on seven carries and catching three passes for 29 yards while recording a rushing and receiving touchdown. The Aggies' starting running back from 2012, Ben Malena, is back, as is Trey Williams, who contributed as a true freshman. Adding Williams and Oregon transfer Tra Carson to the mix (both sat out per NCAA transfer rules last season) adds more dimensions to the Aggies' backfield and their offense.
"Brandon Williams is very talented. He's a home run threat from anywhere on the field," Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "We plan on [using all four backs]. ... It's a good problem to have. The thing about those four guys, is that they all bring something different to the table."
While the defense didn't have its best day, its performance can be taken with a grain of salt with three surefire starters sidelined by injury, and another two defensive linemen who have taken first-team reps also sitting out. The unit out there Saturday wasn't exactly what will suit up for the Aggies this fall.
What the Aggies are hoping to develop is leadership. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that safety Howard Matthews is emerging as a leader, as is middle linebacker Donnie Baggs. Having that presence is critical because the Aggies waved goodbye to two of their best defensive leaders, linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, who both graduated.
That said, plenty of the signs Aggies fans were looking for were present on Saturday. Manziel looked in top form. So did sophomore receiver Mike Evans. The offensive line -- though missing soon-to-be first-round pick Luke Joeckel and graduated center Patrick Lewis -- is coming together well. The remainder of a top-10 recruiting class is on the way in the fall and could produce a few more quick contributors.
Manziel will go back to work and team up with George Whitfield Jr., the private quarterback coach he worked with last summer. Manziel said he's ready to eliminate any doubts about what is ahead for him and this year's Texas A&M squad.
"The big conversation that [Whitfield and I] had before Alabama was 'Be a dragon slayer, slay the dragon,' " Manziel said. "Now there's a big dragon out there for us with all the people that are doubting A&M and all the people that are doubting me, (saying) that last year was a fluke. So that's a chip on my shoulder and that's a dragon we need to slay this year."
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.