Texas A&M Aggies: Julien Obioha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We're not there," Snyder said of the defensive depth. "We still need another recruiting class, but we're way, way, way closer."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- One of Kevin Sumlin's top priorities since becoming Texas A&M's head coach more than two years ago has been building a team that could compete in the trenches in the SEC.

[+] EnlargeGavin Stansbury
Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty ImagesGavin Stansbury will be in the mix to be a big contributor on the Aggies defensive line.
Central to that effort is building the caliber of offensive and defensive lines necessary to win in the league. With a strong offensive line already on campus upon his arrival, Sumlin and his staff have been able to focus their efforts on recruiting SEC-caliber defensive linemen. So far, the Aggies appear to have done a good job stockpiling talent on the defensive line in the last two recruiting classes.

While young players continue to come in, that puts the onus on veterans on the roster to step it up. That's certainly the case at defensive end, where the Aggies had two true freshmen see time last year (Jay Arnold and Daeshon Hall) but also have a handful of veterans (Gavin Stansbury, Julien Obioha, Tyrell Taylor and Tyrone Taylor).

Arnold and Hall are both sitting out spring recovering from injuries and Stansbury has been limited as well, but Sumlin addressed the state of his defensive ends on Monday.

"Obioha has been good," Sumlin said. "He hasn't had any problems with that back, which has been great for us. Stansbury, we know what he can do so we just want him to be completely healthy, which has given the Taylors a lot of reps because we don't know what they can do. They haven't been put in those positions to have to play a bunch of snaps and be counted on. Gavin has proven to us what he can do on Saturdays when he's healthy. When he's not healthy, it's a different guy. So we want to make sure he's healthy for the fall."

Once Arnold and Hall are healthy, it stands to reason both will figure into the mix at defensive end in the fall since both did enough to earn playing time a season ago. But the current crew will also be joined in the summer by a trio of highly touted freshmen from the 2014 recruiting class: five-star prospect Myles Garrett, ESPN 300 prospect Qualen Cunningham and three-star prospect Jarrett Johnson.

That means now is the time for inexperienced players to prove they're worthy of playing time, because the competition will only get stiffer come August.

"That puts some of the onus on the Taylors to kind of show us what they can do and get them going because we've got two other D-ends in the program who have shown what they can do in Jay Arnold and Dae Dae (Daeshon Hall)," Sumlin said. "They're getting healthy and out running now. And the guys we recruited are obviously guys we expect to come in here and compete to play. In our way of thinking ... it's time for the Taylors to show what they can do and we're giving them every opportunity to do that right now."

Though the Aggies have been precautionary with Stansbury this spring, Sumlin was encouraged by his progress last season and feels like he is now a proven commodity.

"Defensively, Gavin was probably the most improved player that we had coming through the year," Sumlin said. "That's why I said, when he's healthy, he's really, really effective for us."

Obioha is a two-year starter who said earlier this spring that he feels good. His veteran presence will be welcome in the fall, too.

For the Taylor twins, Tyrell (a senior) and Tyrone (a redshirt sophomore), now is the time to perform, Sumlin says.

"What we're trying to do right now is get the guys healthy that have experience and the Taylor twins, who don't have that type of experience, they need to prove where they are in their capability to be able to help us win," Sumlin said.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M’s work toward putting a defensive product on the field that is drastically better than the one that lined up in 2013 is among the most important offseason tasks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obioha said he is looking forward to the increased depth.

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

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

“Last year, bottom of the SEC, bottom 25 in the nation, that’s not going to happen this year, that’s been the message,” Obioha said. “We’re going to be completely different this year from the bottom to the top and it all starts with the D-line.”
Editor's note: This is the second part of a weeklong series looking at five position battles to watch in spring practice, which begins Feb. 28 for Texas A&M.

Through the first seven games of the 2013 season, Texas A&M's defense recorded only seven sacks. Needless to say, the Aggies' pass rush needed quite a bit of help.

Thanks to a huge boost in a win over Vanderbilt, the Aggies finished the season much better than they started it, collecting 14 sacks in the final six games, including seven against the Commodores.

The pass rush comes from a multitude of positions but perhaps none more crucial than defensive end. And that's where one of the intriguing battles of spring football will ensue.

Everyone that was on the Texas A&M two-deep depth chart at defensive end is back this season. Consider that there are defensive ends on the way in the summer via the Aggies' 2014 recruiting class, and it stands to reason that the competition will be plentiful.

[+] EnlargeGavin Stansbury
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsGavin Stansbury is the leading returning defensive end for Texas A&M, as he compiled three sacks and 47 tackles last season.
But for now, let's focus on the guys that will be on the field in the spring. The player who was perhaps the most productive last season that returns is Gavin Stansbury. As a junior, Stansbury tied for the team lead with three sacks and had 47 tackles, tops among all Texas A&M defensive linemen.

He'll be a senior this season and seemed to hit his stride in the second half of 2013. He'll need to carry that momentum into the spring.

Another experienced player returning is Julien Obioha, who started as a true freshman and a sophomore. Obioha started 12 of 13 games in 2012. Last season, the soon-to-be-junior started 11 of the Aggies' 13 games. Obioha led the Aggies' defensive linemen in tackles-for-loss with five and also had one sack. He has two seasons of experience in the SEC, which is valuable, but the Aggies are hoping to see increased production from the veteran.

After Stansbury and Obioha, youth is served. Jay Arnold and Daeshon Hall, both of whom earned playing time as true freshmen, could be a factor. Hall appeared in all 13 games and showed flashes of his potential, compiling three tackles for loss and recording an interception. Playing at 245 pounds last season, the 6-foot-6 Hall could stand to bulk up even more this offseason if his role is going to expand. The coaching staff certainly has high hopes for the athletic Hall.

Arnold, who appeared in nine games last season, earned a start in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Duke and also played significant time against Missouri in the regular-season finale. Arnold was productive in his limited time, garnering two sacks and three tackles for loss. Physically, Arnold was much more college ready (6-4, 275) and that can only help him moving forward. The fact that he received increased playing time late in the season suggests he has a chance to make an impact moving forward, so it'll be worth watching how much work he receives this spring.

The Taylor twins, Tyrell Taylor and Tyrone Taylor, are also back. Tyrone, who will be a sophomore, appeared in 10 games in 2013, compiling three tackles for loss and a sack. Tyrell, who will be a senior, appeared in only two and registered a half-sack.

The Aggies need all the pass rush help they can get this fall if they're going to improve on the struggling defense they had in 2013. Each of the above players will not only have to show improvement this spring and this fall, they'll have to attempt to fend off the incoming recruits, namely five-star defensive end Myles Garrett (6-5, 255), for playing time.

A&M finds success in Louisiana

November, 19, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When it comes to the presence schools have in their respective home states, few are stronger than LSU in the state of Louisiana.

The Tigers' success, conference affiliation and game day atmosphere are just a few of the unique advantages for natives of the Pelican State.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesTexas A&M freshman Darian Claiborne (48) took over the middle linebacker job before the fourth game of the season.
Port Allen (Louisiana) High School head coach Guy Blanchard vividly remembers the emotions of one of his players, Darian Claiborne, when LSU took a tough loss early in 2012.

"When Darian was in January of his junior year (of high school) and LSU lost the national championship game to Alabama, you would have thought his best friend died the next day at school," Blanchard said. "He was a big LSU fan. You can't grow up in Southeast Louisiana and not have some kind of attachment or an eye on the prize, however you want to say it, [to LSU]."

Claiborne, a true freshman, is now the starting middle linebacker for No. 12 Texas A&M, which heads to Death Valley on Saturday to play No. 22 LSU. But Port Allen is fewer than seven miles from the LSU campus, so it's understandable how he could have envisioned a future with the Bayou Bengals.

But Texas A&M’s staff developed a strong relationship with Claiborne, a three-star prospect. Furthermore, the Aggies made a strong impression and made it clear they wanted him while LSU didn’t officially extend an offer. The Aggies’ diligence paid off because Claiborne has played a key part on the A&M defense.

In recent years, Texas A&M has had success recruiting the state of Louisiana. Texas is and will continue to be the home base for Texas A&M recruiting for good reason -- it's fertile recruiting ground that most colleges attempt to pick from, because of the vast number of players and caliber of talent the state produces. But Louisiana is also known for producing high-caliber recruits as well and head coach Kevin Sumlin has made sure to make "The Boot" part of his recruiting footprint.

Currently, the Aggies have nine players that are from Louisiana on the roster and all of them are on the Aggies' two deep. Some of them have been recruited by the current staff, others are holdovers from the previous staff, but all of them currently contribute on the field.

All nine are defensive players and five of them are regular starters: Claiborne, defensive back Deshazor Everett, defensive ends Julien Obioha, safety Floyd Raven and defensive end Gavin Stansbury. The others have played key roles: true freshman cornerback Noel Ellis has seen significant time in recent weeks and is the Aggies' future at the nickel cornerback position. Cornerback Tramain Jacobs started six games this season while the Aggies' dealt with injuries in the secondary and has been a reliable rotation player among the cornerbacks. True freshman linebacker Shaan Washington has found his way onto the field in a special teams capacity but also saw time at linebacker early in the year and defensive tackle Ivan Robinson has been a part of the rotation at his position when healthy.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett, another Louisiana native, was recruited my Mike Sherman's staff but has been the Aggies' most reliable defensive back.
There's no doubt the Aggies have received bang for their buck with the "Louisianimals," the term former Texas A&M center Patrick Lewis coined for his fellow Louisiana products last season. Claiborne and Everett have been arguably the Aggies' best defensive players this season. Everett has done whatever the Texas A&M coaches have asked, whether it's playing safety while Raven was injured or going back to his traditional position of cornerback, while playing with a broken thumb early in the year. Claiborne got the starting job at middle linebacker -- which is not his traditional position -- before the fourth game of the season and hasn't let go of it.

Stansbury has emerged as a playmaker while Obioha and Raven have each been a steady presence at their respective positions.

Even when he was at Houston, where the Cougars put their primary focus on their own city, Sumlin's staff would travel across the border to recruit talent out of Louisiana. But in the SEC it's a different story, because the caliber of player Texas A&M is searching for is often the same that LSU is trying to keep in state.

With the Tigers being the signature program in Louisiana, it makes it all the more difficult to pull a kid out of the state when LSU wants him.

The Aggies are experiencing that in their early SEC years. In this recruiting cycle, the Aggies are going after some of Louisiana's finest, like ESPN 300 athlete Speedy Noil and ESPN 300 defensive end Gerald Willis III. The Aggies are also trying to make inroads with the top 2015 prospects from the state, like receiver Tyron Johnson.

All have LSU offers and the battle for Noil and Willis III has been hotly contested and will be until signing day approaches.

But the Aggies have found success in recruiting prospects from the state that might have been overlooked or not as heavily pursued. If those players continue to play like Claiborne, the in-state powerhouse will start taking notice.

"Yeah, we've run across them at times," said LSU coach Les Miles of seeing A&M recruiting in Louisiana. "We recognize some of the [players] that they have there, and we wish them the very best. It's an opportunity to play in this league, and we're for that."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Perhaps the most telling sign of how poor Texas A&M's pass rush was in the first half of the season came when the Aggies finally found one.

Two weeks ago, when the Aggies hosted Vanderbilt, they came up with seven sacks in a 56-24 win over the Commodores.

[+] EnlargeGavin Stansbury
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsWith three talented quarterbacks remaining on the Aggies' scheduled, they will need Gavin Stansbury and the pass rush to continue its quick development.
The telling part was that the seven sacks that day matched what A&M had produced in the first seven games combined.

Last week against UTEP, the Aggies picked up two more sacks in a 57-7 victory. Suddenly, a team that struggled to get near the quarterback is showing signs of being able to do it with consistency.

"We've been able to turn it up a little bit," head coach Kevin Sumlin said.

One of the key figures in the Aggies' recent improvement is junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury. In the last two weeks, Stansbury has been a force, picking up a combined 16 tackles and three sacks, two of which came against Vanderbilt.

Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder felt like that game could be a turning point for Stansbury.

"He's got a different look in his eye," Snyder said. "He comes in here to meetings and he's bouncing around, having a game like that is really going to be good for his confidence too. Everybody needs that game."

The Aggies were efficient at getting to the quarterback last season behind the strength of defensive end Damontre Moore, who led the team with 12.5 sacks. Moore declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft and is now with the New York Giants.

Moore’s departure left a void in the production, and throughout the season, the Aggies have rotated players in and out of the lineup, with the primary three being Stansbury, sophomore Julien Obioha and true freshman Daeshon Hall. Each has had their ups and downs this season, but Stansbury's strong play as of late has been noticeable.

Hall and Obioha have also both picked up tackles for losses in each of the last two games, so it seems like the defensive ends are finding their groove.

Sumlin points out that just because the Aggies weren't racking up sacks, it doesn't mean they weren't getting a pass rush. They were struggling in other areas as well.

"I think early in the year, we had guys get loose, but because we were taking some other chances, we had no contain on the other side," Sumlin said. "So the quarterback flushes out the back door. Or we've got pressure here and we didn't hold our gaps in the middle and the quarterback just runs up the field. So the pressure has been there but the quarterback has escaped a bunch in the first part of the year.

"I think we've been a lot more sound in what we're doing and guys understand that 'Hey, just running to the quarterback isn't going to get it. These guys have a plan too.' They're going to take off and go somewhere. You need to maintain your gap structure, even in the pass rush. And I think that's really, really helped us."

Stansbury started the season off on a bad note, missing the first two games after being suspended for violating athletic department rules and regulations. He said he has played that much harder to "make up for it" and that he's working on continuing to develop. His three sacks are currently tied for the team lead.

"My thing is, I feel like I'm getting better but I need to improve every week," Stansbury said. "It's not a satisfying thing but it's getting better every week."

Stansbury said the intensity has been dialed up and that has led to the defensive line’s resurgence.

"Emotion and effort," he said. "Swarming to the ball. Just trying to get there. Everybody's playing with intensity and going off each other."

The No. 15 Aggies will have to continue that if they hope to keep having success when they host Mississippi State on Saturday at Kyle Field. They'll face a talented dual-threat quarterback in Dak Prescott.

As for Stansbury, much like Moore a year ago, Snyder thinks things might finally be clicking for his new star pass-rusher.

"I don't remember what game it was for Damontre last year but he had one of those games ... where he kind of turned it on and the ball started rolling for him," Snyder said. "Hopefully the same thing happens for Gavin."


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.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M turned Darian Claiborne and its pass rush loose, which resulted in seven sacks against Vanderbilt.
Sure, Vanderbilt was playing with a backup quarterback (freshman Patton Robinette made his first start in place of injured Austyn Carta-Samuels), but honestly, that mattered little. This is an A&M defense that struggles to stop virtually everybody. The Aggies allowed 306 rushing yards to Rice. They allowed 240 to FCS opponent Sam Houston State.

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."

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.

Where does Texas A&M go from here?

October, 21, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — In the moments after an emotional, 49-42 home loss to No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 14, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin told his team that nothing was out of the picture yet.

He reminded the Aggies about the time they went into the Crimson Tide's house, defeated them, and Alabama bounced back to win a BCS national championship. So from that point, A&M continued to hold on to its goals, moving forward.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Bob LeveyTexas A&M's national championship hopes were squashed by Auburn.
With the Aggies' most recent loss, a 45-41 setback to Auburn on Saturday at Kyle Field, things have changed. The chance to get to Atlanta for the SEC championship game is virtually gone. The faint glimmer of hope of possibly finding a back door into the BCS title game is no more. So what's the motivation for the No. 16 Aggies (5-2, 2-2 SEC)?

"I just said that there's still a lot out there in front of us," Sumlin said. "What's important now is not what has just happened. On Monday, the way we approach it, we've got to be honest with ourselves, win or lose. At this time of year, teams go a couple different directions. We've got to get back in here Monday, be honest with ourselves, make sure that what we can fix, we're going to fix as coaches and players and move on.

"We're in the middle of the season. We've got a lot of football left. There's no telling what can happen. In this league there are a lot of close games, people that lost today, too. We've got to keep playing. We can't dwell on this. But we've also got to be able to look honestly at where we are and how we're going to approach things from here on out."

Basically, Sumlin's message is consistent with what it has been since he arrived in Aggieland and throughout his coaching career: "It's about us."

If the Aggies find a way to win out in the regular season, it would be difficult to find much fault with it. A 10-2 season in the SEC stands on its own. Sure, Texas A&M had higher hopes and bigger dreams, ones that included a championship. But should they finish strong, a BCS berth could still be in the mix, depending on how the rest of the league plays out.

"Obviously, in the SEC, anybody can win," junior receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "Any night, any place, home or away -- we're just going to come in here and work on the things we have to work on to get better as a team. We definitely don't underestimate anybody. So we'll just get better from that."

Talking about finishing strong and doing it are two different things, though. Vanderbilt is next on the docket, a team that is fresh off an upset of then-15th ranked Georgia. It's the second of a four-game home stretch that began Saturday, with UTEP and Mississippi State closing it out. Then the Aggies hit the road for their final two games, both on the road, and they'll be challenging: at LSU and at Missouri, which is the surprise team of the year and the leader of the SEC East.

Currently, the Aggies are fourth in the SEC West. It's not where they want to be. Sumlin's message is that there will be plenty of opportunities ahead.

"He told us that this loss will determine what type of team we are," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "A lot of teams, after a loss like this, go straight downhill. He just told us that we still have a lot of football to play and we've got to be ready to come back next week and work.

"I think we go up. We have to go up. That's how we have to react to something like this. This has to show us how we have to work harder so we never feel like this ever again."
Texas A&M AggiesNelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsDefense has been a struggle for Texas A&M this season, but the Aggies have shown an ability to rise up when needed in recent victories over Arkansas and Ole Miss.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- It has been a season of challenges for the Texas A&M defense.

The basic numbers, which are well-documented, aren't good. The Aggies are 113th in total defense nationally (474.3 yards allowed per game) and 104th in rushing defense (201.17) while allowing 32 points per game.

But for all the criticism the Texas A&M defense endured this season, and for Saturday's performance in particular, there are recent signs of progress for the much-maligned unit. In Texas A&M's last two games the defense got key stops late to help the Aggies secure victory. Against Arkansas on Sept. 28, the Razorbacks pulled to within five points of Texas A&M on three separate occasions in the second half. The Aggies' defense responded with a stop each time.

On Saturday against Ole Miss, after allowing three consecutive touchdown drives and four Rebels touchdowns in a stretch of five second-half possessions, the unit buckled down when it had to, forcing a three-and-out on the Rebels' final possession late in the fourth quarter. That got the ball back to the offense, which drove downfield and set up a game-winning field goal attempt for Josh Lambo.

"The kids had a lot of belief," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said of the fourth-quarter stop. "We knew we needed a stop, especially the way our offense was playing. I thought the kids did a good job. They adjusted, checked to the formation. I believe they were trying to go four vertical and we kind of took that away and were able to get off the field."

In fact, Snyder said he was pleased with several aspects of the Aggies' performance on Saturday. The first half was a solid one for the group, as they allowed just 10 points on five Ole Miss possessions. Through three quarters, the unit forced three punts, a turnover on downs and an interception in eight possessions. Though they allowed 297 yards in the first three quarters, it translated to just 17 points for the Rebels at that time.

But the fourth quarter became a different story. The Rebels had three consecutive touchdown drives and 165 yards in the quarter. Ole Miss ate up large chunks of yardage, hitting plays 21, 21, 19 and 50 yards, respectively. They succeeded on too many of what Snyder calls "explosive plays."

"Coach Snyder always talks about 'Let's not give up explosives, because if we don't give up explosives against a lot of teams, we can shut down a lot of teams,'" sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "Monday he pulls up the stats and shows us how we do and he showed us that our explosives were way too high and if we take away all of our explosives and big plays and critical errors, we would have held Ole Miss to about 250 or 260 yards, which is a good game for a defense. We just need to eliminate big plays."

Texas A&M has certainly had its fair share of issues when it comes to allowing big plays. This season, the Aggies have allowed 10 or more yards on 22.5 percent of plays it's faced, which ranks 105th in the nation.

Youth and inexperience continues to factor into the Aggies' success, or lack thereof, defensively. With 11 freshmen on the defensive two-deep depth chart, there are some issues that are a byproduct of players simply not having enough playing time. But because the talent level of those freshmen is high and other factors, including injuries, the Aggies are having to endure those growing pains.

And it has been rare that the Aggies have had consistency in its starting defensive personnel from week to week.

On Saturday, the Aggies had to finish the game minus their best defensive player, Deshazor Everett, because of an injury sustained in the first half. His status for this Saturday's game against Auburn is uncertain, though it wouldn't be surprising to see him suit up since he tried to make an effort to get back into the Ole Miss game. They were already without starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury. That meant the Aggies were operating without two of their better defensive players in crunch time on Saturday.

Even with those issues, one of the most important areas to head coach Kevin Sumlin and his coaching staff hasn't been as bad as the other aforementioned statistics. The Aggies are allowing third-down conversions 39.5 percent of the time (72nd nationally). It isn't quite as good as last season (32.4 percent, 16th) but it hasn't been as bleak as some of the other areas.

The key for the Aggies moving forward is improving in that area and taking what they did in the first three quarters or the final drive against Ole Miss -- or in the aforementioned instances at Arkansas -- and making it happen for four quarters.

"That's the key, consistency," Snyder said. "It was a little bit different game this week. I thought we played pretty decent for about three quarters. Then in the fourth quarter, we were just bad, period. We had been pretty good in the second half. That's what we keep talking to these guys about, consistency. Let's play an entire game."

They also have to get better at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, something the Aggies have struggled mightily at doing this season. Their five sacks tie them for 118th in the country.

"The one thing I challenged our guys with is we have to get some pass rush," Snyder said. " I understand it's difficult with the type of offenses that we're facing...[but] we need to generate some pass rush without me having to make a [blitz] call to generate that pass rush."

Senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said the group simply needs to continue to work at it all of these things.

"It's just timing," Hurd said. "We just have to keep working on our timing, fitting our gaps and just becoming a sound defense. Do all the little things right and the big picture will be better in the end if we do the little things right in the beginning."

Five things: Texas A&M-Ole Miss

October, 12, 2013
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After a week off, No. 9 Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC) returns to the field tonight, hitting the road to take on Ole Miss (3-2, 1-2) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss.

These two teams engaged in a dramatic affair last season, one that saw the Aggies' escape with a 30-27 comeback win. Here are five things to watch heading into the rematch:

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel and the Aggies have taken care of the ball thus far, only committing five turnovers in five games.
1. Turnovers: Last year's game between these two teams became so dramatic because the Aggies had their worst game of the season in the turnover department. Texas A&M gave the ball away six times, which allowed Ole Miss to build a 27-17 fourth-quarter lead. It took heroics from quarterback Johnny Manziel, receivers Mike Evans and Ryan Swope and much of the Aggies' defense, including then-senior linebacker Johnathan Stewart and current senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr., to help pull out the improbable victory. This season, the Aggies have been good in the turnover department, with five giveaways compared to 10 takeaways. Their plus-5 margin ties them for No. 20 in the nation in the category. On the other hand Ole Miss is dead even, with eight giveaways and eight takeaways.

2. Youth is served on D-line: True freshman defensive tackle Isaiah Golden will get his first start tonight in place of senior Kirby Ennis, who is out the remainder of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Golden has played in four games this season and showed signs of why the coaching staff feels like he'll be a good player in the SEC for years to come, but if the Aggies are to improve on a run defense that is last in the SEC and 108th nationally, the 6-foot-2, 310-pound Golden and his teammates will have to jell quickly. Three of the four starters on the defensive line are freshmen or sophomores: Golden, defensive end Julien Obioha (a sophomore who started 12 games as a freshman last season) and defensive tackle Alonzo Williams (a sophomore who started the AT&T Cotton Bowl last season and has started every game this season). That doesn't include true freshman Hardreck Walker, who will also be a part of the defensive tackle rotation moving forward.

3. Health: The Aggies were beat up after their last game against Arkansas. The aforementioned Ennis is out for the year, but Evans and linebacker Darian Claiborne also left that game with injuries. Both will play tonight, but it'll be interesting to see how effective they are -- certainly the off week helped both. Safety Floyd Raven Sr., who injured his collarbone on Sept. 7 against Sam Houston State, might be a slight possibility -- though not a certainty -- to play. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said earlier this week they would monitor the situation throughout the week; when Raven returned to practice last week it was of the non-contact variety. If Raven isn't back today, Sumlin said he'd be "probably probable" for the Auburn game next week.

4. Ole Miss weapons: The Rebels have a talented receiving corps led by junior Donte Moncrief and true freshmen Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell. They also have a speedy running back in senior Jeff Scott, who is averaging 8.7 yards per carry and is a big play threat whenever he touches the ball. The Aggies' defense has struggled overall this season, though they did show some positive signs in the second half against Arkansas, getting key stops at critical times. They'll have to do that again if they want to get a win in Oxford.

5. Road streak: The Aggies' play away from home continues to be solid. Since Sumlin took over, the Aggies haven't lost a game away from Kyle Field, going undefeated last season and winning their bowl game. If they can bring the same energy and focus that they have been accustomed to, it will bode well for their chances tonight.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas --Texas A&M needs all the help that it can get defensively. The early part of the season has been a struggle in several areas, including stopping the running game.

So when the Aggies discovered that senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis had a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that would require season-ending surgery, it was a blow. Ennis started most of last season, was a starter this year and his absence mean more youth is injected into a lineup already full of it.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin knows injuries are just part of the game. "I can't call Bob Stoops and trade a guy. We've got who we've got."
When the Aggies (4-1, 1-1 SEC) meet Ole Miss (3-2, 1-2) in Oxford, Miss., on Saturday, they'll do so with a true freshman taking Ennis place: defensive tackle Isaiah Golden.

The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Golden has the kind of frame you look for in an SEC defensive tackle, he's just lean on playing experience with just four career games under his belt since signing with A&M in February.

"It doesn't matter how comfortable I am with it, it matters how comfortable he is," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "It's not the NFL, I can't call Bob Stoops and trade a guy. We've got who we've got."

The coaches like what they've seen from Golden so far. An ESPN 300 recruit from Carthage (Texas) High School, Golden showed enough during preseason training camp to crack the two-deep depth chart along with another true freshman defensive tackle, Hardreck Walker.

But with Ennis out for the remainder of this season, that means the Aggies' young defensive tackles will have to grow up in a hurry. Golden will start next to Alonzo Williams, a sophomore who has been a key player for the Aggies' up front this year. Walker and junior Ivan Robinson will figure into defensive tackle rotation as well.

Another ESPN 300 signee from the 2013 class, defensive tackle Justin Manning, is getting an increase in repetitions at practice. While it doesn't appear he'll see playing time just yet, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that the Aggies are an injury away from having no choice but to put Manning into the rotation.

Golden brings size and is "very athletic and a natural playmaker," according to sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha.

"He's a very physical kid," Snyder said of Golden. "He's very capable of playing in this league. He's going to be a really good player someday. I actually sat in [defensive line coach] Terry [Price's] meeting [on Monday] in the back of the room like a fly on the wall and he seems excited, which he should be. It's part of college football.

Sumlin said Tuesday that his ideal scenario with freshmen is to have them in a backup role for a season then allow them the chance to become starters for the remaining three years of their careers. But it doesn't always work like that, especially when injuries come into play.

Golden has had a lot to handle already this season. Last month, he had to deal with the unexpected death of his two-month old daughter and missed the Alabama game shortly thereafter. He has appeared in all four of the Aggies' other games, and now a new challenge awaits him.

"Isaiah has been through a lot this season," Sumlin said. "He missed a week with the death of his child. He came on early on and played some good football for us. He's settled back down and emotionally it's been a pretty up-and-down situation for him this year.

"Last week we talked a little bit about where he was. Kirby's situation came to light and now he knows he has to go as a regular guy. Sometimes, different guys react differently. I'd be surprised if Isaiah doesn't do very, very well from here on out."

Williams, who seems to be a cagey veteran compared to the others even though he's just a sophomore, sees time at nose tackle when the Aggies' go to personnel packages of three defensive linemen, and that will continue, Snyder said. But Williams and Golden will be the go-to guys in four down linemen sets moving forward.

Obioha, who started 12 games for the Aggies as a true freshman at defensive end last year, said he told Golden to come to him with any questions since he understands what it's like to be a teenager facing SEC offensive linemen.

"I went through this last year," Obioha said. "There wasn't an injury, I earned my spot, but I was out there 18, 19 years old. I was just telling him, 'Man if you have any questions, come talk to me. I know exactly what you're going through.'"

For a run defense that is last in the SEC and 108th in the country, allowing 214.8 rushing yards per game, it's not the ideal situation. But it's the hand the Aggies' have been dealt and it's an opportunity recruits dream of when they're being recruited by a program.

"We hope guys come to play," Snyder said. "They get their opportunity now. I was pleased with what I saw [in practice] ... I think Isaiah's excited, I really do."

Aggies' win at Ole Miss huge in 2012

October, 10, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — It seemed like nothing went right.

When Texas A&M went into Oxford, Miss., on Oct. 6, 2012, to take on Ole Miss, it was a nightmarish beginning. The Aggies couldn't hold on to the football, turning it over six times. Quarterback Johnny Manziel, who dazzled onlookers in the first four games, looked human.

With the Aggies down by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter and deep in their own territory, Manziel was sacked at the 1, putting the offense's back against the wall. One of the SEC's newest teams appeared to be failing in its first road test.

Mike Evans
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesTexas A&M's Mike Evans made eight catches for 105 yards against Ole Miss last season.
Then one Mike Evans catch changed it all.

An improbable, leaping, 32-yard grab over a defender on third-and-19 with just under seven minutes remaining kick-started a burst in which the Aggies scored 13 unanswered points and escaped Vaught-Hemingway Stadium with a 30-27 victory.

The rest is history. The Aggies went 11-2, finished tied for second in the SEC West and earned a berth in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, smashing preseason expectations by outsiders. Without the improbable comeback in Oxford, who knows what might have happened?

"I don't want to venture to the idea of us losing the game and how the season would have been, but that was an important game in our season," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "We needed a game where everything went wrong, but we still won the game, to show us how good we are."

Winning on the road in the SEC is rarely an easy thing to do and winning in Oxford was no exception. And thanks to a quirk in the conference schedule, No. 9 Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC) returns to the scene on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) to see if they can repeat that feat against the Rebels (3-2, 1-2), and perhaps with less of a struggle.

"Oxford is a very tough place to play," senior running back Ben Malena said. "I can't remember one time when that crowd wasn't electrifying. They had a lot of momentum and one thing that we have to do is go over there and play our game. We understand that it's a hostile environment, we understand that their crowd is going to be in the game and that they feed off that energy that the crowd gives them."

Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin acknowledged that the victory played a pivotal role in the later success in the 2012 season.

"You can point back to that and say that it was a pretty big deal," Sumlin said. " At the time, people said, 'Oh, you beat a team that hasn't won very much,' but that team ended up being a thorn in everybody's side. Full of talent, a tough team to beat. I understand that and you make steps as a program.

"There are things you point back to that are steps in your growth, and certainly us going on the road and winning our first SEC game last year on the road was a big deal for this program and a step in the right direction. It was a lot of emotion after the game and rightfully so, and there's no doubt it helped us gain confidence as the season went on at a time when we needed it."

Several players contributed to the comeback effort. The defense made a critical fourth-down stop in Ole Miss territory. Ryan Swope caught the game-winning touchdown pass. Toney Hurd Jr. intercepted Bo Wallace in the final minutes to stop the Rebels' final offensive drive and seal the win.

Nobody knows what would have happened had the Aggies not completed the victory, but you can make some educated guesses. Having three losses instead of two might have affected their postseason destination. It would have made it that much tougher for Manziel to win the Heisman Trophy, despite all his dazzling performances, though it was the Alabama win that really cinched that for him.

The confidence gained from such a victory perhaps played a role in the Aggies' success later in the season. That's something they've carried over to this season, showing that fight in their 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama when the Aggies were down by 21 points but still continued to fight to make it a close game.

"It showed what type of resiliency we had as a team," Malena said of the Ole Miss win. "Everything is not always going to go as planned. Everything is not going to go Xs and Os like the coaches draw it up. Bad things do happen. Championship teams know how to handle adversity well and I think that was a really good game of us handling adversity and pulling it out."

Planning for success: Texas A&M

October, 10, 2013
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After an off week, Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC) returns to the field on Saturday to take on Ole Miss (3-2, 1-2) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss. The No. 9 Aggies escaped with a win last season; can they do it again? Here are five keys to doing so:

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyWith injuries still affecting the Aggies secondary, Texas A&M will need another solid outing from Deshazor Everett.
1. Avoid the turnover bug: Last season when these two teams met, it was the Aggies' worst showing in the turnover department. They turned it over six times, which put them in a 10-point fourth quarter deficit. Thanks to an improbable catch by Mike Evans on third-and-19 and some heroics from Johnny Manziel, Ryan Swope and Toney Hurd Jr., among others, the Aggies were still able to pull out the win. But another such showing with turnovers is unlikely to yield the same result.

2. Grow up quickly: The Aggies will turn to a true freshman, Isaiah Golden, to fill in at one of the starting defensive tackle spots in place of Kirby Ennis, who will miss the rest of the season because of season-ending knee surgery. The run defense has struggled this season, and fortunately Golden has some playing experience, having appeared in four games this year. There are other players with experience across the defensive line (Julien Obioha, Alonzo Williams, Gavin Stansbury) so they'll help Golden along, but he'll have to grow up fast against the running of Jeff Scott and Bo Wallace.

3. Contain the receivers: Ole Miss has a solid quartet of pass catchers led by junior Donte Moncrief and true freshman Laquon Treadwell. The pair has combined for 47 catches and 605 yards in five games. The A&M secondary hopes to regain the services of safety Floyd Raven, who missed the last three games with a collarbone injury. If not, cornerback Deshazor Everett will remain at free safety, a spot where he has picked up defensive touchdowns in two consecutive games.

4. Road mentality: The Aggies haven't lost a game away from Kyle Field since Kevin Sumlin took over as head coach. SEC road games are almost never easy and with Ole Miss coming off back-to-back conference losses, the Rebels will be motivated to right the ship at home.

5. Spreading the wealth: The Aggies used all four scholarship running backs effectively in their win over Arkansas and Johnny Manziel was able to also distribute to six different receivers. The coaches consistently say that they'll take what the defensive gives them, but if they can continue to utilize a wide range of offensive options like they did last week, it makes the potent A&M offense that much more difficult to defend.

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