Texas A&M Aggies: Mark Snyder

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M begins preseason training camp today. In about four weeks, they'll take the field at South Carolina to open the 2014 season. Here are some things to watch throughout camp:

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Bob Levey/Getty ImagesFormer three-star recruit Kenny Hill, a sophomore, played in five games last season. Could he be the successor to Johnny Manziel?
1. The quarterback battle: Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen? That's the question that has been asked and will continue to be until coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital make a decision on who the starting quarterback will be on Aug. 28 at South Carolina. Hill, a sophomore, has slightly more experience after seeing some playing time in a backup role last season. Allen, the true freshman, enrolled early in January to catch up. Allen had a solid spring, as did Hill until an arrest for public intoxication caused him to miss the final two scrimmages and the final week of spring practice. But both players were told they were on even footing entering summer 7-on-7 workouts. How much each has progressed in the past three months will be displayed early on in training camp. Expect a decision midway through August.

2. Defensive line depth: The Aggies lost two starting defensive linemen for off-the-field reasons: defensive end Gavin Stansbury (left team for personal reasons) and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden (dismissed after two arrests). For a team that struggled to stop the run last season, that doesn't help as the unit tries to find the quality depth necessary to succeed in the SEC. Fortunately for the Aggies, they get two players who missed spring football because of injuries back for training camp -- sophomore defensive ends Jay Arnold and Daeshon Hall, both of whom saw playing time last season. There are also several veterans (Julien Obioha, Alonzo Williams, Tyrell Taylor) and youngsters (Hardreck Walker, Justin Manning, Zaycoven Henderson) not to mention a few incoming recruits to help the unit, but the Aggies have to find answers quick to improve on a disastrous 2013.

3. Safety play: Sumlin hasn't been shy about saying it and it's true: the Aggies have to get better play from their safeties. They return three players who started last season -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt. Matthews got positive reviews from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder in the spring. Keep an eye on Devonta Burns, who saw time in the spring at safety and nickel cornerback, as someone who could be in the mix. And an influx of 2014 recruits could help here as well.

4. Fabulous freshmen: The Aggies' 2014 class was a top-five haul for a reason. They brought in some big-time talent, so don't be surprised if some of those freshmen make waves quickly in camp. Receiver Speedy Noil already impressed in the spring and will look to build on that this month. Five-star defensive end Myles Garrett is the highest-ranked player nationally the Aggies have signed since Reggie McNeal in the 2002 class. With depth concerns on the defensive line and Garrett's college-ready physique, it's safe to say he'll find a way on the field in short order. Henderson, who was an early enrollee, likely figures into the rotation at defensive tackle. And of course, all eyes are on Allen at quarterback to see if he can win the starting job.

5. Right side of the O-line: Sophomore Germain Ifedi, who started all of 2013 at right guard, saw much time at right tackle during spring drills and is listed as the starter there heading into camp. If that holds, the battle on the offensive line -- a unit that returns four of five starters -- will likely be at right guard where Joseph Cheek saw first-team action and junior college transfer Jermaine Eluemunor saw second-team work in spring. Veteran guard and starter Jarvis Harrison, who missed spring because of shoulder surgery, should be ready to go at left guard. He has a capable backup behind him in Garrett Gramling, who started two games last season and saw virtually all the first-team work at left guard this spring. Left tackle (Cedric Ogbuehi) and center (Mike Matthews) is set in stone.

A few other notes:

" Redshirt freshman cornerback Victor Davis, who was arrested on a shoplifting charge in his hometown of Rosenberg, Texas, last month, is still serving an indefinite suspension. Sumlin said on Wednesday that Davis still has some things to do internally in order to get back in the team's good graces.

" Sumlin noted that every one of the class of 2014 recruits is qualified academically and on campus. Kealvin "Tank" Davis, the Aggies' offensive tackle recruit from Garland (Texas) Lakeview Centennial, was the last player Texas A&M was waiting on in that regard and he arrived on campus Wednesday and will be ready to go. This is the second consecutive year the Aggies have not lost a signee to qualification issues (the 2013 class only had one player who didn't make it to campus, Kohl Stewart, who was a first-round pick in the MLB draft).

" The Aggies will practice in helmets only Friday and Saturday, have meetings only on Sunday (no practice), helmets and shoulder pads on Monday and Tuesday and they'll have their first full-padded practice on Wednesday. Thursday will be their first two-a-day practice followed by a single practice on Aug. 8, then a scrimmage on Aug. 9.
Editor's note: We’re taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Friday we'll go through each week of the schedule, starting with the season-opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2013 overall record: 9-4
2013 SEC record: 4-4, third in the Western Division
Record all time against Alabama: 2-4
Last meeting: Lost 49-42 in 2013

Starters returning
Offense: 6; Defense: 10; Kicker/punter: 2

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Bob Levey/Getty ImagesKenny Hill, or whomever takes over as the Aggies QB, will have plenty of weapons available.
Top returners
OT Cedric Ogbuehi, C Mike Matthews, WR Malcome Kennedy, CB Deshazor Everett, S Floyd Raven

Key losses
QB Johnny Manziel, WR Mike Evans, OT Jake Matthews, RB Ben Malena, WR Travis Labhart, NG Kirby Ennis, LB Nate Askew, CB Toney Hurd

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Johnny Manziel (923 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel (4,114 yards, 37 TD, 12 INT)
Receiving: Mike Evans (1,394 yards)
Tackles: Steven Jenkins* (96)
Sacks: Shaan Washington*, Gavin Stansbury (3)
Interceptions: Howard Matthews*, Nate Askew (3)

What they're saying
"No doubt, our safety play has got to improve and our D-line play has got to improve. We will have more depth up front, but we'll have more pieces. We just have to get the right pieces in place and get them ready to go,” said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin

Three things to watch:

1. Johnny ain’t the problem: Forget Johnny Manziel for a moment. Believe me, we’ll have time for him later. Finding his successor at quarterback isn’t the biggest problem Sumlin faces in 2014. Instead, it’s the defense, the one that looked utterly lost against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and finished 109th in the country in total defense (behind four other Lone Star State schools: North Texas, Texas State, Texas and Texas Tech). There were injuries, sure, and there were a lot of young players on the field, but there’s no excuse for giving up 32 points per game. The secondary was porous, the tackling terrible and the pass-rush non-existent. But this year is supposed to be better, right? Well, maybe not. Offseason troubles have thrown a huge wrench into a defense that was supposed to be a year wiser and more matured. Two starters (Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden) were dismissed from the team, and a third starter, defensive end Gavin Stansbury, got himself arrested on assault charges.

2. Back to Johnny: We weren’t going to make you wait that long to discuss the loss of Manziel. A lot of Alabama fans should be relieved to know he’s gone. His theatrics won’t stress the Crimson Tide any longer. But even as his Heisman Trophy and 5,037 total yards of offense head to Cleveland, the offense he leaves behind in College Station shouldn’t be overlooked. Even with starting wideouts Mike Evans and Travis Labhart gone, there is more than enough talent on campus for Sumlin to cobble together a formidable offense, whether the starting QB is sophomore Kenny Hill or the freshman Kyle Allen. The Aggies are loaded at running back with three talented options there (Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams). And at receiver, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Veterans Malcome Kennedy and Edward Pope are just the tip of the iceberg. Freshmen Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil are the real weapons. Seals-Jones is a clone of Evans, a 6-foot-5 giant who will tower over defensive backs. Noil, the No. 1-rated athlete in the ESPN 300, looks like the SEC’s next Percy Harvin, a terror with the ball in his hands. Johnny is gone but with so many weapons and a strong offensive line (thanks to Cedric Ogbuehi’s return), the Aggies shouldn’t miss a beat.

3. How to break through: There’s an argument to be made that Texas A&M is the most overhyped program in the SEC. Yes, Manziel was a revelation. And, yes, the Aggies were competitive the minute they joined the league. But nonetheless, the wins simply haven’t been there. You’ve got to finish higher than third in your own division before you start becoming a power in the conference -- or nationally, for that matter. It’s Year 3 under Sumlin, which means it’s time to start capitalizing on potential and turn it into production. Sumlin realizes this. This spring he told ESPN, “It's kind of hard to have a target on your back when you finished third in your own division. I think the reason people would say that [we've got a target on us] is because we had unexpected success. But we're trying to go from third to first.” Sumlin knows, “We haven’t arrived in this league.” But they could soon. With the shadow of Johnny Football no longer looming, it will be interesting to see where the program goes next. The offense should be more balanced and run-oriented, a fact that should help the defense stay off the field. If Mark Snyder can turn things around on that side of the ball, then things could get really interesting. The West will still be an uphill battle for the Aggies, but it might be enough to bridge the difference between potential and production.
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 -- Texas A&M’s defense struggled across the board in 2013, and the Aggies can use all the help, and depth, they can get in order to improve in 2014.

That is probably more true at safety than any other position. It’s a spot the Aggies have found challenges when trying to maintain or add talent and depth, with the latest hurdle coming recently as spring practice opened.

The loss of safety Kameron Miles, whom the Aggies announced officially on Thursday had been dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons, isn’t cause for panic because as head coach Kevin Sumlin pointed out, Miles didn’t see the field at all last season.

[+] EnlargeClay Honeycutt
Juan DeLeon/Icon SMIClay Honeycutt is one of the returning players Texas A&M hopes will fill the open safety positions.
But it is cause for concern at position of need for the Aggies. This is one of the biggest challenges facing new Texas A&M secondary coach Terry Joseph this spring.

Safety is certainly a position where they need to see on-field improvement, both from the 2013 contributors who are returning this season (Clay Honeycutt, Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven) and the new bodies that could step in.

So while Miles -- an ESPN 300 recruit who signed in the 2013 class -- didn’t play (he redshirted after missing all of preseason training camp recovering from a knee injury), he certainly was a candidate to do so this season. Losing him is impactful, especially considering his potential and the rough end to Class of 2014 recruiting at the position.

Texas A&M had an ESPN 300 safety committed to them for months in Dylan Sumner-Gardner, but he switched his commitment to Boise State in early January after former secondary coach Marcel Yates left his post in Aggieland to accept the defensive coordinator position at Boise State. Even before Sumner-Gardner’s switch, the Aggies were still trying to add another safety to the 2014 recruiting class.

The loss made finding a safety even more urgent in the class. The Aggies long recruited ESPN 300 safety Steven Parker II (who signed with Oklahoma) and made a late run at ESPN 300 safety Mattrell McGraw (who signed with Oregon), not to mention other ESPN 300 prospects whom they recruited earlier in the process but decided on other programs.

The Aggies were able to land a safety late in the 2014 recruiting cycle when three-star athlete Donovan Wilson (Shreveport, La./Woodlawn) committed four days before national signing day and inked a letter of intent with the Aggies. He will enroll at Texas A&M for the fall semester, but whether he will be able to have an impact this fall is unknown until he arrives on campus.

Texas A&M has commitments from two elite safeties in the 2015 recruiting class in ESPN Junior 300 prospects Justin Dunning and Larry Pryor Jr., but that has no bearing on this fall.

What is known is that the Aggies need the three who played the most last season to improve and for others to contribute. One name Sumlin mentioned on Thursday was junior safety Devonta Burns, a 6-foot, 214-pounder who contributed mostly on special teams last season.

“Devonta Burns is having a really, really good camp,” Sumlin said. “He’s been around here a long time and really was a good special teams player for us from game three, four, five, on. It’s about time for him to start showing up and he has. You’ve got three guys back there [Honeycutt, Matthews and Raven] who have played a lot, not always well, but have played and are experienced and need to step up. I think Devonta is right in the mix with the other three guys.”

The Aggies also have the services of 6-3, 213-pound sophomore Jonathan Wiggins, a 2013 signee who saw most of his time on special teams last season. Beyond him, the options consist of mostly walk-ons such as Sam Moeller (last year’s 12th Man) or perhaps even someone like Shane Huhn, a transfer from UTEP who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules.

Another potential option is using the secondary’s best player, senior cornerback Deshazor Everett, at safety. Everett has flip-flopped between cornerback and safety before, including on certain occasions last season when the Aggies needed the help. However, it appears that Everett is working exclusively at cornerback, and Sumlin said he doesn’t anticipate that changing, at least “Not right now.”

Everett said last week that he has seen improvement from the safety returnees, especially Matthews.

“He’s a different player now,” Everett said of Matthews. “He’s not lagging around or doing it his way. He’s playing hard, he’s going hard every play, he’s being vocal. That’s what we need at the back end from the safeties, because they have to communicate to everybody on the defense. He’s definitely changed.”

“Floyd is definitely understanding the defense more, and Clay has always been a smart player. With the new coaching change and the way we’re running it, it’s set up so that you can always make plays and always be in the right position, and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”

The Aggies’ secondary also have new blood in the form of Joseph, the former Nebraska secondary coach. The reviews for Joseph have been positive thus far, including from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who called Joseph a “technician” and “fundamentalist.”

Everett also has noticed his new position coach’s impact thus far.

“He’s a real vocal coach and he wants you to do it exactly the way he wants you to do it, and there’s no other way about it,” Everett said. “If you’re not going to do it his way, you’re not going to play, so you have to adjust to that and you have to go out there and do it his way.”

If Joseph has it his way, there will be more answers than questions at safety come August. Fortunately for the Aggies, three weeks remain in spring practice to find some.

Q&A: Texas A&M DC Mark Snyder

December, 6, 2013
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On Saturday, Auburn and Missouri will meet in the SEC championship game. To preview the game, we spoke with Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who knows the teams as well as anybody. The Aggies were one of four teams to face both division winners at some point during the season.

Snyder breaks down the game from his vantage point, looks back at Texas A&M’s season and explains why he thinks the SEC will be more defensive next year:

It was Texas A&M’s second year in the SEC. How'd you feel like it went?

Mark Snyder: Obviously, we had some big standards going into the season, but we were so young defensively. We had some injuries, like a lot of teams in the SEC, but I thought as the year went, I saw our defense getting better each and every week. We played pretty decent and had our opportunities against Missouri. Give credit to those guys; they’re good and they got us.

[+] EnlargeMark Snyder
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsMark Snyder sees better times ahead for Texas A&M's young defense.
What’s the mindset now heading into the bowl game?

Snyder: Just get better. Get our younger guys better on my side of the ball. It’s huge getting to a bowl game and having this extra practice time because typically you get into bowl practice and the first week or so you work your young guys to get them ready for next year. For us, those kids are all playing for us. They’re starting. We’re going to have to be careful about how much we do with them, but we’re getting the chance to continue to get better on defense.

Auburn and Missouri will play for the SEC title Saturday. What stands out to you about both of those teams?

Snyder: They got us at different times. Auburn got us earlier than Missouri did. Both have got really good quarterbacks. Nick’s playing well. Obviously, Missouri’s quarterback has played a lot. The difference in the teams I think is Missouri, they’re a very veteran offense -- veteran offensive line, big, tall wide receivers, a quarterback that’s played a lot, a running back that’s back. It’s a very veteran team where Auburn is very, very athletic. They’re just speed across the board from the receiver [Sammie] Coates to Nick Marshall to -- I really like their tailback (Tre Mason), I think he’s really good. If you look at the teams, one’s probably a little bit more experienced, been in the system longer. The other team has tremendous athleticism.

What are your thoughts on Auburn coach Gus Malzahn?

Snyder: He’s done a good job of instilling some beliefs, him and Coach [Gary] Pinkel both. If you look at both of these teams, right now they’re playing with a lot of confidence, so they’re doing a great job instilling some beliefs in their system. For Coach Pinkel, it was a little easier because those guys had been with him for four years. The trick with Gus is this is his first year with some of these guys, and he’s got them to buy in. You need to make a play here or there in those special seasons, and that’s what they’ve done.

Are you surprised with Missouri's run this early in the SEC?

Snyder: Not really. Coach Pinkel has had a culture of success everywhere he’s been. They were pretty beat up last year. You look at a team like Florida, they’re going through it this year, Georgia a little bit, us a little bit. You go through those. The teams with those magical seasons are staying healthy. We were able to do that last year. We didn’t have much depth, but we stayed healthy. That’s half the battle, and that’s hard in this league. There’s got to be some luck involved in there, especially on our side. If you look at the West, it’s every week.

This season was all about the offense in the SEC. A lot of good quarterbacks, a lot of good offenses. Do you see the power shifting back to the defense next season?

Snyder: I would think so. Things are cyclical, there’s no doubt. LSU lost a lot of people on defense. We lost some people, and we were already young, playing with a bunch of freshmen -- Todd [Grantham] was playing with a bunch of freshmen at Georgia -- against some really good quarterbacks. A lot of those guys are moving on now, and it’s not just the quarterbacks. There are going to be some tailbacks, some offensive linemen, just offense in general. And then you’re going to see some of the teams I just mentioned not lose anybody (on defense) and continue to grow up. I will be surprised if you didn’t see better defensive numbers come next year from a bunch of us.

Planning for success: Texas A&M

November, 27, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- It wasn't pretty.

Texas A&M has lost five games in the Kevin Sumlin era but none more decisive and ugly than the 34-10 beating the Aggies took on Saturday at LSU.

"We're in a situation that we really haven't been in since we've been here," Sumlin said on Tuesday. "I don't think we handled the environment very well, we didn't handle everything very well."

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipComing off a loss to LSU, Kevin Sumlin knows his Aggies face another tough test when they visit No. 5 Missouri on Saturday.
Now the Aggies must put that behind them and focus on what's left: another road clash against a top 25 team. No. 5 Missouri (10-1) has something real to play for, a berth in the SEC championship game and the outright SEC East Division title. The Tigers will bring a level of intensity to Saturday's clash, with an expected sellout crowd and a stadium "blackout" for the game. It's a chance for the Tigers to make history.

The challenge is clear and it won't be easy. Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder sees a lot of poise in Missouri senior quarterback James Franklin, who returned to action last week after missing time because of a shoulder injury.

“He’s a very experienced player," Snyder said. "That’s what he brings to the table. He is very patient in the pocket and does a really good job of running their offense. When you watch the film on him, he is a very poised kid in the pocket and can throw it. He does a great job within that offense."

Snyder's also plenty familiar with Maty Mauk, who started in Franklin's place while he was out and saw action last week against Ole Miss. The offense is similar to what the Aggies saw from Missouri last year in terms of scheme, but the unit is playing at a higher level.

“The style is the same," Snyder said. "They are doing the same things. They are just doing them really well right now. They are playing with a lot of confidence and getting their quarterback back was a shot in the arm. I think Mauk is a good player, too. I’ve known him since he was a little kid. He used to come to Ohio State camps when we were looking at Ben, his older brother. He is a very competitive kid. They are playing really well right now."

Sumlin sees a defense that is not only good at getting to the opposing quarterback, but also opportunistic.

“They’ve really improved from last year, obviously, and statistically lead the league in sacks," Sumlin said. "They lead the league in interceptions too, which is an underrated stat. It’s a big statistic to say that your team leads the league in sacks and interceptions. Missouri is using all their pieces very well right now."

With the Thanksgiving week in full swing, the Aggies will modify their schedule on Thursday and move practice and meetings to an earlier time to allow players and coaches to get home to their families on Thursday night. But with the travel day to Columbia, Mo., on Friday, the turnaround will be quick.

"Our practice schedule will change a little this week so the guys have the opportunity to go home if they live close enough," Sumlin said. "We have a big Thanksgiving meal here Thursday for guys who can’t get home and back in time for Friday’s meeting. Thursday is family time but if they can’t get home in that time, we have something here and will have plenty of good food and we will be ready for this weekend."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- With two weeks to go and two tough opponents on the road, there's still a lot left out there for Texas A&M.

The Aggies' postseason destination will hinge on the results of the next two weeks. So could Johnny Manziel's Heisman Trophy candidacy and the chances of several other individuals, such as receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews, to snag other awards.

If those things are to be attained, the Aggies have a simple task: Win.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel and the Aggies have a chance at a BCS bowl berth if they can win out.
"We've got a couple big stages here for our football team," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "LSU is a prideful program with a great tradition and history. To go over there and play and to be successful there, we're going to have to play well as a team and [Manziel's] going to have to play well. And same thing the following week with Missouri, which will have implications for our league and who represents the [SEC] East. Performances by our complete team and by [Manziel] will have a lot to say about awards for everyone and where we'll be in the bowl conversation."

Two wins and who knows? The No. 12 Aggies (8-2) could find themselves sneaking into the Allstate Sugar Bowl. A loss either week certainly knocks them out of the BCS conversation. Getting to a game of that caliber would be significant for the Aggies, who haven't been to a BCS bowl since 1998.

"We've got to handle them one at a time but everybody understands where we are," Sumlin said. "We're going to have to play well against both these teams and we'll have to play well this week to go into Tiger Stadium and win."

Where the Aggies are is a good place, considering what has led up to this point. They had hopes of contending for the SEC West title and possibly getting to Atlanta, but losses to Alabama and Auburn derailed those. A struggling defense that allowed a combined 1,183 yards to those two teams made it a question if the Aggies would be able to finish how they wanted to -- by winning out.

That still remains a question, as the unit allowed 299 rushing yards to Mississippi State. The defense has shown some improvement since facing Auburn, but is still not to the level it was playing at a year ago, when the Aggies closed out the season with six straight victories.

LSU will be a test, as it is a revamped team offensively. And it's good at running the ball, an area the Aggies struggle to defend.

"They have a very big offensive line and four really good tailbacks," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "Obviously Jeremy [Hill] is the lead dog. He's a very hard runner and you see that on film. We told the kids that he will try to concuss you the best he can. He's that kind of runner. So we've got a challenge in front of us with their running game, no doubt."

At this point last season, the Aggies were all the rage, coming off the road upset of No. 1 Alabama and in the homestretch of Manziel's magical year. This year, the record is the same as it was 10 games into last fall, but having not defeated a ranked team yet this season, the dynamic is different. Part of that is last year's finish, which raised outside expectations coming into this season.

But if the Aggies can finish strong, beat two ranked teams on the road and snag some individual hardware in the process, it would be another step forward for a program trying to establish a presence long term in its new league.

A&M LB Jenkins managing ups, downs

November, 15, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The linebacker position has been one of change for Texas A&M this season. With some early season struggles, an injection of youth and some growth needed, it has been an area where defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and linebackers coach Mark Hagen have tinkered to find the right combination of players. The group as a whole has had its fair share of ups and downs this season.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jenkins
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesSince returning from suspension, Steven Jenkins has been a key part of Texas A&M's defense, both on and off the field.
The same could be said for the elder statesman of the group, senior Steven Jenkins. Though Snyder feels like lately, that Jenkins, the most veteran presence in the group, is trending up.

"Up and down," Snyder said when asked to assess Jenkins' season. "I think he's coming on a little bit [lately]."

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Jenkins has started the last eight games for the Aggies (he missed the first two, the result of a suspension for violations of Texas A&M athletic department rules and regulations) and is second on the team in tackles with 69, while also tied for second in tackles for loss (five). He has been productive, though not necessarily always consistent. When he's at his best, he might be the best defensive player the Aggies have.

Jenkins has kept a positive outlook and consistent approach throughout this season.

"You have to keep trying to get better every week," Jenkins said. "Everyone has their highs and lows, a good day and a bad day. You just have to keep a positive attitude moving forward and try to get better each week."

Knowing there were a lot of young players and newcomers among the A&M linebackers, Jenkins wanted to step into more of a leadership role. Teammates have noticed his effort in that area.

"He wasn’t a very vocal guy at the beginning of the year, but he’s really opened up and he’s been a great leader for us in the linebacker unit," senior linebacker Nate Askew said. "On the backend, everybody talks and everybody communicates, and that’s the most important thing. We need to communicate."

Snyder said he has noticed Jenkins getting tired toward the ends of games recently and he might start working in true freshman Jordan Mastrogiovanni into the lineup more at middle linebacker while sliding starting middle linebacker Darian Claiborne back to his natural position of weakside linebacker, which is usually manned by Jenkins. That would enable Jenkins to get a breather and be fresher for the fourth quarter of games.

Now in his third year in Aggieland after transferring from Coffeyville Community College, Jenkins is continuing to work and trying to improve. He’s also making an impact. Jenkins had an interception return for a touchdown in Texas A&M's thrilling win at Ole Miss in 2012 and has had a plethora of big-time hits or tackles for loss accumulated over the last two seasons.

When it comes to his setback that kept him on the sideline to start the season, Jenkins said he "definitely took some life lessons and learned from it." If the Aggies are going to finish the way they hope to, winning their final two games later this month at LSU and at Missouri, Jenkins and the linebackers probably have to play a key role in that.

The senior simply wants to push forward, play well and have fun while doing so.

"I'm just trying to lead by example for the younger guys, trying to bring energy to the field so we can have some Aggie swag," Jenkins said with a smile. "Just have fun on the field. We do make mistakes but move on from it. ... Just have fun and go out there and try to win."
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 — Texas A&M freshman linebacker Darian Claiborne seems prescient when it comes figuring out his football future.

Port Allen (La.) High School coach Guy Blanchard learned this firsthand when Claiborne was in his program. Blanchard remembers an eager Claiborne, who played linebacker on the Port Allen varsity team in the final seven games of his freshman season, approaching Blanchard in the offseason and telling him that he could play quarterback. Blanchard dismissed the idea until he saw Claiborne launch a football 60 yards. Eventually, Claiborne wound up playing both linebacker and quarterback and became proficient at both.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesTexas A&M freshman Darian Claiborne is second on the team in tackles and leads the Aggies in tackles for loss.
So it's not a complete surprise to Blanchard that Claiborne is again living up to his word. After signing for Texas A&M, Claiborne told Blanchard over the summer that he would see the field – a lot. He was confident, based on his progress during voluntary summer workouts. It turns out Claiborne was right again.

"The kid has a motor," Blanchard said. "He just doesn't quit."

Claiborne has started the last six games for the Aggies at middle linebacker. During preseason training camp, it became clear that he would play a role, but few could have predicted he'd become a starter – and at a different position than he was recruited to play. In his first few months on campus, he practiced at weakside linebacker.

But after the Aggies yielded 568 yards and 49 points to Alabama on Sept. 14, Claiborne progressed from reserve linebacker and special-teams contributor to the starter at a position he wasn't pegged to play.

The 6-foot, 225-pound Claiborne made the transition in a week and has progressed ever since. He's now second on the team in tackles (61), leads the Aggies in tackles for loss (six), has an interception and 1.5 sacks. Last week against UTEP, Claiborne led the team in tackles and forced a fumble.

"It's been extremely crucial," head coach Kevin Sumlin said of Claiborne's play. "You sit there and you have a true freshman mike linebacker and a true freshman nose guard (Isaiah Golden), you worry a little bit. The opponent reads the program, too, so there's no hiding that. They're going to try to figure out where they are. Those guys know that. It's been valuable with Darian going really since Arkansas and Isaiah Golden going the last couple of weeks, getting a lot of playing time."

Blanchard said that at Port Allen, Claiborne always was a quick learner with a high football IQ. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has seen that firsthand. When the Aggies' defeated Ole Miss last month, Snyder said Claiborne made an adjustment that Snyder asked for quickly and it resulted in an interception.

"One thing about Darian is that he is so coachable," Snyder said. "Early in the game we had some things going where he was to push [to the] weak [side] and we didn't quite get there. You would get him on the sidelines and tell him, ‘Darian, if you push weak you are going to have an interception.’ Sure enough, the very next series he intercepted the football. That, to me, tells me that it is coming. He is getting it. I think Darian's going to be a good football player."

Snyder calls him the "voice" or the "mouthpiece" of the Aggies' front seven. That's quite a bit of responsibility for a true freshman.

While Blanchard is excited to see what Claiborne has done this season, he's more excited about what's to come.

"If you think what he's doing now is good, stay tuned," Blanchard said. "You're only witnessing the tip of the iceberg."

Five things: Texas A&M-UTEP

November, 2, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — No. 12 Texas A&M hosts a late game tonight, taking on UTEP at 9 p.m. ET at Kyle Field. Here are five things to watch for when the Aggies and Miners take the field.

1. Health issues: Last week there was much attention around the throwing shoulder of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel after he injured it against Auburn the week before. But Manziel started and played well against Vanderbilt, throwing for 305 yards and four touchdowns. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said that Manziel threw early this week without any problems and he didn't anticipate that the shoulder would be an issue for Manziel this week. There are a couple Aggies whose status is uncertain heading into tonight's game: starting offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and starting defensive tackle Alonzo Williams. Both missed last week's game against Vanderbilt. Sumlin called both a "maybe" to play, though later said Ogbuehi has a "pretty good chance to play." If Ogbuehi is held out, it would be strictly precautionary, Sumlin said. Williams "may or may not play," Sumlin said earlier this week.

2. No Showers: This was supposed to be the homecoming of sorts for UTEP quarterback Jameill Showers, who spent three seasons in Aggieland and backed up Ryan Tannehill in 2011 and Manziel in 2012 before graduating with his degree and transferring to UTEP for his final two seasons of eligibility. However, a shoulder injury that Showers suffered last week against Rice will keep him out tonight and possibly for the rest of the season, according to UTEP coach Sean Kugler. Instead, the Aggies will face sophomore quarterback Blaire Sullivan, who came into the Rice game last week in relief of the injured Showers. Sullivan was 6-of-9 passing for 112 yards with a touchdown and an interception while filling in last week. Showers will travel and remain a captain for the game for the Miners, but will obviously spend the day on the sideline.

3. UTEP struggles vs. the SEC and AQ teams: The Miners (1-6, 0-4 Conference USA) have had a tough season and they're going into a situation that has been tough for them historically. UTEP is 1-7 all-time against SEC teams, and in road games against teams from automatic-qualifying conferences, the Miners are 0-17. The last time it beat an SEC team was in 1967 (Ole Miss in the Sun Bowl).

4. A&M defense: The Aggies (6-2, 3-2 SEC) had perhaps their best performance of the season last week in the win over Vanderbilt, forcing three turnovers, compiling seven sacks and holding Vanderbilt to 329 total yards (95 rushing). If the Aggies are truly going to improve as a unit on defense, this week is another opportunity they'll have to take advantage of, as they face a backup quarterback for the second straight week. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said he dialed up a lot of pressure against Vanderbilt; he'll probably be well served to do so again this week and continue to build the confidence of his young and inexperienced group.

5. Early exit?: The final quarter of the Aggies' season are all SEC battles -- they host Mississippi State next week before hitting the road for battles against LSU and Missouri (with an off week before LSU). If Texas A&M can get a big lead early and finish UTEP off quickly, it would help. They can get the starters out early in the second half and let those banged-up guys get a breather, because if they plan on winning out, they'll need every weapon they have.

Reason for optimism for A&M defense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What we learned: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M's 56-24 win over Vanderbilt showed us a lot. Here are three things we learned about the Aggies from their performances:

When it's intact, the defense can perform: Well, it's not completely intact as the Aggies were minus two starting defensive tackles (Alonzo Williams, left foot, and Kirby Ennis, who's done for the year with a torn ACL), but there was enough personnel on the field that defensive coordinator Mark Snyder was comfortable with. So, he he dialed up blitzes. The results were positive: seven sacks, 95 rushing yards allowed, 329 total yards allowed and three turnovers.

Johnny Manziel can get it done without running: His ability to run is one of Manziel's signature traits, but he ran four only times on Saturday, partially to avoid taking too much contact on his injured throwing shoulder. The result was still pretty good: 25-of-35 passing for 305 yards and four touchdowns in basically two-plus quarters. He had one interception, but otherwise had a stellar day.

Changes aren't a bad thing: There were some lineup changes on defense and for the most part, they worked out well. True freshman Noel Ellis played well in his time at nickelback. Donnie Baggs hadn't started since Sept. 14 but did well in his return to the starting lineup on Saturday. And on offense, the offensive line saw some shifting because of an injured Cedric Ogbuehi. Jarvis Harrison moved from left guard to left tackle, Jake Matthews from left tackle to right tackle, and Garrett Gramling stepped in at left guard. Overall, it was hard to tell there was much of a difference as the unit performed well.


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."

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