Texas A&M Aggies: Steven Jenkins

It was quite the week for Texas A&M football in relation to the NFL draft.

The Aggies had three players taken in the draft's first round on Thursday, marking just the second time in school history the program had that many first-round selections in one draft. It was also the fourth time in school history the team produced two top-10 picks in the same draft. The Aggies were the only team in the 2014 draft with two top-10 picks and one of only two (Louisville being the other) with three first-round picks. This was also the fourth consecutive year the Aggies have produced at least one top-10 pick.

After the draft's completion, eight more Aggies reached agreements with NFL teams as undrafted free agents and will pursue pro careers. Here's a recap of where all the NFL-bound Aggies landed:

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Elsa/Getty ImagesOffensive lineman Jake Matthews was the first Aggie off the board in the NFL draft, going No. 6 overall to the Falcons.
Draft picks

OT Jake Matthews: Atlanta Falcons (first round, sixth overall)
There's a long line of pro-football-playing Matthews men and Jake is the latest. The 6-foot-5, 308-pound offensive tackle can stake his claim to being the highest-drafted Matthews in the family's well-documented NFL history. His father, NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, was the previous high pick, chosen ninth overall in the 1983 draft. The Falcons hope Jake will help provide more protection for franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, and Matthews has all the makings of a 10-year pro. Matthews could be the team's left tackle of the future.

WR Mike Evans: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (first round, seventh overall)
It seems fitting that analysts' go-to NFL comparison for Evans was Vincent Jackson, because now those two will be in the same huddle for the Buccaneers. Evans completed his compelling story, going from humble beginnings and obstacles to overcome while growing up in Galveston, Texas, to star basketball player to unlikely, under-the-radar football recruit to All-American receiver to now, top-10 draft pick. It looks like Evans will be a good fit in Tampa and could start rather quickly.

QB Johnny Manziel: Cleveland Browns (first round, 22nd overall)
Manziel was the most-talked-about prospect on the draft's first night, and though he waited longer than he would have liked, he finally found a landing spot in Cleveland. Thursday officially closed the book on what was one of the most memorable collegiate careers of any player in recent memory. Manziel helped lead A&M to great heights and brought the program unprecedented exposure in its first two SEC seasons, including a Heisman Trophy. Now Johnny Football takes his game to the highest level, and it seems everyone will be watching to see how he fares in his new home.

Undrafted free agents

LB Nate Askew: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Askew, who had one of the better pro day performances at the Aggies' showcase on March 5, completes an interesting journey at Texas A&M that saw him go from seldom-used receiver to starting outside linebacker who made the play that sealed the Aggies' thrilling Chick-Fil-A Bowl victory.

TE Nehemiah Hicks: Miami Dolphins
Hicks will join his former Texas A&M teammate, quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in South Beach.

DB Toney Hurd Jr.: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After undergoing offseason surgery and missing the Aggies' first pro day, Hurd was able to work out for scouts on March 27 (the same day as Manziel and Evans). The versatile Hurd, who played cornerback, safety and special teams at A&M, did enough to warrant an opportunity from the Buccaneers.

CB Tramain Jacobs: Baltimore Ravens
A reserve cornerback who proved to be a valuable rotational player -- and even started two games -- for the Aggies, Jacobs landed with the Ravens.

LB Steven Jenkins: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers certainly took a liking to the Aggies. Including Jenkins, the former A&M starting outside linebacker and impact player, four Aggies are headed to Tampa. Jenkins returns to his home state, where he played his prep ball in Pensacola, Fla.

WR Travis Labhart: Houston Texans
Labhart was a great story, a seldom-used walk-on who emerged into a scholarship player as a senior and eventually a starter, then wound up finishing second on the team with eight touchdown receptions. Now he gets the chance to pursue his future in his home state with the Texans.

RB Ben Malena: Dallas Cowboys
A running back who did more than just carry the ball, Malena brings his versatile skill set back to his home region, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (Malena played his high school ball nearby in Cedar Hill, Texas).

WR Derel Walker: Tennessee Titans
Another player who came a long way (receivers coach David Beaty raved of Walker's progress from his arrival to the end of his senior season, when he was a starter), Walker will get a chance to pursue the NFL with the Titans.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Jake Matthews bypassed his first opportunity to enter the NFL draft for two reasons.

One was to move over to left tackle after spending the previous three years as a right tackle and show NFL personnel he was versatile enough to handle both. The other was to play on the same offensive line with his younger brother, Mike, Texas A&M’s starting center in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsJake Matthews felt that his pro day at Texas A&M on Wednesday went well.
By the end of the season and throughout the pre-draft process, Jake Matthews appears to be plenty happy with the decision he made to return to Aggieland for his senior year. On Wednesday, the latest in a long line of football-playing Matthews men took another step toward his future as a pro, headlining Texas A&M’s pro day at McFerrin Athletic Center.

Because he performed all drills last month at the NFL scouting combine, the 6-foot-5, 308-pound Matthews did not perform any of the same testing measures on Wednesday but performed several offensive line drills for scouts and NFL player personnel people.

“I thought I did well,” Matthews said afterward. “They put me through a bunch of different stuff and showcase what I'm capable of and that I'm able and I thought it went well."

After the pro day, he met with the St. Louis Rams and said he did some work on the whiteboard, among other things. The son of NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, Jake has numerous people in his own family to draw advice from in these types of situations.

"It helps a lot,” Matthews said. “It's kind of like I've been training for this process for my whole life. I think we calculated it earlier and I'm the seventh Matthews to go into the NFL. It's really humbling, especially being a part of this family and all the tradition with football that we have and such a great background: I'm truly blessed to be a part of it."

The opportunity to spend 11 out of 13 games starting at left tackle was something Matthews felt was valuable when it came to assessing his NFL future.

"It helped a lot, especially after playing three years of right tackle showing I was capable of going over and playing well on the left side,” Matthews said. “[It showed] how versatile I am and that I'm able and can do anything teams want me to do."

Most projections have Matthews going in the top 10 of the draft and possibly being the first offensive tackle drafted. He wasn’t the only potential first-round pick present at the pro day on Wednesday -- quarterback Johnny Manziel and receiver Mike Evans were in attendance too -- but both were simply there to support their other teammates performing and did not work out for scouts or NFL personnel. Both are performing at their own pro day on March 27 at Texas A&M and performed at the NFL combine last month.

Representatives from all 32 NFL teams were present at Texas A&M’s pro day.

Other Aggies performed at the pro day included Nate Askew, defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, cornerback Tramain Jacobs, linebacker Steven Jenkins, receiver Travis Labhart, running back Ben Malena and receiver Derel Walker. Because of their rehabilitation from injuries, tight end Nehemiah Hicks and defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. did not perform, and Ennis -- who is recovering from knee surgery -- performed only in the bench press.

Askew had perhaps the most impressive day among Aggies outside the “big three” projected first-rounders. The linebacker, who began his Texas A&M career as a receiver, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds and recorded a 38-inch vertical while measuring 6-foot-3 and weighing 241 pounds.

Malena, the Aggies’ leading running back the last two seasons, clocked 4.54 seconds in the 40 while checking in at 5-8 and 194 pounds. He also had the second-most repetitions in the bench press, lifting 225 pounds a total of 22 times.

Texas A&M pro day on tap

March, 5, 2014
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Scouts and player personnel people from across the NFL will descend on Aggieland today when Texas A&M hosts its annual pro day at 9:30 a.m., one of two pro days on deck for the Aggies this month.

The Aggies’ biggest names are all expected to be present at the McFerrin Athletic Center -- quarterback Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews -- though Manziel and Evans won’t be working out for scouts until March 27.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin is expecting all NFL teams to be represented at Texas A&M’s pro day, which will feature a dozen players.

“Ever since we’ve been here every team shows up, with a couple of different representatives,” Sumlin said. “We had a couple guys who did real well at the combine. Obviously, Mike was here last week and was real pleased with how he did things. I talked to Johnny [on Sunday] night and he’ll be back in town. I think it’s big when you have those types of marquee players [like them] and Jake. It creates opportunities for other players who weren’t at the combine and I think that’s a big deal.”

Other Aggies who will be present and are expected to work out are linebacker Nate Askew, defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, tight end Nehemiah Hicks, defensive back Toney Hurd Jr., cornerback Tramain Jacobs, linebacker Steven Jenkins, receiver Travis Labhart, running back Ben Malena and receiver Derel Walker.

Evans, Manziel and Matthews are all projected first-round picks and the fact that their presence brings plenty of NFL personnel is a positive, Sumlin said. The same has happened in the past with previous high draft picks who came out of Texas A&M.

“I forget how many guys we got that got into [NFL training] camp but it was a large number of guys that at least got an opportunity that maybe they wouldn’t have had if there’s not a Luke Joeckel here, if there’s not those types of guys,” Sumlin said. “It attracted a lot of guys and just about all of those guys got in camp which is, after that, that’s about all you can ask. Can they all make it? No. But it gave them an opportunity and I think that’s the bigger picture than just the three guys that went to the combine.”

Manziel did almost everything except throw at the NFL scouting combine, running a 4.68-second 40-yard dash and a 4.03-second 20-yard shuttle. He had a 31 inch vertical jump, his height was measured at 5-foot-11 inches and his weight 207 pounds.

Evans measured at 6-5, 231 and ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash and recorded a 37-inch vertical jump. Matthews measured at 6-5, 308, had a 30 inch vertical and performed the three-cone drill in 7.34 seconds.

The pro day begins at 9:30 a.m. and is closed to the public.

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 -- Before walking through the tunnel behind the south end zone after pregame warm-ups on Saturday, Johnny Manziel stopped near the goal post where his parents, Paul and Michelle, stood waiting for him.

The last player in maroon and white to walk off the field, it seemed as if the Texas A&M quarterback was savoring every moment of the last Aggies game at Kyle Field this season. Before following his teammates into the tunnel, Manziel gave his mother and father each a warm embrace, and they reciprocated. With arms wrapped around each other tight, the emotion on their faces seemed telling.

If it wasn't Johnny Manziel's last game, period, at Kyle Field, it certainly had that feeling.

The rest was vintage Johnny Football. If you tried to sum up his short college career in four quarters, Saturday's 51-41 win over Mississippi State would serve as a pretty accurate microcosm. A spin move here, a juke there. Touchdown passes in bunches, oohs and ahhs from the crowd when he scrambled for yardage or to extend passing plays and, yes, a few interceptions mixed in for good measure, because Manziel is nothing if not a risk-taker.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJohnny Manziel wouldn't say whether this was his last home game, but he savored it nonetheless.
Heisman Trophy winner. Riverboat gambler. Highlight reel waiting to happen. Relentless and unapologetic. It all accurately describes Manziel, who is right in the middle of this year's Heisman race as he pursues a second consecutive trophy.

The numbers were good: 30-of-39 passing, 446 yards, five touchdowns, plus 47 rushing yards. There were those three interceptions that he'd like to have back, too, but in the end, he played well enough for his team to win. Was this it for Manziel in Aggieland? He's not ready to say.

"Not one bit," Manziel said, when asked if he has thought about or made a decision about his football future. "I'm focused on still trying to get us into a BCS berth and the best bowl that we can possibly get to. That's my only focus right now."

Whether or not this was his last game in front of the home crowd, Manziel made sure to enjoy the moment to the fullest. With less than two minutes to go and the Aggies trying to take a knee to secure a win, he waved his arms emphatically toward the crowd, hyping up the fans, ordering them to get loud. After returning to the sideline with less than a minute to go, his face showed up on the JumboTron and he smiled and saluted. The fans went nuts and began chanting in unison, "One more year! One more year!"

After the game was over, as the Aggie War Hymn played, Manziel ran into the stands to enjoy the moment with the fans and saw varsity's horns off with the people who have adored him throughout his nearly two-season stint, one in which he has captivated the college football world. He smiled from ear to ear almost every second, soaking it all in.

"It was just kind of spur of the moment," Manziel said. "The way that the crowd acted that last 1:30, for me and Mike [Evans], with the chant and with the energy that they brought when the game was kind of slowing down, it kind of kept us focused. It was just a great way to end this year, celebrating with them."

If the Aggies can get to a BCS bowl, or at least win out with victories at LSU and Missouri to close out November, Manziel's chances of repeating as the Heisman winner are real. Oregon's loss to Stanford on Thursday significantly hindered Marcus Mariota's chances, and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, whose team beat Wake Forest 59-3 on Saturday, stands as Manziel's primary competition.

But Manziel will have to limit the mistakes he made on Saturday in those final games against LSU and Missouri, both of which are stronger opponents than the Mississippi State squad the Aggies played Saturday. The Bulldogs harassed Manziel quite a bit, sacking him three times and making him do a lot of work outside the pocket. Manziel admitted he got greedy at times, particularly on his final interception, when he tried to force a pass to Evans that was picked off by Mississippi State safety Nickoe Whitley.

"Greed is a terrible thing," Manziel said. "I really wanted to hit that touchdown to Mike. I tried to look off that safety, and still going to him anyway, as a football player and as a quarterback watching film, I know better than that."

But it was about more than just Manziel. It was a historic moment of sorts, because it's the last time Kyle Field will exist in its current state. Major work soon will begin as part of a $450 million renovation project to be completed in 2015 to turn the stadium into a pristine, 102,500-seat monstrosity. It was senior day, the last time guys such as left tackle Jake Matthews, running back Ben Malena, linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. would play in College Station. The 13 seniors there on Saturday have been part of a 35-14 overall record and the Aggies' quick and surprising rise upon entry into the SEC.

And it also could be the last home game for Evans, arguably college football's best pass catcher this year, who also is a draft-eligible sophomore after this season. He'll have a decision to make, just like Manziel.

There still are two games left for the Aggies and a lot out in front of them, but there certainly was plenty of emotion in the air on Saturday night in Aggieland.

"We know who the seniors are, and we know who the guys are that could potentially leave," junior receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "We want to play hard every game, but there was something inside of us that urged us to play harder, because we know this team won't be the same next year. Every year, regardless, there will be change, but there will be some drastic changes next year, and I just wish those guys the best."

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- No. 15 Texas A&M (7-2, 3-2 SEC) looks to make it three in a row while Mississippi State is looking for its third win in four games when the two meet this afternoon at Kyle Field. Here's five things to keep an eye on:

1. Last game at Kyle Field for some Aggies: It's senior day at Texas A&M today and 13 seniors will have their last game in the maroon and white, notably offensive tackle Jake Matthews, running back Ben Malena and linebacker Steven Jenkins. But could it also be the last game at Kyle Field for a pair of redshirt sophomores, Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans? Both are draft eligible after this season. Neither has indicated a surefire decision as of yet, but considering how coveted they'll be as prospects, it's likely something they'll both take under serious consideration. Today will also be the last time Kyle Field looks the way it does, as some major work will begin soon as part of the $450 million renovation project on the stadium.

2. Dak Prescott will play: The Mississippi State quarterback has had an emotional week. His mother Peggy lost a more than year-long battle to cancer on Sunday and coaches and teammates joined Prescott at her funeral on Tuesday. He returned to practice on Wednesday, and Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger on Thursday that Prescott will play today. He's a dual-threat quarterback who leads the Bulldogs in rushing with 568 yards and 10 touchdowns. Given his difficult week, his presence could be a significant emotional boost for the Bulldogs.

3. Continued improvement on D? Texas A&M has looked like a different defense lately, having strong performances the last two weeks against UTEP and Vanderbilt. The Aggies held each team to fewer than 330 yards of offense, fewer than 130 rushing yards and combined for nine sacks in those two games. It certainly doesn't hurt that they faced a backup quarterback each week and Mississippi State, with Prescott at the helm, will likely bring a tougher challenge. This should be a solid test to see how much progress the A&M defense has truly made.

4. Handling Mississippi State's front seven: The Bulldogs are one of the bigger teams the Aggies will face this year, offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said earlier this week. The Bulldogs can generate a pass rush and have had 16 quarterback hurries in their last three games. They're also efficient at getting three-and-outs, holding opponents to three offensive plays or fewer 36.4 percent of the time, or 4.5 drives per game, which is second in the SEC behind Alabama.

5. Key players returning for A&M: The Aggies will get the services of offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and defensive tackle Alonzo Williams back today, according to Kevin Sumlin. Both have missed the last two games with injuries. Ogbuehi will slide back in his right tackle spot and the offensive line will go back to normal after shuffling in Ogbuehi's absence. Williams will plug back in next to true freshman Isaiah Golden and give the Aggies a playmaker as well as some much-needed depth on the defensive interior. The status of running back Tra Carson (sprained neck) who was injured against UTEP, is uncertain, though Sumlin said earlier in the week that Carson "wants to play."

Planning for success: Texas A&M

November, 7, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Not only will Saturday mark the last time at Kyle Field for some Texas A&M seniors, but it will also be the final time that Kyle Field looks the way it does.

After the No. 15 Aggies host Mississippi State in the 2013 home finale, construction crews will begin work on the stadium and field itself as part of a $450 million renovation that will take place over the coming years with a summer 2015 completion date.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesJake Matthews is one of several Aggies looking for one final win at Kyle Field.
"After Saturday about 5:30 [p.m.], Kyle Field will look completely different forever," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "The ability to play in that game or coach in that game or be a fan in that game to me is a big deal."

The Aggies will continue to play in Kyle Field next season while the redevelopment project is ongoing, but for 13 seniors, including left tackle Jake Matthews, running back Ben Malena and linebacker Steven Jenkins, Saturday will be it in front of the 12th Man, though the Aggies have two road games remaining to close out the regular season at LSU and at Missouri.

"It's going to be an emotional day," Malena said. "Not emotional, I think it's more exciting than anything. I look at it as a celebration that you came here, paid your dues. It's all part of growing up. Everybody's going to have a senior day."

Jenkins said he's amazed at how quickly time has passed.

"Time goes by fast," Jenkins said. "Being a part of this program, seeing all the guys come in, building that brotherhood, it's been great. But it's time to go. I've enjoyed Aggieland and the 12th Man. There's no place like it."

This particular group will be remembered for helping the Aggies make a successful transition into the SEC, smashing outsider expectations by going 11-2 last season, their first in the premier conference in college football. It helped establish a foundation for future success in the league. Matthews said that's one of his best memories.

"Just going in the SEC, that whole season, how much fun it was, how surprising it was coming up when nobody thought we were going to be any good," Matthews said. "Playing the way we did and having that much fun is something I'll never forget."

It could also be a home finale for the Aggies’ two brightest stars: quarterback Johnny Manziel and receiver Mike Evans. Both are redshirt sophomores and eligible to declare for early entry into the NFL draft. While it likely won't be known for certain until after the season is over whether they'll go, there's certainly a chance Saturday could be their last at Kyle.

The Aggies are still looking for improvement in several areas in their final home game and final three games overall in order to win out the rest of the year.

"You need to be improving at this time of year," Sumlin said. "We've played pretty well defensively the last two weeks. We're gaining some confidence. We're going to find out Saturday how much we've improved."

Helmet stickers: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M bounced back from last week's loss with a 56-24 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday at Kyle Field. Plenty of good performances from the Aggies so it's hard to hand out just three helmet stickers, but we'll give it a shot.

The defense: Taking a little copout here, but it's hard to single out one performance from the Aggies' defense. The unit has taken a ton of criticism, much of it justified, throughout this season. Yes, they were playing against a freshman quarterback who was making his first start, but considering the struggles this year, any positive performance is something to talk about. Junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury had two sacks and nine tackles. Safety Howard Matthews had a team-high 14 tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception return for a touchdown that changed the momentum early in the second half. Linebacker Steven Jenkins had an impressive day (eight tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss). The Aggies finished with seven sacks and held Vanderbilt to 95 rushing yards.

Johnny Manziel: Have to give him one after fighting through a right shoulder injury to put together a stellar performance. He was 25-of-35 for 305 yards and four touchdowns with an interception. He was sacked twice but avoided falling on the injured shoulder and made smart decisions, carrying the ball just four times. Other than the pick, which was perhaps forced into coverage, it's hard to ask for much more from Johnny Football.

Trey Williams: The sophomore running back is beginning to look like the best back this team has. He ran for 65 yards and a touchdown on just six carries (10.8 average), caught a pass for 19 yards and finished with 102 all-purpose yards. He might not be as proficient in pass protection as someone like Ben Malena, but he's definitely improved in that area since last year and his speed and elusiveness is hard to match.

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.
Deshazor Everett Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesTexas A&M's willingness to use starters such as safety Deshazor Everett (right) on special teams has allowed the Aggies to have one of the best units in the SEC.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Alabama receiver and return specialist Christion Jones carried the ball out of the end zone on the Crimson Tide's first kickoff return against Texas A&M on Sept. 14, he was quickly faced with a host of defenders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improvement needed from A&M defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snyder believes his unit has that opportunity.

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

What we learned: Week 3

September, 15, 2013
9/15/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The Aggies suffered their first loss on Saturday as No. 1 Alabama claimed a 49-42 victory over Texas A&M at Kyle Field. Here are three things we learned about the Aggies:
  • Run defense must improve: It almost sounds like a broken record after the first two weeks. The Aggies allowed 306 rushing yards to Rice, 240 to Sam Houston State and 234 on Saturday against Alabama. The good news is the total keeps getting lower, but the bad news is they're still allowing more than 200 rushing yards per game. The Crimson Tide used that to their advantage, extending long drives to control the pace of the game and score methodically while keeping the Aggies' offense on the sideline. The fact that A&M got several key players back from suspensions, including linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive end Gavin Stansbury on Saturday will help, but they still must get better.
  • The secondary and pass rush can get better, too: There's an injury back there (Floyd Raven missed the game with a collarbone injury) but the Aggies were beat in the air routinely on Saturday by the Crimson Tide. Quarterback AJ McCarron threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns on 20-of-29 passing. He was rarely pressured -- the Aggies had zero sacks and only one quarterback hurry during the day. The secondary's job becomes harder when there's no pass rush. Tackling can get better, too.
  • Other receivers are emerging: Mike Evans stole the show for the Aggies in the passing game, but others are beginning to emerge as well. Malcome Kennedy had a career-high three touchdowns in the win. Derel Walker also hauled in five passes for 66 yards after catching four passes for 57 yards last week. Tight end Cameron Clear even got in the mix on a 1-yard touchdown reception on the first drive of the game. The Aggies need players to step up after three senior starters graduated last year and it appears that's happening gradually.

Manziel, Aggies good but flawed

September, 14, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — There was no plan for Johnny Manziel to speak to the media on Saturday.

In fact, win or lose, Texas A&M officials made it clear before the game that the Heisman Trophy winner would not be available for postgame interviews. Earlier this week, coach Kevin Sumlin noted that Manziel's family and attorneys advised him not to speak publicly this week.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel produced more than 500 yards but admitted there were a couple of throws he wished he could take back.
But Manziel wasn't going to be told no. He approached Sumlin and Texas A&M associate athletic director for media relations Alan Cannon and said he was going to speak. When Cannon mentioned the objections from Manziel's parents and lawyers, Manziel said, according to Cannon, "My team didn't quit on me, so I'm not quitting on them."

The No. 6 Aggies showed no quit in their 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at Kyle Field in one of the most highly anticipated games in school history. What they did show is that they're a good team with a lot of flaws that still need ironing out.

The message from Manziel, who played brilliantly for much of the day but had a couple of throws he'd like to have back, was that the Aggies had to keep playing -- both on Saturday and moving forward.

"My initial reaction is that I'm just proud of these guys," said Manziel, who threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns and ran for 98 yards. "I kept telling them that no matter what point in the game it was, we were never out of it. Didn't matter what [Alabama] did. I told the offense that going into it, that no matter what happened on the defensive side of the ball, no matter what happened on special teams, we felt like we could come out and score points. So I was proud initially more than anything else, proud of the way they kept fighting until the very end. I mean, we're a young team. That's impressive to me."

The Aggies (2-1) were down by as many as 21 points in the third quarter after taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Alabama roared back with 35 unanswered points and used its power running game and efficient passing attack behind AJ McCarron to eat up yardage and extend drives to score points while keeping the Aggies' offense on the sideline.

The biggest flaw seen on Saturday was on defense. The Aggies' front seven was hammered by the Alabama offensive line -- a unit that struggled in its season opener against Virginia Tech -- to the tune of 234 rushing yards and 6.3 yards per carry, led by T.J. Yeldon's 149-yard effort. McCarron was rarely pressured in the passing game and wasn't sacked a single time; only one player on the Aggies defense, Kirby Ennis, recorded a quarterback hurry. There were big plays given up in the passing game as well, as the Tide threw for 334 yards.

"We've got to get some things shored up in our front defensively," Sumlin said. "We're playing a lot of young guys in there. [Gavin] Stansbury was back and [Steven] Jenkins was back [from suspensions], so they were a little rusty. We didn't have Isaiah Golden today because of the tragedy [involving the death of a family member] earlier this week. That put a lot of pressure on Hardreck [Walker] to handle that type of stuff with Kirby. We just have to get those guys in a routine, a steady routine and a rotation and shore some things up up front."

Mike Evans, who already was considered one of the country's better receivers, made his case to be considered among the best after catching seven passes for a school-record 279 yards and a touchdown. He beat man-to-man coverage consistently, ran good routes and was an asset for Manziel when scrambling.

"I couldn't be prouder of him," Manziel said. "Last night in the hotel, me and him, we're roommates, and we were just talking about how the game was going to play out. I knew he was going to come out and play really well."

Manziel wasn't perfect. A fade pass to Ja'Quay Williams in the end zone was intercepted by Cyrus Jones in the second quarter ("We probably could have run a better route," Sumlin said). He tried to squeeze a pass in to Travis Labhart early in the third quarter but it was tipped by Alabama defensive back Jarrick Williams and intercepted by Vinnie Sunseri, who returned it 73 yards for a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipMike Evans set a school record with 279 receiving yards, including this 95-yard touchdown.
"I had a couple throws that I want to have back, two in particular," Manziel said. "Coach Sumlin always says there's no regrets. Leave it all out on the field. I think that's what we all did. I know I did."

But he was, like the Aggies, still very good. He set the single-game school record for passing yards and put up the second-most total offensive yards in a game (562), second only to his own total (576) against Louisiana Tech last year.

He made what many would call an ill-advised throw in the second quarter after magically evading a sack while in the grasp of Alabama defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, heaving a jump ball 40 yards downfield while falling backward. The ball wound up in the hands of a leaping Edward Pope for a first down that sent the crowd into a frenzy. The gain was only 12 yards; Manziel retreated back far to evade pressure.

At some point, it seems it might just be worth chalking it up to a little Manziel magic, since he has seemingly found an uncanny ability to make jaw-dropping plays of the sort each week. It's part of what captivated the college football world en route to his Heisman Trophy last year.

For those who said Manziel's eventful and sometimes tumultuous offseason would come back to haunt him when the games started this year, none of that seemed to be a factor. Though there were some mistakes made on the field, Manziel's play is hard to criticize, especially against the team that was No. 1 in the country last season in total defense. Manziel said afterward that it wasn't a factor.

But for all the flash, the bottom line was that Manziel and the Aggies fell short of their goal on Saturday. They were beaten by a better team.

The disappointment could be heard in the voices of the players afterward; they wanted Saturday's win badly. But with nine games to go in their season, they feel that what they want -- an SEC West title, SEC title and BCS title game berth -- is still within reach; it's just more difficult to obtain now that they're 0-1 in SEC play.

But if the Aggies are still serious about pursuing those goals, there's still much work to do.

"Just got to go game by game," Manziel said. "Just like last year, continue to get better, week by week, and the result was what happened in the Cotton Bowl. For us this wasn't the end of our season. This wasn't the Super Bowl. This wasn't the last game of the season.

"Alabama lost a game last year and still went on to win a national championship. They lost to LSU the year before and still went on to win the national championship. Our season isn't over. Anything can happen. This is college football. Some of the craziest things happen every week. So you never know. All we can do is take care of ourselves, take care of what's in this locker room and continue to get better as a team."

What we learned: Week 2

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

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

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

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

Aggies host Sam Houston State tonight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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