Texas A&M Aggies: Tramain Jacobs
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 31½ inch vertical jump, his height was measured at 5-foot-11¾ 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 30½ 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.
The Tigers' success, conference affiliation and game day atmosphere are just a few of the unique advantages for natives of the Pelican State.
"When Darian was in January of his junior year (of high school) and LSU lost the national championship game to Alabama, you would have thought his best friend died the next day at school," Blanchard said. "He was a big LSU fan. You can't grow up in Southeast Louisiana and not have some kind of attachment or an eye on the prize, however you want to say it, [to LSU]."
Claiborne, a true freshman, is now the starting middle linebacker for No. 12 Texas A&M, which heads to Death Valley on Saturday to play No. 22 LSU. But Port Allen is fewer than seven miles from the LSU campus, so it's understandable how he could have envisioned a future with the Bayou Bengals.
But Texas A&M’s staff developed a strong relationship with Claiborne, a three-star prospect. Furthermore, the Aggies made a strong impression and made it clear they wanted him while LSU didn’t officially extend an offer. The Aggies’ diligence paid off because Claiborne has played a key part on the A&M defense.
In recent years, Texas A&M has had success recruiting the state of Louisiana. Texas is and will continue to be the home base for Texas A&M recruiting for good reason -- it's fertile recruiting ground that most colleges attempt to pick from, because of the vast number of players and caliber of talent the state produces. But Louisiana is also known for producing high-caliber recruits as well and head coach Kevin Sumlin has made sure to make "The Boot" part of his recruiting footprint.
Currently, the Aggies have nine players that are from Louisiana on the roster and all of them are on the Aggies' two deep. Some of them have been recruited by the current staff, others are holdovers from the previous staff, but all of them currently contribute on the field.
All nine are defensive players and five of them are regular starters: Claiborne, defensive back Deshazor Everett, defensive ends Julien Obioha, safety Floyd Raven and defensive end Gavin Stansbury. The others have played key roles: true freshman cornerback Noel Ellis has seen significant time in recent weeks and is the Aggies' future at the nickel cornerback position. Cornerback Tramain Jacobs started six games this season while the Aggies' dealt with injuries in the secondary and has been a reliable rotation player among the cornerbacks. True freshman linebacker Shaan Washington has found his way onto the field in a special teams capacity but also saw time at linebacker early in the year and defensive tackle Ivan Robinson has been a part of the rotation at his position when healthy.
Stansbury has emerged as a playmaker while Obioha and Raven have each been a steady presence at their respective positions.
Even when he was at Houston, where the Cougars put their primary focus on their own city, Sumlin's staff would travel across the border to recruit talent out of Louisiana. But in the SEC it's a different story, because the caliber of player Texas A&M is searching for is often the same that LSU is trying to keep in state.
With the Tigers being the signature program in Louisiana, it makes it all the more difficult to pull a kid out of the state when LSU wants him.
The Aggies are experiencing that in their early SEC years. In this recruiting cycle, the Aggies are going after some of Louisiana's finest, like ESPN 300 athlete Speedy Noil and ESPN 300 defensive end Gerald Willis III. The Aggies are also trying to make inroads with the top 2015 prospects from the state, like receiver Tyron Johnson.
All have LSU offers and the battle for Noil and Willis III has been hotly contested and will be until signing day approaches.
But the Aggies have found success in recruiting prospects from the state that might have been overlooked or not as heavily pursued. If those players continue to play like Claiborne, the in-state powerhouse will start taking notice.
"Yeah, we've run across them at times," said LSU coach Les Miles of seeing A&M recruiting in Louisiana. "We recognize some of the [players] that they have there, and we wish them the very best. It's an opportunity to play in this league, and we're for that."
But it hasn't been all bad, and there have been some bright spots through the early stages of the season -- perhaps none as bright as defensive back Deshazor Everett.
The junior cornerback/safety has been many things for the Aggies this season: steady, versatile, a source of leadership, a playmaker. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder called him "an eraser," which seems appropriate since Everett has made a touchdown-saving tackle or two this season.
One thing Everett hasn't been all year is two-handed. Well, sort of.
"Oh yes, definitely," Everett said with a smile, "I'll have two hands in that game."
So far, it hasn't hindered his play much at all. In fact, Everett scored a defensive touchdown in each of the last two games. In the Aggies' 42-13 win over SMU on Sept. 21, Everett had a 12-yard fumble return for a touchdown. On Sept. 28 against Arkansas, he stepped in front of a Brandon Allen pass and returned an interception 34 yards for a score, which proved critical in the Aggies' 45-33 win that day.
"I can't wait until he gets that cast off, then maybe he'll score twice in a game," head coach Kevin Sumlin said.
On a defense that has seen players go in and out of the lineup for myriad reasons and is trying to find its footing after a horrendous start (the Aggies are 112th nationally in yards allowed per game), Everett is a bright light and someone the coaching staff can rely on in multiple roles.
Though he's the team's best cornerback, Snyder and secondary coach Marcel Yates elected to shift Everett back to free safety to alleviate some concerns they had with the back end of the defense. The results since the switch have been positive.
"He understands what we're trying to do," Sumlin said. "He's playing out of position really, because he's our best corner. We move him, you give up something, you think, he's also one of our better DBs and gives us speed back in the back and has saved some touchdowns this year, no doubt. And has given us the opportunity to line up and play defense again and I can't tell you how critical that's been."
Everett is second on the team with 31 tackles and also has two tackles for loss, two interceptions and a pass breakup in addition to his two defensive touchdowns. Against Arkansas, cornerback Tramain Jacobs -- who assumed Everett's cornerback position with Everett at safety -- performed admirably and will be a key player for the Aggies as they continue to buy time until starting free safety Floyd Raven returns from a collarbone injury.
"I'm the first one to take my hat off; I thought he played well," Snyder said of Jacobs. "They went after him and targeted him, they continued to target him and they're going to target him again next Saturday. And I thought he really rose to the occasion."
Everett had two pins put in his thumb after breaking it, and if it was up to him, he wouldn't have even come off the practice field when it occurred in August. He recalled asking a trainer if it could simply be taped up on the spot so he could continue practicing, but he was told no, he had to get X-rays on it.
"I couldn't move it and it was just hanging there," Everett said. "I just wanted to keep playing basically. I didn't want, just because of a little injury, [to not] continue practicing. I could practice without my thumb or play without my thumb. People have played with injuries before. It was just a small injury for me."
The DeRidder, La., product attributes his tough attitude to being undersized and hanging with bigger kids growing up, being "pushed around" so he could be toughened up. In addition to his toughness and solid play, he has been willing to do anything. Sumlin referenced Everett's willingness to play on special teams when the Aggies needed him, spending time on kickoff return units when asked.
"He just goes in there and does it and runs back off the field because he wants to win," Sumlin said.
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.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M held its regularly scheduled weekly news conference on Tuesday in advance of its season opener against Rice on Saturday. While many wonder about the status of quarterback Johnny Manziel, there are other things to keep an eye on. Here are five storylines facing the Aggies as they await the Owls at Kyle Field:
1. Will Manziel play?
That's what Texas A&M fans and much of the college football wants to know: will Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel start on Saturday for Texas A&M? The question remains unanswered officially. Athletic director Eric Hyman released a statement on Monday evening indicated that he instructed the coaching staff and players to not comment on Manziel's status. When Kevin Sumlin was asked about it on Tuesday he said "We're not discussing that....I can't talk about how that decision is going to be made and what goes into that decision. I said from day one, the first day [of training camp], that there will be a lot of people involved in that decision. So what goes into how that decision's made, obviously I can't discuss." So for now, the wait continues.
2. What if Manziel doesn't play?
At this point, the Aggies turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kenny Hill. Both received praise from coaches and teammates alike on Tuesday. Senior running back Ben Malena said he believes the team will be comfortable with whoever is taking snaps on Saturday. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said offensively, the Aggies would still remain the same. Joeckel brings the presence of a pocket passer who has already spent a year learning the offense while Hill is a dual threat who can run and throw and has had to learn the offense quickly. But on Tuesday, the Aggies appeared confident in both of them should either be pressed into duty.
3. New faces
Sumlin advised fans attending Saturday's game to "buy a program or bring a flip card," because of how many newcomers will see time on the field. Of the 31 players who signed with the Aggies in February, Sumlin said he expects at least 10 to play a role this season, and perhaps as many as 15. Some of the notable newcomers to look for on Saturday include freshmen receivers Ricky Seals-Jones and LaQuvionte Gonzalez, tight end Cameron Clear, who was a juco transfer, linebacker Tommy Sanders -- also a juco transfer -- and true freshman linebacker Shaan Washington. Look for even more newcomers to get looks on special teams, including some of the aforementioned names.
4. Missing personnel
There are suspensions facing three defensive players: senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, junior cornerback Deshazor Everett and junior safety Floyd Raven, all three of whom had off-the-field legal trouble this offseason. Ennis and Raven will miss the entire game; Everett will miss a half. Ennis is a starter, so that means you could see a true freshman -- either Isaiah Golden or Hardreck Walker -- in his place when the Aggies go to four defensive linemen. In place of Everett, also a starter, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that the Aggies will rotate cornerbacks. Expect to see a heavy dose of Tramain Jacobs but possibly some freshmen such as Alex Sezer, Victor Davis or Tavares Garner as possibilities.Raven isn't listed as the starter at free safety like he was coming out of spring football. Instead, it's junior Clay Honeycutt, who Snyder was complimentary of on Tuesday. Honeycutt, a former high school quarterback at Dickinson (Texas) High, has come a long way according to Snyder and has earned himself the start against Rice.
Also of note, running back Brandon Williams [foot surgery] might be limited. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said "I wouldn't expect to see a lot from Brandon on Saturday."
5. Familiar foes
The Aggies and Owls haven't met on the field since the Southwest Conference folded in 1995, as both teams were part of the now-defunct league, but the coaching staffs do have recent history. David Bailiff is in his seventh season at Rice, a rival of Houston, where Sumlin was the head coach for four seasons (2008-2011). Snyder also stood on a sideline opposite Bailiff when Snyder was the head coach at Marshall from 2005-09. Sumlin's staff also recruited Rice starting quarterback Taylor McHargue when Sumlin was with the Cougars. So there is plenty of familiarity, at least in terms of coaching staffs, between the two squads.
No. 7 Tramain Jacobs
Two starting linebackers, both of whom emerged as leaders for the 11-2 Aggies, were seniors (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart). So was the starting free safety (Steven Terrell) and one defensive tackle (Spencer Nealy). The player who emerged as the team's leader in several statistical categories was a junior and third-year letterman, Damontre Moore.
"Coming into the spring, we basically have been trying to find our new leaders," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "Vocal leaders, people that lead by example. We have a couple of people that are falling into that role. Donnie Baggs, Howard Matthews, Deshazor Everett and I've also been one of the people that are trying to step into this new role. We're trying to find new leaders for the defense and for the team next year."
Baggs is the first team middle linebacker -- the same position Stewart was in last year -- so his emergence is key. The new blood replacing the other departed seniors, and Moore, are all young or inexperienced or both.
Matthews, who started the Aggies' last four games at strong safety and played in 12, has probably made the biggest transformation. At the start of last season, he wasn't even on the two-deep. By season's end, he became a key player and this spring, Snyder and defensive backs coach Marcel Yates are looking to him to help others, like junior Floyd Raven, who has moved to free safety from cornerback.
Having the same combination of players in the secondary from week to week wasn't a common occurrence for Texas A&M in 2012.
Whether it was an injury or simply trying fit the right pieces into the right places, the defensive backfield was an area where the Aggies moved a lot of pieces.
The unit had its ups and downs but returns plenty of experience for 2013.
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Highlights: In the biggest game of the year, it was a cornerback (Deshazor Everett) that made the biggest play, coming up with an interception of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron in the Aggies' 29-24 upset win over the then-No. 1 Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala. That play, in the context of that game, seemed to be a fitting sign of the cornerbacks' growth all season. There were some bumps in the road (big pass plays were yielded that allowed the Crimson Tide to stay within striking distance) but when the chips were down, the group made plays. Senior Dustin Harris morphed into a leader for the group and led the team in pass breakups with 10. Everett, who played in 11 of 12 games, had the task of going back and forth from corner to safety and handled it well, finishing with seven pass breakups and two interceptions. True freshman De'Vante Harris started seven games, a huge task for a true freshman at any position in the SEC and nickel cornerback Toney Hurd (who also spent time working at safety) played well when lining up at corner and tied with safety Steven Terrell to lead the entire secondary in tackles with 58.
Lowlights: There were some struggles early in the season when it came to tackling (defensive coordinator Mark Snyder called it "ankle-biting") that could be seen against Florida and in a big pass play or two against Arkansas. The Louisiana Tech game was a struggle as Aggies yielded a season-high 450 passing yards that day. As mentioned before, there were some big plays given up in the Alabama game as the Crimson Tide tried to stage a comeback. Some might point to the Aggies ranking 79th nationally in passing yardage defense as a sign of struggles, but it's worth noting that they had large leads on many teams early and some of those yards were compiled against reserves or in the midst of blowouts when the game was decided.
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After all, they allowed 515 yards.
But the yardage doesn't tell the entire story. The numbers coach Kevin Sumlin was most concerned -- and happy -- with were 10 (the number of points Arkansas scored) and three (the number of turnovers the Aggies' defense collected).
Both helped the Aggies roll to their 58-10 win over the Razorbacks.
The second, another Terrell interception, came on Arkansas' second-half opening drive. Instead of the Razorbacks chipping into a 27-10 Aggies lead, the Aggies extended it after a Taylor Bertolet field goal following the interception.
The third seemed to seal the Razorbacks' fate, as Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore poked the ball out of running back Knile Davis' arm, and Tramain Jacobs picked up and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown and a 44-10 Texas A&M lead.
"We've been talking ever since we've been here about critical plays and game-changing plays," Sumlin said. "Those kind of things aren't just turnovers, but they're game changers. That's what we're looking for and we had a number of those today."
Moore's wasn't just about being at the right place at the right time, but also because of effort. Moore initially had a chance to tackle Davis and blew by him but turned on the jets, chased him down from behind and poked the ball out.
"I was so determined since I missed that tackle that I need to go out and make something happen and be a difference maker," Moore said. "Our coaches, [defensive coordinator Mark] Snyder and [defensive line coach Terry] Price preach about how we need to be difference makers, [force] turnovers and get our turnover margin up. I took the perfect opportunity, because they already had some fumble issues early in the game, and he wasn't paying attention and didn't see me, so I just came behind him and punched the ball out."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M put the pedal to the metal and didn't ease up, rolling to a dominating 58-10 win over Arkansas on Saturday at Kyle Field. Here's how it played out:
It was over when: Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore forced a Knile Davis fumble that was picked up and returned 28 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Tramain Jacobs to give the Aggies a 44-10 lead over the Razorbacks with 7:06 remaining in the third quarter. Arkansas never truly threatened in the second half, but after that scoop and score by Jacobs, it seemed that any hope Arkansas had of getting back into the game washed away.
Game ball goes to: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. He has been impressive in his first three starts for the Aggies, and his fourth was even more so. The redshirt freshman set school records for passing yards (453) and total offense (557). He was 29-of-38 passing, threw for three touchdowns and ran for 104 more yards and another TD. He broke Ryan Tannehill's school passing record of 449 yards and Jerrod Johnson's total offense record of 487. Most importantly, Manziel had no turnovers and hasn't committed one yet this season.
Game ball, Part 2: The Texas A&M defense. The Aggies trailed 10-7 after a quarter, but the Razorbacks didn't score again. Arkansas moved the ball plenty, finishing with 515 total yards, but it didn't equate to points. The Aggies' red zone defense was outstanding, as Arkansas finished 1-of-5 in that department. Steven Terrell had two key interceptions to help lead the D.
Rising star: Texas A&M running back Ben Malena. The junior got his third straight start and was effective in his limited touches, gaining 59 rushing yards on eight carries and catching an 11-yard touchdown pass from Manziel. He's a good contrast to Christine Michael, who is effective between the tackles and more of a north-south runner. Malena is good in the passing game and the running game and has the speed to make big plays. Honorable mention to true freshman receiver Thomas Johnson, who caught five passes for 108 yards, although 88 of them came on two plays in the fourth quarter.
What it means: The Aggies are a different ballclub from a year ago, clearly. They led Arkansas last season by 18 points at the half, and on Saturday they led by 17. Last year, they fell 42-38. This year, they continued to score and blew out the Razorbacks. This is an explosive offense with an aggressive mentality and a ton of playmakers, coupled with a defense that appears to be much better than it was expected to be in the preseason.
For the Razorbacks, this season is slipping away quickly. Now, one must wonder whether Arkansas will even make it to a bowl game. The Razorbacks looked wholly defeated in the second half, and though they kept fighting, their efforts were futile. It already has been a long season in Fayetteville, Ark., and it looks as if it will continue to be.
1. Consistent approach
The Aggies are facing an opponent that is on a different level and won't be able to match them in terms of talent or depth. But coach Kevin Sumlin said that the Aggies are in no position to take anyone lightly or change their approach. If the Aggies approach this game like they have the last two, it should be over in a hurry. Last week, the Aggies took a quarter to get on track offensively against SMU. Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said the unit's main objective is to start quickly (like it did against Florida). So that will be something the Aggies look to accomplish this week.
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• Johnny Manziel: Now that the redshirt freshman has officially been named the starting quarterback, it'll be worth closely watching how he performs in a public setting. The Aggies are fewer than two weeks away from their season opener, so his continued progress will be key to Texas A&M's success. It will be also worth watching to see how the other quarterbacks perform in the wake of the decision.
• The return game: Finding a kick returner is something that still needs to be crossed off the to-do list for coach Kevin Sumlin and special teams coordinator Brian Polian. Polian mentioned that he's not afraid to look at freshmen as candidates and that includes running back Trey Williams and freshman receivers Sabian Holmes and Thomas Johnson.
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Blue Chip Battles: ESPN 300 Update
6:00 PM ET Texas A&M South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State Ole Miss 9:15 PM ET Temple Vanderbilt
12:00 PM ET Tennessee-Martin Kentucky 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 3:30 PM ET South Dakota State Missouri 4:00 PM ET Arkansas Auburn 5:30 PM ET Clemson Georgia 7:00 PM ET Idaho Florida 7:30 PM ET Southern Miss Mississippi State 9:00 PM ET Wisconsin LSU