SEC: Texas A&M Aggies

Fournette, LSU will live up to hype 

August, 29, 2014
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Leonard FournetteAP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette has been dubbed 2014's "prodigy" -- before even playing a single game.
Leonard Fournette is not a freshman.

Just keep repeating that to yourself, over and over, though not so loud that people think you’re strange.

I’ve spent the past few months working to condition and program myself to this thought. Maybe we should just call him LSU’s “first-year” running back.

Fournette doesn’t look, act -- or, most importantly -- run like a freshman. So let’s just move past the fact that he is one.

It’s a dangerous game, hyping those who have yet to gain a yard, throw a pass or make a tackle. It’s one that can make someone like me look quite foolish, causing hand-wringing from fans. (“He’s 18, HANEY!”)

But what happens when we’re right? What happens when Jameis Winston, as a first-year starter, wins the Heisman?

From all I’ve gathered, including a stop last week in Baton Rouge, we’re right on Fournette. You’ve seen the comparisons, from Michael Jordan’s determination to Adrian Peterson’s physique as a teenager.

“I’ve never seen a freshman like him,” someone close to the program told me. “Never.”

College football’s 2014 prodigy will debut Saturday night in Houston, when LSU meets Wisconsin in a top-15 matchup at the Texans' stadium.

In addition to Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn are expected to be in the receivers rotation. Jamal Adams is a defensive back who isn’t getting enough buzz because of the offensive guys.

And, oh by the way, coach Les Miles has said QB Brandon Harris will play. He might even start.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFreshman QB Brandon Harris will also headline LSU's young group of impact players.
These players, and other youngsters, were recruited to play immediately.

“We just want to get the best players on the field,” defensive coordinator John Chavis told me last week. “We don’t care what year they are. We tell them that.”

In addition to natural attrition, LSU has lost 17 underclassmen to the NFL draft the past two cycles. That precipitates need unlike anything we’ve ever seen, really.

“These kids have embraced that idea since day one in the recruiting process,” said Jeremy Crabtree, ESPN.com senior recruiting writer. “They knew they were good. They knew they were going to have to play early. And they didn’t back away from it one bit.”

If some or all of the freshmen hit, LSU will be a dark horse playoff contender. Three of the 20 coaches I polled this week had the Tigers in the four-team field.

“They can sneak up on you some years,” one of them told me. “That’s when they’ve won [titles]. There’s a lot of attention on Alabama and Auburn right now, and Les probably likes it that way.”

ESPN analyst and national recruiting director Tom Luginbill, who covered Harris in the Under Armour game, said his arm is in the top three for the past decade.

“He’s a great kid with a high ceiling,” he said. “[He’s] a superior talent to [Anthony] Jennings, but he hasn’t played yet.”

Even with Fournette, expect veteran RBs Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee to get the first carries. Second-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will roll Fournette in gracefully; those on staff agreed with my theory that the frosh would see between 10-15 planned carries. Don’t expect Peterson’s bruising running style as much as power mixed with elusiveness. Fournette would rather juke than bulldoze. And he’ll be more effective in the screen game.

But if he gets hot, the script could soon flip, with Hilliard and Magee serving as the complements. And that’s what I would expect, given the preface of his legend.

Fournette goes for 100-plus. A star is born.

Other breakout players to watch this week

SEC morning links

August, 29, 2014
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1. Raise your hand if you saw that coming from Texas A&M last night? Nobody? That's OK, I didn't and neither did my SEC colleagues, as evidenced by our Week 1 predictions. The Aggies coming out of Columbia, South Carolina with a win wasn't far-fetched but absolutely dominating? That was unexpected. Especially for the College Station-area Ashley Furniture store. Ashley promised customers free furniture if the Aggies beat the Gamecocks by 10 or more points. The result? More than $1 million in free furniture given away. The Aggies themselves were pretty fired up, evidenced by this celebration video involving Kevin Sumlin and the team. But the biggest story on Thursday night was none other than quarterback Kenny Hill, who -- in his first career start -- broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school record for passing yards and completions. Hill proved that the Aggies are far from a one-trick pony.

2. There's some good and some not so good to take away from Ole Miss' win against Boise State on Thursday night. The good is the defense was stout. The not so good was that quarterback Bo Wallace wasn't as consistent as you'd like a senior quarterback and third-year starter to be, throwing three interceptions and four touchdowns. Those are two of the three things we learned from the Rebels 35-13 win over the Broncos. Robert Nkemdiche was certainly pleased with the defensive effort. Here's a look at some of the plays that changed the game for the Rebels.

3. Nick Saban hasn't publicly named Alabama's starting quarterback, but reading into his commentary during his radio show on Thursday night, but it certainly sounds like Blake Sims might take the first snap. Saban dropped a few hints into his thought process Thursday and one report claims that Sims will indeed start, citing a source. Saban lauded Sims' experience, something Jacob Coker lacks after arriving in Tuscaloosa, Alabama just this summer. "Here's the thing everybody needs to understand that people don't understand," Saban said. "We have a guy playing quarterback who has been in the system for a long time and really has a really good understanding, very confident in what he's doing. I know he didn't play very well in the spring game and that's how a lot of people evaluate him. But he has done very well this fall and he did very well last spring and he has a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge."

More from around the SEC
Tweets of the day

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – Maybe the whole Johnny Manziel phenomenon was a bit overblown.

That’s not to diss Johnny Football. Few players in the SEC have been more entertaining or transcendent. No, it’s more a validation that the other guy rocking the visor, the guy with the “good negotiator” and $5 million salary, knows what he’s doing.

Manziel, Case Keenum, Kenny Hill

It obviously doesn’t matter who’s playing quarterback for Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin. His offenses are going to put up points, and lots of them.

The Aggies left little doubt Thursday night that they’re going to be just fine without Manziel -- especially if they can straighten out some bugs in the secondary -- by slicing through a helpless South Carolina defense in a 52-28 declawing of the No. 9-ranked Gamecocks before a stunned crowd of 82,847 at Williams-Brice Stadium.

“Quite frankly, there was a chip on our shoulder. Basically, nobody gave us a chance in this game,” Sumlin said. “What we did tonight kind of shows that we’re not a one-trick pony. We’re not anywhere near where we want to be, but we’re not going anywhere any time soon.”

It’s hard to know where to start when heaping praise on the Aggies, who had outgained the Gamecocks 142 yards to 1 at one point in the first quarter en route to scoring the most points against South Carolina on its home field in the Steve Spurrier era. The only other time an opponent had hung 50-plus on South Carolina in Williams-Brice with Spurrier on the sideline was when Tim Tebow came to town in 2007 on his Heisman Trophy march.

As fate would have it, Tebow was in the house Thursday as part of the SEC Network’s coverage and witnessed a Heisman Trophy-like performance.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesIt took just one game for Texas A&M's Kenny Hill to break Johnny Manziel's school record for most passing yards in a game.
"Give Texas A&M and their coaches and players credit. It was a mismatch tonight," Spurrier said. "I don't know what else you can say. If we played them again, they'd be a three-touchdown favorite. We tried everything we could to slow them down."

Hill, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound sophomore, broke Manziel’s Texas A&M single-game passing record in his first start. He finished 44-of-60 for 511 yards and three touchdowns and was the essence of composure. He spread the ball around, got rid of the ball quickly and leaned on an impressive array of receivers.

And up front, it was a total mismatch. The Aggies’ offensive line manhandled the Gamecocks in rolling up a staggering 99 offensive plays and 680 yards of total offense – the most ever gained against any South Carolina team.

Hill joked that he was more nervous meeting with the media than he ever was on the field.

“I was more excited than nervous,” Hill said. “I was ready to go. I’ve been ready for this my whole life. Everybody was doubting us, and we were just ready to go and prove everybody wrong and that we could be good without Johnny.”

Hill wasn’t quite ready to take on a nickname yet, although he was asked about it.

“I don’t really like Kenny Football. That’s sort of played out,” he said to a round of laughter.

If you’re wondering, Manziel was 23-of-30 for 173 yards and no touchdown passes in his first career start in 2012, a 20-17 home loss to Florida.

“It’s the reason I came to Texas A&M, to replace Johnny,” said Hill, whose record night sent the Gamecocks to their first home loss after 18 consecutive wins.

The Texas A&M players were almost nonchalant about Hill’s performance. They didn’t necessarily see a record performance coming in his debut, but they knew following in Manziel’s footsteps wasn’t too big for him.

“He’s a pocket passer. He’s going to stay in the pocket,” said Texas A&M receiver Malcome Kennedy, who caught 14 passes for 137 yards. “If you stay on your routes, he’s going to put it right there.”

For Sumlin, this was especially sweet, although he did his best to downplay it afterward.

Spurrier, in vintage form, had taken a few shots at the Aggies’ nonconference schedule and how they rolled up a lot of their big numbers against smaller teams last season. He also quipped during the SEC Media Days that Sumlin had a good negotiator after Sumlin received a raise to $5 million annually when the University of Southern California showed interest in him.

The truth is that Spurrier and Sumlin are friends and even went to Ireland together to play golf two summers ago. Spurrier visited the Texas A&M locker room after the game. Even so, Sumlin made it clear that he wasn’t a big fan of some of the things said about his program during the offseason.

“I heard somebody say we made a bunch of yards against the little teams, but we also made a few yards tonight,” Sumlin cracked.

Granted, it was just one game, but he was genuinely peeved that anybody would suggest he and his staff would suddenly forget how to coach just because Manziel was gone. All offseason he was bombarded with questions about life without Manziel.

Sumlin’s public response was that the Aggies had recruited extremely well to a system they believed in. Privately, he couldn’t wait for the opportunity to fleece a few more SEC defenses with a system that has a way of bringing a defense to its knees no matter who’s playing quarterback.

On Thursday, the Gamecocks were on their heels from the Aggies’ first possession and never recovered. Just a thought: Maybe Jadeveon Clowney had a little bigger impact on that South Carolina defense than some people gave him credit for a year ago.

Either way, it’s clear that Texas A&M has recovered much better without its departed star than South Carolina has without its departed star.

Here’s another thought: The entire complexion of the Western Division race all of a sudden looks a little different, and we’re only a game into the season. If you’re going to beat the Aggies, you'd better be able to score.

The same goes for the Eastern Division race. South Carolina has two weeks to shake off this nightmare and find something that works on defense before Georgia visits.

In the meantime, looks like they’re not going to cancel the season in College Station after all.

Texas A&M 52, South Carolina 28

August, 28, 2014
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video Kenny Hill threw for an Aggies' record 511 yards with three touchdowns in Texas A&M's 52-28 win over South Carolina.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was never comfortable talking about all the players he lost. Throughout the offseason, he was peppered with questions about replacing Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews. Each time, he'd bite his lip, say what he needed to say and move on.

Now we know why. In spite of losing so many stars, Sumlin's offense hasn't missed a beat. On Thursday night, Texas A&M's retooled offense outdueled Steve Spurrier and South Carolina, rolling up the Gamecocks 52-28 on the road.

1. Welcome to the show, Kenny Hill

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The sophomore didn’t appear the least bit worried about living up to the legend of Manziel on Texas A&M’s opening drive. He calmly marched the Aggies down the field, spreading the ball around to his receivers. The best of his throws was this 22-yard, third-down strike over the middle to redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones that nearly went for a touchdown. Hill stayed calm in a stressful pocket and stepped into the throw beautifully. Tra Carson would ultimately go between the tackles for the 1-yard touchdown, giving Texas A&M the first points of the game. But Hill was the star of the drive, announcing himself to the college football world as a quarterback worthy of succeeding Johnny Football.

2. This Seals-Jones fella can play, can’t he?

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South Carolina’s defensive backs were helpless to stop him. He was too big, too fast, way too athletic. Sound familiar? It should. In many ways, he’s Mike Evans 2.0. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound redshirt freshman can’t be covered. On this 3-yard touchdown grab, he showed off his burst, getting into his break quickly. After getting a step on the defensive back, all he had to do was hold onto the football, which came on another perfect strike from Hill. On a side note, look at the pocket. The pressure from South Carolina’s defensive line was almost nonexistent.

3. Hill can run the read-option, too

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With the game still in reach, South Carolina had the chance to stone Texas A&M on third-and-goal, but Hill was having none of it. Instead of picking apart the Gamecocks secondary with his arm, he used his feet and instincts to get the defense to commit before pitching the ball off to Carson, who had an easy path to the end zone. If Hill can keep executing the Aggies offense like this, the SEC West is going to be really, really interesting.

4. Spurrier had to roll the dice

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By this point, South Carolina's defense had shown nothing. The defensive line wasn't getting any pressure. The secondary wasn’t making any plays, either. So why not try the onside kick? Down 17 points, it was worth a shot, and Landon Ard executed it almost perfectly. But Texas A&M secured the kick and promptly went 42 yards in 2:27 for another touchdown. South Carolina nearly got back in the game toward the end of the third quarter, but Dylan Thompson put too much air on a deep throw and watched helplessly as Armani Watts came away with the game-sealing interception. What could have been a 10-point game heading into the fourth quarter instead turned into a runaway rout.
Can anyone recall a season in recent memory that promises to be as wide open as this one? Every team in the SEC has holes. Every team has question marks. But almost every team has talent and legitimate hopes of a banner season.

How will it all shake out? This is our first shot at it, so take it easy on us. Like most of you, we will know a lot more about every team in the conference by the time the weekend is through.

But if there is one thing I'm confident in, it's that an SEC team will compete in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Sorry if I'm not buying that two will make it. Maybe next season, when all these inexperienced quarterbacks are a year more mature, but not now.
  • CFB Playoff (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
  • Cotton Bowl, Jan. 1: South Carolina
  • Orange Bowl, Dec. 31: LSU
  • Birmingham Bowl, Jan. 3: Vanderbilt
  • TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2: Florida
  • Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Georgia
  • Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Auburn
  • Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Dec. 30: Missouri
  • Belk Bowl, Dec. 30: Mississippi State
  • AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29: Texas A&M
  • AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 29: Ole Miss
There’s been no more talked about storyline in the SEC this offseason than the conference's lack of name recognition at quarterback. But are we making too big a deal of the lack of experience? Hugh Freeze, who boasts the most seasoned quarterback in the league in senior Bo Wallace, seems to think so. He told ESPN, “Too much is made of that. Last year at this point, who talked about Nick Marshall? Nobody. Who talked about Johnny Manziel before his first year? Nobody.”

Numbers never lie

Let’s start with the most obvious statistic: the number two. Nick Marshall and Jameis Winston, the two quarterbacks in the BCS National Championship Game, were first-year starters last season. And Marshall, of course, was a defensive back a few years prior at Georgia and had the benefit of only three weeks on campus at Auburn before he won the starting job and took the field against Washington State.

[+] EnlargeManziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesQuarterbacks come to college more prepared than ever to step in as freshmen and succeed.
All told, since the 2000-01 season there have been 12 inexperienced quarterbacks (fewer than six career starts entering the season) who have appeared in the BCS title game.

Looking at last season alone, almost 20 similarly inexperienced quarterbacks were ranked in the top 50 nationally in QBR. Along with Winston and Marshall, you could find Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Baylor’s Bryce Petty.

Remember your history

There was a time, remember, when AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger weren’t the players we know them to be today. It wasn’t all that long ago that Johnny Football was a scruffy, too-short Johnny Manziel.

The departed class of quarterbacks had to start somewhere.

Mettenberger finally got his shot at LSU and led the Tigers to a 10-3 record.

McCarron took over and helped Alabama to a national championship.

Murray slid under center and slung the football for 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Do we need to recount Manziel’s freshman season? The Heisman Trophy says enough.

QBs aren’t young anymore

There’s a new truth about freshmen quarterbacks: By the time they’ve arrived at college, many of them aren’t the wide-eyed rookies we’ve come to expect.

The rise of spread offenses have asked more of high school quarterbacks. Summer 7-on-7 camps have refined their skills, too. And then there’s the trend toward personal quarterback coaches.

With so many tools at their disposal, quarterbacks have shortened the learning curve.

Ken Mastrole can relate. When he was a freshman at Maryland in the mid-1990s, he said he “had no one teaching me what I was doing wrong.” He had little knowledge of X’s and O’s. He didn’t go to camps and didn’t have a personal coach to mentor him.

Now Mastrole is doing that job himself, having worked with the likes of E.J. Manuel and Teddy Bridgewater. As soon as he gets a new client, whether he’s in college or entering high school, he said he immediately starts working on their footwork and drops, watching film and analyzing their throwing motion.

“Plus, the mental and vision training I incorporate speeds up their decision-making process,” he added. “I have QBs now more than ever that are competing to start as freshmen and sophomores, and it gives them three-plus years of experience which makes them even more ready for college."

He continued: “My former teammate is now a high school offensive coordinator and is running the Air Raid offense. I sit in his meetings and am blown away on how advanced he is. He has his guys mentally ready when they sign a letter of intent.”

Let the vet have his shot

Coaches, at the end of the day, will go with their gut. And more often than not that means going with what they know -- at least to begin with.

At Alabama, don’t be surprised if Blake Sims gets the starting nod against West Virginia. The fifth-year senior has earned his shot, while Jake Coker, who transferred from FSU this summer, is still getting his bearings.

At LSU, Anthony Jennings could be the first quarterback to trot on the field against Wisconsin. The sophomore saw the field nine times last year, starting in a win at the Outback Bowl, while Brandon Harris has yet to attempt a single pass in college.

But talent will always win out. If Sims can’t get the job done, Coker will step in. If Jennings struggles, Harris will take over. The two newbies may not be totally comfortable with their respective offenses yet, but you can teach that. You’d rather have the best guy learning on the fly than the best guy riding the bench.

You would rather be sitting here today with a proven guy, but also you know that there's going to be good players that emerge," said Freeze. "I'm glad we're one that has [a veteran QB], but I fully expect that there will be two or three no one's talking about right now that come out and play and perform really well."
Texas A&M's "Midnight Yell" is one of the Aggies' longest-running traditions, and on the eve of the team's season opener at South Carolina, thousands of Texas A&M faithful gathered at the South Carolina State House for yell practice.

Not all South Carolina fans were so welcoming.

As evidenced by reports via social media, A&M's yell practice became rather eventful and testy at times as South Carolina fans came to shout the Aggies down. The Aggies hold Midnight Yell at Kyle Field before home games, and for road games they choose a spot in or near the opponent's hometown. In this case, it happened to be roughly a couple miles from Williams-Brice Stadium.

Here's video from the scene last night, via TheState.com:

 

And here are a few tweets from last night's scene:

 

Impact freshmen from the SEC

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Every season, several true freshmen make an immediate impact in the SEC. Judging by the way things look to be heading at some SEC powerhouses there might be even more than usual this season, but here are five that we predict to make the biggest splash in 2014.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette was the top-ranked recruit in the 2014 ESPN 300.
Leonard Fournette, LSU: When well-respected college football writers are projecting a true freshman running back as the Heisman Trophy winner -- and more than a few have at least mentioned Fournette’s name in the conversation -- you know the kid is special. LSU fans rejoiced when Fournette announced that he would become a Tiger, and he has done nothing since then to temper their excitement. Blessed with exceptional size, speed and power, Fournette is going to become a star. The only question is when. Even if he must share carries with backfield mates Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Darrel Williams, Fournette’s debut will be celebrated with Mardi Gras-like fanfare around Louisiana. -- David Ching

Cam Robinson, Alabama: It might not be the toughest position to learn on the offensive line, but there’s an argument to be made that left tackle is the most critical. And considering Alabama is breaking in a new quarterback, it’s even more important to protect his blind side. Which makes it all the more impressive that Robinson, a former five-star prospect, came into spring camp as a true freshman and won the starting job for the final spring scrimmage. He has size, he has agility and, apparently, he has the consistency few rookies possess. Even in today’s day and age of young guys playing earlier and earlier, the fact that he’s gone all the way through fall camp without any setbacks or doubt about his starting from Week 1 is flat-out impressive. -- Alex Scarborough

Roc Thomas, Auburn: The hype all offseason has been on Fournette at LSU, but he’s not the only talented freshman running back in the SEC. If given the opportunity, Thomas has a chance to be just as productive his first year. The question is whether or not there will be enough carries to go around. Despite losing Tre Mason to the NFL, Auburn has four capable running backs who should all contribute this year. Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will get the first crack because of experience, but Thomas is too good to keep off the field. Don’t be surprised if he’s the guy by mid-October. -- Greg Ostendorf

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: After signing him in February, Kevin Sumlin jokingly referred to Garrett as "Batman" in reference to the sculpted body that the 6-foot-5, 255-pound five-star prospect boasts. Since arriving on campus this summer, Garrett has earned the respect of his teammates and performed well on the practice field. "Myles is about what we thought when we recruited him," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said last week. For a player ranked No. 4 overall in the 2014 class, that means look out. Garrett will play early and often and should provide a boost to the Aggies' pass rush immediately, something sorely needed after a down year for the Aggie defense in 2013. -- Sam Khan

Tony Brown, Alabama: The Texas native and two-sport athlete wasn’t going to let some silly shoulder injury slow him down, even if that meant wearing a protective brace. The former five-star prospect got to school early and made an interception during the final spring scrimmage, albeit with one good shoulder and a black no-contact jersey on. Now closer to 100 percent, he hasn’t given an inch, appearing second on the depth chart at cornerback. He’ll see the field plenty as is, but if Bradley Sylve or Cyrus Jones falters, we could see Brown in the starting lineup making plays. -- Alex Scarborough
Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen Icon SMI/USA TODAY SportsQuarterbacks Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen have high expectations to fill in Aggieland.
TGIF: Thank God, it’s football (season). And with the final installment of our Ultimate Season Preview -- what a journey it has been -- we’re wondering who will feel the loss of its QB more in tonight’s SEC Network kickoff: South Carolina (Connor Shaw) or Texas A&M (Johnny Manziel)?

Admittedly, I was leaning at first toward Shaw, the gritty 27-game winner for the Gamecocks. Then I did the “Championship Drive” podcast Wednesday with host extraordinaire Rece Davis and he talked some sense into me. (Thanks, Rece.)

“Let me help you with your story. The answer is Manziel because no team will miss their quarterback, or any player, like A&M will miss Manziel,” Davis said, lecturing me a bit when, really, I needed to be lectured.

He’s right. After all, Davis was on the broadcast team for Manziel’s final college game, when he led the Aggies on one last improbable, heart-racing comeback -- for old time’s sake -- in the 52-48 Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Duke.

Put it this way: I got married that night -- and we still found a way to watch the end of the rally on ESPN3, shivering in the Asheville, North Carolina night as we lit a few stogies. No lie. It was a highlight of the whole evening.

And no offense to Shaw, whom I’ve written about since he was in high school, but I would not have taken a break from the post-reception party to watch the end of his college career. I would have caught the highlights.

Manziel was different from anything I had ever seen on the field. He was magnetic. He was magical. And he was also vitally important to his team, especially given its defensive, um, shortcomings.

The 2013 Aggies scored 42 against Alabama and 41 against Auburn ... and lost both games. The D allowed Duke to score 48, Mississippi State 41, Ole Miss 38 and Arkansas 33, but was bailed out by an offense that averaged 47 points in those four games.

Given this season’s youth and some expulsions, I’m not even sure the 2014 A&M defense will be any better than the group that finished No. 109 in the nation in yards per play (6.4) allowed and 96th in scoring defense (32 ppg).

If Texas A&M is going to again have to outscore opponents, it’s only reasonable to say it will not be able to do that as well with Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen at QB.

“[Coach] Kevin [Sumlin] is going to earn that paycheck,” one SEC rival coach said, referring to Sumlin’s raise in the neighborhood of $5 million.

I see a 4-6 team. The SEC West is that unrelenting. It’ll tussle with Ole Miss for fifth in the division. (But the Aggies would be a contender in the Big 12, for what that’s worth. Just saying.)

Those closest to the A&M program tend to talk more about Allen and 2015 commit Kyler Murray than they do Hill. So that leads me to believe he could be in some trouble when he makes his first start tonight at hostile Williams-Brice Stadium.

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Breakout players from the SEC

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Every year there are a handful of players who break out and become stars in the SEC. Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall are two of the more obvious ones recently, but it doesn’t always have to be a quarterback. Just look at what Michael Sam did last season at Missouri. Who will this be this year’s breakout star? We predict five who could take that next step.

D’haquille Williams, Auburn: If you think Sammie Coates is good, Williams is on another level. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound wide receiver has yet to play a down in the SEC, but he could be one of the league’s top wide receivers by the end of the year. Some are even saying that this could be his one and only season at Auburn. Williams arrived from junior college in January and has blown away the coaching staff both in the spring and more recently in fall camp. His position coach, Dameyune Craig, went as far as to say he could have an impact similar to the one Jameis Winston had on Florida State last year. With Coates and Williams on the outside, it’s easy to see why Auburn expects to be more balanced on offense. – Greg Ostendorf

Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: He's big (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and fast and gifted. Seals-Jones looked poised for a strong freshman season until a knee injury sidelined him for the final nine games of 2013. Now with three of the Aggies' top four pass-catchers from last season gone, there are receptions for the taking and expect Seals-Jones to get his hands on several. The former ESPN 300 recruit will work primarily as an inside receiver but also have a role as a hybrid tight end/H-back type in order to find the best matchups possible. Good luck to all the safeties and linebackers looking to cover this thoroughbred over the middle. – Sam Khan

De'Runnya Wilson, Mississippi State: If you’re looking for a physical freak, look no further than No. 81 for the Bulldogs. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he’s far bigger than any defensive backs he’ll come up against in the SEC. And chances are he can out jump them, too. Otherwise he wouldn’t be helping out Mississippi State on the hardwood when football isn’t in session. The former three-star prospect is raw, granted, but he’s brimming with potential. Once the sophomore gets a good grasp on the playbook and understands the nuances of the position, watch out. With the fleet-footed, shifty Jameon Lewis drawing defenses to the middle of the field, Wilson has the potential to be a serious vertical threat. – Alex Scarborough

O.J. Howard, Alabama: Don’t let last year’s numbers fool you. Fourteen receptions for 269 yards and two touchdowns isn’t overwhelming. But his inconsistency -- in five games he had zero receptions -- can be traced back to his inexperience and the play-calling. Now that he’s a year wiser and more mature, he could develop into an every-down tight end who can physically handle the trenches of the SEC. And with Lane Kiffin now directing the offense, his role is poised to expand. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds with the mobility of a much smaller receiver, he’s a matchup nightmare. – Alex Scarborough

Shane Ray, Missouri: The last time we saw Ray, he was scooping up a fumble and racing 73 yards the other way for the game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State in the bowl game. Most defensive ends might have been caught from behind, but not Ray. There was no doubt when he picked it up. Despite playing a reserve role last year, Ray finished with 39 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. Now it’s his turn. Nobody’s in front of him, and the junior pass-rusher has a chance to put up similar numbers to Sam, the reigning SEC defensive player of the year. – Greg Ostendorf

SEC morning links

August, 28, 2014
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1. We made it! The college football season is here and SEC play begins tonight. First on the docket this evening is No. 9 South Carolina hosting No. 21 Texas A&M. This game matches two compelling teams, both beginning life without megastars that made lasting imprints on their respective campuses last year. It also pits two dynamic offensive-minded coaches -- the cagey, SEC veteran Steve Spurrier against the relative SEC newcomer but charismatic Kevin Sumlin. How do they stack up? Let's look at the tale of the tape. Both of them had their moments at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama and Spurrier is known for not having a filter, saying what he thinks at all times. Sumlin doesn't have that reputation, but is beginning to show more and more personality as the years go by (see his responses to Johnny Manziel questions in Hoover as evidence). By the way, if you missed it yesterday, do yourself a favor and read Chris Low's in-depth feature on Spurrier, who is different from many in the profession when it comes to office hours and leisure time. Notably, Sumlin -- a friend of Spurrier's -- is big on family time and the health of his staff also.

2. Next up on the SEC schedule is No. 18 Ole Miss hosting Boise State. Need to get up to speed on the Rebels? Here's an in-depth discussion of the offense and the defense. Interestingly, both head coaches in this game, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze and Boise State's Bryan Harsin, got their FBS head coaching starts at Arkansas State. Both speak fondly of their time there but acknowledged the difficulty of leaving so soon. The Rebels are one of the handful of SEC programs returning a starting quarterback and there's hope that a big year is ahead for Bo Wallace. The senior himself said he feels a lot more confident than he did at this point a year ago.

3. Finally, tonight's SEC slate concludes with Vanderbilt hosting Temple. New Commodores head coach Derek Mason makes his head coaching debut tonight, doesn't plan to be out in the forefront. Unlike his charismatic predecessor, James Franklin, Mason would rather blend in tonight. Linebacker Kyle Woestmann said "It's definitely centered a lot more around us. It's always player-first. Coming out of the tunnel, he wants it to be us first. Whatever we do, he wants it to be us first." It's also the time for quarterback Patton Robinette to take the wheel. He was named the starter in camp and though Mason acknowledged on Wednesday that it was a close race, he doesn't want Robinette looking over his shoulder and is confident in his signal-caller.

More from around the SEC:
Tweet of the day

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Perhaps the second-most popular question about this season’s edition of Texas A&M -- after the obligatory “What’s life without Johnny Manziel going to be like?” -- centers around the Aggies’ defense.

Will they be better? And if so, by how much?

After a disastrous 2013, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder is confident that improvement is on the horizon. He might not flatly state it, but witness the bounce in his step at practice, the energy in his voice and it’s easy to surmise that Snyder is looking forward to Year 3 in Aggieland.

[+] EnlargeMark Snyder
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsMark Snyder's defense struggled last season, particularly against the run, ranking 110th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game.
“If Coach Snyder's in a good mood, I feel like everyone's in a good mood,” middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni said. “He watches [the video], diagnoses it more than anyone else so if he's happy, I feel like we're doing something right.”

His unit’s first test, which comes against No. 9 South Carolina and a stout running game powered by one of the nation’s best running backs, Mike Davis, is first on the horizon. Stopping the run was one of the Aggies’ biggest challenges last year, as they ranked last in the SEC and 110th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (222.31).

Snyder isn’t interested in talking up expectations or why he might be confident No. 21 Texas A&M can improve in that area.

“Well, we’ll see when we get there,” Snyder said. “Talk is cheap. We’ll all know that night at the end of the game.”

Indeed they will.

No matter the measure, the Aggies were bad on defense last year. They were last in the SEC in yards allowed per game (475.8), yards per play (6.36), yards per carry (5.38), first downs allowed per game (23.4) and red zone efficiency (71.4 percent) in addition to the aforementioned run defense. In every one of those categories, they were worse than 100th nationally.

“We weren't playing Snyder defense,” senior cornerback Deshazor Everett said last month. “He sets us up to make plays. All we have to do is do what he tells us to, and we weren't doing that last year. So if we come back this year and we're doing what we did this spring, we're going to be a good defense.”

Youth and inexperience were the heart of the issues for the Aggies. Difficulties the defense had included simply getting lined up correctly, fitting the correct gaps and identifying their correct assignments. Earlier this month linebackers coach Mark Hagen called the difference “night and day” when it comes to the defense’s communication and ability to accomplish the basics.

Whether that will translate to the field when the Aggies take on a South Carolina team that averaged 198.4 rushing yards per game last season remains to be seen. The players seem optimistic, though.

“It’s been a completely different mentality,” junior defensive end Julien Obioha said. “Last year was unacceptable. There’s just been so much growth in the last year and so much growth in leadership.”

Added speed and athleticism are among the sources of optimism for the Aggies. So is increased depth, particularly along the defensive line. The 2014 recruiting class included six defensive linemen, four of whom are on the initial two-deep and will see action early, including highly regarded defensive end recruit Myles Garrett, the No. 4 overall player in last year’s class.

Snyder is careful not to heap too much praise on Garrett, but the buzz surrounding training camp made it clear that the true freshman will be a factor. Teammates have been more effusive in their praise of Garrett.

"I have never really seen anything like him,” Mastrogiovanni said. “In the weight room he's already one of the top three strongest guys as a true freshman. He's fast, he's long, he gets to the quarterback just about every play. I think teams are going to have a very hard time blocking him this year.”

There will be plenty of youth on the field this season as well. Snyder estimated that seven true freshmen will see the field on Thursday. Last season the Aggies had a dozen freshman (redshirt or true) in their two deep. But unlike last season, the Aggies are able to be strategic with how and where they are placed.

“We'll try to do our best as we sub and get them in that they're in next to an older guy,” Snyder said. “These guys won't go in unless an older guy is beside them. We didn't have that luxury last year, we just had to play them all together.”

The questions linger and won’t stop until the Aggies take the field. And Snyder’s waiting for them to be answered with results instead of words.

SEC morning links

August, 26, 2014
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1. A number of SEC schools released their depth charts Monday, giving the media and fans alike something to talk about. But do they really matter? At Alabama, we learned nothing about the quarterback position as Blake Sims and Jacob Coker are listed on the same line atop the depth chart. At Mississippi State, Chris Jones is currently a backup at defensive tackle. Even if Jones doesn’t start the season opener, you can’t tell me he won’t play the majority of the game. I agree that depth charts are interesting and it’s a chance to see who won some of the position battles in fall camp, but at the end of the day, I don’t think they matter. Coaches are going to do what they want to do regardless of what they put out on a depth chart. But for those of you keeping track at home, Auburn and Florida will release their depth charts Tuesday.

2. Speaking of Florida, Pat Dooley and Robbie Andreu of the Gainesville Sun debated five hot topics about the upcoming college football season on Monday. For example, will the SEC get shut out of first ever College Football Playoff? Or is Jameis Winston a lock to win the Heisman Trophy? The two writers differ on their responses on these and the others. In my opinion, I can’t see the SEC getting shut out of the playoff, but I also don’t see the league getting two teams in. And no, I don’t think Winston is a lock for the Heisman. There’s a kid named Marcus Mariota who is getting a lot of hype out in Eugene, Oregon. However, the SEC’s chances of winning are shaky at best, writes Christopher Smith of Saturday Down South, and I tend to agree. The most likely candidates are Auburn’s Nick Marshall and Georgia’s Todd Gurley, but it won’t be easy for either of them to beat out Mariota or unseat Winston.

3. If you haven’t seen Gene Wojciechowski’s "Big Man on Campus" column from Monday, I encourage you to go give it a read. It’s an expansive preview of the upcoming college football season in which he gives his predictions for conference standings, the Heisman Trophy and the first-ever playoff. What caught my eye was a look at who could be this season’s Auburn. He mentions Auburn (doing it again), Mississippi State and Florida from the SEC, but to accomplish what the Tigers did a year ago, a team would have to rise up from the bottom of the conference. That leaves Arkansas and Kentucky, which goes to show how improbable Auburn’s turnaround really was. I can’t see either the Razorbacks or the Wildcats winning the SEC this year, but don’t be shocked if Florida turns it around and win the East.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

Texas A&M hauled in the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class in February. You don’t rank that high in the national recruiting rankings unless you’ve brought in some big-time freshmen, ones who are poised to make an early impact. As the Aggies’ season opener on Thursday approaches, let’s look at five true freshmen expected to contribute early and often:

LB Otaro Alaka: The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Alaka, the 12th-ranked outside linebacker nationally in the 2014 class, isn’t listed as the starter at strongside linebacker, but he’ll definitely see the field. Alaka pushed senior starter Donnie Baggs at the position in camp. When defensive coordinator Mark Snyder wants to get additional speed on the field, look for Alaka to be one of the guys out there.

DE Myles Garrett: The No. 4 overall prospect in last year’s ESPN 300, Garrett has been as advertised through summer workouts and preseason training camp. He arrived in Aggieland with a college-ready body (6-5, 255) and will figure into the rotation immediately at the Aggies’ rush end position. This summer, Kevin Sumlin said "I'll just say this: Our players have a lot of respect for Myles Garrett."

DT Zaycoven Henderson: This late steal from Texas appears to be one of the best finds the Aggies stumbled upon in the class. The East Texas product is strong has good quickness for his 6-1, 315-pound frame and will be a key part of the defensive tackle rotation, an area the Aggies need depth. The four-star prospect enrolled in January thus was able to participate in both spring football and August camp.

WR Speedy Noil: After a good spring and strong training camp, Noil landed a starting job at two positions -- receiver and punt returner [last year’s leading punt returner, De’Vante Harris, is injured]. The five-star prospect and No. 7 player in the ESPN 300 is nicknamed "Speedy" for a reason. He will see the ball in his hands plenty, and the Aggies are expecting him to do big things when that happens.

FS Armani Watts: After a rough 2013 at the safety positions, the Aggies could use an upgrade. Watts hopes to provide that, earning a starting job by showing impressive range, good tackling and earning the trust of Snyder in training camp. Strong safety and returning starter Howard Matthews will help Watts get lined up properly so the ESPN 300 recruit can focus on his job at free safety. Watts is a versatile talent.

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