More than 17,000 people voted in our SportsNation poll last week, and the Aggies were a clear winner. They received 34 percent of the vote. LSU was second with 23 percent and then Auburn with 16 percent, Alabama with 14 percent and South Carolina with 13 percent.
The Aggies will have a bit of a new look up front offensively in 2014. Senior Cedric Ogbuehi is moving from right tackle to left tackle and is another in a long line of outstanding tackles to play at Texas A&M. Luke Joeckel was the second overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Jake Matthews is being projected as a top-10 pick in May's draft, and Ogbuehi also has the makings of a first-rounder when the 2015 draft rolls around. He got a first-round grade from the advisory board this past year but decided to return for his senior season.
Ogbuehi is one of four returning starters up front for the Aggies, who should also have more depth next season. Senior left guard Jarvis Harrison was out all spring with a shoulder injury, and senior Garrett Gramling worked with the first team. He played well enough that he could work his way into the starting lineup. Every good offensive line is stout right up the middle, and junior Mike Matthews returns as one of the top centers in the league. He has excellent command of the offense in terms of all his checks and calls.
The right tackle job is the big question, although sophomore Germain Ifedi worked there this spring after playing last season at guard. The 6-5, 330-pound Ifedi is a mammoth individual, but seems to move well enough to play outside at tackle. Junior college tackles Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor will benefit from having gone through the spring, and junior Joseph Cheek got a lot of first-team work at guard this spring.
The big surprise coming out of the SportsNation poll was that South Carolina received the fewest votes. The Gamecocks also return four starters and have three players -- tackles Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell and left guard A.J. Cann -- who are likely to be drafted. This also will be their third season playing together. When it's all said and done, here's betting that the Gamecocks are as good as anybody up front offensively in 2014.
We'll see how it all plays out in the fall.
- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel says the dismissal of wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham was about more than football.
- Success runs in the family for Mizzou linebacker Michael Scherer.
- Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray says he's "ready to go" as he prepares for Georgia's pro day.
- Auburn is having "ups and downs" at the H-back position this spring.
- Former LSU linebacker Tahj Jones' condition improves after he was shot in the abdomen last Friday.
- LSU quarterback Brandon Harris will head to California in May to train with former LSU quarterback Craig Nall and quarterback guru George Whitfield.
- Kentucky's defensive line gets some positive feedback.
- Florida safety Marcell Harris left his mark on the Gators this spring.
- Here are five young Texas A&M players who could make an impact for the Aggies in 2014.
- "Freaky talented" Tennessee wide receivers end spring on a high note.
- After early-spring criticism, Alabama coach Nick Saban assesses his defensive line entering the final week of spring practice.
The next question is usually relates to the defense, and how much better -- if at all -- the unit will be after a disastrous 2013 season.
While neither can be definitively answered, when it comes to the defense, there is at least some reason for optimism coming out of spring football. The Aggies can't get much worse than they were a year ago, when the ranked last or near last in the SEC in virtually every major statistical category, but there were signs during spring practice that indicate that brighter days are ahead for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder's group.
One reason the Aggies have to feel better about their defense is the experience they'll have. Last year the root of the struggles seemed to be the youth and inexperience up and down the depth chart, with the Aggies having as many as a dozen freshmen in the defensive two-deep.
Though the Aggies will still be relatively young in some areas (particularly linebacker), most of the players who are candidates to start or see significant time were thrown in the fire last season.
Middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni is a perfect example. Though he'll only be a sophomore this fall, he started against Alabama last Sept. 14 and in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Duke. Mastrogiovanni called it "overwhelming," but as the guy getting first-team work at his position this spring, coaches have heaped praise upon the former ESPN 300 prospect.
Should defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne return from suspensions (both missed the spring after February arrests), they too will benefit. Both started a large portion of the season as true freshmen.
Other players who could be in position to contribute, such as linebacker Shaan Washington or cornerback Noel Ellis, weren't starters but saw enough field time to give them a taste of what life in the SEC is like.
Add to those young players a host of returning veterans, such as the starting secondary of Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris, Howard Matthews and Julien Obioha, Gavin Stansbury and Alonzo Williams and the Aggies can begin piecing together a more experienced defense.
With so many players returning (nine starters return from last year's defense) and a top-five recruiting class on the way, the Aggies will continue to add to their talent level on defense. One defensive player is already on campus (defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson) and showed flashes of his potential during spring football.
With players like defensive end Myles Garrett, the nation's No. 4 overall prospect, ESPN 300 athlete Nick Harvey, who will be a defensive back at Texas A&M and other ESPN 300 prospects like Deshawn Washington, Otaro Alaka, Qualen Cunningham, Armani Watts and Josh Walker, competition will only increase when preseason training camp starts.
The increased depth on the defensive line could be the biggest factor in helping the defense improve. Snyder indicated how critical it was earlier this month.
"Up front for the first time, we're going to be able to roll people," Snyder said. "I told [defensive line coach] Terry [Price] that when we get to the fall, we're going to have to practice our rotations, which is a great thing."
For the Aggies, there really is nowhere to go but up defensively. They could be another year away from being the kind of defense they hope to be, but the developments this spring suggest at least some improvement is in order in 2014.
It would only make sense that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was ready to do it all again this spring.
“No, it’s not for me,” Sumlin said in March. “I’ll be honest with you, you guys know me, that second half [of spring games] goes real quick. I’m ready to get out of there.”
The spring game in many ways goes against the core belief of Sumlin, and really every coach, of using every practice to get better. So the Aggies went without a game this spring, and will do so again in 2015 as Kyle Field's renovations continue.
A handful of programs aren't holding spring games this year. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy did not plan a spring game, and Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst believed it wasn’t in the program’s best interest to have one, either.
Both Chryst and Gundy have young rosters. Only Utah State returns fewer starters than the Cowboys. Chryst is still trying to put his stamp on a program that has had more head coaches than winning seasons in the last decade, and he is breaking in a new quarterback. To Chryst and Gundy, it did not make sense to waste a practice day for a haphazard game.
“Truly looking at this from the inside of the program and what this group needs, it was, 'What’s the best use of the 15 opportunities we get in the spring,'” Chryst said. “I felt like we didn’t have a group where we’re going to take just one full day and scrimmage. Bottom line is we wanted to make sure we’re maximizing our opportunities.”
Two coaches not questioning a spring game finale are the leaders of programs with some of the best odds to win the first College Football Playoff. Both Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer are in favor of the model most programs still subscribe to: 14 practices, mix in a few scrimmages and hold a game at the end of camp. Fisher and Meyer believe it’s the only time in the spring to get an accurate read on how players react to a fall Saturday game atmosphere.
“What you get is the people in the stadium, you get pressure, you get outside people watching you get the lights on the scoreboard and [the game] matters,” Fisher told ESPN.com last week. “You get a game environment. It might not be the one in the fall, but it’s as close as you’ll ever get out in this practice field. To get a guy in front of 40,000 people and watch how they play in front of them, to me, I put more value in that.”
However, Meyer acknowledges the issues the modern-day spring game presents. Ohio State star quarterback Braxton Miller was out with an injury, but Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were healthy scratches. Fisher elected to sit starting running back Karlos Williams, leaving a fullback and a handful of walk-on running backs to carry the spring load Saturday. The sustainability of the spring game could come down to depth, but rosters are thinner with the 85 scholarship limit, and coaches are keeping their proven commodities out of harm’s way.
“Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the lack of numbers at certain positions causes the few available players to “double dip” and play both sides, opening those few healthy players up to injury. The emphasis on preventing and identifying concussions has grown substantially in the last few years, and Blankenship added that “a lot more guys are missing practice today with concussion-related symptoms, and that’s been consistent across the board with other coaches I talk to.”
To get a guy in front of 40,000 people and watch how they play in front of them, to me, I put more value in that.” -- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, on the value of spring games
Meyer said spring games are often a “great opportunity to get scout-team guys a chance to play,” which in itself can be considered an indictment of the spring game’s inherent value.
“One time at Florida we had only five or six offensive linemen and they had to play both ways,” Meyer said, “but the experience of playing in front of [fans], if you want to have a practice but arrange how the receiver has to be the guy, to be in coverage and catch a pass and hear the crowd, that’s real.”
There are only so many programs that consistently draw 30,000 or more fans for a spring game, though. Those other programs don’t have the benefit of putting their players in a game-day atmosphere when only a few thousand fans fill the bleachers.
Blankenship understands he needs to promote his Tulsa program and bring in as many fans as possible. So last year, they tried a new spring game model. Instead of a traditional game of the roster being split, Blankenship operates on only 50 percent of the field and allows fans to sit on the other side of the 50 to get a more intimate view. The game resembles more of a practice as the team works on situations such as red zone and fourth down instead of keeping score.
A piece of him still wants a sound 15th practice, though.
“I do think [the spring game] is worth it from the fan standpoint,” he said, “but the coach in me would like to have another practice.”
“It’s a complete home run,” Dennard said. “After what we’ve built, it’d be hard to scale it down. People have come to expect this to be a big deal. It’s an investment into the future of our program.”
While Pittsburgh has struggled to draw fans for its spring games in recent years, Chryst was still cognizant of the program’s fans when he decided to cancel the spring game. So Chryst met with the marketing department at Pitt and helped introduce a football clinic for young players and offensive and defensive breakdowns of the Panthers’ schemes for the Xs-and-Os fan.
“It was different at first and people said, ‘What, no spring game?’ But when Coach Chryst announced the Field Pass, the response was overwhelming,” said Chris Ferris, associate athletic director for external relations at Pitt.
Could that union of a standard 15th practice with an added day of fan interaction be the union that seals the fate of spring games? Maybe.
“I think it is,” Blankenship said. “We’re much closer to that in our part of the country. I think the tradition of the spring game is something we’re all kind of tied to, but we’re all figuring out there’s a better way.”
One of the storylines throughout spring practice was the new face on the defensive coaching staff: secondary coach Terry Joseph.
After former Aggies' secondary coach Marcel Yates left after last season to accept the defensive coordinator job at Boise State, coach Kevin Sumlin sought Joseph, who was at Nebraska. With spring practice in the books, it appears he has had a quick impact.
"[He's an] attention-to-detail guy," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "Kids are bought in, are listening. You're seeing some things that were mistakes last year that aren't showing their face right now."
Reducing mistakes will be key, because those contributed to the group's overall inconsistency last season. The Aggies have veterans at cornerback and safety and they have talent, but getting them on the same page or reducing the number of mental errors is important if Texas A&M wants improvement in that area.
Returning are both starting cornerbacks from last season, Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris, as well as all three safeties who saw a start, Clay Honeycutt, Floyd Raven and Howard Matthews. Junior Devonta Burns finds himself in the mix at safety and nickel cornerback, and several young cornerbacks -- Victor Davis, Noel Ellis, Tavares Garner and Alex Sezer -- made strides.
Joseph, a Louisiana native, has spent time coaching in the SEC with stops at LSU and Tennessee. The biggest difference with Joseph on hand has to do with his approach, according to one player.
"The intensity," Everett said. "Coach Joseph is on us every play. He doesn't let anybody get a play off. If you have violations with your eyes or your technique, you're running after practice or what we call 'painting the lines.' When you're getting punished for bad techniques, it makes you really focus on what you need to do so that in the game it will come second nature to you and you won't have to focus on it and you can play football."
With the sophomore departing early, the Aggies hit the recruiting trail to find someone who they hope could be the next Evans, ESPN 300 receiver Frank Iheanacho.
The comparisons have been drawn for several reasons. The Houston Westside High School product, like Evans, was a varsity basketball player first before deciding to join the varsity football team as a senior and both have impressive size (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) and leaping ability.
We caught up with the U.S. Army All-American to talk about the comparisons and much more.
Q: You recently attended one of Texas A&M's spring football practices and spent some time with coach Kevin Sumlin. How did that go?
Q: How big a factor was Sumlin in your decision to sign with Texas A&M?
Iheanacho: "He's the type of coach that you can build a relationship with pretty easily. He's cool to talk to. He understands the game and understands where you're coming from so I felt like the connection is easy to make. The vibe that I got from him was good. He's a coach I want to play for."
Q: What was it like for you to go from virtually unknown in football circles to one of the top 100 recruits in the country and receive the accolades and attention that you did?
Iheanacho: "It was dream come true for me, honestly. I grew up always wanting to be considered one of the best. That's what I worked for. When the moment actually came, it was crazy. I'm still awestruck about everything that happened."
Q: Was it ever overwhelming?
Iheanacho: "Yeah it was definitely overwhelming. You ask yourself a lot of questions. 'How did this happen?' In my situation, coming on so late, 'Do you deserve to have this role?' You just learn to accept it and appreciate everything that you're given."
Q: I know many who followed your recruitment know your backstory, but for those who don't, summarize your journey to the gridiron
Iheanacho: "I grew up as a little kid playing basketball and started playing organized in the eighth grade. I was in the AAU circuit and I worked hard every day trying to get my school paid for. That was the goal. I played football in my freshman and sophomore year but I never really took it seriously. It wasn't something I felt was in my future. I decided I was going to go straight to basketball and focus on that. My friends brought me back [to football] my senior year and it just took off from there."
Q: Many people make the comparison between you and Mike Evans because of your paths. How do you react to that?
Iheanacho: "It's a compliment. He's going to be a great player in my eyes. I'm flattered to have that comparison. At the end of the day, I want people to remember my name and that's what I'm striving for. I want to be a player people look up to and I want to be considered the best."
Q: Did you get to know Mike throughout your recruitment?
Iheanacho: "Yeah. He's a cool dude. He accepted me from the jump. I actually just talked to him [Thursday]. He had great things to say about the program and how things are going to go."
Q: How helpful is it to have that relationship with someone who has gone down the path you're trying to travel?
Iheanacho: "It gives me a positive vibe about what I'm doing in life. I listen to him and the No. 1 think he told me is to listen to [receivers] coach [David] Beaty and he'll steer me in the right direction. That's what I plan to do."
Q: Most people call you by your nickname, "Nacho." How often do folks mispronounce your actual last name?
Iheanacho: (Laughs) "Hundreds of times. But 'Nacho' has been with me since forever."
Q: For those who don't know, how do you say your last name?
Q: What have you been doing during the offseason as you prepare for your arrival in Aggieland this summer?
Iheanacho: "I've just been getting ready and prepared for the next season. Just working hard and trying to get better at my craft."
Q: Is playing early a goal that you've set?
Iheanacho: "I set that as a goal. When I come through, I'm going to work hard to achieve that goal."
- No arrests will be made in the burglary investigation that involved Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham but that doesn't necessarily mean he will escape further discipline (he already is suspended indefinitely by Gary Pinkel) based on the details that have emerged.
- Meet the Bag Man: Stories from someone who claims to deliver cash to football recruits.
- Alabama linebacker Dillon Lee was arrested Thursday on a DUI charge and running back Altee Tenpenny could get a marijuana possession charge dropped if he can stay out of trouble for a year.
- Vanderbilt's spring football game may determine the leader in the quarterback battle between sophomore Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary.
- Sophomore Brandon Greene and freshman Cameron Robinson are the two players battling for the right to replace Cyrus Kouandijo as Alabama's left tackle.
- Jay Prosch was a key member of Auburn's offense, so the Tigers are searching high and low for replacement candidates at H-back.
- Mississippi State unveiled new uniforms that it will wear for its season opener against Southern Miss on Aug. 30.
- Arkansas' receivers are making progress this spring, particularly Drew Morgan.
- There's a report that former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel scored highest among quarterbacks on his Wonderlic test.
- Some notes from Tennessee's final fully padded practice before its spring game on Saturday.
- Florida receiver Andre Debose is ready to show he has NFL potential in his sixth and final season.
- Steve Spurrier took in the Masters for a few hours before South Carolina's Thursday practice.
- A ranking of all 128 FBS coaches (spoiler: Nick Saban tops the list).
Four scholarship running backs, all with different talents, shared carries not only with each other, but with quarterback Johnny Manziel, who was the team's leading rusher and had the most carries of any Aggie each of the last two seasons.
"Maybe y'all should have [been surprised] because y'all hadn't seen me do it," Carson told reporters last week. "But I wasn't surprised."
With Manziel and running back Ben Malena -- last season's leader in touches and yards among the running backs -- having moved on, there are likely to be more touches to go around this fall for the running backs: Carson, Brandon Williams, Trey Williams and redshirt freshman James White.
Carson put together a solid spring and is positioning himself to be more than a situational back this fall.
"He's really smart, he understands what we're doing," running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "He's running the ball really well right now, and as you know, when he gets that opportunity to get in the secondary he can really hurt you."
When he arrived in Aggieland, Carson needed some work and patience. A transfer from Oregon, he had to sit out the 2012 season per NCAA transfer rules. McKinney said there was some obstacles for Carson, but he waited his turn and met that challenge head on.
"Tra's biggest issue when he first got here has been conditioning," McKinney said. "He's lost about 15 pounds since he's been here. He's picked up our offense."
Carson said he was initially drawn to Oregon coming out of high school because of his friendship with current NFL running back LaMichael James, who hails from the same high school that Carson does -- Texarkana (Texas) Liberty-Eylau -- and was playing for the Ducks at the time Carson committed.
Though he appeared in 10 games as a true freshman, Carson decided Oregon wasn't the right fit and decided to return to the Lone Star State.
"For me, it was the weather, it was too far away from home," Carson said. "I wasn't ready to make that adjustment as an 18-year-old kid out of high school. Now that I'm matured, it's just different."
Carson said he and James remain close friends to this day.
Now a junior, Carson is working to be a well-rounded player -- not just a running back -- for the Aggies. He played on special teams last season and continued to get work in that phase this spring, earning practice time as a member of the kickoff return team, though not as the primary return man. Malena served a similar role last season.
With 58 carries in 11 games last season, Carson has yet to be a full-time player. If Carson has to carry an increased load this season, McKinney has no doubt that he can.
"He just understands what we're doing really well," McKinney said. "He's really great in protection. He's not just a big back that's in the third-down and goal-line package. He's a guy who can make people miss and he can play in our open sets as well as our big sets. He's a complete back."
Throughout this recruiting cycle, RecruitingNation will profile a number of ESPN 300 prospects in the 2015 class, including an inside look at the prospect, his recruitment, a scouting report and what college program could benefit when he ultimately makes his decision.
DESOTO, Texas -- When describing quarterbacks, there are certain words and terms that are often used.
Those often heard are winner, clutch, leader, resilient, precise, competitive, field general, accurate, playmaker, calm, cool and collected, among others.
In the case of Under Armour All-America quarterback Kyler Murray, they might all apply.
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- LSU hosted its pro day on Wednesday and one of the focal points was Zach Mettenberger, who is coming off a knee injury and was donning pads and a helmet for his pro day, a la Johnny Manziel. Jarvis Landry also performed, Jeremy Hill tried to move on from the past and though he did no drills, Odell Beckham Jr. also impressed.
- Former Alabama quarterback and NFL draft hopeful AJ McCarron got engaged to his girlfriend, Katherine Webb, last week. Now it appears their nuptials will be part of a reality TV show.
- Auburn product Greg Robinson, one of the highest-rated players in the upcoming NFL draft, has visited only three teams but is still garnering positive buzz about his stock.
- Auburn's Brandon King has moved to boundary safety this spring and has found himself much more comfortable than a season ago.
- Bear Bryant's original employment contract with Texas A&M was recently discovered and put on display at a ceremony this week. His salary was $15,000 per year plus 1 percent of ticket sales.
- Arkansas hired E.K. Franks as its director of recruiting. He was previously the associate head coach and running backs coach at Southeastern Louisiana.
- Georgia is getting used to a different coaching arrangement for special teams than Mark Richt previously had, operating this spring with co-coordinators Mike Ekeler and John Lilly.
- Josh Harvey-Clemons, who was dismissed from the Georgia squad, plans to transfer to Louisville.
- Missouri scored a commitment from quarterback Drew Lock, the highest-ranked passer out of the state of Missouri since Blaine Gabbert.
- Kentucky freshman receiver T.V. Williams may be small in stature, but one teammate says "Don't let the size fool you," about his big-play ability.
- Tennessee running back Marlin Lane continues to work through an injured hand and has showed the maturity and consistency that coaches wanted to see from the senior.
- Ole Miss is feeling confident coming out of spring.
- The move to free safety for Mississippi State's Justin Cox has been a welcome one so far.
When I was in Columbia, some of the assistants and team officials were laughing because of what South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier had said the day before. He was asked a generic question about the Aggies. Spurrier responded by complimenting A&M’s progress since joining the SEC, and he then offered one of those lines you’ve come to expect from the Head Ball Coach.
“They’ve got a coach that makes $5 million, so they must be pretty good,” Spurrier said, grinning.
I asked Kevin Sumlin, the $5 Million Man, if he had heard about the exchange.
“Oh, yeah,” Sumlin said, laughing. “I love Coach Spurrier.”
The game is still a few months away, but they’re clearly on each other’s radar. Here are some takeaways I had from the Gamecocks’ and Aggies’ spring camps, as they continue preparations for their opener.
The Aggies should be better on defense, but ... there was nowhere to go but up
You’ll hear a lot about Johnny Manziel being gone, and rightfully so, but A&M’s defense is the more pressing matter.
Help is on the way, but will it be enough to improve what was the 109th-ranked defense in the country -– and last in the SEC -- in yards per play in 2013?
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He got his first career start in the Aggies' most anticipated game of 2013, the Sept. 14 clash against Alabama. He appeared in all 13 games last season and made another start in the Aggies' Chick-Fil-A Bowl game win over Duke.
"To be honest with you, it was overwhelming at times," Mastrogiovanni said. "To think that a year [before] I was playing in front of 2,000 people in a high school football game, that's just one of those things where you have to man up and take care of your responsibilities and do the best you can."
What was overwhelming about it? In a word, everything.
"Really, every aspect of the game," he said. "The players, the calls, just looking up in the stands and seeing 100,000 people, that's something not many people get to experience. As an 18-year-old kid looking up, it's something that not a lot of people get to experience."
In the bowl game against Duke, Mastrogiovanni started at middle linebacker in place of the suspended Darian Claiborne, who served as the starter for most of the season. Linebackers coach Mark Hagen recalls the difficult start the defense had across the board against the Blue Devils, as the Aggies surrendered 38 first-half points while a handful of glossy-eyed freshmen, Mastrogiovanni included, tried to figure things out.
"It was a disaster from the opening kickoff in the bowl game," Hagen said. "Nothing went right. I think like most of our guys they were questioning themselves in the locker room and it was just a matter of going out there and getting a stop and I think you saw the confidence start to come back a little bit. It was a playing time issue really as much as anything [for Mastrogiovanni], just not having a ton of [first-team] reps."
But as the Aggies regrouped in the locker room, Mastrogiovanni spoke up and the defense collected itself. The unit allowed only 10 points in the second half as the team completed its come-from-behind effort to steal a 52-48 win.
"At halftime I went in and was pretty frustrated with my performance and the rest of the defense's," Mastrogiovanni said. "I tried to take over as the leader at that point and I said 'Turn the page. Don't even think about it.' That's what Johnny [Manizel] was saying too. I really think we went out there and bought in on what the coaches and players were preaching in the locker room. I think you can see on tape that we were a lot more physical and we trusted each other so it paid off."
The Aggies are hoping the instinct the 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker showed that night carries over into this season, because he figures to be Texas A&M's starting middle linebacker. Mastrogiovanni spent the spring working with the first team. The Aggies are looking for improved play -- and leadership.
"I think we lacked a lot of it last year," coach Kevin Sumlin said of the defensive leadership. "We need a guy who's going to step up and talk and make sure we know everything and that we play with some confidence. I think that whole year has given him some confidence and some credibility among his teammates. It's one thing for you to be confident, but what about the guys around you? Mastro has spoken up."
Spring football, which wrapped up for the Aggies on Saturday, was productive for Mastrogiovanni. He became much more comfortable in his role as the middle linebacker and showed the qualities the coaching staff seeks.
"I just think you see a totally different person out there," Hagen said. "Much more comfortable, he's taking charge, he's getting our guys lined up which is over half the battle on defense."
The coaches want him to continue to progress, but so far he has given them reason for optimism. The one thing Sumlin wants him to work on is, of all things, his voice, so his teammates can hear him.
"I give him a hard time because I tell him to put some bass in his voice," Sumlin said with a smile. "I keep forgetting he's a freshman. He has played a bunch of football here. 'Yell from the diaphragm, act like a middle linebacker, put some bass in your voice.'"
With Claiborne likely to move to the weakside linebacker position and the Aggies mulling over a number of options for strongside linebacker, Mastrogiovanni's play is key. Texas A&M is looking to improve a defense that was last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories and struggled mightily against the run. It also didn't deal with offensive wrinkles well, something that having an experienced middle linebacker with the leadership qualities coaches are looking for will help improve.
Mastrogiovanni doesn't want to see another season go by with the Aggies ranking in the bottom 30 nationally defensively, like they did in 2013.
"That's just unacceptable, especially for a program the caliber of Texas A&M," he said. "The fans deserve better and we need to push ourselves. That's not the product we want to put out on the field. We're driven, we're motivated, we just don't want to have another defensive season like that."
HOUSTON -- Both Bob Stoops and Mike Gundy know Oklahoma does not have a deep enough talent pool for both programs to win at the highest level relying primarily on homegrown recruits. So they've made it a priority to look south of the Red River to stockpile talent. The approach has worked quite well for years, as the Sooners and Cowboys have won conference titles with rosters loaded with Lone Star State prospects.
But the recruiting climate in Texas has changed dramatically over the past three years thanks to the Johnny Football-fueled rise of Texas A&M and the turnaround job Art Briles has done at Baylor. Schools that used to only have to truly recruit against the Longhorns for the state's top prospects are now locked in three- or four-team tussles. Suddenly, the ability of OU and OSU to go deep in the heart of Texas has been met with resistance. Could the days of the Cowboys and Sooners landing players like Dez Bryant, Justin Gilbert, Tommie Harris, Russell Okung, Trent Williams and Adrian Peterson be over?
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Take Your Pick: Projecting 2015 Recruits
TBD Boise State Ole Miss TBD Temple Vanderbilt TBD Texas A&M South Carolina
TBD Arkansas Auburn TBD Idaho Florida TBD Clemson Georgia TBD Tennessee-Martin Kentucky TBD South Dakota State Missouri TBD LSU Wisconsin TBD West Virginia Alabama TBD Southern Miss Mississippi State