Texas A&M improving; how good can it be?
October, 2, 2012
By Sam Khan Jr. | ESPN.com
Getty Images, Icon SMITexas A&M, led by first-year quarterback Johnny Manziel and coach Kevin Sumlin, is 3-1 on the season.COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In many areas, Texas A&M has shown improvement from its first game to its most recent one.
One can point to something as specific as penalties, as the Aggies committed nine in each of their first two games but have reduced that number to five combined in their last two games. Or something as abstract as quarterback Johnny Manziel's ability to make throws from the pocket, or the Aggies' ability to close out games -- two more areas where there has been significant improvement from Sept. 8 to now.
Most signs indicate an improving Aggies squad. Now that they're coming off a 48-point win over a Southeastern Conference foe -- even if it was against struggling Arkansas -- it's worth asking: How good can the Aggies be?
"I don't know," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We've got to continue to improve. If we continue to make steps, as I talked to our team about, it's not about our opponent, it's about us. We try to deal with ourselves every Monday and how we can get better and how we can eliminate mistakes and keep our effort level high and become a smarter team."
Playing smart has been a strength for this A&M squad so far. Not only have the Aggies significantly reduced their penalty count, they also have committed just one turnover all season. Manziel, a redshirt freshman who has only four starts to his name, hasn't committed one yet.
Manziel, who has been called "Johnny Football," among other nicknames, has seen his improvement parallel the team's. He struggled some in the second half of the Aggies' season-opening loss to Florida, and the offense as a whole appeared to stall.
Since then, the Aggies have produced points and yards at a high rate, averaging 58.6 points per game in their last three outings and 589.6 yards per game in that same span. Granted, their opponents haven't been as difficult as Florida, a team that's now 4-0 and ranked 11th in the country, but the offense -- and Manziel -- have shown progress nonetheless.
Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury feels Manziel has plenty of room to improve just four starts into his career.
"There's a lot of plays out on the field that he left out there still, and he knows that," Kingsbury said after the Arkansas win. "He's his own worst critic. You don't have to go over there and yell at him and get on him. He's already getting on himself if he doesn't make every play. So that's exciting.
"He's not extremely comfortable in the offense yet. You can still see it. We can see it from our point of view. Once he gets there, I think the sky is the limit. But it's up to him how good he wants to be. It's all about work ethic and keeping that going."
The running game, powered by a trio of Ben Malena, Christine Michael and Trey Williams showed improvement against Arkansas, as did the Aggies' offensive line. On defense, Texas A&M has been consistently good through four games. The Aggies are yielding just 338.5 yards per game and rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 11.75 points per game.
They're also in the top 10 in a category of focus for Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder: third-down conversion defense, in which Texas A&M is allowing conversions just 26.4 percent of the time.
"We feel like, any team we go against, if we don't give up any big plays then we can hold any team down," senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart said. "That's what we were able to do after we stopped missing tackles and guys rallied to the ball, we started making plays and started playing well on defense."
Senior center Patrick Lewis, said he has a sense of the Aggies' capabilities, but the key to achieving it will be doing what they have done so far.
"I have a feel for how good we can be," Lewis said. "We just have to keep pushing it in practice, working on the little things to get better each week and you'll see improvement out of this team every week. We take it upon ourselves to get better. That's what I'm really seeing different about this year, is that we look to get better every week; we look to improve."