Dallas Colleges: Damontre Moore
Two weeks ago, when the Aggies hosted Vanderbilt, they came up with seven sacks in a 56-24 win over the Commodores.
Last week against UTEP, the Aggies picked up two more sacks in a 57-7 victory. Suddenly, a team that struggled to get near the quarterback is showing signs of being able to do it with consistency.
"We've been able to turn it up a little bit," head coach Kevin Sumlin said.
One of the key figures in the Aggies' recent improvement is junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury. In the last two weeks, Stansbury has been a force, picking up a combined 16 tackles and three sacks, two of which came against Vanderbilt.
Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder felt like that game could be a turning point for Stansbury.
"He's got a different look in his eye," Snyder said. "He comes in here to meetings and he's bouncing around, having a game like that is really going to be good for his confidence too. Everybody needs that game."
The Aggies were efficient at getting to the quarterback last season behind the strength of defensive end Damontre Moore, who led the team with 12.5 sacks. Moore declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft and is now with the New York Giants.
Moore’s departure left a void in the production, and throughout the season, the Aggies have rotated players in and out of the lineup, with the primary three being Stansbury, sophomore Julien Obioha and true freshman Daeshon Hall. Each has had their ups and downs this season, but Stansbury's strong play as of late has been noticeable.
Hall and Obioha have also both picked up tackles for losses in each of the last two games, so it seems like the defensive ends are finding their groove.
Sumlin points out that just because the Aggies weren't racking up sacks, it doesn't mean they weren't getting a pass rush. They were struggling in other areas as well.
"I think early in the year, we had guys get loose, but because we were taking some other chances, we had no contain on the other side," Sumlin said. "So the quarterback flushes out the back door. Or we've got pressure here and we didn't hold our gaps in the middle and the quarterback just runs up the field. So the pressure has been there but the quarterback has escaped a bunch in the first part of the year.
"I think we've been a lot more sound in what we're doing and guys understand that 'Hey, just running to the quarterback isn't going to get it. These guys have a plan too.' They're going to take off and go somewhere. You need to maintain your gap structure, even in the pass rush. And I think that's really, really helped us."
Stansbury started the season off on a bad note, missing the first two games after being suspended for violating athletic department rules and regulations. He said he has played that much harder to "make up for it" and that he's working on continuing to develop. His three sacks are currently tied for the team lead.
"My thing is, I feel like I'm getting better but I need to improve every week," Stansbury said. "It's not a satisfying thing but it's getting better every week."
Stansbury said the intensity has been dialed up and that has led to the defensive line’s resurgence.
"Emotion and effort," he said. "Swarming to the ball. Just trying to get there. Everybody's playing with intensity and going off each other."
The No. 15 Aggies will have to continue that if they hope to keep having success when they host Mississippi State on Saturday at Kyle Field. They'll face a talented dual-threat quarterback in Dak Prescott.
As for Stansbury, much like Moore a year ago, Snyder thinks things might finally be clicking for his new star pass-rusher.
"I don't remember what game it was for Damontre last year but he had one of those games ... where he kind of turned it on and the ball started rolling for him," Snyder said. "Hopefully the same thing happens for Gavin."
Coach: Kevin Sumlin (46-19 overall, 11-2 at Texas A&M)
2012 record: 11-2
Key losses: OT Luke Joeckel, DE Damontre Moore, LB Sean Porter, LB Jonathan Stewart, WR Ryan Swope
Key returnees: WR Mike Evans, DB Toney Hurd, QB Johnny Manziel, OT Jake Matthews, OT Cedric Ogbuehi
Newcomer to watch: RB Brandon Williams
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: As of Monday, it is the status of quarterback Johnny Manziel. News broke Sunday of an NCAA investigation of Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, about whether he accepted payment for signing autographs. There's concern whether his eligibility for the upcoming season will be affected. If it is, the Aggies would have to turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or redshirt freshman Matt Davis at quarterback. If no wrongdoing is found, the expectations will be high for the Aggies.
Forecast: If Manziel is cleared of any wrongdoing in the NCAA investigation, then the Aggies are legitimate SEC West, SEC Championship and perhaps BCS Championship contenders. They'll likely be favored in every game except their home matchup against Alabama on Sept. 14 and perhaps a road game at LSU on Nov. 23, one of the two teams they lost to a year ago.
Aside from Manziel, the biggest on-field questions for the Aggies are on defense. Three of their most productive players from 2012 -- defensive end Damontre Moore and linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart -- are now in the NFL. The Aggies are young and inexperienced in the front seven and the status of two starting defensive backs (cornerback Deshazor Everett and safety Floyd Raven) must be determined after offseason arrests.
Still, with the return of Manziel, leading receiver Mike Evans and three offensive linemen, the Aggies have the offensive personnel to compete with any team in the country. They proved as much in their upset of eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last season. If the defense can make the kind of strides it did a season ago, when the Aggies had depth questions across the defense and concern about size up front in a line-of-scrimmage league, then Texas A&M can seriously contend.
If Manziel's eligibility is affected as a result of the NCAA investigation, the Aggies have no quarterback on the roster who has started a college game. Joeckel and Davis will battle it out in training camp. While the Aggies can be a good team without Manziel, dreams of reaching the highest heights will be severely damaged if Manziel is forced to miss more than two games.
2012 conference record: 6-2 (tied for second, West Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1
QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews, WR Mike Evans, DT Kirby Ennis, OLB Steven Jenkins, CB Deshazor Everett, S Howard Matthews
LT Luke Joeckel, C Patrick Lewis, WR Ryan Swope, DE Damontre Moore, OLB Sean Porter, MLB Johnathan Stewart, FS Steven Terrell
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Johnny Manziel* (1,409 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel* (3,706)
Receiving: Mike Evans* (1,105)
Tackles: Damontre Moore (85)
Sacks: Damontre Moore (12.5)
Interceptions: Deshazor Everett* and Steven Terrell (2)
1. Johnny Football: The Aggies are in the rare position of returning the previous season's Heisman Trophy winner. Heading into his sophomore season, Texas A&M is hoping that quarterback Johnny Manziel can be even better than he was a season ago. This will be his second year in the offense and for quarterbacks who have played in this system, year two is typically a season in which they progress significantly as passers. That's one of Manziel's primary goals, even though he'll still run when the time calls for it. As long as he's healthy and playing well, things bode well for the Aggies.
2. Experienced secondary: Last season, the defensive backfield was young and inexperienced. This fall, there are still young players back there, but it is the most experienced unit on the Aggies' defense. Three of the four starters in the secondary from the AT&T Cotton Bowl are back: Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris and Howard Matthews. Junior Floyd Raven has moved from cornerback to free safety and appears to have the skill set (range and tackling prowess) to fit into the position well.
3. Loaded backfield: The Aggies have four good options in their offensive backfield for Manziel to hand off or throw to. Starting running back Ben Malena returns, as does Trey Williams, who returned kicks and received carries as a true freshman. Add to the mix a pair of transfer backs who sat out last season, Brandon Williams (Oklahoma) and Tra Carson (Oregon) and the Aggies have a quartet that gives them a multitude of options.
|Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin talks about the improvements being made to Kyle Field, what those improvements will to for the program, the success of last year, Johnny Manziel's offseason and the expectations for the Aggies in 2013.
2. New receivers: Only one starting receiver returns from last year's squad: Mike Evans. Four of the top six players in receiving yardage are no longer on the roster, including second-leading receiver Ryan Swope. So who will Johnny Manziel throw to? Keep an eye on guys like Malcome Kennedy, who caught a fourth-quarter touchdown against Alabama last season, Derel Walker, who had a strong spring game, Edward Pope, who was a star on the scout team when he redshirted last year and a host of recruits from the 2013 class like Ja'Quay Williams and ESPN 150 duo Ricky Seals-Jones and Sebastian LaRue. Developing other reliable pass-catching options is critical, so keep an eye on how they use the tight ends with newcomer Cameron Clear (6-foot-7, 270 pounds) on campus.
3. Kicking game: One player who fans kept a close eye on this spring was kicker Taylor Bertolet. In his redshirt freshman season, the strong-legged kicker struggled with consistency, hitting just 13-of-22 field goal attempts and missing seven point-after attempts. With a new special-teams coordinator (Jeff Banks) who has college punting and kicking experience around to guide him, the Aggies are looking for an improvement from Bertolet this fall. Also the Aggies are working in a new punter, Drew Kaser, who takes the reins after senior Ryan Epperson graduated.
There’s no point in trying to sugarcoat this for Texas A&M: The Aggies have become the hunted.
A year after the real training began for their official move to the SEC from the Big 12, the Aggies enter spring practice with loftier expectations and more eyes fixated on them. They can no longer be considered the supposed ragtag group that was expected to struggle for relevance in their new home.
After shocking their new conference mates with 11 wins, including one over eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, A&M enters spring figuratively glancing over its shoulder.
"Now that we know for a fact that we have enough talent and a new group of guys coming in, we know that this year we have a target on our back,” rising senior running back Ben Malena said. “The workouts have stepped up even more. The work ethic of the team collectively has stepped up even more. Coach [Kevin] Sumlin, he's let us know that last year's success was last year's success, but this year's success is gonna be even harder because now you have a target on your back."
Teams don’t lead the SEC in scoring (44.5 points per game), rushing (242.1 yards per game), passing (316.5 YPG) and total offense (558.5 YPG) in their first season in a new conference without feeling the heat in Year 2. And this league intends to bring more than just the heat to the Aggies.
If A&M is going to make strides in 2013, it has to push for conference supremacy. It'll have to be better than it was in 2012, and it'll have to pursue dethroning the mighty Crimson Tide. It's a tough job, but it really is the next step.
To do that, Sumlin and his crew will have to work even harder than they did last season. Players will have to be willing to sweat, bleed and push even more as the Aggies enter spring shorthanded once again.
Defensively, five starters from the front seven are gone, including All-America defensive end Damontre Moore and top-notch linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Dustin Harris and Steven Terrell must also be replaced in the secondary.
“We got a lot of young guys -- a bunch of new guys,” defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said of his defense.
And those youngsters need to learn quickly because the injury bug attacked the defense this spring, especially up front. It’s a necessary evil, but getting young players these kinds of reps excites Snyder because it helps with depth, which the Aggies need.
Not only did A&M lose two valuable linebackers but a wide receiver was moved to the position this spring and linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt was replaced by Mark Hagen, giving the Aggies even more change to deal with.
"There will be some challenges there,” Snyder said about the new faces on defense, “but that's what makes spring ball fun."
What will also be fun is finding out who the new leaders are.
Senior Toney Hurd Jr., who is battling for a starting safety spot, has been pegged as one of those new leaders. He’s always led by example, and Hurd knows younger players are looking up to veterans like him. He’ll have to come through because, although the talent might be there, inexperience needs guidance.
"I wouldn't say I'll be this year's Sean Porter, but I'll be this year's Tony Hurd Jr.,” he said. “I'll give the vocal leadership when needed.”
Some interesting months lie ahead for the Aggies, as they look to make more upward moves in 2013. But before A&M can worry about challenging Alabama -- or anyone, really -- Sumlin needs his team to get better. He needs youngsters to take advantage of more reps and he needs the veterans to evolve on the field and in the locker room.
It sounds clichéd, but it's true.
To be elite again and embrace this new-found target on its back, A&M needs even more resolve and toughness in Year 2. And to Sumlin, it’ll be quite an uphill battle.
"We're nowhere near that stage,” he said. “I've said that from every standpoint, from every aspect of this program, we're still playing catch-up to everybody in the SEC.
"From my standpoint it's always a new team, it's always a new personality. As coaches, what you're trying to do is figure out where you are, who can do what and put them in the best position to try to win games."
On the mend: Sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha missed the Cotton Bowl with an injury, so his status this spring is up in the air. Sophomore linebacker Michael Richardson is recovering from a spine surgery.
On the move: Junior Cedric Ogbuehi is moving from right guard to right tackle and will take over for senior Jake Matthews, who will be sliding over from right tackle and stepping in at left tackle for Outland Trophy winner Luke Joeckel.
Prime positioning: Junior Deshazor Everett could play cornerback or safety. He started all 13 games last season, but shuffled between cornerback and safety. Junior Howard Matthews returns at safety after having a breakout 2012 season.
Question marks: The status of returning starter Kirby Ennis at defensive tackle is up in the air after his arrest and subsequent suspension from the team. He was arrested on a gun charge last month. Two other senior tackles -- Spencer Nealy and Jonathan Mathis -- are also gone. The Aggies will need some younger players to develop in the middle of that defensive line, and replacing Damontre Moore at end will also be a challenge. Sophomore Alonzo Williams could factor in at both end and tackle after playing some last season as a true freshman. He started for the injured Obioha in the Cotton Bowl.
New faces: Eight players from the 2013 class are already enrolled and will go through spring practice. Four linebackers are part of that group, and the Aggies lost two senior starters -- Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Tommy Sanders, one of the top-ranked junior college linebackers in the country, could be an immediate contributor as an outside linebacker. Freshman Reggie Chevis of Houston will get a long look at middle linebacker. Freshman Alex Sezer of Orange, Texas, could make a run at one of the starting cornerback jobs. Junior college newcomer Cameron Clear, who started his career at Tennessee, will be somebody to watch at both tight end and H-back.
Breaking out: There’s another Matthews on the horizon. Mike Matthews, the younger brother of Jake Matthews, is the front-runner to replace Patrick Lewis at center. The younger Matthews played some last season as a true freshman. Also, junior receiver Malcome Kennedy had a strong close to last season and will be looking to build off that momentum. The Aggies are losing three senior starters at receiver, including Ryan Swope.
Don’t forget about: Junior running back Brandon Williams is ready to go after sitting out last season. A transfer from Oklahoma, Williams could also be a factor on kickoff returns. He’s one of the most explosive players on the roster and has big play written all over him.
Backed up: The Aggies shouldn’t have any shortage of options at running back, even with Christine Michael departing. In addition to Williams, Oregon transfer Tra Carson will be eligible in 2013. At 240 pounds, he projects as the short-yardage guy. Sophomore Trey Williams rates up there with Brandon Williams as a solid breakout candidate and averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season on limited touches. Senior Ben Malena returns as the feature back. He was one of the more underrated running backs in the SEC last season with 808 rushing yards and eight touchdowns and is also a solid pass protector.
All eyes on: What does Johnny Manziel do for an encore, and how does he mesh with his new offensive coordinator? He set an SEC record with 5,116 yards of total offense last season and won the Heisman Trophy. Redshirt freshmen simply aren’t supposed to put up those kinds of numbers, but Manziel just got better and better as the season progressed. Now, the question becomes: How does he handle that success, and what kind of blow will it be for him to lose Kingsbury as his coordinator and quarterbacks coach? It certainly didn’t seem to faze him in the bowl game. The bigger question may be Manziel’s backup. Jameill Showers transferred to UTEP. Redshirt freshman Matt Davis will battle junior Matt Joeckel for that job.
But before any of them stepped foot in Indy, ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. released his pre-Combine Big Board . Naturally, it's loaded with SEC players. Twelve of the 25 players on Kiper's Big Board are from the SEC, including six of the top 10 players.
Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones kept his place in the No. 1 spot, while Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel jumped in front of teammate Damontre Moore to move from No. 3 to No. 2.
Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd made a major move up Kiper's rankings, moving from No. 15 to No. 8.
Here's where all 12 SEC players ranked on Kiper's Big Board heading into the Combine:
1. Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
2. Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
3. Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M
6. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
8. Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
10. Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
12. Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU
15. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
16. D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
18. Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
21. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
25. Matt Elam, S, Florida
Kiper also updated his position rankings this week. Twenty-eight SEC players made Kiper's position rankings, and the league was represented by at least one player at every position, except fullback.
Here's where Kiper put SEC players in his position rankings:
4. Tyler Wilson, Arkansas
1. Eddie Lacy, Alabama
5. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
1. Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee
3. Jordan Reed, Florida
1. Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M
3. D.J. Fluker, Alabama
1. Chance Warmack, Alabama
3. Larry Warford, Kentucky
4. Dallas Thomas, Tennessee
2. Barrett Jones, Alabama
1. Damontre Moore, Texas A&M
4. Barkevious Mingo, LSU
2. Sharrif Floyd, Florida
3. Sheldon Richardson, Missouri
1. Alec Ogletree, Georgia
3. Kevin Minter, LSU
5. Jon Bostic, Florida
1. Jarvis Jones, Georgia
4. Zaviar Gooden, Missouri
5. Cornelius Washington, Georgia
1. Dee Milliner, Alabama
3. Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State
2. Matt Elam, Florida
4. Eric Reid, LSU
5. D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina
2. Caleb Sturgis, Florida
2. Brad Wing, LSU
No. 6: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M, Jr.
2012 summary: Moore enjoyed a very successful first -- and only -- year in the SEC. He earned All-SEC honors from both the Associated Press and the league's coaches and was also a second-team All-American after ranking seventh nationally in tackles for loss (21) and eighth in sacks (12.5). He was third in the SEC in both categories. He also led the Aggies with 85 total tackles (57 solo), becoming the first defensive lineman since Sam Adams in 1993 to lead Texas A&M in tackles.
Most recent ranking: Not ranked in the 2012 preseason countdown.
Making the case for Moore: Talk about a debut in your new conference. After switching from outside linebacker to defensive end in the Aggies' new 4-3 defensive scheme, Moore really took off and became one of the SEC's toughest defenders to either stop or contain in 2012. He had a solid sophomore campaign in 2011, but he was a much more complete player in 2012. He had a tendency to take plays off in 2011, but coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff made sure that wasn't a part of Moore's game last fall. He took conditioning more seriously during the offseason -- with help from his coaches pushing him even more -- and was able to stay on the field longer for the Aggies. He was an absolute force coming off the edge, and it was a real shame that he wasn't up for any of the top defensive awards in college football last season. Moore recorded at least two tackles for loss in each of the first seven games of the season and finished the year with three multi-sack games. Moore found himself making plays all over the field because of his high football IQ and because he could cover a lot of ground, despite coming off of the defensive line. With his enormous wingspan and his exceptional speed, he wasn't just important as a rush end, as he spent plenty of time chasing players all over the field. Moore was an extremely versatile player last fall and decided to take his talents to the NFL early. He's expected to be a top-5 pick in April's NFL draft.
- No. 7: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama, Jr.
- No. 8: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama, RJr.
- No. 9: AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama, RJr.
- No. 10: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama, Jr.
- No. 11: Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia, Fr.
- No. 12: Barrett Jones, C, Alabama, RSr.
- No. 13: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia, RJr.
- No. 14: Kevin Minter, LB, LSU, RJr.
- No. 15: Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia, Jr.
- No. 16: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M, Jr.
- No. 17: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri, Jr.
- No. 18: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida, Jr.
- No. 19: Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU, RJr.
- No. 20: Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama, Fr.
- No. 21: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee, Jr.
- No. 22: Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida, Sr.
- No. 23: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt, Jr.
- No. 24: Matt Elam, S, Florida, Jr.
- No. 25: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State, Sr.
OFFENSE: Remember how the Aggies' offense was supposed to struggle without Ryan Tannehill running things and a redshirt freshman replacing him at quarterback? Yeah, that really worked out. Thanks to the minds of Kevin Sumlin, offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and a Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel, the Aggies ran over most of their new opponents in 2012 with the SEC's top offense. Texas A&M averaged a league-high 558.5 yards per game (third nationally). The Aggies also led the SEC in rushing (242.1), passing (316.5) and scoring offense (44.5). A&M registered more than 400 yards in 12 games and more than 600 yards in seven games. Johnny Football became the first freshman to ever win the Heisman and broke the SEC record for total offense with 5,116 yards (3,706 passing and 1,410 rushing). He also totaled 47 touchdowns and led the SEC in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns (21). Manziel had a special year, but he also got help from a dynamic receiving duo in freshman Mike Evans and senior Ryan Swope, who combined to catch 154 passes for 2,018 yards and 13 touchdowns. Uzoma Nwachukwu only caught 26 passes, but he added seven more receiving touchdowns. When Manziel wasn't darting past or slipping by defenders, A&M's running game mostly went through running back Ben Malena, who finished the year with 808 yards and eight touchdowns. Christine Michael added 12 more rushing touchdowns. A&M was also equipped with one of the top offensive lines in the country led by Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Grade: A+
DEFENSE: The Aggies ranked seventh or lower in the SEC in the four major defensive categories, including ranking 12th in pass defense (250.7 yards per game). Teams scored 36 touchdowns on the Aggies and averaged 21.8 points per game. The Aggies surrendered 20-plus points in seven games, including allowing 57 points in a back-and-forth win over Louisiana Tech. A&M might have had some issues when it came to slowing down the yardage and points, but in its two losses, the Aggies allowed just 20 and 24 points. The Aggies gave up 390.2 yards per game and grabbed just 16 takeaways. Defensive end Damontre Moore became a real star. He was one of the top defenders in the country, tying for eighth nationally with 12.5 sacks and seventh with 21 tackles for loss. He also led the Aggies with 85 total tackles and nine quarterback hurries. The defense, which was relatively young in the back end, might have had a little more bend than the coaches would like, but it rarely broke down and held an Oklahoma offense to just 13 points in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Grade: B-
OVERALL: The Aggies were supposed to struggle in their first year in the SEC, but flourished instead. Johnny Football was a major reason why, but Sumlin instilled an extremely tough personality during spring ball that carried over to the season. Alabama might have been crowned college football's national champion, but after a 41-13 beat down of Oklahoma, the Aggies made a solid case for being the nation's top team -- and A&M was the only team to top the Crimson Tide with a 29-24 win in Tuscaloosa. The defense needed to be bailed out by the offense at times, but even with no bye week during the regular season, the Aggies never seemed to slow down. If not for the opener against Louisiana Tech being postponed, the season might have been even better with a game under the Aggies' belt before taking on Florida. A&M wasn't as sharp against LSU, but was in serious contention for a BCS bowl game late in the year. Grade: A
Here are my picks for the Big 12's most improved players:
Kerry Hyder, DL, Texas Tech: Hyder was arguably the biggest reason for Texas Tech's defensive resurgence this season, racking up 14 tackles for loss to rank fifth in the Big 12. A year ago, he had just five among his 42 tackles. This year, he made 56 stops, but had 5.5 sacks alone and broke up four passes.
Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor: Williams was a really good receiver a year ago, putting together maybe the quietest 900-yard receiving season ever. This year, though, he was better than anyone could have predicted. I voted for him for the Biletnikoff Award after leading the nation with 1,832 yards and 12 scores on 97 catches, up from 59 a year ago. He made the jump from great player to true superstar. He'll be an NFL first-rounder.
Jason Verrett, CB, TCU: Verrett had a nightmare start to 2011, getting burned by Robert Griffin III in a painful loss in Waco to begin the season. This year, he was unquestionably the Big 12's best shutdown corner and arguably one of the best in the country. Ask any Big 12 receiver. He's fast, physical and his great hands helped him grab six interceptions (fifth-most nationally) and break up a ridiculous 16 passes. That's 22 pass defenses. No other Big 12 player had more than 15.
Tony Pierson, RB, Kansas: Pierson was a great complement to power back James Sims, and ranked 10th in the league with 760 yards on just 117 carries. While Sims was suspended to begin the season, he had a pair of 120-yard games and topped 200 yards against Texas Tech, but his yards per carry (6.5) gets him on this list. Among the 25 Big 12 backs with at least 75 carries this year, only Seastrunk had a higher yards-per-carry average.
Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma: Johnson was a good tackle last season, but he made a decent argument for being the best in the Big 12 this year. He was solid all season long, but seeing him shut down Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Devonte Fields in the regular season finale made a big impact on me. He also played well against possible top-five pick Damontre Moore, who was largely quiet in the Cotton Bowl loss to Texas A&M.
Bryce Hager, LB, Baylor: Hager's tackle numbers are a little inflated because of Baylor's early defensive struggles, but he led the Big 12 with 124 stops after making just 13 in limited duty a year ago as a freshman. If you watched him late in the year against K-State or UCLA, you saw how good Hager and his partner in crime at linebacker, Eddie Lackey, could be. It seemed like he was in Collin Klein's face all day, and the game may have been different without him.
My pick: Texas A&M 41, Oklahoma 37
I really just don't buy that Oklahoma's defense can slow Johnny Manziel enough to win this. I do think there are a ton of outside factors that might influence how well he plays or doesn't play. He's a young guy, and who knows how he truly handled the time away on the awards circuit? The coaches have had only good things to say, but will he look rusty, and will Mike Stoops have a solid plan to slow him down and keep him contained?
Additionally, how will the loss of Kliff Kingsbury affect him? I do think this game comes down to exactly how "Johnny Football" plays, but I like his chances to overcome that stuff and play well. Oklahoma's defense plays well, too. The Sooners lock down on Sean Porter and Damontre Moore and keep them out of Landry Jones' face, and Jones plays well in his final start, just not quite well enough to win.
Texas A&M's backs, Ben Malena and Christine Michael, are criminally underrated and overshadowed by Manziel, and they'll be the X factors in this one and help the Aggies control the game down the stretch. This offensive line is battle-tested in an SEC full of defensive lines much tougher than the Sooners'. Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews will prove why they're both projected to be NFL draft first-rounders and will ultimately win this game for the Aggies with a bruising running game in the final quarter.
1. Don't change the script: Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury might be gone, but all those athletes who made the Aggies' offense so potent in 2012 will still be lining up inside Jerry's World. And that includes Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who made just about every defense he faced look silly. Kingsbury and Manziel had a special in-game relationship, but Kingsbury is now at Texas Tech, so Manziel won't have the luxury of Kingsbury's guidance on the sideline. But the Aggies can't divert from the plan that got them to 10 wins in their first year in the SEC. Trying anything new or restricting parts of the offense probably isn't the way to go at this point in the season. The athletes are there to stay the course, and with Oklahoma's high-powered offense, the Aggies can't afford to get too far behind the Sooners. Keeping the run game going will be key as well, as Oklahoma ranks 79th nationally in rush defense and gave up 200-plus rushing yards six times during the regular season.
2. Force Landry out of the pocket: Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 3,989 yards and 29 touchdowns this season and had two 500-yard passing games during the regular season. The man can throw the pigskin around, and it helps that he has four players to throw to who have more than 40 receptions on the year. That means the Aggies have to make him as uncomfortable as possible tonight. While Jones has done well against the blitz this season, he struggles when he's forced out of the pocket. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Jones has attempted 12.2 percent of his passes from outside the pocket in his career and has thrown 25.5 percent of his career interceptions from outside the pocket. Defensive end Damontre Moore was a terror in opposing backfields this season and if he can consistently get into Landry's face, he should make it tough for Landry to make a lot of plays on the Aggies' defense.
3. Contain Oklahoma's returners: The Sooners rank fourth nationally in kickoff return average, registering 26.5 yards per return. The Sooners have returned 32 kicks for 849 yards and a touchdown. Roy Finch recorded the Sooners' lone touchdown, but Brennan Clay has done the most damage on kickoffs, averaging 26 yards on 18 returns. The Aggies will also have to deal with punt returner Justin Brown, who averages 13.6 yards per return and has a touchdown. Texas A&M allowed just 18.7 yards per kickoff return during the regular season and 5.9 yards per punt return. The Aggies didn't allow any return touchdowns in 2012.
1. Protect Landry Jones, and the ball: When the Sooners have kept Jones upright, he’s been lethal throwing the ball to a quartet of playmaking receivers. But the few times that opposing defenses have gotten pressure, Jones has been subject to major mistakes, notably in a loss to Kansas State earlier this season. This will be OU’s toughest protection test yet, as the Aggies feature one of the top sack artists in the country in Damontre Moore. But if OU can keep Moore and his cohorts out of Jones’ face, the Sooners should be able to move the ball through the air against what’s been an inconsistent Texas A&M secondary.
2. Contain Johnny Football: OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said this week that you can’t stop Johnny Manziel. But you can contain him. That’s obviously easier said than done. Just ask Alabama. But if the Sooners can keep Manziel in the pocket and prevent him from reeling off big plays on the move, they should be in good shape.
3. Win the special teams battle: The Sooners have their best special teams units in years, especially in the return game. Jalen Saunders’ punt return touchdown against Oklahoma State helped sparked the Sooners in a come-from-behind Bedlam win. Brennan Clay and Roy Finch have also been very good returning kicks, and punter Tress Way can swing field position with his leg. One way to counter Manziel is to make plays when he’s not on the field. The Sooners could use some big plays on special teams.
No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2, 8-1 Big 12) vs. No. 9 Texas A&M (10-2, 6-2 SEC)
Where: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
When: Friday, Jan. 4, 8 p.m. ET
About Oklahoma: The Sooners began the year with some national-title aspirations, but those quickly came to an end with a mistake-filled September loss at home to Kansas State. A midseason loss to Notre Dame made it clear that Oklahoma was not an elite team in 2012, but the eight-game winning streak in Big 12 play after the K-State loss made it clear that the Sooners were a very, very good team -- and a Big 12 champion. The Sooners became part of the first-ever shared Big 12 title and celebrated with a season-ending win at TCU. The final three games of the year (West Virginia, Oklahoma State, TCU) were all decided in the final minute or on the final play, and the Cotton Bowl could very well make it four.
About Texas A&M: While Oklahoma underachieved a bit, the Aggies were one of the nation's biggest overachievers. Last year's team began in the top 10 and fell to 6-6 while losing five games with leads of at least nine points. Year 1 under Kevin Sumlin will forever be remembered as the year the legend of Johnny Manziel was born. The redshirt freshman quarterback burst onto the scene with a strong outing in a season-opening loss to Florida but truly broke out with a memorable performance in a road upset of No. 1 Alabama. The Aggies' defense matured under Mark Snyder, but Texas A&M was one of the nation's hottest teams to close the season.
Sooners to watch: Landry Jones will be making his 50th and final start of his career in the Cotton Bowl at Cowboys Stadium, the same place where his career began after an injury to Sam Bradford in the 2009 season opener against BYU. He's the NCAA's No. 3 all-time passer and leads the Big 12 in passing yards per game entering the bowl game. He's thrown 29 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions and got to know transfer receivers Jalen Saunders and Justin Brown well this season. Kenny Stills led the team with 897 yards on 75 catches, but keep an eye on leading tackler Tony Jefferson at safety and shutdown corner Aaron Colvin on defense.
Aggies to watch: Surely you know about Manziel by now, but keep an eye on his favorite targets, Mike Evans and Ryan Swope. Evans is a big physical presence at 6-foot-5, 218 pounds, while Swope uses his breakaway speed to work the slot. Defensive end Damontre Moore's 20 tackles for loss would have led the Big 12, and was third in the SEC. He was also the Aggies' leading tackler, with 80 stops. Keep an eye on the Aggies' underrated running back duo, too, Ben Malena and Christine Michael. They combined for almost 1,200 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Did you know? Oklahoma is 11-2 against Texas A&M under Bob Stoops, but the Aggies knocked off the Sooners in 2010 in College Station as part of their six-game winning streak to close the regular season. Manziel will be the third Heisman finalist Oklahoma has gone up against this season, but the Sooners are 0-2 against the first two, Kansas State QB Collin Klein and Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o. Oklahoma leads the all-time series between these two, 19-11, but will meet for the first time in the Cotton Bowl. Oklahoma hasn't played in the Cotton Bowl since 2002, when it beat Arkansas, 10-3.
More on the Big 12 Bowls:
Jan. 4, 8 p.m. ET, Arlington, Texas (Fox)
Texas A&M take by GigEmNation's Sam Khan Jr.: The Aggies are one of the surprise stories nationally in college football this season, exceeding preseason expectations by going 10-2 in their first Southeastern Conference campaign.
New coach Kevin Sumlin has injected energy into the program and helped reverse the narrative of 2011, when the preseason-top-10 Aggies couldn't hold on to a second-half lead. Now, Texas A&M closes games out as good as any team.
A lot of that credit can go to its Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel. Nicknamed "Johnny Football," Manziel took the college football world by storm with his playmaking ability, producing an eye-popping statistical season by breaking Cam Newton's single-season SEC total yardage record. Manziel compiled 4,600 offensive yards this season, throwing for 3,419 and rushing for 1,181. He was responsible for 43 touchdowns.
But the Aggies have been far from a one-man show.
Questions about the defense -- and the defensive line in particular -- were answered emphatically. Junior Damontre Moore spent most of the season at or near the top spot in the country in tackles for loss (20) and sacks (12.5), where he's tied for fifth and third, respectively.
Perhaps the team's best unit has been its offensive line, which has two future NFL draft picks at the tackle spots (juniors Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews), and a senior center (Patrick Lewis) who has been a catalyst to the team's success.
The Aggies have displayed a high-powered, quick-strike offense under Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, and an aggressive defense under coordinator Mark Snyder.
Oklahoma take from SoonerNation's Jake Trotter: From Lee Roy Selmon to Brian Bosworth, Oklahoma has a long, strong defensive tradition. But like almost everyone else in the Big 12, these Sooners win with their high-flying pass offense. Senior quarterback Landry Jones finished off the regular season on fire, throwing for more than 500 yards twice in November while leading the Sooners to a pair of come-from-behind, fourth-quarter wins. Jones, who has a chance to go 4-0 as a bowl-game starter, benefits from one of the most explosive wide receiving corps in the country.
Four different receivers boast more than 500 yards receiving, including Kenny Stills, who leads the Sooners with 75 receptions and 11 touchdowns. All three of OU’s running backs are dangerous in the passing game, too, especially fullback Trey Millard, who had a 73-yard reception against Texas earlier this season.
Opposing offenses have gashed Bob Stoops’ defense on the ground, but the Sooners are not easy to thrown on. Free safety Tony Jefferson is a ferocious tackler, and cornerback Aaron Colvin is a ball hawk.
As co-Big 12 champs, the Sooners had a season worthy of a BCS bowl. But Northern Illinois' sudden ascendance knocked them out of the BCS and the Sugar Bowl. The Sooners did not have a win over a team currently ranked in the AP Top 25. But their two losses came at the hands of top-ranked Notre Dame and Kansas State, which was No. 1 before the Irish. OU was in both games until falling apart in the fourth quarter. The Sooners, however, have owned the fourth quarter down the stretch, coming back in the final seconds to knock off West Virginia and Oklahoma State, then holding off TCU in the last minute.
And why not? Johnny Manziel has been on fire during his first year of college ball. The redshirt freshman quarterback has become the new true Heisman frontrunner after another successful weekend in which he threw for 267 yards and rushed for another 100 with five total touchdowns against Sam Houston State.
Forget the opponent and look at his body of work: Manziel is the first SEC player, first freshman and fifth NCAA FBS player to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He also has 38 total touchdowns.
Saturday was his eighth straight game with 300 or more total yards of offense and he has broken the school record for total offense in a season (4,161 yards).
"You can put those numbers up against anybody that's not only played this year [but] who's ever played the game," Sumlin said Wednesday. "For a single season, they speak for themselves."
Just put them up against past SEC Heisman winners Cam Newton and Tim Tebow and it's easy to see why Manziel is getting so much of his deserved Heisman love.
Manziel has been arguably the nation's most exciting player to watch this year, but he has not been made available to the media. Per school rules, first-year players aren't allowed to speak to the media.
Well, that's all about to change. Sumlin said on Wednesday that he will finally let Johnny Football speak before the Heisman ceremony on Dec. 8.
"We'll have a plan for him to be available next week," Sumlin said.
While Sumlin is happy with the Heisman attention Manziel has received, he's disappointed that another player on his team hasn't received much notoriety nationally at all.
Defensive end Damontre Moore has been one of the most overlooked players on defense this year. He leads A&M with 78 tackles and is tied for first nationally in tackles for loss (20) and sacks (12.5).
He has totally dominated opposing linemen this year, after moving from outside linebacker to defensive end. Yet, he isn't up for any national defensive awards, which shocks his head coach.
"I was extremely surprised that he's not been on any of those lists," Sumlin said.
"I'm very surprised by that, based on his numbers too."
Yeah, I'm surprised too.
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