Dallas Colleges: Darian Claiborne

Offseason exodus in the SEC

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
11:30
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It's that time of year that coaches dread, when unfortunately there tends to be as much activity off the field as on the field.

On Tuesday, we saw three projected defensive starters in the league -- Georgia safety Tray Matthews and Texas A&M linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden -- shown the proverbial door.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M's Darian Claiborne is one of three several projected SEC starters who were dismissed by their schools on Tuesday.
In the case of Claiborne and Golden, they were already on double-secret probation and ran out of chances after being arrested and charged with robbing three victims at gunpoint on May 23 after the three men agreed to purchase marijuana from Claiborne and Golden. Claiborne had already been arrested twice and Golden once in the last seven months.

Much will be made of the Aggies, especially as bad as they were on defense a year ago, being in no position to lose young talent the caliber of Claiborne and Golden. But Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is smart enough to know when enough is enough, and when you've got guys on your team who already have previous brushes with the law and are accused of robbing people at gunpoint (in a drug deal, no less), it's past time to cut your losses.

At Georgia, coach Mark Richt had obviously had enough with Matthews, who started six games a year ago in an injury-plagued freshman season. Matthews had shown promise and was a big hitter, but Richt's statement concerning Matthews' dismissal spoke volumes. Matthews was arrested in March, along with three other players, and charged with allegedly cashing school-issued financial aid checks twice.

"We are trying to make room for guys who want to do things right," said Richt, who almost never publicly calls out players, be it current players or former players.

Ironically, Matthews tweeted that he'd likely wind up at Auburn or Louisville, a pair of schools that have become a safe house of sorts for Georgia players who get into trouble or decide to leave the program. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins have transferred to Louisville, and Nick Marshall is entering his second season as Auburn's quarterback.

Just in the last five or six years, Richt has cut loose a ton of highly regarded talent. Other than Matthews, Harvey-Clemons and Marshall, some of the other names include Isaiah Crowell, Zach Mettenberger, Chris Sanders, Ty Flourney-Smith, Brent Benedict and Washaun Ealey.

Below is a list of the some bigger names around the SEC who've either been dismissed or have decided to transfer for various reasons since the end of last season:

Alabama: RB Alvin Kamara

Florida: S Cody Riggs, QB Tyler Murphy

Georgia: S Josh Harvey-Clemons, QB Christian LeMay, S Tray Matthews, CB Shaq Wiggins

Kentucky: QB Jalen Whitlow

LSU: QB Stephen Rivers

Missouri: WR Dorial Green-Beckham

Ole Miss: OT Austin Golson

Tennessee: QB Riley Ferguson

Texas A&M: LB Darian Claiborne, DT Isaiah Golden, QB Matt Joeckel, S Kameron Miles

SEC's lunch links

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
11:00
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Johnny Manziel will throw out the first pitch in tonight's Cleveland Indians game. It's a safe bet he won't go all 50 Cent on us.

A defense that struggled mightily in 2013 will go into the 2014 season without two of its top players. That’s not what Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder needs as he tries to rebuild the Aggies' defense, but that’s the hand he is dealt after the news of the dismissal of starters Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Golden
John Korduner/Icon SMIFormer ESPN 300 recruit Isaiah Golden, who played as a true freshman in 2013, is one of two Aggies who were dismissed from the program on Tuesday.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin made the announcement on Tuesday. The Aggies will enter the fall without two players who were All-SEC freshman team selections.

But it’s a decision Sumlin had to make. Both Claiborne and Golden were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery on Tuesday from an incident that occurred on May 23. Both have already had second chances (Claiborne was on his third), so they were already on thin ice. The seriousness of the charges made the decision easy for Sumlin.

Claiborne emerged as perhaps the defense’s best player late last season after he began to find his groove as a middle linebacker, which isn’t his natural position. He finished the season with 89 tackles in his 12 games, nine of which came as starts.

Golden, meanwhile, was forced into the starting lineup after the Aggies lost senior Kirby Ennis to a season-ending knee injury. With the kind of size (6-foot-2, 310) the Aggies were looking for in a defensive tackle, Golden held his own well as a true freshman.

Both would have started this fall, which means the Aggies must come up with new plans to replace them. Claiborne would have likely been the starting weakside linebacker as Jordan Mastrogiovanni has emerged as the team’s new middle linebacker.

The absence of Golden makes a January recruiting coup by the Aggies even bigger. In mid-January, the Aggies were able to flip four-star defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, who was originally committed to Texas. An early enrollee, Henderson was on campus shortly thereafter and participated in spring football with Texas A&M. He showed flashes of potential, enough to get practice time with the first team and give the coaching staff optimism that he can contribute quickly.

Now, Henderson could be a starting candidate at defensive tackle, along with sophomore Hardreck Walker, who played as a true freshman last season. The Aggies also have an incoming recruit in ESPN 300 defensive tackle DeShawn Washington, who will join the team this summer. Their top defensive recruit from the 2013 class, Justin Manning, redshirted last season but saw plenty of repetitions this spring. One of those two might have to get game-ready sooner rather than later.

Losing Claiborne is a significant blow as well, but fortunately, the Aggies are building solid depth at linebacker and should have a myriad of options. Two outside linebackers in particular, A.J. Hilliard and Shaan Washington, turned in good showings during spring practice and are likely to fight for a starting spot in August. Hilliard transferred from TCU and sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, and Washington found himself in a special teams role last season, as well as a reserve linebacker. They have plenty of ability, but neither have much experience, which is the quandary the Aggies found themselves in last season en route to a horrific defensive showing. The Aggies were last or near-last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories in 2013.

Senior Donnie Baggs, who started early last season and played plenty, likely figures into a significant role somewhere as an outside linebacker. He received praise from linebackers coach Mark Hagen this spring. The Aggies also have incoming outside linebacker recruits in ESPN 300 duo Otaro Alaka (who they flipped from Texas) and Josh Walker.

Another linebacker who showed some promise in the spring is one who has been around but hasn’t seen much of the field -- senior Justin Bass. One of these players will have to emerge as the Aggies search for options to replace the once-promising Claiborne.

Lessons from spring: Optimism on D

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
9:00
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When it comes to Texas A&M's spring, the first question surrounding the Aggies often relates to the quarterback battle and who is in the lead to succeed Johnny Manziel.

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.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Like many of Texas A&M's defensive players, Jordan Mastrogiovanni was thrown onto the field sooner than most anticipated.

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.

[+] EnlargeMastrogiovanni
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Texas A&M coaches expect sophomore linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni to be a defensive leader in 2014.
Most incoming recruits relish the chance at early playing time, but for the ESPN 300 prospect out of Dallas Jesuit, the excitement was also met with a dose of reality.

"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."

Opening spring camp: Texas A&M

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
10:30
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Schedule: The Aggies begin spring practice on Friday and will go through the first week of April, while taking off spring break week in between. Because of the redevelopment project of Kyle Field, the Aggies will not have their annual maroon-and-white spring game.

What’s new: The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator (Jake Spavital, previously A&M's quarterbacks coach) and a new secondary coach (Terry Joseph, previously at Nebraska and replacing departed secondary coach Marcel Yates, who is now at Boise State). Aside from that, the coaching staff stayed stable and most of the newness will come on the field, as the Aggies face life post-Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews.

[+] EnlargeCedric Ogbuehi
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherWhoever Texas A&M names at quarterback will have Cedric Ogbuehi protecting him at left tackle.
On the move: Offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi moves from right tackle to left tackle to fill the void left by Jake Matthews. On defense, linebacker Darian Claiborne -- who started nine games at middle linebacker -- moves to his natural position of weakside linebacker.

New faces: Texas A&M had seven recruits who enrolled in January and who will be available for spring football: quarterback Kyle Allen, junior college offensive linemen Jermaine Eluemunor and Avery Gennesy, offensive lineman J.J. Gustafson, defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, receiver Speedy Noil and junior college receiver Joshua Reynolds.

Also, outside linebacker A.J. Hilliard -- a transfer from TCU -- will go through his second spring in Aggieland, but 2014 will be the first year he is eligible to play for A&M after sitting out the 2013 season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Question marks: Some of the biggest question marks going into spring practice are related to off-the-field issues. Head coach Kevin Sumlin hasn't publicly commented on defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and Claiborne, both of whom were arrested over the weekend on separate charges. Athletics department policy calls for them to be suspended immediately and indefinitely while things are sorted out, but how much time will they miss this spring? As for on the field, most of the questions exist on a defense that was last in the SEC in points allowed, yards allowed, rushing and red zone efficiency last season. Will the young defensive line show improvement? Will the secondary play, specifically from the safeties, get better? Can two new faces at linebacker help the cause?

Key battle: The main one everyone will watch is at quarterback, where senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and Allen will square off. At right tackle, expect the junior college transfers, Eluemunor and Gennesy, to compete for the starting job initially. There are receiver positions up for grabs and a host of candidates. There's a spot at strongside linebacker up for grabs as well.

Breaking out: With Mike Evans gone, there are a lot of catches and yards to be had. Only one starter returns at receiver (Malcome Kennedy), but look for one of the young up-and-comers to break out. That guy could be Ricky Seals-Jones, who missed most of last season with a knee injury that he suffered in the season opener against Rice. Seals-Jones is big (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), fast and can be a matchup problem wherever the Aggies put him. Also keep an eye at running back for potential breakout players. The team's two leading rushers the last two seasons -- Manziel and running back Ben Malena -- are gone, so someone has to get those carries. Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams will get the chance to prove their worth, and someone will emerge as the No. 1 back on the depth chart.

Don’t forget about: Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris. For much of last season, you could say Everett was the Aggies' best and most versatile defensive player, flip-flopping from cornerback to safety and vice versa. His versatility gives the Aggies options in the secondary. Harris showed significant improvement last season as a sophomore over his true freshman season in 2012, when he started right out of the gate. If those two remain at corner, their veteran presence will provide some stability in the defensive backfield, and both have shown the ability to be playmakers.

All eyes on: The coordinators. Mark Snyder had a strong first season as the Aggies' defensive coordinator in 2012, but last season's defensive performance had Aggies frustrated. Everyone, including Snyder and his staff, is looking for significant improvement from a group that will be a year older after having a dozen freshmen on the defensive two-deep depth chart at times last season. On offense, Spavital takes over as the play-caller, a duty he assumed before the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. He'll call the plays straight from the sideline and, as the quarterbacks coach, should have a symbiotic relationship with Manziel's successor. It will be interesting to see what wrinkles are added to the offense and what it transforms to under the 28-year-old's watch.

SEC players to keep an eye on in 2014

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
8:00
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Earlier this month, ESPN colleague Adam Rittenberg took a look at some of the stars around the country who you can't forget about in 2014. Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III made the cut as the 10 stars to watch out for.

As far as sleepers, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party in the Crimson Tide's Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, and Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche made the cut.

You can't argue with any of those guys. Nkemdiche can play any position on the defensive line and might make his hay inside in 2014. Hargreaves has shown signs of having true elite corner status -- and he'll be a true sophomore. And we all know that Gurley is capable of being the nation's best back when he's healthy.

So who are some other guys to keep an eye on in the SEC in 2014? Here are 15 other SEC players to keep an eye on next season (in alphabetical order):

Note: These aren't obvious big-name guys, like South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham or Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall.

    • Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt: The junior defensive end quietly had four sacks and led the Commodores with 10 tackles for loss. He has all the athletic ability to be a star in this league. If he plays with the motor he's capable of, he could wreak havoc in 2014.
    • Darian Claiborne, LB, Texas A&M: As a freshman, Claiborne was a pleasant surprise on a bad Texas A&M defense. He finished the year with 69 tackles, hitting the double-digit mark in games five times. With Steven Jenkins gone, Claiborne could be relied up even more at linebacker, as he turns more into the quarterback of the defense.
    • [+] EnlargeAlex Collins
      Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas RB Alex Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four TDs in his freshman season.
      Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: He finished his freshman year with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns. After rushing for 100-plus yards in four of his first five games, Collins failed to reach the century mark again. He's the pounder Bret Bielema wants, but he can also make moves and be a home run threat.
    • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior-to-be had a solid 2013 season. He filled in at both free and strong safety because of injuries and will see even more time on the field with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri leaving early for the NFL draft. He was second on the team with 70 tackles, defended eight passes and had two interceptions.
    • Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: The 2013 season was supposed to be about Jordan Jenkins taking over for Jarvis Jones on the outside. But it was Floyd, a freshman, who stole the show at times at linebacker, leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 10 tackles for loss.
    • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: While he only caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns in his first season, Howard could have a bright future ahead. He's too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Getting him on the field more this fall will go a long for Alabama's new quarterback.
    • Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State: He lived up to his billing as a top high school defensive end in Year 1. He finished the year with three sacks and seven tackles for loss, but was also credited with 10 quarterback hurries. He has all the qualities of an elite pass-rusher and could be even more of a problem for offenses in 2014.
    • Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn: Another freshman standout in 2013, Lawson finished the year with 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He only had 20 tackles on the year, but with Dee Ford leaving, Lawson has a chance to see the field even more in 2014, but needs to get in the weight room and needs to be more consistent.
    • Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia: He has had to sit and bide his time for a few years, but this is his team in 2014. He filled in for Aaron Murray (ACL) during the last two games of the season, passing for 619 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions as the starter. He'll have plenty of offensive weapons to use next fall as well.
    • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: He filled in while starter James Franklin dealt with a shoulder injury, passing for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns as a starter. Mauk also went 3-1 during that span and helped the Tigers win the SEC East in their second season in the league. Now, he's the full-time starter in Columbia.
    • [+] EnlargeMarquez North
      Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIWR Marquez North showed all the skills to be a big-time playmaker for the Vols.
      Marquez North, WR, Tennessee: North made some noise as a freshman, leading the Vols with 496 yards on 38 catches. He only caught one touchdown, but showed flashes of being a consistent go-to threat for the Vols moving forward, and he certainly showed off his athleticism with this sweet catch against South Carolina. Getting more comfortable with the offense this spring will pay dividends.
    • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: He spent most of the year switching in and out with Tyler Russell, but now takes over the offensive reins. After throwing for 283 yards with three touchdowns and rushing for another 78 yards and two more scores in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice, Prescott made a lot of heads turn. He's perfect for Dan Mullen's offense and should be even better with his top five receiving targets returning.
    • Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Yet again, another freshman corner stepped up nicely for the Tigers. Robinson only started two games during the season, including the Outback Bowl, but displayed a lot of upside when he saw the field. He's fast, athletic and rangy, and could be even more of a nuisance for quarterbacks in 2014.
    • Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida: Taylor saw his carries increase during the second half of the season. The son of former Florida great Fred Taylor, Kelvin Taylor rushed for 525 yards and four touchdowns. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's shifty and can grind out extra yards.
    • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: With Donte Moncrief gone, Treadwell becomes the guy at receiver for the Rebels. He led Ole Miss with 72 catches and should improve on his 608 yards. The thing about Treadwell is he's so gifted athletically. He's the kind of person who can step on any field or court, or put a tennis racket in his hand, and he'll make something special happen.

SEC helps A&M, LSU rekindle rivalry

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
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How long has it been since Texas A&M traveled to Baton Rouge, La., to play LSU in Tiger Stadium? Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin offers perspective.

"It's a little bit different for our current players than maybe it is for our former students or our fans," Sumlin said. "That was [19] years ago. Guys like [starting middle linebacker] Darian Claiborne, shoot, they couldn't even walk the last time we went to Tiger Stadium."

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesKevin Sumlin will take Texas A&M back to Death Valley for the first time in 19 years.
To be exact, Sept. 3, 1994 was the last trip the Aggies made to Death Valley. Texas A&M won 18-13 and the teams played the next season at Kyle Field, a 33-17 win for the Aggies.

The 1995 battle was the last of 10 straight and the teams didn't meet again until the Cotton Bowl brought them together in 2010. The major shifts that shook up college football because of conference realignment have usually broken up rivalries, but in this particular case, it rekindled an old one with the Aggies and Tigers becoming conference mates in the SEC West Division.

LSU and Texas A&M have a long history together with the Tigers leading the all-time series 28-20-3. Former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum, who coached in seven of those battles, called it a “great rivalry.”

"I think over the years it's been a natural thing because the closeness of the two states and the environment," said Slocum, who was born in Louisiana and coached high school football in that state, but grew up in Orange, Texas, virtually on the Texas/Louisiana border. "There were so many people, particularly in Southeast Texas and in Houston in the oil industry that had Louisiana ties. And if you went into Southeastern Louisiana and down to New Orleans, again, because of the oil industry, there were a lot of people with Texas ties.”

It was a bit of baptism by fire for former LSU coach Gerry DiNardo. When the teams met in 1995, the last time they would meet for 15 years, it was DiNardo's first game as the Tigers coach. And he had the unenviable task of coaching the season opener at raucous Kyle Field.

"I don't know that anybody wants to open up at A&M when you take over a job," DiNardo said with a laugh.

"I really didn't know much about it. I was in the Southeast for four years at Vanderbilt then I went to LSU. When you first take over a job, there's so many things that you have to do that honestly, you don't pay much attention to your first opponent until it's close up.

"I did have an appreciation for the rivalry. It was a great setting and a good game."

The teams' first meeting dates back to 1899 and the teams played sporadically until 1942, which began a series of seven straight years that the teams played. The teams played annually from 1960-1975 then didn't again until 1986, which started a string of eight consecutive games.

The teams were to continue playing through at least the 1997 season but LSU chose not to play the final two games that were part of a 10-year contract between the teams that began in the 1988 season.

[+] EnlargeDiNardo
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesGerry DiNardo's first taste of the rivalry came in his first-ever game as LSU's coach.
DiNardo suspects that the SEC expansion that turned the conference into a 12-team league and split it into two divisions back in 1992 was a big factor in ending the rivalry at that time.

"When the SEC went to two six-team divisions, everybody thought they were all going to kill one another," DiNardo said. "I was at Vanderbilt the first year we had that and I'm sitting in the coaches meetings and coaches were saying 'We will never win another national championship game.'

"Alabama won it that year and obviously, the rest is history. Just the opposite happened."

Now the teams share the same division and will see each other annually. With Texas A&M not playing longtime rival Texas, its former Southwest Conference and Big 12 Conference mate, for the foreseeable future, it could be LSU that emerges as the Aggies' traditional Thanksgiving weekend rival. The teams are scheduled to play on Thanksgiving Day in 2014.

"I am ecstatic about LSU and being able to play on Thursday of Thanksgiving," Texas A&M athletics director Eric Hyman said when the SEC schedule was announced in August. "To be able to play LSU just makes a natural rivalry, the proximity and everything else."

There also should be some familiarity with players on each side, as LSU recruits Texas and Texas A&M recruits Louisiana. As long as Sumlin and Les Miles are coaching, that will continue. But for it to develop as a rivalry, the teams might have to play each other a few more times consecutively and it won't hurt if both teams are successful -- as they are right now with both ranked in the Top 25 -- when those meetings occur.

"For our fans, it has the potential [to become a rivalry]," Sumlin said. "… I've got a feeling that as soon as we try to get into Tiger Stadium tomorrow at about 12:30 they'll figure out what kind of atmosphere we're playing in and what kind of rivalry it is."

A&M finds success in Louisiana

November, 19, 2013
11/19/13
3:30
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When it comes to the presence schools have in their respective home states, few are stronger than LSU in the state of Louisiana.

The Tigers' success, conference affiliation and game day atmosphere are just a few of the unique advantages for natives of the Pelican State.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesTexas A&M freshman Darian Claiborne (48) took over the middle linebacker job before the fourth game of the season.
Port Allen (Louisiana) High School head coach Guy Blanchard vividly remembers the emotions of one of his players, Darian Claiborne, when LSU took a tough loss early in 2012.

"When Darian was in January of his junior year (of high school) and LSU lost the national championship game to Alabama, you would have thought his best friend died the next day at school," Blanchard said. "He was a big LSU fan. You can't grow up in Southeast Louisiana and not have some kind of attachment or an eye on the prize, however you want to say it, [to LSU]."

Claiborne, a true freshman, is now the starting middle linebacker for No. 12 Texas A&M, which heads to Death Valley on Saturday to play No. 22 LSU. But Port Allen is fewer than seven miles from the LSU campus, so it's understandable how he could have envisioned a future with the Bayou Bengals.

But Texas A&M’s staff developed a strong relationship with Claiborne, a three-star prospect. Furthermore, the Aggies made a strong impression and made it clear they wanted him while LSU didn’t officially extend an offer. The Aggies’ diligence paid off because Claiborne has played a key part on the A&M defense.

In recent years, Texas A&M has had success recruiting the state of Louisiana. Texas is and will continue to be the home base for Texas A&M recruiting for good reason -- it's fertile recruiting ground that most colleges attempt to pick from, because of the vast number of players and caliber of talent the state produces. But Louisiana is also known for producing high-caliber recruits as well and head coach Kevin Sumlin has made sure to make "The Boot" part of his recruiting footprint.

Currently, the Aggies have nine players that are from Louisiana on the roster and all of them are on the Aggies' two deep. Some of them have been recruited by the current staff, others are holdovers from the previous staff, but all of them currently contribute on the field.

All nine are defensive players and five of them are regular starters: Claiborne, defensive back Deshazor Everett, defensive ends Julien Obioha, safety Floyd Raven and defensive end Gavin Stansbury. The others have played key roles: true freshman cornerback Noel Ellis has seen significant time in recent weeks and is the Aggies' future at the nickel cornerback position. Cornerback Tramain Jacobs started six games this season while the Aggies' dealt with injuries in the secondary and has been a reliable rotation player among the cornerbacks. True freshman linebacker Shaan Washington has found his way onto the field in a special teams capacity but also saw time at linebacker early in the year and defensive tackle Ivan Robinson has been a part of the rotation at his position when healthy.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett, another Louisiana native, was recruited my Mike Sherman's staff but has been the Aggies' most reliable defensive back.
There's no doubt the Aggies have received bang for their buck with the "Louisianimals," the term former Texas A&M center Patrick Lewis coined for his fellow Louisiana products last season. Claiborne and Everett have been arguably the Aggies' best defensive players this season. Everett has done whatever the Texas A&M coaches have asked, whether it's playing safety while Raven was injured or going back to his traditional position of cornerback, while playing with a broken thumb early in the year. Claiborne got the starting job at middle linebacker -- which is not his traditional position -- before the fourth game of the season and hasn't let go of it.

Stansbury has emerged as a playmaker while Obioha and Raven have each been a steady presence at their respective positions.

Even when he was at Houston, where the Cougars put their primary focus on their own city, Sumlin's staff would travel across the border to recruit talent out of Louisiana. But in the SEC it's a different story, because the caliber of player Texas A&M is searching for is often the same that LSU is trying to keep in state.

With the Tigers being the signature program in Louisiana, it makes it all the more difficult to pull a kid out of the state when LSU wants him.

The Aggies are experiencing that in their early SEC years. In this recruiting cycle, the Aggies are going after some of Louisiana's finest, like ESPN 300 athlete Speedy Noil and ESPN 300 defensive end Gerald Willis III. The Aggies are also trying to make inroads with the top 2015 prospects from the state, like receiver Tyron Johnson.

All have LSU offers and the battle for Noil and Willis III has been hotly contested and will be until signing day approaches.

But the Aggies have found success in recruiting prospects from the state that might have been overlooked or not as heavily pursued. If those players continue to play like Claiborne, the in-state powerhouse will start taking notice.

"Yeah, we've run across them at times," said LSU coach Les Miles of seeing A&M recruiting in Louisiana. "We recognize some of the [players] that they have there, and we wish them the very best. It's an opportunity to play in this league, and we're for that."

A&M LB Jenkins managing ups, downs

November, 15, 2013
11/15/13
2:30
PM CT
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The linebacker position has been one of change for Texas A&M this season. With some early season struggles, an injection of youth and some growth needed, it has been an area where defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and linebackers coach Mark Hagen have tinkered to find the right combination of players. The group as a whole has had its fair share of ups and downs this season.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jenkins
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesSince returning from suspension, Steven Jenkins has been a key part of Texas A&M's defense, both on and off the field.
The same could be said for the elder statesman of the group, senior Steven Jenkins. Though Snyder feels like lately, that Jenkins, the most veteran presence in the group, is trending up.

"Up and down," Snyder said when asked to assess Jenkins' season. "I think he's coming on a little bit [lately]."

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Jenkins has started the last eight games for the Aggies (he missed the first two, the result of a suspension for violations of Texas A&M athletic department rules and regulations) and is second on the team in tackles with 69, while also tied for second in tackles for loss (five). He has been productive, though not necessarily always consistent. When he's at his best, he might be the best defensive player the Aggies have.

Jenkins has kept a positive outlook and consistent approach throughout this season.

"You have to keep trying to get better every week," Jenkins said. "Everyone has their highs and lows, a good day and a bad day. You just have to keep a positive attitude moving forward and try to get better each week."

Knowing there were a lot of young players and newcomers among the A&M linebackers, Jenkins wanted to step into more of a leadership role. Teammates have noticed his effort in that area.

"He wasn’t a very vocal guy at the beginning of the year, but he’s really opened up and he’s been a great leader for us in the linebacker unit," senior linebacker Nate Askew said. "On the backend, everybody talks and everybody communicates, and that’s the most important thing. We need to communicate."

Snyder said he has noticed Jenkins getting tired toward the ends of games recently and he might start working in true freshman Jordan Mastrogiovanni into the lineup more at middle linebacker while sliding starting middle linebacker Darian Claiborne back to his natural position of weakside linebacker, which is usually manned by Jenkins. That would enable Jenkins to get a breather and be fresher for the fourth quarter of games.

Now in his third year in Aggieland after transferring from Coffeyville Community College, Jenkins is continuing to work and trying to improve. He’s also making an impact. Jenkins had an interception return for a touchdown in Texas A&M's thrilling win at Ole Miss in 2012 and has had a plethora of big-time hits or tackles for loss accumulated over the last two seasons.

When it comes to his setback that kept him on the sideline to start the season, Jenkins said he "definitely took some life lessons and learned from it." If the Aggies are going to finish the way they hope to, winning their final two games later this month at LSU and at Missouri, Jenkins and the linebackers probably have to play a key role in that.

The senior simply wants to push forward, play well and have fun while doing so.

"I'm just trying to lead by example for the younger guys, trying to bring energy to the field so we can have some Aggie swag," Jenkins said with a smile. "Just have fun on the field. We do make mistakes but move on from it. ... Just have fun and go out there and try to win."

Freshman LB playing key role for Aggies

November, 5, 2013
11/05/13
2:30
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M freshman linebacker Darian Claiborne seems prescient when it comes figuring out his football future.

Port Allen (La.) High School coach Guy Blanchard learned this firsthand when Claiborne was in his program. Blanchard remembers an eager Claiborne, who played linebacker on the Port Allen varsity team in the final seven games of his freshman season, approaching Blanchard in the offseason and telling him that he could play quarterback. Blanchard dismissed the idea until he saw Claiborne launch a football 60 yards. Eventually, Claiborne wound up playing both linebacker and quarterback and became proficient at both.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesTexas A&M freshman Darian Claiborne is second on the team in tackles and leads the Aggies in tackles for loss.
So it's not a complete surprise to Blanchard that Claiborne is again living up to his word. After signing for Texas A&M, Claiborne told Blanchard over the summer that he would see the field – a lot. He was confident, based on his progress during voluntary summer workouts. It turns out Claiborne was right again.

"The kid has a motor," Blanchard said. "He just doesn't quit."

Claiborne has started the last six games for the Aggies at middle linebacker. During preseason training camp, it became clear that he would play a role, but few could have predicted he'd become a starter – and at a different position than he was recruited to play. In his first few months on campus, he practiced at weakside linebacker.

But after the Aggies yielded 568 yards and 49 points to Alabama on Sept. 14, Claiborne progressed from reserve linebacker and special-teams contributor to the starter at a position he wasn't pegged to play.

The 6-foot, 225-pound Claiborne made the transition in a week and has progressed ever since. He's now second on the team in tackles (61), leads the Aggies in tackles for loss (six), has an interception and 1.5 sacks. Last week against UTEP, Claiborne led the team in tackles and forced a fumble.

"It's been extremely crucial," head coach Kevin Sumlin said of Claiborne's play. "You sit there and you have a true freshman mike linebacker and a true freshman nose guard (Isaiah Golden), you worry a little bit. The opponent reads the program, too, so there's no hiding that. They're going to try to figure out where they are. Those guys know that. It's been valuable with Darian going really since Arkansas and Isaiah Golden going the last couple of weeks, getting a lot of playing time."

Blanchard said that at Port Allen, Claiborne always was a quick learner with a high football IQ. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has seen that firsthand. When the Aggies' defeated Ole Miss last month, Snyder said Claiborne made an adjustment that Snyder asked for quickly and it resulted in an interception.

"One thing about Darian is that he is so coachable," Snyder said. "Early in the game we had some things going where he was to push [to the] weak [side] and we didn't quite get there. You would get him on the sidelines and tell him, ‘Darian, if you push weak you are going to have an interception.’ Sure enough, the very next series he intercepted the football. That, to me, tells me that it is coming. He is getting it. I think Darian's going to be a good football player."

Snyder calls him the "voice" or the "mouthpiece" of the Aggies' front seven. That's quite a bit of responsibility for a true freshman.

While Blanchard is excited to see what Claiborne has done this season, he's more excited about what's to come.

"If you think what he's doing now is good, stay tuned," Blanchard said. "You're only witnessing the tip of the iceberg."

Why A&M has so much youth on defense

October, 25, 2013
10/25/13
11:45
AM CT
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The words "youth" and "inexperience" are frequently used to describe the Texas A&M defense this season.

The struggles are significant. The Aggies rank near the bottom of the FBS in most defensive statistical categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the five teams that have allowed more yards per game than the Aggies -- New Mexico State, Idaho, California, Nevada and Indiana -- have a combined record of 8-27.

Texas A&M is fortunate enough to have a 5-2 record (2-2 in the SEC). It certainly helps to have one of the nation's most high-powered offenses and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Johnny Manziel).

For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff, it has been a challenge from the start of the season. Suspensions, injuries and ineffectiveness are all to blame.

The Aggies currently have 11 freshmen in their defensive two-deep depth chart. Two true freshmen (defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne) are starting. The four defensive line first-team spots include Golden and two sophomores. At linebacker, a former receiver who moved to linebacker this offseason (Nate Askew) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Of the seven linebackers on the Aggies' two-deep, only one (Steven Jenkins) started a full season at the position before this year.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin's first signing class that was completely under his watch had 32 members, 18 of whom were on defense. Of those 18, a dozen have already played this season.

But how did the Aggies get to this point, playing this many freshmen and newcomers? There are some juniors and seniors on the field, but there aren't nearly as many as there were a year ago when the Aggies went 11-2 in their debut season in the SEC.

In 2012, the Aggies were fortunate to have the benefit of some good leaders on defense and others who were productive. At linebacker, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart both provided leadership and production. Along the defensive line, Spencer Nealy made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle effectively despite not having the ideal size for the position. Steven Terrell was a steady and heady player at free safety. All four of those players were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. So was Dustin Harris, who didn't always start but played plenty at cornerback and was the team's primary punt returner.

One defensive player still remains from that 2009 class: defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who started last season and this year but suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 28 against Arkansas. But last year's A&M starting defense was more than half made up of what turned out to be a solid recruiting class on the defensive side of the ball.

So to understand why A&M is in the position it is now, take a look at the recruiting classes on defense since then:
  • In 2010, the Aggies signed seven defensive players and two more that were offensive players but eventually moved to defense. Defensive end Damontre Moore turned out to be a star, but declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. For a team that's lacking in its pass rush (only three FBS teams have fewer sacks than Texas A&M's seven this season) a guy like that could help. Of the remainders in that class, three are starting: Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel back, Gavin Stansbury at defensive end and Askew, who was recruited and spent his first three years at receiver, at strongside linebacker. Two others (defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and quarterback Clay Honeycutt, who's now a reserve safety) are playing but not starting. Nehemiah Hicks was considered to be either a defensive end or tight end and became a tight end. The other two players in the defensive class are no longer on the team.
  • The 2011 class -- the final class signed by former head coach Mike Sherman -- brought 13 defensive players. Deshazor Everett, a cornerback with ability to play safety, is currently the defense's best player. Safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven and linebacker Steven Jenkins also emerged as starters out of that group. One of the big fish landed late in that class, defensive end Brandon Alexander, has rarely played. He's now getting some playing time at tight end. Linebacker Donnie Baggs entered this season as the starting middle linebacker but is now a reserve. Tyrell Taylor is rotating at defensive end. The rest of the group hasn't made any impact at all. Five players in that group are no longer with the program.
  • The 2012 class, the first one Sumlin signed after essentially two months on the job, had some holdovers that committed to the program under Sherman. It is a mixed bag. Four of those players are starting as either true sophomores (Julien Obioha at defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle and De'Vante Harris at cornerback) or in one case, a senior (cornerback Tramain Jacobs, who was a junior college transfer). Defensive end Tyrone Taylor, brother of Tyrell, gets some playing time at defensive end. Edward Pope, who was a receiver/defensive back, is playing receiver for the Aggies. A car accident took away one member from that class -- defensive tackle Polo Manukainiu, who died in a crash in July and is being honored by the team every week this season. A spinal injury took away another member, linebacker Michael Richardson, who played as a freshman. He had successful surgery and was fortunate to not suffer any major physical issues, but is no longer playing football. Defensive back Kenneth Marshall, though on the team, was not part of the 105-man roster during preseason training camp. Linebacker Jordan Richmond transferred to Navarro College in the offseason and one player in the class, defensive tackle Edmund Ray, never made it to campus because of qualifying issues.

Off week comes at right time for A&M

October, 4, 2013
10/04/13
3:30
PM CT
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In 2012, Texas A&M wound up with no open date to break up its 12-game regular season schedule.

The Aggies' first SEC campaign saw them play 12 games in 12 consecutive weeks, thanks to a schedule change that moved their season opener against Louisiana Tech to their off week because of the threat of Hurricane Isaac.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesCoach Kevin Sumlin is comforted by Texas A&M's two bye weeks this season.
This year, the Aggies (4-1, 1-1 SEC) actually get two Saturdays off, the first being this week. And according to head coach Kevin Sumlin, it's much needed.

"We've got five games in, we get a week off, which we need," Sumlin said. "There are some guys limping around after that [Arkansas] game. We've got to get healthy for this next stretch run."

Sumlin gave the team complete days off -- no practice, no lifting in the weight room -- on Tuesday and Friday. The Aggies practiced Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and will also practice on Saturday. But giving his team a couple of days to gather itself is important.

"There are some teams where you don't want a week off," Sumlin said. "Like last year, you have some momentum, you feel like you're a hot team, you just want to keep playing. We need some time. We've got some guys that left Arkansas limping around. Anybody who saw everybody getting off that plane, there was some slow walking coming down that ramp, and it wasn't just because it was wet."

The time gives the Aggies a chance to see some injuries to key players heal up. Sophomore receiver Mike Evans left the Arkansas game briefly with an injury but returned to finish the game. Sumlin said he was fine with giving Evans the week off of practice since "I know what he can do." On the field and Evans has played injured before [last season he played much of the year with a nagging hamstring].

Neither he nor starting middle linebacker Darian Claiborne, who left the Arkansas game with a thigh bruise in the second half and didn't return, is likely to miss next Saturday's game at Ole Miss. The area where Sumlin is concerned is defensive tackle, where senior Kirby Ennis hurt his left knee against Arkansas.

"Kirby Ennis is a lot more serious than that, and we'll continue to evaluate that and figure out where he is by the end of the week," Sumlin said.

If Ennis is out for any extended period of time, it will likely mean more playing time for true freshmen defensive tackles Isaiah Golden and Hardreck Walker, both of whom have seen time on the field this year. Golden filled in for Ennis when he left the game last Saturday.

Sumlin also feels this team can benefit from a mental break, especially considering the fact he has more than 15 true freshmen who have seen the field this year.

"Everybody thinks about the physical strain of playing, but the hard part for the young players now is the mental strain, because it's stressful," Sumlin said. "You're in school and you've got the first barrage of exams, quizzes, those types of deals, and those guys are having to handle all that. For our team, the bye week comes at a great time. Not only physically, but mentally we needed this week."

The weekend without a game also offers a chance for the entire coaching staff to hit the recruiting trail. Sumlin and his nine assistants will watch prospects this weekend, including a group of four coaches (Sumlin, special teams coordinator Jeff Banks, defensive line coach Terry Price and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital) that will head to Arizona to see some out-of-state talent, including a highly-touted quartet of Aggie targets: ESPN 300 quarterback and Texas A&M commit Kyle Allen, ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham (Chandler, Ariz./Hamilton), ESPN 300 offensive tackle Casey Tucker (Chandler, Ariz./Hamilton) and ESPN Junior 300 receiver Christian Kirk (Scottsdale, Ariz./Saguaro).

Off week comes at right time for A&M

October, 4, 2013
10/04/13
3:00
PM CT
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In 2012, Texas A&M wound up with no open date to break up its 12-game regular season schedule.

The Aggies' first SEC campaign saw them play 12 games in 12 consecutive weeks, thanks to a schedule change that moved their season opener against Louisiana Tech to their off week because of the threat of Hurricane Isaac.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesCoach Kevin Sumlin is comforted by Texas A&M's two bye weeks this season.
This year, the Aggies (4-1, 1-1 SEC) actually get two Saturdays off, the first being this week. And according to head coach Kevin Sumlin, it's much needed.

"We've got five games in, we get a week off, which we need," Sumlin said. "There are some guys limping around after that [Arkansas] game. We've got to get healthy for this next stretch run."

Sumlin gave the team complete days off -- no practice, no lifting in the weight room -- on Tuesday and Friday. The Aggies practiced Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and will also practice on Saturday. But giving his team a couple of days to gather itself is important.

"There are some teams where you don't want a week off," Sumlin said. "Like last year, you have some momentum, you feel like you're a hot team, you just want to keep playing. We need some time. We've got some guys that left Arkansas limping around. Anybody who saw everybody getting off that plane, there was some slow walking coming down that ramp, and it wasn't just because it was wet."

The time gives the Aggies a chance to see some injuries to key players heal up. Sophomore receiver Mike Evans left the Arkansas game briefly with an injury but returned to finish the game. Sumlin said he was fine with giving Evans the week off of practice since "I know what he can do." On the field and Evans has played injured before [last season he played much of the year with a nagging hamstring].

Neither he nor starting middle linebacker Darian Claiborne, who left the Arkansas game with a thigh bruise in the second half and didn't return, is likely to miss next Saturday's game at Ole Miss. The area where Sumlin is concerned is defensive tackle, where senior Kirby Ennis hurt his left knee against Arkansas.

"Kirby Ennis is a lot more serious than that, and we'll continue to evaluate that and figure out where he is by the end of the week," Sumlin said.

If Ennis is out for any extended period of time, it will likely mean more playing time for true freshmen defensive tackles Isaiah Golden and Hardreck Walker, both of whom have seen time on the field this year. Golden filled in for Ennis when he left the game last Saturday.

Sumlin also feels this team can benefit from a mental break, especially considering the fact he has more than 15 true freshmen who have seen the field this year.

"Everybody thinks about the physical strain of playing, but the hard part for the young players now is the mental strain, because it's stressful," Sumlin said. "You're in school and you've got the first barrage of exams, quizzes, those types of deals, and those guys are having to handle all that. For our team, the bye week comes at a great time. Not only physically, but mentally we needed this week."

The weekend without a game also offers a chance for the entire coaching staff to hit the recruiting trail. Sumlin and his nine assistants will watch prospects this weekend, including a group of four coaches (Sumlin, special teams coordinator Jeff Banks, defensive line coach Terry Price and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital) that will head to Arizona to see some out-of-state talent, including a highly-touted quartet of Aggie targets: ESPN 300 quarterback and Texas A&M commit Kyle Allen, ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham (Chandler, Ariz./Hamilton), ESPN 300 offensive tackle Casey Tucker (Chandler, Ariz./Hamilton) and ESPN Junior 300 receiver Christian Kirk (Scottsdale, Ariz./Saguaro).

Aggies show they're more than just Manziel

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
5:00
PM CT

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- To the casual fan, it would be easy to surmise that Texas A&M is a one-man team.

With much of the national conversation surrounding the Aggies' quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, someone who hasn't paid close attention might jump to the conclusion that Manziel is the man who makes everything happen for Texas A&M.

It can seem like that at times. Manziel's performance certainly has a major role in the fate of the Aggies, but they proved Saturday that they are much more than just Johnny Football -- even with the game on the line.

With Arkansas breathing down their necks and the crowd of 72,613 at Razorback Stadium raising the decibel level as the host squad threatened an upset of No. 10 Texas A&M, the Aggies handed over the game not to their quarterback but to their running game. It helped them put away the Razorbacks 45-33 on Saturday night.

When the Razorbacks narrowed an 11-point lead to just four midway through the third quarter, A&M put the game in the hands of its offensive line and sophomore running backs Tra Carson and Trey Williams. Nine plays and 68 yards later, Williams hit pay dirt with a 17-yard touchdown run to extend the Aggies' lead to 38-27.

Arkansas cut the lead back to five, and early in the fourth quarter the Aggies went back to Carson and Williams, who ate up 56 yards before starting running back Ben Malena put the finishing touch on another touchdown drive, punching it in from a yard out for the final margin of victory with 10:08 to go.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson was part of an RB quartet that posted more than 200 rushing yards against Arkansas.
Only once in those two scoring drives did Manziel run the ball, and he didn't throw it on either of those two series. He was responsible for two touchdowns, his lowest single-game total since the Aggies beat Alabama last November. And the Aggies still put up more than 40 points for the eighth straight game (best in the FBS) and at least 400 yards for 17th consecutive game.

"I think it just shows another dimension of our offense," Malena said. "People look at our offense being so spread out, being the 'Air Raid' offense, but I think we had two or three drives where we didn't throw the ball but maybe one or two times. I think it just shows how good our offensive line is and how talented our running backs are."

For the first time since their win over Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl in January, the Aggies finished with more rushing yards (262) than passing (261). That helped the Aggies' struggling defense immensely, particularly in the second half when they were able to chew up the yardage. The drives weren't long in terms of time (each of the two aforementioned scoring drives lasted 3:06 or less), but they did give the defense time to catch its breath.

And the Aggies were able to possess the ball for 9:45 of the final 15:00.

Saturday was the second consecutive week that the Aggies had all four of their scholarship running backs — Carson, Malena, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams — available and it was the first time this season Trey Williams looked like the explosive back the Aggies signed in the 2012 recruiting class and got to see flashes of last season. Each of the four contributed, and they combined for 203 rushing yards.

Coming into the season the coaching staff discussed the benefits of having four backs as talented as these. Saturday was a manifestation of what the coaches hoped could be when utilizing each of them.

"All of our backs have their own value," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "They all have their own pluses and we utilize them all and I think we're able to keep them all fresh that way."

And though Manziel didn't have to put the game on his shoulders in the second half, he played flawlessly when he had the ball. He was efficient as usual (23-of-30, 261 yards, no interceptions) and gave Arkansas headaches with his scrambling ability (59 rushing yards). Perhaps the most telling sign of the respect he has earned came late in the second quarter when Chris Smith and Deatrich Wise Jr. pulled Manziel down for a sack. The crowd erupted perhaps as loud as it did the entire night, and Wise proceeded to egg the crowd on with a celebratory sack dance.

But that was the only time the Razorbacks sacked Manziel.

"We ask him to make plays and he makes plays," Sumlin said. "He took care of the ball."

The defense, which didn't play well for large stretches on Saturday, even found its footing in the second half. Each of the three times that the Razorbacks were within five points or fewer in the second half, the Aggies responded with a stop.

Junior defensive back Deshazor Everett came up with the Aggies' biggest defensive play, a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown, on Arkansas' opening drive of the second half.

"Coach [Mark] Snyder told us on the sideline that he was going to change the call and he wants me to stay inside of [Julian Horton] and wait for the slant route," Everett said. "He dialed it up and called it and it was perfect. They ran the slant and I jumped it, just like he told me to."

After the next two times the Razorbacks narrowed the gap, the Aggies' D responded with three-and-outs each time. For a unit that was gashed for 483 yards, 201 rushing, 6.7 yards a carry and 7.3 yards per play — and lost starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis and middle linebacker Darian Claiborne to injuries in the process — it was a significant turn of events in an SEC road game.

The Aggies get next weekend off before traveling to Oxford, Miss., to take on Ole Miss. The open date comes at an appropriate time, with Claiborne, Ennis and receiver Mike Evans all suffering injuries on Saturday, though Evans returned to play the remainder of the game after a brief first-half exit. There are still several areas in which the Aggies must get better, but Saturday they showed a side of themselves that some might not have seen.

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