Dallas Colleges: Donnie Baggs

Pass rush improving for Aggies

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
1:00
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Through its first seven games in 2013, Texas A&M turned in seven total sacks. Through two games so far in 2014, the Aggies already have six.

In 13 games in 2013, the Aggies' highest individual sack total belonged to former defensive end Gavin Stansbury and current outside linebacker Shaan Washington, who both had three sacks for the season.

In 2014, true freshman Myles Garrett has already matched that total in two contests.

Few things can cure defensive woes faster than getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It's something the Aggies struggled mightily with last year but have gotten off to a good start on this season.

"We have a couple D-ends that came in and we finally have some guys that can create their own pass rush instead of having to blitz all the time or create seams and get guys out of coverage," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Guys that can create their own pass rush [is] something that we need. It gives you some more flexibility on defense."

The on-field difference is noticeable. Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has the luxury of using a package on obvious passing downs that places both Garrett and sophomore defensive end Daeshon Hall — who are traditionally "rush" ends in the Aggies' defense — on the field at the same time in a three-man front, with fast linebackers behind them. Combining the speed and athleticism of Hall on one side with the strength and speed of Garrett on the other, it has helped the Aggies find something they sorely needed last year and will continue to need if they hope to continue improvement on defense.

Garrett, a five-star recruit who was ranked the No. 4 overall player in the 2014 recruiting class, wasted no time making an impact, getting a sack and two quarterback hurries at South Carolina. He followed that up with two sacks and two more hurries on Saturday in a 73-3 rout of Lamar.

"He is what we need," Sumlin said. "He has three sacks, he's probably already matched our [highest individual] total from last year. And I bet he probably missed three or four. He's going to have to learn when he comes off that [edge], to break down, bend, do some other things. Those [offensive tackles] aren't going to stand there like in high school. He's not sneaking up on anybody any more. People are turning protections to him and trying to block him. It's a learning experience for him."

Hall, who had two shoulder surgeries in his brief career in Aggieland, has added considerable weight to his frame since signing with the Aggies in the 2013 class and is around 260 pounds now. He led the team with seven tackles on Saturday, had two tackles for loss, a sack and a quarterback hurry, spending much of the night in Lamar's backfield.

"His strength has improved," Sumlin said. "Here's a guy who's had two shoulder surgeries last year, operated on both shoulders, really worked hard in the weight room, put on 20-25 pounds, still has a ways to go with that. He's an explosive player off the edge and that's what we need."

Hall and Garrett aren't the only ones bringing pressure. The Aggies have benefited from added depth on their defensive line, particularly at defensive end, with true freshmen Qualen Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson joining the mix that includes veteran end Julien Obioha. The injection of new blood has allowed the Aggies opportunities to rotate defensive linemen and keep players fresh throughout games.

Strongside linebacker Donnie Baggs is back at his natural position as a senior and is becoming a weapon off the edge for the Aggies. Texas A&M also has several young linebackers who bring added depth and athletic ability to the edges of its defense, allowing Snyder myriad options to create pressure.

After totaling 21 sacks last season, the Aggies appear on pace to easily surpass that mark. That's good news if the Aggies plan to continue progressing on defense.

"We've got to have guys that can create a pass rush and we didn't have that last year," Sumlin said. "We've got a couple guys that can do that now and that really helps our defense."

Aggies' defense gives reason for optimism

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
11:00
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Texas A&M's biggest question mark coming into this season -- even more so than its quarterback -- revolved around its defense and whether it could show significant improvement after a brutal 2013 campaign.

One game into the 2014 season, there is sufficient reason for optimism in several areas the Aggies struggled a year ago.

[+] EnlargeMyles Garrett and Dylan Thompson
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M's defense, including true freshman Myles Garrett, showed significant improvement from 2013 in its season-opening win, harassing South Carolina QB Dylan Thompson all night.
Overshadowed by the record-breaking starting debut of sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill was the fact that the Aggies showed signs of progress on defense in their 52-28 dismantling of South Carolina on Thursday.

The most noticeable difference was the Aggies’ ability to rush the passer. A sore spot last season (the Aggies had only seven sacks in their first seven games in 2013), Texas A&M showcased its increased depth and athleticism on the edge and harassed South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson to the tune of six quarterback hurries and three sacks.

One of those sacks and two of those hurries came courtesy of the Aggies’ prized 2014 recruit, true freshman Myles Garrett.

“Myles can run with the best of them,” junior defensive end Julien Obioha said.

At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, Garrett showed why he was pursued by most major programs in the country. He displayed strength, athleticism and determination that made him a factor in his collegiate debut.

He wasn’t alone. Defensive ends Daeshon Hall and Jay Arnold and defensive tackle Hardreck Walker also recorded hurries, while linebackers Donnie Baggs and A.J. Hilliard got sacks of their own.

Texas A&M’s much-maligned run defense held up well, too, though it got some assistance. Standout running back Mike Davis played sparingly because of a rib injury, and the Aggies’ put up points at a pace that forced South Carolina to abandon the running game to some extent.

Still, when the Gamecocks did run the ball, they were largely ineffective, averaging only three yards per carry and finishing with 67 yards on 22 attempts.

“I think we just came out and showed that we can stop the run against an experienced offensive line, one of the best offensive lines in the country,” Obioha said. “They have a great group of backs. Mike Davis couldn't play that much [Thursday], but we came out and stopped the run against a very good offense."

The night wasn’t without its flaws. Thompson beat the Aggies’ secondary deep for two long first-half touchdown passes of 69 and 46 yards, and in both cases there were errors in Texas A&M's young secondary that contributed to the big plays.

“We had a safety jump a route and get the first touchdown open and didn't get any help for [cornerback] Deshazor [Everett] and then [we had] a bust [in coverage],” Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said. “Those two big plays really kind of changed the complexion of the first half and it was a different ballgame because of two plays.”

But one encouraging sign for the secondary was the play of true freshman safety Armani Watts, who recorded an interception and two pass breakups. Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder stressed multiple times this offseason that the Aggies needed upgraded safety play, and Watts showed signs Thursday that he might be the one to help provide it.

It wasn’t a perfect night, but given the lack of outsider expectations and last season’s forgettable performances, 2014 has already given the Aggies reason to believe this year will be better.

What we learned: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
10:00
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M's 56-24 win over Vanderbilt showed us a lot. Here are three things we learned about the Aggies from their performances:

When it's intact, the defense can perform: Well, it's not completely intact as the Aggies were minus two starting defensive tackles (Alonzo Williams, left foot, and Kirby Ennis, who's done for the year with a torn ACL), but there was enough personnel on the field that defensive coordinator Mark Snyder was comfortable with. So, he he dialed up blitzes. The results were positive: seven sacks, 95 rushing yards allowed, 329 total yards allowed and three turnovers.

Johnny Manziel can get it done without running: His ability to run is one of Manziel's signature traits, but he ran four only times on Saturday, partially to avoid taking too much contact on his injured throwing shoulder. The result was still pretty good: 25-of-35 passing for 305 yards and four touchdowns in basically two-plus quarters. He had one interception, but otherwise had a stellar day.

Changes aren't a bad thing: There were some lineup changes on defense and for the most part, they worked out well. True freshman Noel Ellis played well in his time at nickelback. Donnie Baggs hadn't started since Sept. 14 but did well in his return to the starting lineup on Saturday. And on offense, the offensive line saw some shifting because of an injured Cedric Ogbuehi. Jarvis Harrison moved from left guard to left tackle, Jake Matthews from left tackle to right tackle, and Garrett Gramling stepped in at left guard. Overall, it was hard to tell there was much of a difference as the unit performed well.

Amid the Johnny drama, Aggies' D shines

October, 26, 2013
10/26/13
6:27
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Just like it has been all season, the attention going into Saturday was on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Was he going to play, or would he sit? How was his shoulder? As he often has this year, Johnny provided a lot of drama.

But the real story from the Aggies' 56-24 win over Vanderbilt at Kyle Field was the performance of the A&M defense. A unit that came into the game ranked 118th in total defense, and was in the bottom 20 nationally in most major defensive statistical categories, put together what was easily one of its best performances of the season.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M turned Darian Claiborne and its pass rush loose, which resulted in seven sacks against Vanderbilt.
Sure, Vanderbilt was playing with a backup quarterback (freshman Patton Robinette made his first start in place of injured Austyn Carta-Samuels), but honestly, that mattered little. This is an A&M defense that struggles to stop virtually everybody. The Aggies allowed 306 rushing yards to Rice. They allowed 240 to FCS opponent Sam Houston State.

After taking a gut punch from Auburn last week to the tune of 45 points and 615 yards (379 rushing), any positive sign is acceptable at this point.

"We need an example to show us how we should play, and now we have an example," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "We can always go back to the Vandy tape. This type of production we expect from the defense, and this is the standard that we expect from our defense. So, it was good to have a game like this."

There was an energy there that didn't seem to exist consistently in recent weeks for the Aggies' D. Howard Matthews (14 tackles, one interception return for a touchdown) played probably his best game of the season. The pass rush was relentless, led by Gavin Stansbury's two sacks, and the 12 tackles for loss. The unit matched its season total for sacks with seven against the Commodores and held an opponent to under 100 yards rushing for just the second time this season. It finally looked like the unit defensive coordinator Mark Snyder envisioned he'd have coming into the season.

"I dialed it up," Snyder said of what generated the consistent pass rush. "We pressured a lot more than we have pressured because we finally could. We felt like we finally got to the point where all the pieces were in place. We had practiced together, and I felt comfortable calling some pressures because everybody knew where they were supposed to be."

Much of that came from a few noteworthy personnel moves. True freshman cornerback Noel Ellis got plenty of time in place of Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel cornerback. Junior linebacker Donnie Baggs, who hasn't started since Sept. 14 against Alabama, got the starting nod at strongside linebacker. True freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall didn't start but saw heavy playing time rotating with starting ends Stansbury and Obioha. Starting defensive tackle Alonzo Williams missed the game with a foot injury, and junior Ivan Robinson replaced him.

The Commodores' best weapon -- receiver Jordan Matthews -- had a solid day (eight catches, 92 yards), but his longest reception was 21 yards. The biggest play came from Jonathan Krause on a 44-yard reception in the first half. Matthews, to his credit, became the SEC's career receiving yards leader with 3,172.

If the Aggies can build on this performance, the outlook for the rest of the season is bright.

Although the defense showed well, most eyes were on Manziel in the early going. For a guy with an injured throwing shoulder, it sure didn't seem to affect him. He completed his first 10 passes and led the Aggies to four consecutive touchdown drives to start the game.

Coach Kevin Sumlin was tight-lipped about Manziel's status all week leading up to the game, calling the Heisman Trophy winner "hopeful." He never budged from that statement but said Saturday that he wasn't playing coy and that Manziel was truly a game-time decision as he tried to recover from the shoulder injury he suffered last week.

Manziel began throwing Wednesday and participated in 11-on-11 drills Friday and even woke up Saturday with soreness. But he said there was no keeping him off the field.

"In my mind, I was always going to play," Manziel said. "It would take a lot to keep me off the field and away from these guys. They count on me, and they expect me to be there."

He completed 25 of 35 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. He ran much less than he usually does because it wasn't in the game plan, mostly to protect him from further injury.

Although Manziel was able to make every throw necessary to put the Aggies' offense in the right position, he got plenty of support from the running game as the Aggies combined for 189 yards, led by Trey Williams' 65 and Brandon Williams' 61.

It was far from a clean win. The Aggies committed five turnovers and allowed the game to get closer than it had to in the first half. But it's something they can build off of as they approach the homestretch.

"It's been a little frustrating as of late with some games a little closer than we wanted," Manziel said. "We felt we've played pretty good all around, but we just need to continue to get better. That's the thing. We're not where we were last year in every aspect of our game, but we have a coaching staff that won't quit until we're where we need to be."

Why A&M has so much youth on defense

October, 25, 2013
10/25/13
11:45
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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.

Saga resolved, Aggies shift focus forward

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
1:30
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Kevin Sumlin, Johnny Manziel Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesIt's been a long offseason for Texas A&M, with Johnny Manziel's eligibility status and the death of Polo Manukainiu, so Kevin Sumlin and Co. can't wait to get back to playing football.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Since joining the SEC, Texas A&M football has been building.

Take one walk in front of the Bright Football Complex and evidence is everywhere. While you can hear the echo of quarterbacks barking commands, coaches making critiques and whistles blowing, those familar sounds are sometimes overshadowed by the sound of moving construction vehicle or the engine of an 18-wheeler.

Last year, it was a 20,000-square foot, $9 million football-only weight room. This year, it's a $4 million expansion of the Bright Complex's lobby and the addition of $12 million nutrition center where athletes can dine. Over the next two years, Texas A&M will renovate Kyle Field to the tune of $450 million.

On the field the Aggies are building for what they hope is a special season. With a preseason top-10 ranking, a Heisman Trophy winner returning at quarterback, a handful of returning starters in key spots and a plethora of talented newcomers added to a squad that was 11-2 in its first SEC campaign, hopes have been high for the Aggies this offseason.

When news came to light about an NCAA investigation into allegations that Johnny Manziel profited from signing autographs for brokers, dreams of that historic season required a brief pause. With his eligibility in question, it was uncertain how much field time -- if any -- he would miss. If he missed too much, the Aggies' hopes of an SEC West title, an SEC title, and perhaps even a BCS title, would likely be dashed.

But Wednesday the saga was resolved. The NCAA and Texas A&M released a joint statement indicating that Manziel has a few things to do to restore eligibility, including serve a suspension in the first half of Saturday's season opener against Rice.

What that means for the Aggies is that fans can go back to dreaming about what could be. Since the redshirt sophomore quarterback won't have to miss an extended period of time, he'll be on the field when the Aggies host No. 1 Alabama in a Sept. 14 showdown and every game thereafter as the Aggies attempt to do something they haven't since the last century: win a conference championship, and perhaps a national championship.

(Read full post)

Strong and weak: Texas A&M

July, 8, 2013
7/08/13
3:39
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It’s time to check out Texas A&M's strongest position and weakest position heading into the 2013 season.

Strongest position: Running back

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is pumped about his depth at running back. But even more so, he's excited about all the different things the Aggies should be able to do with their backs. Christine Michael departed, but dependable Ben Malena returns after leading all running backs on the team with 808 rushing yards last season and averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams showed in the spring just how electrifying he can be and brings an element of speed and explosion that will go hand-in-hand with quarterback Johnny Manziel's ability to break down defenses. Don't forget about sophomore Trey Williams. He was a big-time recruit coming out of high school, and Oregon transfer Tra Carson will also be eligible. Carson is pushing 230 pounds and will be the brute of the bunch. "They can all play anywhere, and that changes what we do," Sumlin said of his four backs.

Weakest position: Linebackers

There will be considerable change at the linebacker position for the Aggies in 2013. Gone are senior starters Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, and the only returning starter -- senior Steven Jenkins -- was limited this spring after tearing his labrum. What's more, the guy coaching the Texas A&M linebackers will be new. Mark Hagen is in his first season on the Aggies' staff after coming over from Indiana. Junior Donnie Baggs was a backup last season, but he's the likely starter in the middle. The unnerving part for the Aggies is that they will have to rely on a lot of newcomers at linebacker, but several of those guys showed real promise this spring. Junior college transfer Tommy Sanders can fly and looks like a natural for the strong side linebacker spot. True freshman Reggie Chevis enrolled early and also went through the spring. He's already 250 pounds and a real thumper in the middle. Brett Wade was another true freshman who went through the spring and got a lot of work on the weak side. With so many new faces, there could be some growing pains early at linebacker.

Texas A&M Aggies spring wrap

May, 6, 2013
5/06/13
4:00
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2012 record: 11-2
2012 conference record: 6-2 (tied for second, West Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Texas A&MTop returners

QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews, WR Mike Evans, DT Kirby Ennis, OLB Steven Jenkins, CB Deshazor Everett, S Howard Matthews

Key losses

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)

Spring answers

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.

Fall questions

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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.

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1. Front seven: The Aggies are looking for someone to replace the production that third-round NFL draft pick Damontre Moore brought last season. Moore led the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks a year ago. Also, with two senior leaders gone from linebacker (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart) Texas A&M not only has to replace the bodies but also the leadership. Because of injuries, the Aggies were thin up front in the spring but when all their key players return in the fall, it will ease at least some of those concerns. Keep an eye on names like defensive end Julien Obioha (who started opposite Moore last year), defensive tackle Alonzo Williams and linebacker Donnie Baggs as players who have a chance to see their contributions increase significantly this year.

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.

Aggies show off offense in spring finale

April, 13, 2013
4/13/13
7:25
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In all its crystal glory, college football's national championship trophy made a brief stop at Kyle Field on Saturday.

Parked on the sideline for a live television shot during Texas A&M's Maroon-and-White spring football game as well as for photo opportunities for those who walked by, it was a seemingly symbolic placement of the sport's most coveted piece of hardware, mere feet from a team that might have a realistic chance to hoist it next January.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin, Johnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesIf Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel want to make it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, they can take a big step forward with a win over No. 1 Alabama.
Yes, it currently belongs to Alabama, the reigning BCS champions, and it will remain that way for the months to come. However, the Aggies were the only team in 2012 to defeat the Crimson Tide, and if they are able to repeat that accomplishment in September, the Aggies should control their own destiny in the title chase.

But that's many months away. In the meantime, the nation got its first extended glimpse of the 2013 Aggies, a team that could be ranked in the preseason top five come August. The score was Maroon (offense) 43, and White (defense) 23, but that mattered little. What the record crowd of 45,212 came to see were how the Aggies looked and, more specifically, what their reigning Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel, would do.

Johnny Football didn't disappoint. He was 24 of 30 for 303 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against an overmatched second-team Aggies defense. He got out of the pocket and scrambled a few times (three carries, 18 yards) but that was not going to be part of the show today in interest of keeping him healthy. Nobody was going to touch Manziel, although he almost found himself in harm's way anyways when he tried to throw a cut block on sophomore defensive back Sam Moeller to pave the way for a Brandon Williams touchdown.

Just one of those Johnny Football moments for the redshirt sophomore.

"I went up and apologized to Sam after it," Manziel said. "The way I am and the way my motor drives me, it was just an instinct play. As much as Coach [Kevin] Sumlin was shaking his head and wasn't happy about it, it was more of 'Hey, in a game, this is how it would have been.' It just naturally took over for me."

He stayed healthy, as did most of the rest of the players who played. The only notable injury to come out of Saturday's scrimmage was an MCL sprain for junior linebacker Tommy Sanders, who'll be ready in the fall.

Several other things about the 2013 Aggies became clear on Saturday. Williams showed why he was such a coveted recruit coming out of Brookshire (Texas) Royal High School, racking up a team-high 59 rushing yards on seven carries and catching three passes for 29 yards while recording a rushing and a receiving touchdown. The Aggies' starting running back from 2012, Ben Malena, is back, as is Trey Williams, who contributed as a true freshman. Adding Williams and Oregon transfer Tra Carson to the mix (both sat out per NCAA transfer rules last season) adds more dimensions to the Aggies' backfield and their offense.

"Brandon Williams is very talented. He's a home run threat from anywhere on the field," Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "We plan on [using all four backs]. ... It's a good problem to have. The thing about those four guys, is that they all bring something different to the table."

While the defense didn't have its best of days, it can be taken with a grain of salt with three surefire starters sidelined by injury and another two defensive linemen who have taken first-team reps also sitting out. The unit out there Saturday isn't exactly what will suit up for the Aggies this fall.

What the Aggies are hoping to develop is leadership. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that safety Howard Matthews is emerging as a leader, as is middle linebacker Donnie Baggs. Having that presence is critical because the Aggies waved goodbye to two of their best defensive leaders, linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, who both graduated.

But plenty of the signs Aggies fans were looking for were present on Saturday. Manziel looked in top form. So did sophomore receiver Mike Evans. The offensive line -- though missing soon-to-be first-round pick Luke Joeckel and graduated center Patrick Lewis -- is coming together well. The remainder of a top-10 recruiting class is on the way in the fall and could produce a few more quick contributors.

Manziel will go back to work and team up with George Whitfield Jr., the private quarterback coach he worked with last summer. Manziel said he's ready to eliminate any doubts about what is ahead for him and this year's Texas A&M squad.

"The big conversation that [Whitfield and I] had before Alabama was 'Be a dragon slayer, slay the dragon,' " Manziel said. "Now there's a big dragon out there for us with all the people that are doubting A&M and all the people that are doubting me that last year was a fluke. So that's a chip on my shoulder and that's a dragon we need to slay this year."

Notes from an up-close look at A&M

August, 15, 2011
8/15/11
11:01
AM CT
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- There's only so much you can take from a 90-minute workout without pads, but here are a couple quick thoughts and observations from Sunday afternoon's workout inside the indoor facility at Texas A&M.

I'll be there this morning for a live scrimmage with pads, too.
  • Last year, when I visited College Station in the preseason, it was pretty obvious during team work that Jerrod Johnson had a ways to go before he was back to the same player he was in 2009. He obviously never quite got there. This year? Not the case. All the usual suspects looked great. Ryan Tannehill was as good as you'd expect, Jeff Fuller looked great, and Christine Michael showed some nice explosiveness and lateral movement. Cyrus Gray is limited after suffering a minor hamstring injury on the first day of camp, but he's expected to be 100 percent for the season opener against SMU on Sept. 4.
  • Every time I've come to a practice at College Station, I've been impressed with what Jameill Showers had to offer as a backup quarterback, and Sunday was no different. It's a limited sample size, sure, but he throws an outstanding ball, and he made good decisions throughout Sunday's workout in team drills.
  • An offseason arrest didn't put Damontre Moore in the good graces of the coaching staff, and as a result, the possible star had spent the first week of camp working primarily with the third and fourth groups, according to other A&M reporters who had attended earlier practices. On Sunday, however, he was back working with the first team at the Joker position. A good sign for his future, no doubt. The sophomore may have struggled off the field during the offseason, but remember: Von Miller infamously wasn't the personification of a leader early in his career, and left as one of the program's all-time greats -- on and off the field. There's plenty of time for Moore to shore up his act.
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  • Inside linebacker is a primary concern for the Aggies this fall camp, especially after they got a preview of a grim future without Michael Hodges this year when Hodges missed the majority of the Cotton Bowl with a knee injury. Garrick Williams is one of the defense's leaders and a returning starter at one of the two spots in the 3-4 scheme, but Donnie Baggs and Jonathan Stewart have been earning lots of time together with the first team -- and without Williams. Coach Mike Sherman's explanation for the approach: "I always like to see guys with the first group, because that's when you get to evaluate them. When you're with the second group, you're going up against the second group of offense. So let's see how they do against the first group guys, so it's really a more accurate evaluation of where they stand. They could be killers in the second group but go to the first group and it's a little bit more challenging, so I want to see them against the better competition."
  • Sherman says he's still trying to sort out who his starter will be, but I like the approach to throw them in with the first-team and see who outperforms the other. Stewart is the more experienced player, but Baggs, a true freshman, has obviously impressed enough to even be in this position. Sherman expects the position to be more solidified early next week.
  • Sherman played it coy when asked about a "rumor" that Texas A&M's coaches met with university president R. Bowen Loftin about the possibility of a move to the SEC. "Rumors? Really? Are you saying it's a rumor? I don't comment on rumors," he said. "You led with a rumor, so..." A poor choice of words, sure, but a fruitless line of questioning, no doubt, regardless of word choice.
  • Safety Trent Hunter did discuss the prospect of the SEC, but only that the team has been told not to discuss it. "Our coaches made a point on the first day. Don't talk about it, don't tweet about it, don't Facebook about it," Hunter said, adding that it hasn't been difficult to focus on the field while rumors swirled. "It's not anything that's going to affect us playing SMU on that first week."
  • Today's scrimmage will be live with plenty of hitting, Sherman says. Should be exciting. I'll have some notes and stats up on the blog later.

Unearthing the Big 12's rising young talents

August, 10, 2011
8/10/11
11:57
AM CT
Time to take a look at a few of the under-the-radar young talents across the Big 12.

Three underclassmen to watch:

Jackson Jeffcoat, Soph., DE, Texas: Jeffcoat might be the most exciting sophomore in the entire league. A solid Longhorns defensive line last year already had true freshman Jeffcoat emerge as perhaps the team's best pass-rusher, never more impressive than in an early-season win over Texas Tech. A high ankle sprain, however, derailed any hopes of an All-Big 12 season. This year, that could change in a Big 12 without any truly elite talents on the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeTexas' Jackson Jeffcoat
Brendan Maloney/US PRESSWIREAs a freshman last season, Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat appeared to be on his way to an all-Big 12 season before an ankle injury.
Corey Nelson, Soph., LB, Oklahoma: Nelson was referred to as the most impressive player in Oklahoma's spring after a quiet freshman year. Now, the Sooners are bending over backwards to try and get Nelson's talent on the field in the midst of a loaded group of linebackers. An earlier experiment featured Nelson at the nickel back spot, and co-Defensive Big 12 Freshman of the Year Tony Jefferson moving from his home at nickel back to free safety alongside sophomore Aaron Colvin, a converted corner, at strong safety. Now, however, with Travis Lewis likely out to begin the season, Nelson will move back to weakside linebacker where he had backed up Lewis, and Jefferson will be back at nickel back.

Ahmad Dixon, Soph., S, Baylor: Dixon was a hometown blue-chip recruit for the Bears, and looks to become one of its biggest playmakers in his first year under new coordinator Phil Bennett. Bennett loves to emphasize speed, and Dixon will take over at nickel back, playing closer to the line of scrimmage in a role that coach Art Briles says is perfect for his skill set.

Three freshmen to watch:

Malcolm Brown, RB, Texas: Brown is probably the biggest name to enter the Big 12 this season, and he'll be worth watching. A physical, bruising, 220-pound runner, Brown may be called upon to help an anemic Texas running game looking for a punch under new coordinator Bryan Harsin.

Donnie Baggs, LB, Texas A&M: Baggs was a relatively unheralded recruit coming out of high school, but made an immediate impact for the Aggies defense after enrolling early and taking part in spring practice. He should be in the conversation for starter at one of the Aggies' inside linebacker spots where Michael Hodges left a void. Baggs may be called upon heavily in fall camp after one of the other contenders at inside linebacker, Kyle Mangan, was arrested last weekend.

Quandre Diggs, CB, Texas: The Longhorns put a second player in this group in Diggs, a freshman who made big noise in spring camp after enrolling early. The depth chart in Austin is still in flux and won't be anything close to concrete until game week approaches, but it'd be shocking if Diggs didn't contribute right away. The secondary lost three NFL corners from last year's team, and there aren't many more experienced players ahead of Diggs that could keep his natural sensibilities for the position off the field.

Assessing the contenders: Texas A&M

July, 1, 2011
7/01/11
11:11
AM CT
Heading into the season, I see five teams in the Big 12 with a realistic chance to win the league. I'll be breaking them down in order (which won't be the same as my post-spring power rankings) of their chances to leave the season with the Big 12 title.

No. 1 on the list was the favorites: Oklahoma

Today, we take a look at my No. 2: Texas A&M.

Why the Aggies will win the Big 12

[+] EnlargeRyan Tannehill
AP Photo/Rod AydelotteQuarterback Ryan Tannehill will be crucial to Texas A&M's success in 2011.
1. They've got the most complete offense.

Center Matt Allen is the only offensive starter not returning, but the Aggies have a solid line, headlined by a maturing, but already talented pair of bookends with big potential, tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. At the skill positions, you won't find anything close to a weakness. Texas A&M returns the best running back corps in the league and maybe the best 1-2 punch in the nation with Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray. All of the team's top five receivers return, and Jeff Fuller, who chose to return for his senior season, is arguably one of the five best in the country. Ryan Tannehill doesn't have a ton of starts (six) under his belt, but he was great in a tight spot last year, and led the team in receptions his first two years on the field.

2. They're especially strong in great places on defense.

Those places: Secondary and pass-rushers. That's huge in the Big 12. New joker Damontre Moore, defensive end Tony Jerod-Eddie and linebacker Sean Porter should combine for more than 15 sacks this year and tons of quarterback pressures that could result in some big plays for another defensive strength: the secondary. All four starters return, and Terrence Frederick, Coryell Judie are experienced seniors at corner, while Trent Hunter and Steven Campbell hold down the safety spots.

3. They made it hard to win nine games last year.

Texas A&M already won a share of the Big 12 South last year, despite ranking 10th in the Big 12 in turnover margin at minus-5. Its 30 turnovers (15 INTs, 15 fumbles lost) were the most in the Big 12 and 111th most in the nation. You'd have to think that number will drop this year with Tannehill at quarterback. He struggled in the loss to LSU, throwing three interceptions, but he had just three in his six previous games at quarterback, compared to 11 touchdowns. Five of those 30 turnovers came from Jerrod Johnson in a loss to Oklahoma State, and if the Aggies take care of the ball then, or this time around, they're likely Big 12 champions.

Why the Aggies won't win the Big 12

1. The defensive losses will be too much.

Damontre Moore should slide in and replace Von Miller. I'd expect him to do well, but what about middle linebacker? Michael Hodges was the heart of the defense in 2010 and its leading tackler. When a knee injury forced him out of the Cotton Bowl against LSU, the Tigers gashed the Aggies' defense, which for the few weeks to end the season, looked like one of the Big 12's best and topped the league in rush defense. Hodges is gone for good now, and the Aggies left spring without a solid replacement. For now, it looks like Jonathan Stewart will slide in, but it could end up being true freshman Donnie Baggs. Either way, A&M won't be as strong there, and teams that can run the ball (i.e., OSU, OU) may take advantage. Lucas Patterson is the only other loss on the defensive side of the ball, but my money is on Hodges being missed the most on the field, even though Miller was the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft.

2. They have to travel to Norman.

Texas A&M has been outscored 107-24 in its last two trips to Norman, and Les Miles at Oklahoma State in 2001 is the only Big 12 coach to ever beat Bob Stoops at Owen Field. The odds are definitely against Mike Sherman becoming the second. The Aggies knocked off Oklahoma in College Station last year, but did it largely on the strength of the linebackers, and Hodges and Miller, who helped orchestrate those three goal-line stops to beat the Sooners, are gone.

3. Hype and the Aggies are not happy bedfellows.

Texas A&M looked like a possible Big 12 South contender last year, but the Aggies lost all three of their first real tests, and nearly lost to Florida International in College Station, erasing a 21-7 fourth-quarter deficit to avoid embarrassment. After being written off by most, they rallied for a share of the Big 12 South, but this year, the attention is back on the Aggies, who will likely be toting a top-15 ranking into the preseason. How will the team handle big games early in the season against Oklahoma State and an early trip to Lubbock before the showdown in Norman? Their recent history suggests "not well."

Spring superlatives: Texas A&M

April, 26, 2011
4/26/11
1:05
PM CT
The ninth in our series looking at the strongest and weakest position for each team in the Big 12: The Texas A&M Aggies.

Strongest position: Skill positions

Key returnees: QB Ryan Tannehill, WR Jeff Fuller, RB Cyrus Gray, RB Christine Michael, WR Ryan Swope, WR Uzoma Nwachukwu, WR Kenric McNeal

Key losses: None

Analysis: You can't pick one position out of this group, really. The Aggies have two of the Big 12's best running backs, both with two years of solid experience in the Big 12.

The same is true of the receiving corps, which is deep and experienced with lots of ability to make sure Tannehill's first full season starting (he was 5-1 in six starts last year) goes well.

In that group of receivers is plenty of balance. Jeff Fuller's size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) makes him one of the best red zone targets in college football, and he caught 12 touchdowns last year. Ryan Swope and Kenric McNeal are some of the league's toughest covers in the slot and Uzoma Nwachukwu is a more balanced receiver with a lot to prove after an underwhelming sophomore year.

Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael are both balanced backs, but Gray's biggest asset is his speed, and Michael is the more powerful back. They complement each other well and could both flirt with 1,000 yards this year. Gray brings a seven-game streak of at least 100 yards rushing into 2011, racked up against defenses like Nebraska, Oklahoma and LSU to close the 2010 season.

The Aggies' backup plan if Tannehill goes down isn't very attractive, with no experience behind him, but he should be among the Big 12's best at the position this year.

Best of all, the offensive line brings back four starters. The Aggies should be among the Big 12's best offenses and defenses, but the biggest asset is its depth and experience at all the skill positions.

Weakest position: Linebacker

Key returnees: Garrick Williams, Sean Porter, Damontre Moore, Kyle Mangan

Key losses: Von Miller, Michael Hodges

Analysis: For the Aggies, linebacker is more of a question mark than a true weakness, but they'll need good players to blossom into great ones if they want to build on last season's strong finish.

Make no mistake, Von Miller and Michael Hodges are huge losses. Miller was the Big 12's best defender last year, and Hodges led the team in tackles, with 115. We already got a preview of what happened to Texas A&M's defense without Hodges in the Cotton Bowl. He went down early with a knee injury and the Aggies fell apart, giving up 41 points to an LSU offense that averaged fewer than 30 last season, ranking ninth in the SEC. It wasn't pretty.

Damontre Moore, at the pivotal Joker position, showed lots of potential last year when Miller was slowed early in the season with an ankle injury, but he was still just a freshman. He'll have to grow up and be counted on for much more as a sophomore this year.

Garrick Williams made 112 tackles last year and should be one of the defense's leaders. Sean Porter may play a bit of the Joker position, but he'll grab another linebacker spot in the Aggies' 3-4 after starting last season and making 74 tackles, third-most on the team.

Replacing Hodges isn't entirely settled yet, but someone will have to step in and be solid in the middle of the defense. Jonathan Stewart and Kyle Mangan played some last year, and freshman Donnie Baggs was in the rotation this spring as well.

More spring superlatives:

Opening spring camp: Texas A&M

March, 22, 2011
3/22/11
10:28
AM CT
Schedule: Texas A&M opens spring practice today and will close with its spring game on April 16. Selected practices are open to fans and media. Here's the schedule.

What’s new: Not very much, and that's a good thing for Texas A&M's immediate future. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter is back for a second year after being heavily pursued by Tulsa in the offseason following his re-establishment of the Wrecking Crew in 2010. The Aggies bring back nine offensive starters, eight defensive starters and two special-teamers from a team that won nine games in 2010. That's the most in the Big 12.

On the mend: Running back Christine Michael is expected to return in the spring after breaking his tibia in the middle of his sophomore season last year. After his injury, Cyrus Gray emerged with seven consecutive games of at least 100 yards, but getting both Michael and Gray on the field is a big help for the Aggies offense. Cornerbacks Terrance Frederick and Coryell Judie will be held out of the spring with injuries, but should be healed up by summer.

On the move: Damontre Moore played plenty of the Joker position last season, especially when Von Miller was slowed by an ankle injury early in the season. He's likely to slide into the same spot, but the coaching staff is open to moving him to a more traditional defensive end spot if the rising sophomore's frame fills out past the 6-foot-4, 248 pounds he played at during his freshman year in 2010. Lucas Patterson is gone, so if necessary, there's a hole at defensive end for Moore to fill. This spring will be a critical period in deciding his future role on the defense. Wherever he plays, he's likely to be a big piece of the Wrecking Crew.

New faces: Quarterback Johnny Manziel is on campus, but early on, he might play a bit of receiver like the Aggies' starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, used to. Linebacker Donnie Baggs and offensive lineman Joseph Cheek have also enrolled early.

Breaking out: Linebacker Sean Porter was overshadowed by a pair of stars at linebacker in Michael Hodges and Miller last season, but he could become one of the leaders of the Wrecking Crew this spring and a star himself. The junior outside linebacker could be a household name soon.

Don’t forget about: Defensive lineman Tony Jerod-Eddie. He suffered a broken foot last season against Texas and missed the rest of that game, but he should be back for a big senior season this year.

All eyes on: Tannehill. He took over as the starter midway through last season and was a big reason behind the Aggies' six-game winning streak to close conference play. All of his top targets are back, but he needs to grab a hold of the offense this spring. It will get more difficult next season for Tannehill as teams collect more tape and learn his tendencies. He already knows the offense as well as anyone, but making sure running it is second nature will be integral to making sure his late-season success last year continues into 2011. He'll get a chance to shore up his timing and chemistry this spring.

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