Dallas Colleges: Josh Lambo

SEC position rankings: Special teams

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
9:00
AM CT
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

Season report card: Texas A&M

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
9:35
AM CT
Final 2013 grades are in for the Texas A&M Aggies:

OFFENSE: A-

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel led the Texas A&M offense to high marks in 2013, but the defense let the Aggies down.
The Aggies have been in the SEC for two seasons now and have led the league in scoring offense and total offense both seasons. It's fair to say Kevin Sumlin and his staff know a little something about offensive football. Johnny Manziel, in his collegiate farewell, was once again brilliant. He did throw 13 interceptions, but he also threw 37 touchdown passes and led the SEC in total offense with an average of 374.8 yards per game. Manziel also showed his toughness and played through some serious pain the latter part of the season. Receiver Mike Evans had 12 touchdown catches and led the league by averaging 20.2 yards per catch. The Aggies didn't have what you would call a bruising running game, but they really didn't need one with Johnny Football running around and slinging it all over the field. The grade is an A- because the Aggies didn't have much pop on offense in their final two regular-season games, a 34-10 loss to LSU and a 28-21 loss to Missouri.

DEFENSE: F

Aggie fans everywhere still shudder in horror when they think about having to watch that defense (or lack of one) in 2013. There's no other way to say it: Texas A&M was awful on defense. The Aggies gave up 30 or more points in eight of their 13 games, and because they were so bad there was tremendous pressure on the offense in every game. The Aggies finished 95th nationally in scoring defense (32.2 points per game) and were 109th in the country in total defense (475.8 yards per game). With those kind of defensive numbers, it's amazing they won nine games. To their credit, they did make a couple of plays on defense late in the bowl game to secure the win over Duke. But it wasn't enough to avoid a resounding "F" for the season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B

While there might not have been anything spectacular on special teams, the Aggies were solid across the board. Drew Kaser led the SEC in punting with a 47.4-yard average, which included a long of 76 yards. Texas A&M finished third in the league in net punting with a 39.4-yard average, and one of the big stories of the year in College Station was sophomore Josh Lambo, a former MLS draft pick, coming on and solidifying the place-kicking position. He was 8-of-10 on field goals and booted the game-winner on the road at Ole Miss. The Aggies didn't return any kickoffs or punts for touchdowns, but they also didn't give up any. They were second in the league in kickoff coverage.

OVERALL: B-

Expectations were sky high entering the season after the Aggies won 11 games in their first season in the SEC, so losing four league games was a downer. The comeback 52-48 win over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl was exciting and helps the final grade a little, but Texas A&M didn't play well down the stretch in the regular season. Even on offense, the Aggies were held to a total of 31 points in SEC losses to LSU and Missouri. Nine wins is never anything to sneeze at in the SEC, but the Aggies also started the season in the top 10 nationally. Their only win over a team that finished the season ranked in the Top 25 was against Duke. But their four losses were all to top 15 teams in the final polls. In the end, this was a season that was wasted because the defense couldn't stop anybody.

Helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
8:15
AM CT
Not many bright spots for Texas A&M in its 34-10 loss to LSU on Saturday at Tiger Stadium, but as we do each week, we'll hand out a trio of helmet stickers to players who had nice days:

Derel Walker: He was the best of the receiving bunch for the Aggies on Saturday. Walker scored the Aggies' only touchdown on a 51-yard catch late in the second quarter and finished with six receptions for 130 yards, a nice 21.7 yards per catch average. Even with that, Walker could have had an even better day if he had held on to a pass from Manziel in the end zone on third-and-goal from the LSU 3 in the second quarter. But on a rough day for the A&M offense, Walker was a bright spot.

Drew Kaser: Kaser has been one of the better punters in the league and in the country this year, even though he hasn't had a ton of opportunities. On Saturday he had plenty, punting five times for 224 yards, an average of 44.8 yards per punt. He had only one punt returned, and he placed one inside the 20 and finished with a net punting average of 38 yards.

Josh Lambo: Lambo was called upon for a 41-yard field goal in the second quarter and hit it, and he also made a PAT kick. He continues to be solid in the kicking game and gives the Aggies some stability and consistency at placekicker.

A&M special teams steadily improving

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
1:15
PM CT
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Even though Texas A&M sophomore running back and kickoff return specialist Trey Williams had a touchdown return nullified for a penalty, special teams coordinator Jeff Banks didn't rant to Williams about the miscue. He didn't have to.

[+] EnlargeSam Moeller
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsThe Aggies special teams unit, seen here blocking a punt against Mississippi State, has come up big in recent weeks.
"I told him 'I hate it for you because you took away what a great play you made. That's punishment enough. I don't need to yell at you,'" Banks recalled telling Williams.

Early in the fourth quarter of the Aggies' 51-41 win over Mississippi State last Saturday, Williams returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. As he approached the goal line, he kept in the air, diving in the end zone, but officials ruled it "unsportsmanlike conduct" as part of a new rule established in recent seasons. The fact that Williams began the act before the end zone meant the penalty would be enforced from that spot. The Aggies scored a few plays later and head coach Kevin Sumlin discussed the matter on the sideline with Williams shortly thereafter, but on Monday, Banks credited his return man anyway.

"I felt bad for Trey but yesterday, I rewarded him with an award [Monday] for having a [100]-yard return for a touchdown," Banks said. "I think he knows enough what happened. I'm sure he'll be on a 'Not Top 10,' or a 'C'mon Man!'"

Jokes and penalties aside, it was part of a solid special teams performance for Banks' group, something that turned out to be significant in Saturday's win. Throughout the season, the Aggies have had their ups and downs in the third phase of the game, but lately it appears they're steadily improving.

Banks noted in recent weeks that his kickoff return group was getting closer and closer to breaking free for a score. When it finally happened, it was the result of Williams' ability, blocking and coaching.

"This was a team that was pretty good at kickoff coverage, but at the same time they had done something different every week," Banks said. "And Trey Williams is phenomenal in improvisation and being able to make people miss in short space and get to the open field. So it was a combination of both of those things."

Because of the different looks Mississippi State showed every week in covering kickoffs, Banks chose to have his group block man-on-man rather than try to scheme something in particular to generate a return. It paid off.

Perhaps the most significant progress on special teams has come in the kicking game. After an inconsistent start to the season on field goals and point-after-touchdown kicks by placekicker Taylor Bertolet (which followed a rough freshman season), Banks made a change, going with walk-on Josh Lambo.

Since taking over, Lambo is 6-of-7 on field-goal attempts and 39-of-40 on PATs. Both misses were the result of miscues on holds. His success includes a game-winning 33-yard field goal as time expired at Ole Miss on Oct. 12.

Bertolet still has a role in the kicking game, serving as the kickoff specialist. He's averaging 62.4 yards per kickoff and has 34 touchbacks to his credit.

"It's huge peace of mind, both on kickoff and the field-goal kicking situation, to know what we're getting every game and to know that they can do it at a high level," Banks said. "I think that's probably more of why I'm feeling so good now. Taylor Bertolet's kicking off really well, kicking to the corners when we need him to, kicking it out [of the end zone] when we need him to and then Lambo's kicking really well. He just hasn't had a lot of opportunities to kick field goals. ... I'm looking forward to him being a big factor in the next two weeks."

And in each of the past two weeks, the Aggies have also come up with a blocked punt. They started the UTEP game on Nov. 2 by blocking a punt on the Miners' first possession that turned into a safety. On Saturday against Mississippi State, they did it again ... and again ... got two points.

"They run several different protections, this last team, and we didn't know which one they would run, so we had to bring an overload type of a block that would block it versus every protection," Banks said. "We got lucky that they switched their protection completely and we wound up getting two guys free as opposed to one. There were some schematics involved with that."

The performance is certainly something that made Sumlin happy.

"I thought all in all, it was another really good performance by our special teams unit again," Sumlin said. "We blocked a punt and a field goal. We had a great kickoff return. All those things helped us win that football game. Across the board, we did some things that were really good, but I thought our special teams unit was exceptional.”

Lambo an unlikely hero for Texas A&M

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
6:00
PM CT
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The scene was one Josh Lambo might never forget.

As his game-winning 33-yard field goal sailed between the uprights with triple zeroes on the clock and fell to the turf at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss., Lambo ran toward the Texas A&M sideline and performed a soccer-style celebratory slide, an homage to his pre-A&M background.

[+] EnlargeJosh Lambo
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisWalk-on kicker Josh Lambo was the Aggies' hero as he hit a 33-yard field goal to win the game vs. Ole Miss.
Aggies mauled him, screaming, yelling and jumping in joy as they reveled in the satisfaction of again escaping with a hard-fought 41-38 win over Ole Miss. They lifted Lambo into the air and as the seconds passed, coaches and players came to Lambo to hug him, congratulate him, thank him.

Even Johnny Manziel, the Aggies' all-everything player and Heisman Trophy winner, approached the walk-on kicker. With his hand clutching the back of Lambo's head to bring him in close, Manziel shared more than a few private words into Lambo's left ear mere feet away from the goal posts that Lambo successfully split moments before.

It was a scene Lambo would have never pictured a couple years ago while playing goalkeeper for Major League Soccer squad FC Dallas.

"I could say I've had better [nights] but I'd probably be lying to you," Lambo said.

The journey to that moment is an unlikely one for the walk-on kicker. Before arriving in Aggieland in 2012, Lambo never put on football pads. He was a soccer player from Wisconsin and found his way to Texas through the 2008 MLS Super Draft, when FC Dallas selected him eighth overall in the first round.

Lambo was with the club through 2011. Before his final season, he was having a meal in a diner with his mother when she suggested he return to his home state and give college football a try. Lambo dismissed the idea initially.

"My mom said 'Come kick for the Badgers. Come back up to Madison,'" Lambo recalls. "I said 'No mom, there's no way I can kick. It's too boring, they don't do anything.'"

But throughout his last season with FC Dallas, he said the thought nagged at him. After his time with the club was up and he didn't get a new contract, he passed on other contract offers from other clubs and decided to give it a shot. He got in touch with former Wisconsin kicker Taylor Mehlhaff and asked if Mehlhaff could teach him how to placekick. Mehlhaff obliged and Lambo began training.

He walked on with the Aggies in 2012 and didn't see any on-field action but competed for a job during preseason camp prior to this season and became the backup to returning starter Taylor Bertolet. When Bertolet struggled early in the season on point-after-touchdown kick attempts, the staff turned to Lambo for that duty.

His first career attempt against SMU on Sept. 21 was unsuccessful as the result of a bobbled hold, but his next attempt went smoothly and his first field goal attempt that night, from 40 yards away, was also good.

Lambo has held on to field goal and PAT duties ever since, while Bertolet continues to handle kickoffs. But the transition Lambo had to go through to transition from goalkeeper on the soccer pitch to placekicker on the gridiron was a significant one.

"The biggest difference was definitely the pads and the helmet and having a snap and a hold," Lambo said. "Going toward a target where there's not a ball and then there's suddenly a ball appears and then you have to kick it, that took a little bit of time. I think my first couple of kicks with a snap and a hold here were pretty ugly last fall in 2012. But I kept on working at it and it paid off."

On Saturday, with the game tied at 38 and time ticking down, coach Kevin Sumlin knew where his offense had to go in order to get within range for a game-winning kick by Lambo. Special teams coordinator Jeff Banks told Sumlin prior to the game that the 33-yard line would be the goal, which would give Lambo a 50-yard attempt.

"I was not quite comfortable with the 33-yard line," Sumlin said with a laugh. "So we kept running the ball."

The Aggies eventually reached the 15, setting Lambo up for a 33-yard attempt. He drilled it, said after the game it was his "best kick" of the night and carved himself out a small spot in Aggie lore.

"I'm just really appreciative of the coaching staff giving me a chance to prove my worth and show them what I can do," Lambo said. "Unfortunately the circumstances came to where I got to go in [earlier in the season], but you know, whenever I got my chance, I knew I was going to take it and I just praise God that I've been able to utilize my opportunities."

Aggies show poise late in games

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
2:30
PM CT
When Texas A&M's defense got the stop it needed to give the offense a chance to win against Ole Miss late in the fourth quarter on Saturday, players and coaches on the sideline elicited a knowing reaction.

"Everybody on the offensive side of the ball had a smile on their face," Malena said. "Especially all the coaches. They were so fiery."

They knew what was about to happen. With a tie game and the ball in the hands of one of college football's best offenses and arguably college football's best player, the coaches, players and plenty who were watching could guess what was coming: The Aggies would drive downfield and score.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel, Mike Hilton
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisJohnny Manziel added to his legend with a game-winning drive at Ole Miss.
They did, pulling out a thrilling, 41-38 road victory over the Rebels.

It was the second consecutive season that Texas A&M had to go into Oxford, Miss., and fight tooth-and-nail for a victory. In 2012, the Aggies had to crawl out of a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to escape with a 30-27 win.

What both instances showed is that the Aggies have tremendous poise when it comes to playing from behind and making plays with the game on the line.

"Championship teams know how to handle adversity," Malena said. "Just because we were down 31-24, with them having the momentum, as a championship team, you can't let that get you. Who said it was going to be easy every game? They have a great team over there, too. Hat's off to them."

There were plenty of ups and downs Saturday. From some brief uncertainty regarding the health of Johnny Manziel, to a couple of key turnovers in the second half, to a defense that struggled to get stops as Ole Miss made a charge and even a missed field goal, there were several situations that could have thrown the Aggies off course and given them their first road loss under Kevin Sumlin.

Instead, when crunch time came, the Aggies made the key plays in all three phases. The defense got a three-and-out on Ole Miss' final possession to force a punt. The offense drove downfield to put themselves in position for the winning points and, after missing an first-quarter field goal, kicker Josh Lambo drilled a 33-yarder to win it.

"I feel like our seniors and our captains, we lead by example," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "Starting with Ben and Johnny, they made big plays running behind Jake Matthews and our offensive line. On defense we just stepped up. In the fourth quarter we knew we had faced a lot of adversity, but we had to step up and make plays on offense, defense and special teams to win this game."

Sumlin noted earlier in the week that last year's battle in Oxford was significant because the Aggies needed a strong effort in the second half to escape. It gave the team confidence after 2011, when Texas A&M lost five games in which they held double-digit leads.

"The year before, I wasn't here, but I heard all the stories about what had happened and the mindset that those types of football games, we wouldn't win," Sumlin said. "There was a lot of emotion after the game [in 2012] and rightfully so and there's no doubt that it helped us gain confidence as the season went on and it helped us gain confidence at a time certainly at a time when we needed it."

Now you have an A&M team that finishes strong, even when behind. Even in losses, the Aggies have stayed in games until the final minute. When the Aggies trailed No. 1 Alabama by three touchdowns on Sept. 14, they kept rallying to keep it close but lost 49-42.

That type of effort is a big reason why the Aggies are 16-3 since Sumlin took over.

"One thing I'll say about our guys: They don't quit," Sumlin said. "It's been kind of a trademark here in the last year and a half. They're going to play until the end and then we'll see what happens."

Johnny Football shines bright again

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
2:50
AM CT

OXFORD, Miss. -- History certainly has a funny way of repeating itself, especially when Johnny Manziel is involved.

A little more than a year ago inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Manziel did the work of a magician in the fourth quarter to erase a 10-point Ole Miss lead. Months later, he went down in the first quarter of the Missouri game with a freak injury to his left knee, only to return and roll up 439 yards of offense and five touchdowns.

Saturday, Manziel orchestrated another come-from-behind, game-winning drive in the fourth quarter against the Rebels and missed one play in the first quarter with another scary-looking injury to his left knee.

Again Manziel flashed a fashionable knee brace, and again it didn't hamper his play. All Johnny Football did was dazzle with his legs -- juking players left and right, making it seem like the brace actually made him more agile -- and arm, as he registered 346 passing yards and 124 rushing yards with two touchdowns in the Aggies' thrilling 41-38 win over Ole Miss.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisJohnny Manziel added another chapter to his legend, donning a knee brace, then dazzling at Ole Miss.
"The thing that makes him different is that he's one of the greatest competitors I've ever been around," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said.

You'd be hard-pressed to argue with Sumlin on that one. The same kid who was loathed for his off-field fun/controversy heading into the season showed once again why he's still the best player in the country. He was cool and collected when Ole Miss' rabid crowd rained boos down upon his head when he trotted out onto the field. He converted a third-and-14 with a 24-yard gain. He converted a fourth-and-7 at midfield with a 13-yard run that helped set up a fancy looking 6-yard touchdown run of his that made it 38-38 with 3:07 remaining.

In the fourth quarter, Manziel registered 177 yards of offense and a touchdown.

Neither the crowd nor his knee or even a fourth-quarter fumble could stop Manziel from playing hero/villain in the Grove on Saturday night.

"He's a funny player. He's outstanding, because I've never seen somebody who's such a gamer," said wide receiver Travis Labhart, who had eight catches for a game-high 97 yards.

"He's unreal. He's one of the best players in the country, if not the best."

There were a few anxious minutes in which the future of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner was thought to be in question. With a little more than five minutes remaining in the first quarter, Manziel fell awkwardly when his left knee buckled at the end of a pass attempt to Mike Evans. Manziel had to be helped off the field but was up and jogging on the sideline when Ole Miss' offense took the field.

Before Manziel stepped back onto the playing field, Sumlin asked if he could go back in and if he was 100 percent. Manziel had quite the answer.

"He's only got one way to do things," Sumlin said.

"If you know him, if he couldn't go 100 percent, he wasn't going to go."

On his first play back a drive later, Manziel completed a 2-yard pass to Sabian Holmes. Next, he threw a 21-yard pass to Holmes. Then, a 17-yard pass to Malcome Kennedy. His next run of the night came in the second quarter, and it went for 24 yards on third-and-14.

When the Rebels kept pace and scored, Manziel's teammates didn't flinch. They knew Manziel would get them into the end zone.

"I just never doubted. I'm always comfortable," Labhart said.

Manziel might rub people the wrong way with his lifestyle, but there's no doubting his on-field talents. He's a lightning rod for attention and controversy, but he's great for college football, and Saturday night he showed everyone why. Nothing gets to him when he's on the field. He turns on a switch and becomes Johnny Football. He makes defenders look silly with his feet and can deliver NFL throws standing tall in the pocket or on the run.

Manziel now has 2,273 yards of offense and 19 touchdowns on the season. There's a reason he won the Heisman last year, and a reason he probably should be at the top of everyone's list right now.

"Johnny's a beast, man," said Josh Lambo, who kicked the game-winning 33-yard field goal. "Week in and week out, we can expect greatness from him. It's so awesome to be a part of the team that he gets to lead out there on the field."

Assessing the Aggies after five games

September, 30, 2013
9/30/13
3:00
PM CT
Texas A&M is 4-1 after its first five games of the season. The Aggies split their first two SEC games and get a brief break with an open date this weekend. With the bulk of their league schedule coming up after the off week, let's analyze where the Aggies are and what's ahead:

The good

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M's Mike Evans might be the best receiver in the nation and a Heisman candidate.
Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans: These two had high expectations coming into the season based on their 2012 performances, and you could argue that they have exceeded them thus far in 2013, especially Evans. The sophomore receiver is making his case to be considered among the best receivers in the country, if not the best. Only Oregon State's Brandin Cooks has more receiving yards than Evans' 691, but Evans's schedule includes Alabama, which he torched for a school-record 279 yards. Manziel ranks in the top 10 nationally in several categories, including total offense, passing efficiency, QBR, touchdowns responsible for and passing yards. He has made a concerted effort to become a better pocket passer, showing more patience when dropping back, but it hasn't taken away from his signature scrambling ability that makes him such an offensive force. If the Aggies continue to win and these two continue to play as they have, one could make the argument that both deserve to be in the Heisman Trophy discussion.

The offensive line and running game: There were some questions coming into the season about how the Aggies' offensive line would fare after losing Luke Joeckel to the NFL draft and center Patrick Lewis to graduation. So far, the Aggies have continued to shine in this area. The protection provided to Manziel when he passes has been stellar, and the Aggies have not had much trouble running the football, averaging 221.4 yards per game. On Saturday against Arkansas, the Aggies actually had more rushing yards than passing. And the last two weeks, we've seen the coaching staff use all four scholarship running backs (Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams) effectively. Malena continues to be a steady force, Carson has provided a hammer who can break tackles and get short yardage but is explosive enough to get chunks as well, and the Williamses are both explosive talents with a lot of speed.

Deshazor Everett: The junior defensive back has been the Aggies' best defensive player this year. Though cornerback is his usual home, he moved to safety for the last two weeks to help alleviate some issues in the secondary. He performed well in both positions, is second on the team with 31 tackles and leads the team with two interceptions, including a pick-six against Arkansas. If the Aggies had more Everetts, their defense would be better off.

Play-calling: The offensive staff, led by offensive coordinator and play-caller Clarence McKinney has done a solid job of ensuring the offense utilizes its many weapons. There has been plenty of balance in the play calls (Texas A&M has run the ball 202 times and attempted 179 passes), the pace of the offense remains high, and it appears the Aggies have had an answer for almost anything opposing defenses have thrown at them. The one game in which the Aggies came up short was due to two turnovers against No. 1 Alabama.

The bad

The defense: To say the Aggies have struggled defensively is an understatement. Texas A&M is 112th nationally in yards allowed per game (476.8), 109th in yards allowed per play (6.59), 107th in rushing yards allowed per game (214.8) and 94th in passing yards allowed per game (262). Some of those struggles were the result of missing personnel in the first two games because of suspensions, but that's not an excuse anymore. Alabama and Arkansas both moved the ball with relative ease against the unit. In the second half against Arkansas on Saturday, the A&M defense did show the ability to get some key stops and make a few plays, so that might be encouraging, but it will have to build on that when it faces Ole Miss on Oct. 12.

The kicking game: The Aggies had to make a change at place-kicker, removing Taylor Bertolet from PAT and field-goal duty and replacing him with walk-on Josh Lambo. The issues haven't just been with the actual kickers, but there were also a couple of botched holds in the first four games. Leaving points on the board might not cost Texas A&M against nonconference foes like Sam Houston State or SMU, but it will cost them in SEC play if it continues to happen. Is Lambo the answer? He had a solid day on Saturday against Arkansas, going 6-for-6 on PATs and hitting a 39-yard field goal. So far he's 2-for-2 on field goals and 7-for-8 on PATs with his only miss coming as the result of a fumbled hold.

What's ahead

Texas A&M has a chance to heal up some injuries this week, which is critical after three starters -- defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, linebacker Darian Claiborne and Evans -- got banged up. Safety Floyd Raven, who has been out with a collarbone injury, continues to make progress in hopes of a return before long.

With the meat of the SEC schedule coming up, the Aggies have to get better on defense if they hope to realize some of their season goals. The offense continues to put up 40 points per game, but if for some reason it has an off night, A&M has to be able to rely on the D to help it pull through. Aside from the kicking game, special teams has been solid overall, and if Lambo is the answer at place-kicker, that's a positive for A&M moving forward.

Perhaps most notably, the drama is behind the Aggies. The constant headlines and media circus that followed the team, specifically Manziel, is in the rearview mirror. Led by Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies handled it well and didn't allow it to distract them from the task at hand.

'Ongoing competition' at kicker for A&M

September, 24, 2013
9/24/13
3:15
PM CT
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The applause at Kyle Field were loud and boisterous.

After three consecutive point-after-touchdown kick attempts failed in Texas A&M's 42-13 win over SMU on Saturday, the volume level of the exuberant Aggies when Josh Lambo put one through the uprights with 11:34 remaining in the third quarter were nearly as high as it was when running back Ben Malena put six points on the board right before it.

Such is the life of the Texas A&M kicking game right now, where every point is appreciated.

Lambo, a sophomore walk-on, is now in what coach Kevin Sumlin called Tuesday an "ongoing competition," for placekicking duties with former starter Taylor Bertolet.

The transition took place on Saturday when the Aggies struggled on extra points. Bertolet missed consecutive attempts in the first half, reminiscent of his struggles in 2012 when he was 67-of-74 on PATs and 13-of-22 on field goal attempts. He is 23-of-26 this season on PATs and 2-of-3 on field goal attempts, with his lone miss being a 31-yarder against Sam Houston State.

After an inconsistent season in 2012 and some early struggles in the Aggies' first four games, the coaching staff decided to try someone new in Lambo, who competed with Kyle Serres during training camp.

"What we're doing is based on competition," Sumlin said Tuesday. "The ability to play in games and based on how you compete during practice and your success rate during practice, so that's where we are.

"That will continue to be the case. It won't change this week or next week. That's a work in progress. I think there's some things that both guys do that are positive, but in this business, life pays off on results, so that's where it is."

Lambo's first PAT attempt Saturday failed because of a fumbled snap by holder/punter Drew Kaser, but he connected on his next attempt as well as a 40-yard field goal late in the third quarter against SMU. Struggles with the hold is also something seen earlier this season.

"Drew's had a couple of those. ... The whole operation has to work," Sumlin said of the kicking game. "Those are things people take for granted. It's like any other position, where you have dropped balls -- concentration is part of that. We'll get that fixed and get that addressed. Like I said, competition is good for everybody."

Bertolet continued to handle kickoffs, as he has since last season. But at least for now, it looks like he has company in the kicking game in Lambo, a Middleton, Wis., product who transferred to A&M from Collin College.

"We're going to keep the competition up just like we do at every position," Sumlin said after Saturday's game. "The guys who compete earn the spot. Lambo came in and did a good job [Saturday]."

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