Dallas Colleges: LaQuvionte Gonzalez
With Mike Evans gone, the Aggies are looking for their next star at the position, one that has seen records broken several times in the last few years.
There is a lot of talent among the Texas A&M receivers, but it is mostly unproven and inexperienced talent. With spring football underway, the Aggies coaches have a chance to discuss and dissect the multitude of openings they have at wide receiver.
The most productive returning receiver is veteran Malcome Kennedy. He is the lone returning starter, having hauled in 60 passes for 658 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Beaty has praised Kennedy's work ethic and leadership before, and Kennedy emerged as a reliable target for Manziel last season.
Now it's about figuring out who the starters will be, which eight receivers will occupy the two-deep and who will separate themselves from the pack. One player most people seem excited to have back in the fold is redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones, who sat out most of last season with a knee injury he suffered in the season-opening win over Rice.
"Getting him back healthy is a blessing for us," Beaty said. "The guy’s got unlimited potential. We really needed him back. I look for him to make huge waves for us."
Through two practices so far, coaches say the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Seals-Jones doesn't appear to show any ill effects from knee surgery.
"He looks good to me out there," offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said. "He's a big target and he's obviously going to bring a whole other element to what we're trying to do. He can stretch the field vertically, and he's very big and physical on the perimeter."
Perhaps the most exciting name to Aggies fans among the receiver group is one of the newest: five-star recruit Speedy Noil. Ranked as the nation's No. 1 athlete prospect in the 2014 ESPN 300, he is already drawing positive reviews from teammates and coaches in his short time on campus.
Beaty called Noil “the best receiver in the country” in the 2014 recruiting class.
“As explosive as anybody I've ever seen,” Beaty said. “Combination of strength, speed and explosiveness. Really smart guy.”
One player who could emerge as an option at outside receiver is redshirt freshman Kyrion Parker. At 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, Parker has several physical gifts.
"This guy is as talented as any receiver I've ever had," Beaty said. "He's got to grow up and mature, and I've watched him do that before my eyes. He's starting to grow into his own. I look for great things from him in the future. He does things that other people can't do. He's big, he's strong, he's fast, he's got great hand-eye coordination. He can go get the ball deep. He's a better route runner than Mike [Evans] probably was at this point in his career."
There is also an assortment of receivers who received modest playing time last season at varying levels: LaQuvionte Gonzalez (21 catches, 240 yards), Edward Pope (nine catches, 65 yards) and JaQuay Williams (four catches, 71 yards). Any of the three could be factors this fall.
“LaQuvionte Gonzalez grew up a ton this year,” Beaty said. “You'd like to redshirt a guy like that, but we weren't able to. He was a guy that benefited from it. ... I think you're going to see him do some great things.
“JaQuay Williams, another really good talent that can do a lot of great things and has come a long way from the time he got here at this time last year. Ed Pope, another guy that I'm looking for to step up and compete. He's got to do a better job of putting on weight and getting really serious about this because there are some real guys here now.”
With so many inexperienced receivers and only one real seasoned veteran in Kennedy, head coach Kevin Sumlin said getting all of these players as much work as possible is the most important part of spring for the receiver group.
“Reps, reps, reps,” Sumlin said. “Reps right now are as important as anything.”
When it comes to figuring out which of the above names are going to emerge as prominent players, Beaty said it’s simple to figure out.
“Here's what's going to happen: The serious, committed guys, those guys will rise to the top,” Beaty said. “The ones that are here just kind of messing around, those guys will drop to the bottom. There are just too many good players here now.”
In each of the last three seasons, one of Texas A&M's receivers exited after rewriting the record books.
In 2011, Jeff Fuller put his name atop the list several A&M receiving categories: single-season receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches, and he established career records in all three.
In 2012, it was Ryan Swope. He left Aggieland as the school's career leader in catches and receiving yards and was its single-season leader in both categories.
After 2013, Mike Evans declared for early entry into the NFL draft and left the Aggies having broken Swope's single-season mark in both single-season receiving yards and single-game receiving yards, and he tied Fuller for the single-season record for touchdown receptions.
As 2014 approaches, the Aggies will be looking for their next great receiver. When spring practice begins later this month, competition begins for the right to be the go-to guy in the wide-open Aggies offense.
There will be fierce competiton this spring at the outside receiver positions. Sophomores Edward Pope and JaQuay Williams each return after playing a backup role at outside receiver last season. There is also a redshirt freshman, Kyrion Parker, who could quickly become a factor.
Pope had nine catches for 65 yards last season -- including the memorable reception at the end of Johnny Manziel's Houdini act to escape a sack attempt by Alabama's Jeoffrey Pagan on Sept. 14 -- and appeared in nine games last season. Williams had four catches for 71 yards and a touchdown while playing in 10 games last season.
A key figure to watch will be Ricky Seals-Jones. The Aggies had high hopes for his freshman season, but those were derailed by a knee injury that cut his season short. He showed a brief glimpse of his ability with a 71-yard touchdown catch in the season-opening win against Rice and did enough in preseason training camp to earn practice time with the first team. If not for the injury, Seals-Jones appeared poised to be a contributor last season.
Much of his practice time was spent as an inside receiver last fall, though he did get some experience lining up outside, too. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he has size similar to that of Evans, so he would make sense as the potential option at Evans' old position should the Aggies choose to go that way. But he appears versatile enough to line up anywhere. If the Aggies like the matchup problems he gives defenses, he could be again seeing time as an inside receiver. Where he lines up and how often will be worth watching in the spring.
Most of the other Aggies' young receivers on campus, including LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Jeremy Tabuyo, freshman Speedy Noil and junior Sabian Holmes, all appear to be inside receiver types, so it's unlikely any of them will take Evans' place on the field.
When it comes to production, Malcome Kennedy, a veteran who spent his time as an inside receiver last season, is the returning statistical leader among the Aggies' receivers. After a 60-catch, 658-yard season in which he caught seven touchdowns, it stands to reason he could see an increase in production, but does that also mean he'll become the go-to guy in the offense next season while remaining an inside receiver?
In addition to Noil, an incoming freshman already on campus, junior college transfer Joshua Reynolds (also a mid-term enrollee), 6-foot-7 receiver Frank Iheanacho and 5-foot-8 prospect Jamal Jeffery will also join the fray in 2014. Iheanacho and Jeffery won't be on campus until the summer, but Reynolds will get a chance to prove if he's worthy of early playing time when the Aggies begin spring practice.
In this offense, it's sometimes difficult to know who will emerge. Nobody had Travis Labhart on their radar at this time last year -- especially after he broke his collarbone in spring practice -- yet the former walk-on wound up being a key member of the receiving corps with 51 receptions for 626 yards and eight touchdowns while filling in at all four receiver spots in the offense.
The position battles at all four receiver spots -- not just Evans' outside receiver spot -- will be among the intriguing things to watch when the Aggies begin spring drills at the end of the month.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has a saying that is echoed by his players, especially at this time of the season.
"It's about us."
The message is clear and self-explanatory. And if the Aggies are going to do what they hope to -- win out the remainder of the season -- Sumlin wants them to take heed of those three words.
And while their own preseason goals -- an SEC championship and a run at a BCS national championship -- are out the window, there are still things left for Texas A&M to play for. If the Aggies win the remainder of their games, who knows? They might just sneak their way into their first BCS bowl since 1998.
The final three-game stretch is a challenging one. The Aggies host Mississippi State next weekend, then are off the following week before the difficulty level ramps up with trips to LSU and Missouri to close out the season. Both of those teams are still playing for a chance to go to Atlanta to play in the SEC title game, and in order to knock them off in their respective stadiums, the Aggies will have to put together a complete game, for four quarters -- something they really haven't done yet this season.
But in the past two weeks, in a 56-24 victory over Vanderbilt and on Saturday in the blowout win over UTEP, the Aggies have begun inching closer to playing that type of game. Throughout the first seven games, the defense was mostly poor while the offense carried the load. Special teams had issues, too, as the Aggies battled an inconsistent situation at place-kicker before moving Josh Lambo into the role, one that he has taken and run with.
The past two weeks, the Aggies defense has performed admirably. It had probably its best all-around performance against the Commodores, and on Saturday, against a much weaker opponent, the Aggies really only had one bad drive on defense, the nine-play, 73-yard touchdown drive that gave the Miners an early 7-2 lead.
UTEP, which came into the game without starting quarterback Jameill Showers (shoulder injury), couldn't move the ball with consistency against A&M when the Aggies began to rack up points. On top of that, A&M's defense was ball-hawking in the second stanza, coming up with three turnovers. The offense turned those into 21 points and blew the game open. UTEP finished with just 198 total yards, and life was understandably difficult with backup Blaire Sullivan running the offense. Still, this is an Aggies defense that had trouble stopping virtually everybody earlier this season.
"We've been having great practices the last few weeks," junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury said. "Also, I think it has to do with confidence. You have to have confidence in yourself and in your team to have a great game."
While the defense has stepped up its efforts the last two weeks, the offense has had its hiccups. Last week it was bitten by the turnover bug, giving the ball away four times. On Saturday against the Miners, the Aggies seemed out of sync in the first quarter. Quarterback Johnny Manziel and receiver Mike Evans couldn't get on the same page, though opportunities were there. The Aggies punted twice in the first quarter -- a rarity for them in any single frame.
What began as a snoozer with Texas A&M's offense sputtering turned into a rout with an explosive second quarter by the Aggies, who outscored UTEP 27-0 in the second quarter to take a commanding 36-7 halftime lead. From there, no doubt remained of the outcome as Manziel led two more scoring drives in the third quarter before calling it a night, after throwing for four touchdowns and running for two, including an impressive 49-yarder that looked like the 2012 version of Manziel.
The A&M special teams started well, meanwhile, blocking a punt that led to a safety and giving the Aggies an early 2-0 lead. But the unit had its issues, too. Punter Drew Kaser, who serves as the holder on point-after-touchdown kicks and field goals, bobbled a snap, which left a point off the board. Freshman LaQuvionte Gonzalez also muffed a punt in the second half, though the game was well in hand.
Those are issues that have to be rectified if the Aggies hope to close out the final three-game stretch with three wins. They still haven't put a good performance from all three phases together on one night, though they might be inching closer to doing so.
"It's hard to say, when you win 57-7, to say that you didn't play a complete game," Sumlin said. "As a coach, there's some positives there. Our guys understand that we can be better than we were tonight."
As the Texas A&M sophomore dominates defensive backs weekly, defensive coordinators shift their game plans to pay more attention to the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Evans. Rightfully so, because if proper attention isn't paid, he'll make opponents pay, as he did to Auburn (287 receiving yards, four touchdowns) or No. 1 Alabama (279 receiving yards). In eight games, Evans has nearly matched his 2012 season-long receiving yardage total with 1,101 yards (he had 1,105 in 2012) and has more than doubled his touchdown total from last year's 13-game campaign (11 this season after five in 2012).
Other than Evans, this year's crop of receivers was a mix of returnees who have received only modest or no playing time and a batch of newcomers, as the Aggies signed six receivers in their 2013 recruiting class.
So far, the Aggies seem to be finding contributors.
The most consistent of the supporting cast has been junior Malcome Kennedy. Best known for catching the Aggies' final touchdown in their 29-24 upset win over Alabama in 2012, he is second to Evans with 43 receptions, 447 yards and four touchdowns. Kennedy has provided a consistent, middle-of-the-field target for Johnny Manziel this season, stepping into Swope's old 'Y' receiver position.
From week to week, the players who have emerged have varied. Senior Derel Walker (30 catches, 414 yards, two touchdowns) appears to have an increasing role in the offense as an outside receiver, with at least four catches in three of the last four games, including two touchdowns against Vanderbilt. Senior Travis Labhart has emerged lately, catching 20 passes in his last three games after only three receptions in the first five games of the season.
Early in the season, sophomore Sabian Holmes was targeted several times and a true freshman, Ricky Seals-Jones, had a smashing debut against Rice before a knee injury ended his season.
"That's what our philosophy is based on," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We need good players at all those positions instead of just one. Otherwise you get the double team and then, 'Now what?' We've got good running backs that can catch it out of the backfield and put pressure on you that way, but in order to be a complete offense we've got to get production from our other receivers."
The Aggies got that against Vanderbilt, with Kennedy hauling in a team-high eight passes, Evans catching five and Walker with four. As the season wears on, even more players are finding themselves in the mix, such as true freshman LaQuvionte Gonzalez. Though most of the time he has seen has been on special teams as a kick returner or running fly sweeps, Gonzalez got into the mix on Saturday and caught four passes for 52 yards and his first career touchdown. With his speed and quickness, he has the look of someone who will fit nicely in the offense moving forward.
And, as Sumlin noted, running backs are a factor in the passing game as well.
"We've got a number of guys that we feel good about going in and out of the game and we need to have that this time of year," Sumlin said. "Because of what we do, all those guys have to be able to execute the offense, catch the ball, hang on to it, because you can't play one guy the way we go up and down the field. We had 78 snaps [Saturday]. We've got to be able to develop some depth, and I'm pleased with how those guys have come along."
But silence is a key word in describing some of the growing pains the Aggies had to go through in their season-opening win against Rice on Saturday, as they played 16 true freshmen, 11 of which were defensive players.
A&M coach Kevin Sumlin illustrated that point thusly:
"We had a couple situations where a couple guys actually froze up out there and wouldn't even open their mouths and couldn't get lined up," Sumlin said after Saturday's 52-31 victory. "The D-line said they couldn't hear and then one of them admitted to me "Coach, I just didn't say anything. I was just standing there.'"
Not exactly what a coach is looking to hear from defensive players, particularly when facing a no-huddle offense. Communication, especially in those situations, is key for a defense.
The Aggies coaches did what they could to prepare their newcomers, but some lessons are only learned the hard way.
"It's like anything else," Sumlin said. "As a coach, you try to prepare guys for all situations, but until the live bullets are flying, you don't know. It'll get better as it goes on, but I think the experience that we gained from today will help us down the road, a bunch. Particularly [in the front seven] because that's where most of the guys are gone."
The struggles were clear. As the defense tried to find its footing, Rice showed the ability to move the ball with ease. The Owls finished the game with 509 total offensive yards, including 306 rushing. The last time they gave up that many offensive yards was in their marathon battle against Louisiana Tech last October (615) and they haven't allowed that many rushing yards since a 66-28 drubbing at the hands of Oklahoma on Nov. 8, 2008.
True freshman played on the defensive line (Jay Arnold, Isaiah Golden, Daeshon Hall and Hardreck Walker), at linebacker (Darian Claiborne, Jordan Mastrogiovanni, Shaan Washington) and defensive back (Noel Ellis, Tavares Garner, Alex Sezer Jr. and Jonathan Wiggins).
"There's no way to duplicate the tempo and the emotion [of a game]," Sumlin said on Tuesday. "You know what you're doing, but the pressure to perform in that environment can be very, very difficult on a young guy, and that's what experience is all about."
Offensively, the Aggies were much better off. Even though Matt Joeckel made his first career start at quarterback, he's a junior who has spent more than a year practicing in the offense and he had at least seen some game time. Center Mike Matthews, who received high praise from Sumlin on Tuesday, also played in games and traveled with the team last season.
The true freshmen who saw the field for the first time on offense were all receivers: Ricky Seals-Jones, Jeremy Tabuyo, LaQuvionte Gonzalez and Ja'Quay Williams. But because there were more experienced players surrounding them on Saturday, not to mention Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel entered the game in the third quarter, the transition was smoother for the Aggies' offense.
In total, 21 newcomers saw the field for Texas A&M on Saturday, many in significant roles. Plenty will log significant time this Saturday against Sam Houston State, as four players received two-game suspensions and won't be back until Sept. 14 against Alabama. With a signing class of 31 players in February, there was no question the Aggies were going to need some of the newcomers to contribute. By being forced to play so many in the first game, Sumlin feels like it could be a positive later in the season.
"[It's] a real, real learning experience," Sumlin said. "I think for those guys, that's going to pay dividends for us down the road."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M held its regularly scheduled weekly news conference on Tuesday in advance of its season opener against Rice on Saturday. While many wonder about the status of quarterback Johnny Manziel, there are other things to keep an eye on. Here are five storylines facing the Aggies as they await the Owls at Kyle Field:
1. Will Manziel play?
That's what Texas A&M fans and much of the college football wants to know: will Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel start on Saturday for Texas A&M? The question remains unanswered officially. Athletic director Eric Hyman released a statement on Monday evening indicated that he instructed the coaching staff and players to not comment on Manziel's status. When Kevin Sumlin was asked about it on Tuesday he said "We're not discussing that....I can't talk about how that decision is going to be made and what goes into that decision. I said from day one, the first day [of training camp], that there will be a lot of people involved in that decision. So what goes into how that decision's made, obviously I can't discuss." So for now, the wait continues.
2. What if Manziel doesn't play?
At this point, the Aggies turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kenny Hill. Both received praise from coaches and teammates alike on Tuesday. Senior running back Ben Malena said he believes the team will be comfortable with whoever is taking snaps on Saturday. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said offensively, the Aggies would still remain the same. Joeckel brings the presence of a pocket passer who has already spent a year learning the offense while Hill is a dual threat who can run and throw and has had to learn the offense quickly. But on Tuesday, the Aggies appeared confident in both of them should either be pressed into duty.
3. New faces
Sumlin advised fans attending Saturday's game to "buy a program or bring a flip card," because of how many newcomers will see time on the field. Of the 31 players who signed with the Aggies in February, Sumlin said he expects at least 10 to play a role this season, and perhaps as many as 15. Some of the notable newcomers to look for on Saturday include freshmen receivers Ricky Seals-Jones and LaQuvionte Gonzalez, tight end Cameron Clear, who was a juco transfer, linebacker Tommy Sanders -- also a juco transfer -- and true freshman linebacker Shaan Washington. Look for even more newcomers to get looks on special teams, including some of the aforementioned names.
4. Missing personnel
There are suspensions facing three defensive players: senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, junior cornerback Deshazor Everett and junior safety Floyd Raven, all three of whom had off-the-field legal trouble this offseason. Ennis and Raven will miss the entire game; Everett will miss a half. Ennis is a starter, so that means you could see a true freshman -- either Isaiah Golden or Hardreck Walker -- in his place when the Aggies go to four defensive linemen. In place of Everett, also a starter, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that the Aggies will rotate cornerbacks. Expect to see a heavy dose of Tramain Jacobs but possibly some freshmen such as Alex Sezer, Victor Davis or Tavares Garner as possibilities.Raven isn't listed as the starter at free safety like he was coming out of spring football. Instead, it's junior Clay Honeycutt, who Snyder was complimentary of on Tuesday. Honeycutt, a former high school quarterback at Dickinson (Texas) High, has come a long way according to Snyder and has earned himself the start against Rice.
Also of note, running back Brandon Williams [foot surgery] might be limited. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said "I wouldn't expect to see a lot from Brandon on Saturday."
5. Familiar foes
The Aggies and Owls haven't met on the field since the Southwest Conference folded in 1995, as both teams were part of the now-defunct league, but the coaching staffs do have recent history. David Bailiff is in his seventh season at Rice, a rival of Houston, where Sumlin was the head coach for four seasons (2008-2011). Snyder also stood on a sideline opposite Bailiff when Snyder was the head coach at Marshall from 2005-09. Sumlin's staff also recruited Rice starting quarterback Taylor McHargue when Sumlin was with the Cougars. So there is plenty of familiarity, at least in terms of coaching staffs, between the two squads.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Just like the quarterback for whom he became a favorite target, Mike Evans was a relative unknown outside of Aggieland at this time a year ago.
A redshirt freshman without much organized football under his belt -- he played just a year of varsity football at Ball High in Galveston, Texas -- Evans became much more well known to the college football world as Johnny Manziel's favorite target in 2012.
This spring, Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital used a unique term to describe what Evans -- who led the Aggies with 82 receptions and 1,105 receiving yards in 2012 -- became to the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
"I call him his 'Panic guy,' " Spavital said. "When you're in a panic, you turn and you find Mike Evans and throw it at him. And he did a lot of that last year."
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Evans won't surprise anybody this season, as opponents are now well aware of what he can do. Whether it was making a clutch catch to help the Aggies pull out a comeback win at Ole Miss, using his physicality to stiff-arm his way past smaller defensive backs or simply becoming a consistent option for Manziel, the sophomore receiver is looking to build off a strong first season.
And yes, he can get better, according to his coaches. That's not an ideal thought for opposing secondaries.
"Probably the biggest thing for himself [that he can improve] is route running," receivers coach David Beaty said. "Just the art of route running and understanding how to control that big ole body and play with bent knees, his posture being a little bit lower, really being able to use that tool, playing lower and creating more explosiveness."
Beaty would like to see Evans improve near the goal line as well.
"With his 6-5 frame, we need more production from him down by the red zone," Beaty said. "He should be a human red-zone highlight film himself. We need him to step up and do that, along with the rest of the guys -- it's not just going to be Mike. But we've got to be able to throw it up to that big sucker and have him come down with it."
Aside from Evans, there are openings for three starters at receiver because of graduation.
The heir apparent to Ryan Swope, who was the team's second-leading receiver last year and leader in touchdown receptions, is junior Malcome Kennedy.
Perhaps best known for making the touchdown catch that gave the Aggies their final points in a 29-21 upset win at No. 1 Alabama, Kennedy is the new starter at Swope's old 'Y' receiver position, which is essentially the slot receiver to the right side of the offensive formation. Kennedy's goals are clear.
"Being a playmaker," he said. "I made a few plays last year, but people only saw a few of them: the Alabama play and a few plays against Missouri. I'm ready to be a go-to guy. The position that I play, the 'Y' for Texas A&M, that's the go-to man."
Senior Derel Walker, who had an impressive spring game, has been working as the first-team outside receiver opposite Evans during preseason training camp and could be the starter there. Beaty called Walker the "brightest surprise" of his group since spring. At the other slot position opposite Kennedy, sophomore Sabian Holmes has received much of the first-team work in camp after playing part time last season as a true freshman.
And the six freshmen who were part of the Aggies' top-10 recruiting class that signed in February are making their presence felt as well. One in particular that has caught the eye of almost everyone during camp is former Sealy (Texas) High School standout Ricky Seals-Jones.
If there's anyone on the Aggies roster that could compare to Evans in body type it's Seals-Jones, whom Evans called "bigger" than him earlier this month. At 6-5 and now 240 pounds, Seals-Jones was an ESPN 300 selection who was ranked as the No. 8 receiver in the country coming out of high school.
"The guy's all muscle," strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson said. "This guy is 18 years old and he looks like a grown man. Chest, abs, everywhere there are muscles. I just have to make sure for 70, 80, 90 snaps that he can keep rolling."
Head coach Kevin Sumlin said that Seals-Jones, who has practiced a lot as the 'Y' with the second team, will get plenty of playing time.
"He's got real ability," Sumlin said. "He's very athletic, but he's got to learn the nuances of the position. He's seeing a lot of different blitzes; we're throwing things at him. I think with Malcome in there right now, it's giving us some flexibility that he doesn't have to start right away. We can kind of bring him along, which is good with him. But he's definitely going to have a role in our three and four-wide and maybe even some two-wide package, but he's got real talent and he's working on it.
"He's big and he's fast and he's got real good hands."
LaQuvionte Gonzalez, a quick, versatile weapon out of Cedar Hill, Texas, who was also an ESPN 300 recruit, figures to have a role. So does four-star signee Ja'Quay Williams out of Georgia. And the Aggies figure to use more tight ends in their attack this season with the return of senior Nehemiah Hicks and the addition of 6-foot-7, 270-pound Cameron Clear out of Arizona Western College.
If training camp is any indication, Manziel will have plenty of quality targets in addition to Evans this fall.
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