Dallas Colleges: Luke Joeckel
Several months after the fact and more than halfway through the Aggies' season, has anybody made progress on finding one for the guy primarily responsible for protecting Manziel's blind side?
With a talent and personality as prominent as Manziel on the roster, or a receiver as productive and highlight-worthy as Mike Evans has been this season, Matthews' name isn't usually the first to leave the lips of someone talking about Texas A&M football. But if current projections hold true, it's more than likely Matthews will be the first Aggie to have his name called when the 2014 NFL draft rolls around in May.
Several prognosticators have the 6-foot-5, 305-pound offensive tackle as the top player at his position in next year's draft and one of the top 5 or 10 players overall. Matthews, the son of NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman and Tennessee Titans assistant coach Bruce Matthews, was widely considered to be a potential first-round pick in the 2013 draft but chose to stay in Aggieland for one more season.
After spending the early portion of his career at right tackle, Matthews moved over to left tackle this season and that has helped his draft stock by adding versatility to the list of traits he possesses. He has had to use that versatility of late when the Aggies lost right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi to an injury for the last two games. As a result, Matthews went back to right tackle and left guard Jarvis Harrison filled in for Matthews. The offensive line didn't seem to miss a beat as a result.
"Hopefully I showed I'm versatile and that I can do both," Matthews said. "That's a pretty big benefit. It was challenging too, but coach needed it and wanted me to do it so I was happy to do it."
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin likes to use the term "low maintenance great player," for a select few and Matthews falls into that category. So did Luke Joeckel, who was the No. 2 player chosen in the 2013 NFL draft and is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Matthews would love the chance to enjoy a similar fate come next May and is flattered to hear his name discussed among the draft's top players.
"It's really exciting and really humbling," Matthews said. "Just thinking about where I've come from, how far I've come, just playing this position, it's something really special. I'm proud to be [mentioned] in those ranks and hopefully I continue having a good season and finish it up on a positive note and we'll see what happens."
But the senior returned for his final season for several reasons. The chance to play alongside his younger brother, Mike Matthews, who is Texas A&M's starting center this season, was one. The chance to help the Aggies accomplish something special was another. While their ultimate goals of an SEC championship and perhaps a BCS national championship have all but evaporated, there's still plenty for the Aggies to play for.
The adjustment to left tackle hasn't been an easy one for Matthews. Footwork and hand placement are among the biggest things he's had to refine after switching from right to left and he has found that he's facing more elite pass rushers on that side of the formation.
"When you play in the SEC against the quality opponents that we are, really nothing's easy," Matthews said. "Like I said, just going and giving different types of looks on pass rush and stuff like that, I didn't get as much of that at right tackle. But the guys are really good over there on the left side."
On Saturday when the No. 15 Aggies host Mississippi State, it will be the final game in Kyle Field for Matthews and a host of other Texas A&M seniors. They'll close out their season with two road games at LSU and Missouri, so Saturday will mark the last time Matthews and his fellow seniors jog out of the tunnel in front of the 12th Man. Matthews said he has no regrets about his decision to return.
"It's gone by way faster than I ever could have expected," Matthews said. "It feels like maybe a couple weeks ago I made the decision that I was going to stay. Now it's already almost over. I'm going to be excited, proud, going out there for the last time. This school and all the fans have been nothing but good to me and I've enjoyed being at this school and playing so much. I just want to go out there and put on a good show in my last go round at Kyle Field."
Through six games, the No. 7 Aggies can safely say all is well up front. Even with two newcomers and some shuffling by moving returning starters around, the unit is again performing at a high level and is one of the reasons Texas A&M's offense continues to be one of the best in college football.
While it's difficult to replicate what the Aggies had last season, when all five starters last season played multiple seasons together, it's easy to see how well this year's group is doing. All it takes is watching quarterback Johnny Manziel drop back and sit comfortably in the pocket for five, six and sometimes seven seconds looking for a receiver or deciding to use his scrambling ability to gain yardage.
"Offensive line has played really good, with the exception of one game," offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "I think those young guys in one of those six games -- I think it was SMU -- had some struggles. But for the most part, they've played great."
Against SMU, there were some penalties and self-inflicted errors that the Aggies needed to clean up. Their performance against No. 1 Alabama was strong and they've been consistent, for the most part, the rest of the year.
The transition began back in spring, moving Jake Matthews from right tackle to left tackle to replace Luke Joeckel. To fill Matthews' void, right guard Cedric Ogbuehi kicked out to right tackle. Jake's younger brother Mike Matthews stepped in as the starter at center and redshirt freshman Germain Ifedi slid in at right guard. The only player still in the same position last season is left guard Jarvis Harrison.
Behind that quintet, the Aggies are putting up 586.5 yards per game (No. 3 in the country) and have allowed only seven sacks, which puts them in the top 30 statistically in the country. They're 20th in rushing yards (224.6 yards per game) and sixth in passing yards (361.8 per game).
"They're getting better every week," senior running back Ben Malena said. "It's hard to compare this year's group to last year's because they're only six games in, but I can tell you every week they are getting better."
The biggest question marks coming into the season centered around the first-time starters. So far, they've answered the questions.
"I'm really pleased with the young guys," offensive line coach B.J. Anderson said. "I think they've made some strides. They've played in some atmospheres where we had to communicate. Mike's done a really good job. I've changed protections on him a couple games. ... I'm really pleased with where he's at, and the same way with Germain. He's getting better every game and we're fixing some things that need to get fixed and we'll just keep working."
Anderson noted that they're not holding anything back from Mike Matthews, who is just a sophomore, when it comes to game-planning and protections. That's critical considering the vast array of defensive looks Anderson said opponents have thrown at the Aggies.
"If you had told me that I had that flexibility back in August, I'm not sure I would have believed you," Anderson said. "But he's got the kitchen sink right now. I'm not doing anything that I didn't do with Pat Lewis, who was a senior. He's able to make all the adjustments I need and I'm really pleased with the mental work he does during the week, preparation-wise."
The "older guys" -- senior Jake Matthews and juniors Harrison and Ogbuehi -- have also shined. Matthews' adjustment to left tackle has been smooth, as has Ogbuehi's to right tackle. Harrison has impressed Anderson with his effort week to week.
"Jake's Jake and Ced's doing a good job and Jarvis Harrison is playing his tail off -- as well as he's played since I've been here," Anderson said. "He's playing with great effort. It shows on tape and I'm happy with those older guys."
Manziel's progression and mastery of the offense in the second season in the scheme has helped as well. Players say they notice Manziel has tried to stay in the pocket more often.
"I feel more this year that he hasn't scrambled as much and he has been more patient," Ogbuehi said. "He looks to throw more, too. He's always looking to make a big play with his arm, and that's good."
Perhaps the best aspect of this group is it has stayed healthy. The Aggies were fortunate to keep all five starters healthy last season, and that's been the case this year, too. It isn't a perfect group, but it is a smart, talented one that continues to improve every day.
"This year, we're still trying to get there but so far we're getting there," Ogbuehi said. "It's exciting so far what we've done in the little time we've had together."
Coach: Kevin Sumlin (46-19 overall, 11-2 at Texas A&M)
2012 record: 11-2
Key losses: OT Luke Joeckel, DE Damontre Moore, LB Sean Porter, LB Jonathan Stewart, WR Ryan Swope
Key returnees: WR Mike Evans, DB Toney Hurd, QB Johnny Manziel, OT Jake Matthews, OT Cedric Ogbuehi
Newcomer to watch: RB Brandon Williams
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: As of Monday, it is the status of quarterback Johnny Manziel. News broke Sunday of an NCAA investigation of Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, about whether he accepted payment for signing autographs. There's concern whether his eligibility for the upcoming season will be affected. If it is, the Aggies would have to turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or redshirt freshman Matt Davis at quarterback. If no wrongdoing is found, the expectations will be high for the Aggies.
Forecast: If Manziel is cleared of any wrongdoing in the NCAA investigation, then the Aggies are legitimate SEC West, SEC Championship and perhaps BCS Championship contenders. They'll likely be favored in every game except their home matchup against Alabama on Sept. 14 and perhaps a road game at LSU on Nov. 23, one of the two teams they lost to a year ago.
Aside from Manziel, the biggest on-field questions for the Aggies are on defense. Three of their most productive players from 2012 -- defensive end Damontre Moore and linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart -- are now in the NFL. The Aggies are young and inexperienced in the front seven and the status of two starting defensive backs (cornerback Deshazor Everett and safety Floyd Raven) must be determined after offseason arrests.
Still, with the return of Manziel, leading receiver Mike Evans and three offensive linemen, the Aggies have the offensive personnel to compete with any team in the country. They proved as much in their upset of eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last season. If the defense can make the kind of strides it did a season ago, when the Aggies had depth questions across the defense and concern about size up front in a line-of-scrimmage league, then Texas A&M can seriously contend.
If Manziel's eligibility is affected as a result of the NCAA investigation, the Aggies have no quarterback on the roster who has started a college game. Joeckel and Davis will battle it out in training camp. While the Aggies can be a good team without Manziel, dreams of reaching the highest heights will be severely damaged if Manziel is forced to miss more than two games.
2012 conference record: 6-2 (tied for second, West Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1
QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews, WR Mike Evans, DT Kirby Ennis, OLB Steven Jenkins, CB Deshazor Everett, S Howard Matthews
LT Luke Joeckel, C Patrick Lewis, WR Ryan Swope, DE Damontre Moore, OLB Sean Porter, MLB Johnathan Stewart, FS Steven Terrell
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Johnny Manziel* (1,409 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel* (3,706)
Receiving: Mike Evans* (1,105)
Tackles: Damontre Moore (85)
Sacks: Damontre Moore (12.5)
Interceptions: Deshazor Everett* and Steven Terrell (2)
1. Johnny Football: The Aggies are in the rare position of returning the previous season's Heisman Trophy winner. Heading into his sophomore season, Texas A&M is hoping that quarterback Johnny Manziel can be even better than he was a season ago. This will be his second year in the offense and for quarterbacks who have played in this system, year two is typically a season in which they progress significantly as passers. That's one of Manziel's primary goals, even though he'll still run when the time calls for it. As long as he's healthy and playing well, things bode well for the Aggies.
2. Experienced secondary: Last season, the defensive backfield was young and inexperienced. This fall, there are still young players back there, but it is the most experienced unit on the Aggies' defense. Three of the four starters in the secondary from the AT&T Cotton Bowl are back: Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris and Howard Matthews. Junior Floyd Raven has moved from cornerback to free safety and appears to have the skill set (range and tackling prowess) to fit into the position well.
3. Loaded backfield: The Aggies have four good options in their offensive backfield for Manziel to hand off or throw to. Starting running back Ben Malena returns, as does Trey Williams, who returned kicks and received carries as a true freshman. Add to the mix a pair of transfer backs who sat out last season, Brandon Williams (Oklahoma) and Tra Carson (Oregon) and the Aggies have a quartet that gives them a multitude of options.
|Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin talks about the improvements being made to Kyle Field, what those improvements will to for the program, the success of last year, Johnny Manziel's offseason and the expectations for the Aggies in 2013. |
2. New receivers: Only one starting receiver returns from last year's squad: Mike Evans. Four of the top six players in receiving yardage are no longer on the roster, including second-leading receiver Ryan Swope. So who will Johnny Manziel throw to? Keep an eye on guys like Malcome Kennedy, who caught a fourth-quarter touchdown against Alabama last season, Derel Walker, who had a strong spring game, Edward Pope, who was a star on the scout team when he redshirted last year and a host of recruits from the 2013 class like Ja'Quay Williams and ESPN 150 duo Ricky Seals-Jones and Sebastian LaRue. Developing other reliable pass-catching options is critical, so keep an eye on how they use the tight ends with newcomer Cameron Clear (6-foot-7, 270 pounds) on campus.
3. Kicking game: One player who fans kept a close eye on this spring was kicker Taylor Bertolet. In his redshirt freshman season, the strong-legged kicker struggled with consistency, hitting just 13-of-22 field goal attempts and missing seven point-after attempts. With a new special-teams coordinator (Jeff Banks) who has college punting and kicking experience around to guide him, the Aggies are looking for an improvement from Bertolet this fall. Also the Aggies are working in a new punter, Drew Kaser, who takes the reins after senior Ryan Epperson graduated.
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.
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."
There’s no point in trying to sugarcoat this for Texas A&M: The Aggies have become the hunted.
A year after the real training began for their official move to the SEC from the Big 12, the Aggies enter spring practice with loftier expectations and more eyes fixated on them. They can no longer be considered the supposed ragtag group that was expected to struggle for relevance in their new home.
After shocking their new conference mates with 11 wins, including one over eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, A&M enters spring figuratively glancing over its shoulder.
"Now that we know for a fact that we have enough talent and a new group of guys coming in, we know that this year we have a target on our back,” rising senior running back Ben Malena said. “The workouts have stepped up even more. The work ethic of the team collectively has stepped up even more. Coach [Kevin] Sumlin, he's let us know that last year's success was last year's success, but this year's success is gonna be even harder because now you have a target on your back."
Teams don’t lead the SEC in scoring (44.5 points per game), rushing (242.1 yards per game), passing (316.5 YPG) and total offense (558.5 YPG) in their first season in a new conference without feeling the heat in Year 2. And this league intends to bring more than just the heat to the Aggies.
If A&M is going to make strides in 2013, it has to push for conference supremacy. It'll have to be better than it was in 2012, and it'll have to pursue dethroning the mighty Crimson Tide. It's a tough job, but it really is the next step.
To do that, Sumlin and his crew will have to work even harder than they did last season. Players will have to be willing to sweat, bleed and push even more as the Aggies enter spring shorthanded once again.
Defensively, five starters from the front seven are gone, including All-America defensive end Damontre Moore and top-notch linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Dustin Harris and Steven Terrell must also be replaced in the secondary.
“We got a lot of young guys -- a bunch of new guys,” defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said of his defense.
And those youngsters need to learn quickly because the injury bug attacked the defense this spring, especially up front. It’s a necessary evil, but getting young players these kinds of reps excites Snyder because it helps with depth, which the Aggies need.
Not only did A&M lose two valuable linebackers but a wide receiver was moved to the position this spring and linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt was replaced by Mark Hagen, giving the Aggies even more change to deal with.
"There will be some challenges there,” Snyder said about the new faces on defense, “but that's what makes spring ball fun."
What will also be fun is finding out who the new leaders are.
Senior Toney Hurd Jr., who is battling for a starting safety spot, has been pegged as one of those new leaders. He’s always led by example, and Hurd knows younger players are looking up to veterans like him. He’ll have to come through because, although the talent might be there, inexperience needs guidance.
"I wouldn't say I'll be this year's Sean Porter, but I'll be this year's Tony Hurd Jr.,” he said. “I'll give the vocal leadership when needed.”
Some interesting months lie ahead for the Aggies, as they look to make more upward moves in 2013. But before A&M can worry about challenging Alabama -- or anyone, really -- Sumlin needs his team to get better. He needs youngsters to take advantage of more reps and he needs the veterans to evolve on the field and in the locker room.
It sounds clichéd, but it's true.
To be elite again and embrace this new-found target on its back, A&M needs even more resolve and toughness in Year 2. And to Sumlin, it’ll be quite an uphill battle.
"We're nowhere near that stage,” he said. “I've said that from every standpoint, from every aspect of this program, we're still playing catch-up to everybody in the SEC.
"From my standpoint it's always a new team, it's always a new personality. As coaches, what you're trying to do is figure out where you are, who can do what and put them in the best position to try to win games."
But before any of them stepped foot in Indy, ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. released his pre-Combine Big Board . Naturally, it's loaded with SEC players. Twelve of the 25 players on Kiper's Big Board are from the SEC, including six of the top 10 players.
Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones kept his place in the No. 1 spot, while Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel jumped in front of teammate Damontre Moore to move from No. 3 to No. 2.
Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd made a major move up Kiper's rankings, moving from No. 15 to No. 8.
Here's where all 12 SEC players ranked on Kiper's Big Board heading into the Combine:
1. Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
2. Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
3. Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M
6. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
8. Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
10. Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
12. Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU
15. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
16. D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
18. Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
21. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
25. Matt Elam, S, Florida
Kiper also updated his position rankings this week. Twenty-eight SEC players made Kiper's position rankings, and the league was represented by at least one player at every position, except fullback.
Here's where Kiper put SEC players in his position rankings:
4. Tyler Wilson, Arkansas
1. Eddie Lacy, Alabama
5. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
1. Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee
3. Jordan Reed, Florida
1. Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M
3. D.J. Fluker, Alabama
1. Chance Warmack, Alabama
3. Larry Warford, Kentucky
4. Dallas Thomas, Tennessee
2. Barrett Jones, Alabama
1. Damontre Moore, Texas A&M
4. Barkevious Mingo, LSU
2. Sharrif Floyd, Florida
3. Sheldon Richardson, Missouri
1. Alec Ogletree, Georgia
3. Kevin Minter, LSU
5. Jon Bostic, Florida
1. Jarvis Jones, Georgia
4. Zaviar Gooden, Missouri
5. Cornelius Washington, Georgia
1. Dee Milliner, Alabama
3. Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State
2. Matt Elam, Florida
4. Eric Reid, LSU
5. D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina
2. Caleb Sturgis, Florida
2. Brad Wing, LSU
No. 4: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M, Jr.
2012 summary: Joeckel won the Outland Trophy as the most outstanding interior lineman in college football. He became the first Texas A&M player to win the award. He was also a unanimous first-team All-America selection and ended his career with 39 consecutive starts at left tackle. The Aggies finished third nationally this past season in total offense with an average of 558.5 yards per game.
Most recent ranking: No. 20 in the 2012 preseason countdown.
Making the case for Joeckel: The Aggies had the luxury this past season of having two of the best offensive tackles in college football on the same team. Jake Matthews did his thing at right tackle, and Joeckel for the third straight season was a force at left tackle. At 6-6 and 310 pounds, Joeckel owned the left side of the line for the Aggies. He was a devastating run-blocker and specialized in driving whoever was in front of him 4 or 5 yards down the field. He combined strength and quickness, along with powerful hands, to overwhelm opponents. He wasn't known as much for his pass-blocking, but was certainly good enough. Besides, Johnny Manziel was always scrambling. Texas A&M averaged 546.2 yards and 39.1 points against SEC defenses this past season. To put up those kind of numbers against the defensive front-sevens you face in this league, you have to be exceptional up front on offense. The Aggies had one of the best offensive lines in college football, and Joeckel was the anchor of that unit. Some analysts have projected him to go No. 1 overall in April's NFL draft. He only played one season in the SEC, but what a season it was.
- No. 5: Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama, Sr.
- No. 6: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M, Jr.
- No. 7: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama, Jr.
- No. 8: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama, RJr.
- No. 9: AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama, RJr.
- No. 10: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama, Jr.
- No. 11: Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia, Fr.
- No. 12: Barrett Jones, C, Alabama, RSr.
- No. 13: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia, RJr.
- No. 14: Kevin Minter, LB, LSU, RJr.
- No. 15: Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia, Jr.
- No. 16: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M, Jr.
- No. 17: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri, Jr.
- No. 18: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida, Jr.
- No. 19: Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU, RJr.
- No. 20: Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama, Fr.
- No. 21: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee, Jr.
- No. 22: Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida, Sr.
- No. 23: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt, Jr.
- No. 24: Matt Elam, S, Florida, Jr.
- No. 25: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State, Sr.
Spotlight: Offensive lineman Cedric Ogbuehi, 6-foot-5, 295 pounds, rising redshirt junior
2012 summary: After being hampered by an ankle injury during the first part of his redshirt freshman season, Ogbuehi had an extremely strong 2012. He started all 13 games for the Aggies at right guard. Texas A&M proved to have one of the best offensive lines in the country, as the Aggies led the SEC in total offense (558.5 yards per game), rushing offense (242.1) and passing (316.5).
The skinny: Ogbuehi had a tremendous year in 2012, but he'll take on even more responsibility this year. With All-America left tackle and future top-10 NFL draft pick Luke Joeckel jumping to the NFL early, Ogbuehi is moving from guard to tackle. Jake Matthews is shifting from right tackle to left tackle to fill the void left by Joeckel, which means Ogbuehi will move over to right tackle. Losing Joeckel certainly stings, but having a reliable body like Ogbuehi step up to assist on the outside will really help this offense as it looks to pick up where it left off following a great 2012 season. Quarterback Johnny Manziel has to feel pretty relieved about it as well. He might be the slipperiest and most exciting quarterback to watch in all of college football, but even he knows he couldn't have won the Heisman Trophy last season without the play of his offensive line. Matthews should be fine with his move to left tackle, and once Ogbuehi adds some weight, he shouldn't have too much of an issue transitioning to his new spot. He's a very physical player, which will help on the outside, and Ogbuehi will have a lot of time before the season arrives to get more comfortable on the outside. He'll have more on his plate this spring, so it's important that he adapt because the offense is losing some key members from the 2012 team. Replacing playmakers is one thing but it gets much easier when you have a reliable line working for you.
OFFENSE: Remember how the Aggies' offense was supposed to struggle without Ryan Tannehill running things and a redshirt freshman replacing him at quarterback? Yeah, that really worked out. Thanks to the minds of Kevin Sumlin, offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and a Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel, the Aggies ran over most of their new opponents in 2012 with the SEC's top offense. Texas A&M averaged a league-high 558.5 yards per game (third nationally). The Aggies also led the SEC in rushing (242.1), passing (316.5) and scoring offense (44.5). A&M registered more than 400 yards in 12 games and more than 600 yards in seven games. Johnny Football became the first freshman to ever win the Heisman and broke the SEC record for total offense with 5,116 yards (3,706 passing and 1,410 rushing). He also totaled 47 touchdowns and led the SEC in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns (21). Manziel had a special year, but he also got help from a dynamic receiving duo in freshman Mike Evans and senior Ryan Swope, who combined to catch 154 passes for 2,018 yards and 13 touchdowns. Uzoma Nwachukwu only caught 26 passes, but he added seven more receiving touchdowns. When Manziel wasn't darting past or slipping by defenders, A&M's running game mostly went through running back Ben Malena, who finished the year with 808 yards and eight touchdowns. Christine Michael added 12 more rushing touchdowns. A&M was also equipped with one of the top offensive lines in the country led by Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Grade: A+
DEFENSE: The Aggies ranked seventh or lower in the SEC in the four major defensive categories, including ranking 12th in pass defense (250.7 yards per game). Teams scored 36 touchdowns on the Aggies and averaged 21.8 points per game. The Aggies surrendered 20-plus points in seven games, including allowing 57 points in a back-and-forth win over Louisiana Tech. A&M might have had some issues when it came to slowing down the yardage and points, but in its two losses, the Aggies allowed just 20 and 24 points. The Aggies gave up 390.2 yards per game and grabbed just 16 takeaways. Defensive end Damontre Moore became a real star. He was one of the top defenders in the country, tying for eighth nationally with 12.5 sacks and seventh with 21 tackles for loss. He also led the Aggies with 85 total tackles and nine quarterback hurries. The defense, which was relatively young in the back end, might have had a little more bend than the coaches would like, but it rarely broke down and held an Oklahoma offense to just 13 points in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Grade: B-
OVERALL: The Aggies were supposed to struggle in their first year in the SEC, but flourished instead. Johnny Football was a major reason why, but Sumlin instilled an extremely tough personality during spring ball that carried over to the season. Alabama might have been crowned college football's national champion, but after a 41-13 beat down of Oklahoma, the Aggies made a solid case for being the nation's top team -- and A&M was the only team to top the Crimson Tide with a 29-24 win in Tuscaloosa. The defense needed to be bailed out by the offense at times, but even with no bye week during the regular season, the Aggies never seemed to slow down. If not for the opener against Louisiana Tech being postponed, the season might have been even better with a game under the Aggies' belt before taking on Florida. A&M wasn't as sharp against LSU, but was in serious contention for a BCS bowl game late in the year. Grade: A
Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel had been weighing the possibility of returning for his senior season, but the reality that he will likely be a top-10 pick, and possibly even a top-5 pick, was too much to pass up.
Joeckel announced Tuesday that he's declared for the NFL draft. ESPN's Mel Kiper has Joeckel No. 5 overall on his latest Big Board of the top 25 NFL draft prospects. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Joeckel won the Outland Trophy this season as the top interior lineman in college football.
The question now: Will Texas A&M right tackle Jake Matthews follow Joeckel into the draft, or will he stay for his senior season? Matthews has also been projected as a first-round pick by some analysts.
Here's an updated list of SEC players who've declared for the NFL draft. The deadline is Jan. 15:
- OG Alvin Bailey, Arkansas
- QB Tyler Bray, Tennessee
- RB Knile Davis, Arkansas
- S Matt Elam, Florida
- DT Sharrif Floyd, Florida
- RB Michael Ford, LSU
- WR Justin Hunter, Tennessee
- OT Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M
- OLB Jarvis Jones, Georgia
- RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
- DE Corey Lemonier, Auburn
- DT Bennie Logan, LSU
- CB Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
- DE Barkevious Mingo, LSU
- LB Kevin Minter, LSU
- DE Damontre Moore, Texas A&M
- DE Sam Montgomery, LSU
- LB Alec Ogletree, Georgia
- WR Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee
- TE Jordan Reed, Florida
- S Eric Reid, LSU
- DT Sheldon Richardson, Missouri
- CB Tharold Simon, LSU
- RB Spencer Ware, LSU
- P Brad Wing, LSU
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Oklahoma's defense had heard the legends about Johnny Football. They'd seen the highlight reels and trophy acceptance speeches.
Until Friday, though, they had never stepped on the same field with the first freshman to win a Heisman Trophy. After Texas A&M's 20-year-old superstar rolled over the Sooners for 516 total yards (229 rushing, 287 throwing) and four touchdowns in a 41-13 Cotton Bowl victory, Oklahoma couldn't help but be glad his college years will be spent on fields across the SEC and not the Big 12 -- where the Aggies would have been if not for some conference upheaval over the past two years.
"Johnny Manziel is everything he was billed to be," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "He makes everybody miss him. He was what you've seen on tape the whole year."
Sooners defensive coordinator Mike Stoops called Manziel the best player he'd ever played, which carries a special significance considering Stoops' defense gave up 344 rushing yards and 572 all-purpose yards to a shifty, speedy receiver named Tavon Austin from West Virginia barely six weeks ago, the second-most all-purpose yards in a game in FBS history.
Stoops' defense refused to blitz Manziel for most of the night, but the Aggies' strong offensive line -- led by bookends and future NFL first-round picks Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews -- hardly allowed Oklahoma's defensive linemen to make Manziel notice they were even trying to chase him down. For much of the game, Oklahoma's secondary would cover the Aggies' receivers, but Manziel would find a crease and turn a broken play into a big gain.
"It's hard if you've got an angle on him," Bob Stoops said. "He stops, goes the other way. If you don't he outruns you."
Despite spending the past month making a post-Heisman nationwide media circuit and losing his offensive coordinator, Kliff Kingsbury, Manziel strung together one of the best highlight reels in bowl history, which was set to a soundtrack of "Johnny B. Goode" from Chuck Berry on the big screen at Cowboys Stadium as the final minutes of the game ticked away and Texas A&M fans serenaded the exiting Oklahomans with an "S-E-C" chant.
More like Johnny B. Great.
"There wasn't anything holding us back. No rust. There was no nothing," Manziel said.
He energized the crowd as few have ever had the ability to do, the volume level in Cowboys Stadium rising quickly any time he fled the pocket. Oklahoma's defense could do little to stop him or to quiet the Aggies-friendly crowd of 87,025, the biggest Cotton Bowl crowd ever at the venue.
A media flock hounding him while he did required postgame TV and radio interviews couldn't catch him either after he sprinted from midfield to the corner of the stadium to finish the last few bars of the "Aggie War Hymn" with his teammates in front of the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band.
"This is kind of a game that turned the page again," Manziel said. "People asked me earlier in the year about what game made it all click. There was the Arkansas game, and this game tonight made me flash back to that."
That's a scary thought for the rest of the SEC, which could spend the next three years chasing a quarterback nobody can seem to catch, inside or outside the pocket. He helped Texas A&M become the first offense in SEC history to amass 7,000 total yards, and there's no reason he won't do it again. With Manziel taking snaps and breaking tackles, there will be plenty of national title talk in Aggieland over the next few months, with a blowout victory over the Sooners serving as springboard. Texas A&M proved it was better than national title game favorite Alabama on a November afternoon in Tuscaloosa. Can it be better than everyone in the nation for three months next fall?
"For everybody next year, this is the first game of the new year," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "It sets the bar."
Manziel will be around to help us all find out if the Aggies will clear it.
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