Dallas Colleges: Sean Porter
One of the many areas of concern is a theme that hasn’t drastically changed since last season: the struggles on defense.
Texas A&M’s 2013 defense was poor by any measure. This season began with some promise, but many of the reasons for optimism have gone by the wayside with recent performances. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, in discussing his team’s loss Saturday, noted the Aggies had to evaluate where they are in all three phases of the game and that changes could be in store.
The 2012 season was by far the Aggies’ best under Snyder. Though depth wasn’t ideal, the combination of experience and leadership in key areas in Texas A&M’s first-team defense is something the group hasn’t had since. Players like linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, safety Steven Terrell and defensive tackle Spencer Nealy (not to mention the pure pass-rushing production of defensive end Damontre Moore) are what the Aggies have been missing the last two seasons.
That season, the Aggies ranked in the top half or, in some cases, the top third nationally in several categories. They were 26th in scoring defense (21.8 points per game), 37th in yards per play (5.22), 31st in yards per rush (3.72), 43rd in yards per pass attempt (6.72) and 16th in third-down conversions (32.4 percent).
In other areas they weren’t as strong but still respectable, like yards per game (390.2, 57th nationally), rushing yards per game (139.5, 35th), red-zone efficiency (58.1 percent, 51st) and goal-to-go efficiency (71.4 percent, 46th).
The 2013 season, on the other hand, was easily the worst so far. With those aforementioned veterans moving on as graduated seniors (or in Moore’s case, early entry into the NFL draft), the Aggies plugged in a ton of youth and were a porous unit for virtually the entire season.
Last year’s defense ranked worse than 100th nationally in yards per game (475.8), yards per play (6.36), rushing yards per game (222.31), yards per carry (5.38) and red-zone efficiency (71.4 percent).
Their rankings in several other areas weren’t much better. Those included scoring defense (32.2 points per game, 95th), passing yards per game (253.46, 95th), yards per pass attempt (7.56, 91st), sacks (21, 84th) and third-down conversions (41 percent, 78th).
That brings us to 2014, where the Aggies have shown statistical improvement in every one of the above-mentioned statistical categories. A solid start in the first four weeks of the season against South Carolina and three non-Power 5 teams in nonconference play gave the illusion of marked improvement.
In addition, increased depth, particularly along the defensive line thanks to the 2014 recruiting class, has helped. A pass-rushing presence that was sorely missed last season has been found in a player like true freshman Myles Garrett, a four-star recruit who is closing in on Jadeveon Clowney's SEC freshman sack record.
Depth is still thin at linebacker, however, where the Aggies dismissed a starter this offseason (Darian Claiborne) and lost another to injury in the season opener (A.J. Hilliard). In the secondary, there’s a mix of veterans and youth, seemingly plenty of depth but much inconsistency in terms of performance.
While the start to this season was good, the past four games, which have all been against SEC opponents (Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama) have established an alarming trend. The Aggies’ defense is trending statistically worse in that four-game stretch.
In just the last four games, the Aggies have allowed 42.5 points per game, which ranks 119th nationally. Yardage numbers have been poor, too: yards per game (495.8, 110th), yards per play (6.96, 117th), rushing yards per game (255.75, 117th), yards per carry (5.78, 117th) and yards per pass attempt (8.89, 115th).
In key conversion areas, Texas A&M has also struggled. The Aggies' third-down conversion defense in the last four games (41.2 percent, 75th nationally) is about where it was a season ago. Similar traits apply for red-zone efficiency (68.2 percent, 103rd) and goal-to-go efficiency (76.5 percent, 72nd).
And while the numbers tell enough of a story, so do a layman’s eyes. It doesn’t take a genius to understand the Aggies are struggling defensively. Just look at Saturday’s game against Alabama and watch Crimson Tide quarterback Blake Sims evade about six Texas A&M defenders en route to a 43-yard touchdown run. Or Amari Cooper catch eight passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Or T.J. Yeldon run for 114 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. The Aggies allowed 602 total yards -- poor any way you slice it.
Senior linebacker Justin Bass put it plainly after Saturday’s game.
“You can’t play defense if you can’t tackle,” Bass said. “It’s as simple as that. ... If you don’t tackle, you aren’t going to win games.”
The struggles are significant. The Aggies rank near the bottom of the FBS in most defensive statistical categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the five teams that have allowed more yards per game than the Aggies -- New Mexico State, Idaho, California, Nevada and Indiana -- have a combined record of 8-27.
Texas A&M is fortunate enough to have a 5-2 record (2-2 in the SEC). It certainly helps to have one of the nation's most high-powered offenses and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Johnny Manziel).
For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff, it has been a challenge from the start of the season. Suspensions, injuries and ineffectiveness are all to blame.
The Aggies currently have 11 freshmen in their defensive two-deep depth chart. Two true freshmen (defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne) are starting. The four defensive line first-team spots include Golden and two sophomores. At linebacker, a former receiver who moved to linebacker this offseason (Nate Askew) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Of the seven linebackers on the Aggies' two-deep, only one (Steven Jenkins) started a full season at the position before this year.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin's first signing class that was completely under his watch had 32 members, 18 of whom were on defense. Of those 18, a dozen have already played this season.
But how did the Aggies get to this point, playing this many freshmen and newcomers? There are some juniors and seniors on the field, but there aren't nearly as many as there were a year ago when the Aggies went 11-2 in their debut season in the SEC.
In 2012, the Aggies were fortunate to have the benefit of some good leaders on defense and others who were productive. At linebacker, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart both provided leadership and production. Along the defensive line, Spencer Nealy made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle effectively despite not having the ideal size for the position. Steven Terrell was a steady and heady player at free safety. All four of those players were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. So was Dustin Harris, who didn't always start but played plenty at cornerback and was the team's primary punt returner.
One defensive player still remains from that 2009 class: defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who started last season and this year but suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 28 against Arkansas. But last year's A&M starting defense was more than half made up of what turned out to be a solid recruiting class on the defensive side of the ball.
So to understand why A&M is in the position it is now, take a look at the recruiting classes on defense since then:
- In 2010, the Aggies signed seven defensive players and two more that were offensive players but eventually moved to defense. Defensive end Damontre Moore turned out to be a star, but declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. For a team that's lacking in its pass rush (only three FBS teams have fewer sacks than Texas A&M's seven this season) a guy like that could help. Of the remainders in that class, three are starting: Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel back, Gavin Stansbury at defensive end and Askew, who was recruited and spent his first three years at receiver, at strongside linebacker. Two others (defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and quarterback Clay Honeycutt, who's now a reserve safety) are playing but not starting. Nehemiah Hicks was considered to be either a defensive end or tight end and became a tight end. The other two players in the defensive class are no longer on the team.
- The 2011 class -- the final class signed by former head coach Mike Sherman -- brought 13 defensive players. Deshazor Everett, a cornerback with ability to play safety, is currently the defense's best player. Safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven and linebacker Steven Jenkins also emerged as starters out of that group. One of the big fish landed late in that class, defensive end Brandon Alexander, has rarely played. He's now getting some playing time at tight end. Linebacker Donnie Baggs entered this season as the starting middle linebacker but is now a reserve. Tyrell Taylor is rotating at defensive end. The rest of the group hasn't made any impact at all. Five players in that group are no longer with the program.
- The 2012 class, the first one Sumlin signed after essentially two months on the job, had some holdovers that committed to the program under Sherman. It is a mixed bag. Four of those players are starting as either true sophomores (Julien Obioha at defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle and De'Vante Harris at cornerback) or in one case, a senior (cornerback Tramain Jacobs, who was a junior college transfer). Defensive end Tyrone Taylor, brother of Tyrell, gets some playing time at defensive end. Edward Pope, who was a receiver/defensive back, is playing receiver for the Aggies. A car accident took away one member from that class -- defensive tackle Polo Manukainiu, who died in a crash in July and is being honored by the team every week this season. A spinal injury took away another member, linebacker Michael Richardson, who played as a freshman. He had successful surgery and was fortunate to not suffer any major physical issues, but is no longer playing football. Defensive back Kenneth Marshall, though on the team, was not part of the 105-man roster during preseason training camp. Linebacker Jordan Richmond transferred to Navarro College in the offseason and one player in the class, defensive tackle Edmund Ray, never made it to campus because of qualifying issues.
The outside linebacker, who spent his first three seasons playing receiver, is still working to improve and master his new position, which he switched to during the offseason.
"He's catching the ball better on defense and he's already scored more touchdowns [on defense than he did on offense] since I've been here," Sumlin said with a laugh. "I give him a hard time about that, but he doesn't think that's funny, by the way."
Jokes aside, Sumlin is right. Askew spent limited time as a receiver in 2012, Sumlin's first as head coach at Texas A&M. He finished the season with just three catches for 10 yards, appearing in 10 games. His only career offensive touchdown came as a sophomore in 2011 under former head coach Mike Sherman.
Having a 6-foot-4, 230-pound athlete who possesses speed and a vertical jump better than 40 inches standing on the sidelines didn't make sense to Sumlin, and for whatever reason, receiver wasn't working out for Askew. So Sumlin approached Askew this offseason with the idea of moving him to linebacker for his senior season.
"I didn't know what to think, honestly," Askew recalled thinking. "Linebacker? I don't know about this. I've never played defense before. I don't know how this is going to go."
Sumlin's message was that Askew could help on defense.
"He just told me I was an athlete and for whatever reason, things weren't working out at receiver position but he wanted to get his best guys on the field," Askew said. "He said he believed that I can contribute somewhere and he tried to figure out that place and he thought maybe linebacker would be the best position for me."
What sold Askew on the idea was spending practice time at outside linebacker and having some success as a pass rusher during spring football.
"I just went into it with an open mind. I was like, 'OK, I can't knock anything until I try it,'" Askew said. "So I thought I'd give it a try and see how it goes. I got out there the first practice and I actually liked it. ...[In the first practice] they had me pass rushing. I was able to use my speed off the edge and get around [Cedric Ogubehi] and Jake [Matthews] a few times and after that, I guess you could say it's like golfing. Hitting that first great ball draws you back into the game. That's what it did. I made that first pass rush and I thought, 'I can do this.'"
In the first five games, Askew has shown flashes of playmaking ability. Of his 14 tackles, three are tackles for loss, including a sack. In addition to his interception against Sam Houston State, he also has a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry.
On Sept. 28, he made his first career defensive start against Arkansas and he's listed as the starter on the Aggies' depth chart in advance of their road game at Ole Miss on Saturday.
"I think he's embraced it; he's playing with confidence," Sumlin said. "Has he made some mistakes? Sure. But he's moving along that way and I think the biggest positive is that he is helping us as a team [at linebacker] more than he was helping us at wide receiver."
The fact that Askew has contributed as much as he has is a testament to his athleticism and ability to adapt but also is a sign of the ever-shifting personnel on the Aggies' defense, which has struggled throughout the season and is 112th in yards allowed per game. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder & Co. are trying to find the best combination of players as youth and inexperience permeates the depth chart.
Askew is continuing to work at his craft. Former all-conference Aggies linebacker Sean Porter has been a significant resource for him. They used to be roommates and Porter also played strongside linebacker, which is what Askew is playing. Askew's desire for improvement is much like the Aggies' defense as a whole right now.
"Me and Sean had conversations for two hours on the phone just talking about the linebacker position, different things that came up at practice and how do you approach this and approach that," Askew said. "Since he perfected his craft so well at the 'Sam' position and I play the same position, I thought maybe I could pick his brain and do that."
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.
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."
My pick: Texas A&M 41, Oklahoma 37
I really just don't buy that Oklahoma's defense can slow Johnny Manziel enough to win this. I do think there are a ton of outside factors that might influence how well he plays or doesn't play. He's a young guy, and who knows how he truly handled the time away on the awards circuit? The coaches have had only good things to say, but will he look rusty, and will Mike Stoops have a solid plan to slow him down and keep him contained?
Additionally, how will the loss of Kliff Kingsbury affect him? I do think this game comes down to exactly how "Johnny Football" plays, but I like his chances to overcome that stuff and play well. Oklahoma's defense plays well, too. The Sooners lock down on Sean Porter and Damontre Moore and keep them out of Landry Jones' face, and Jones plays well in his final start, just not quite well enough to win.
Texas A&M's backs, Ben Malena and Christine Michael, are criminally underrated and overshadowed by Manziel, and they'll be the X factors in this one and help the Aggies control the game down the stretch. This offensive line is battle-tested in an SEC full of defensive lines much tougher than the Sooners'. Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews will prove why they're both projected to be NFL draft first-rounders and will ultimately win this game for the Aggies with a bruising running game in the final quarter.
David Ubben talks with Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter about the difference in Big 12 and SEC defenses, meeting a familiar opponent in the Cotton Bowl and what it's like to be teammates with a Heisman winner.
It was the Aggies' formal introduction into the Southeastern Conference and everyone wondered what to make of Texas A&M, one of the two new programs. Many dismissed the Aggies' chances of being a serious factor in the conference. At least, that's what Porter inferred from the tone of some of the questions he was asked.
"I remember going to SEC media day," Porter said. "All those guys in there were looking at us like we were going to be some kind of doormat."
A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said plainly on Saturday, "We didn't care what everyone else's expectations were."
With that disregard and an optimism ushered in by new everything -- coaching staff, league, schemes, some players and even the uniforms -- the Aggies set out to rewrite the narrative some had already written. With their latest win, a 59-29 crushing of Missouri on Saturday at Kyle Field that put a bow on their regular season, Texas A&M has done just that.
Read the rest of the story here.
Spirits are high in Aggieland with the team's record-setting quarterback taking his league by storm and respect being paid across the country for the resurgence of Texas A&M football.
This is what many Aggies thought it would be like a year ago.
Going into the 2011 season, Texas A&M was ranked in the top 10 and a BCS bowl-caliber team. Then after a slew of second-half collapses, the season's high hopes were deflated, as was the team.
Coming into this season with a new coach (Kevin Sumlin), a new league (the Southeastern Conference), new uniforms and a new feeling, the Aggies swore it was different. A season-opening loss to Florida that involved Texas A&M relinquishing a second-half lead made some wonder whether it was just talk and if these were the same Aggies.
Now 11 games into the season and coming off its ninth win, a 47-28 victory over the FCS's third-ranked team, Sam Houston State, and one thing is clear: this team is different.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Standing tall in a crowded little media room tucked away deep inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, Ryan Swope could barely find the right words when asked about the statement Texas A&M made Saturday before Sean Porter spoke for him.
“We can play with anybody,” the senior linebacker nonchalantly said with his eyes still looking at the ground as he slowly slid his gloves off.
Porter didn’t even have to utter those five words because everyone in the room knew it. And everyone in the country knows it.
A team that was thought to be outmanned and overmatched with its move from the Big 12 to the SEC made all of the doubters look very silly with its 29-24 win over No. 1 Alabama. And this wasn’t a letdown loss for the Tide following an emotional win over LSU last week. The 15th-ranked Aggies dominated Alabama for four quarters.
The Tide were supposed to wear down A&M, but the players in the crimson tops were the ones huffing, puffing and panting deep into the fourth quarter, as the Aggies' up-tempo offense left Alabama's defense dazed, confused and susceptible to a handful of big plays.
Alabama was supposed to protect the ball after it entered the game plus-15 in turnover margin, while the Aggies were minus-7. Instead, A&M won the turnover battle 3-0.
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron's streak of 292 passes without an interception ended in the first quarter and his team’s national championship hopes all but ended when his second pick went to sophomore cornerback Deshazor Everett with 1:36 left in the fourth.
“It goes to show that we can compete with anyone in this league,” said Swope, who finished with a game-high 11 catches for 111 yards and a touchdown.
“We practice with confidence and you have to be a confident football team to do those kinds of things. You can tell guys played with heart tonight. It was unbelievable.”
What might be more unbelievable is how this team did it without having to rely completely on Johnny Manziel.
Sure, this team has excelled on both sides of the ball in recent weeks, but Johnny Football has been the center of every conversation.
On Saturday, he was just one part of A&M’s win.
“Not to take away from Johnny, but for us to come to Alabama and win, that is a complete team effort,” coach Kevin Sumlin said.
Manziel’s 253 passing yards, 92 rushing yards and two total touchdowns certainly helped, but his supporting actors were outstanding.
His receivers made a handful of tough plays, most of which came with players outmuscling Alabama defenders for the ball or to get extra yardage, like Mike Evans scratching and clawing toward the first-down marker in the first half.
And look at the defense. No one outside of College Station was quite sure if this unit was capable of containing Alabama’s running game or flustering McCarron, but it did both.
Alabama ran just 14 times in the second half and totaled just 122 rushing yards.
Of course, the play of the night was by the often overlooked Everett, who snatched away McCarron’s telegraphed fourth-down pass to the end zone after Kenny Bell had set up the Tide with first-and-goal at the 6-yard line with his 54-yard catch.
Texas A&M also didn’t succumb to the second-half failures that have routinely plagued this program. After squandering most of a 20-point first-quarter lead -- thanks to a 17-0 Alabama run -- this team held strong and didn’t panic after a two-quarter lull.
Manziel, who might have thrown his name right back into the Heisman picture while simultaneously pushing McCarron out, dazzled with his arm and legs in the first half, but picked his spots in the second. After racking up 200 total yards of offense and a touchdown in the first half, he was held to just 145 yards in the final two quarters.
Alabama contained him more efficiently, but he stayed calm and delivered some clutch fourth-quarter throws. Manziel made two beauties on the Aggies’ two-play, 66-yard drive in which he hit Swope for 42 yards down the right sideline before putting A&M up for good with a perfectly thrown flag pass to Malcome Kennedy for a 24-yard score.
“We did a lot of things that a lot of people said we couldn’t do,” defensive end Damontre Moore said. “Now, to prove them wrong does a lot for the program.”
It shows the SEC that the new kid on the block isn’t going to be a pushover. The Aggies were supposed to hit their stride with more time under Sumlin. They've hit that stride now, and teams are lucky A&M only just started playing so well.
The SEC chants that rained down from the Aggies’ student section with 8:37 remaining in the fourth quarter probably never sounded so right.
“We’re glad to be here and prove that we belong here and we’re not some other team that people made us out to be,” Moore said. “We proved that today.”
It was over when: Texas A&M junior defensive back Toney Hurd stepped in front of a Bo Wallace pass and intercepted it with 1:09 remaining in the fourth quarter. On a night when the Aggies turned it over so many times, it was Hurd who snagged an Ole Miss turnover to seal the deal and allow the Aggies to secure the victory.
Game ball goes to: The Aggies' front seven. Despite being put in some tough positions, the Aggies defense made some big plays and key stops. One was a 37-yard interception return by linebacker Steven Jenkins, as Sean Porter forced Bo Wallace to rush the throw, that tied the ballgame 17-17 in the second quarter. Porter came up with a huge stop in the fourth quarter to keep Jeff Scott from getting a first down on third-and-2 and Jonathan Stewart came up with perhaps the biggest stop of the night, halting Scott on fourth-and-inches at the Ole Miss 39 with 3:02 remaining. That gave Texas A&M possession for its game-winning scoring drive. Damontre Moore was once again in the backfield, registering his seventh sack of the year and defensive tackle Spencer Nealy was a constant force.
Game ball, Part 2: The Aggies' offensive line. They paved the way for Ben Malena to post a season-high 142 rushing yards and they gave redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel all kinds of time in the pocket. The unit has been solid in pass protection all season long and Saturday was no exception. It was probably their best effort in the running game.
Rising star: Hurd. He's been coming on as of late and he came up with the huge play at a critical time, intercepting Wallace on the Rebels' final drive. Without the turnover, the Rebels were at least in game-tying field goal range. Hurd had six tackles in addition to the pick.
What it means: The fact that the Aggies could have so many things go wrong -- six turnovers, Manziel looking like a freshman, missed tackles on defense -- and still come up with a road win in the Southeastern Conference says a lot. Texas A&M is now 4-1 overall and 2-1 in the conference and it's becoming more and more clear by the week that they're going to be a factor in the SEC West.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When a team changes it's scheme on one side of the ball or the other, there is often a significant learning curve involved.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin compares it to the adjustment a true freshman has to make in his first year of college football.
"The 'What to do' stage that every freshmen goes through figuring out what to do, transferring the playbook to the field," Sumlin said. "And then there's the 'How to do' stage, which comes down the road instead of just running to where the line is in the playbook. Now there's an adjustment, 'Now what do I do? How do I do it?' And for every player there's that adjustment with a new scheme."
"I'm really getting used to the defense," Porter said. "I've been up there with Snyder a lot during the summertime and I sat in on a few coaches meetings with him and I really got to get in his head a little bit during the summertime. So it was good for me. I think I've got the defense down pretty well, me and J-Stew (senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart)."
He also appears to be developing into a leader. Sumlin wanted to see some guys become more vocal on defense and Porter is doing that. Linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt sees the effort Porter is putting in not only to himself, but to his teammates.
"I know he wants to perform well against the best competition in the country in the SEC and get us jump-started in this league and win a bunch of ballgames and get us to a championship," Wallerstedt said. "Really for him, he's the one that's been driving the whole thing for the linebacking corps and pushing everybody not just on the field but with the film study and getting in there with those younger guys."
In order to do that, Porter has to have an increased attention to detail. Being a senior is not something that the preseason first-team All-SEC pick has taken lightly this fall.
"I have to make sure I get in the film room and that I relay all the little things that I pick up on the field to the younger guys," Porter said. "I think that senior leadership is going to be a big deal this year. As seniors we can see things that maybe a younger player can't see because we've been out there a couple more times. I think it's just stuff like that: senior leadership, film room, putting in extra reps in the weight room, extra runs after practice, things like that that will make us a little bit better and that'll get us a few more wins."
Last season, he led the Aggies with 9.5 sacks, but Porter -- who will play the strongside linebacker position this season -- said he's not concerned with his sack total this year, only with wins.
His grasp of what the Aggies are doing defensively should help that pursuit.
"We're at the point where we've got more and more guys doing that across the board," Sumlin said. "Sean understood it quicker and I think he's been able to become a leader quicker because he just understands things and he's able to communicate with our coaches.
"We're going to need his leadership to get through camp and not only get through camp but through this season. He's doing everything we've asked him to do."
- Mississippi State
- Ole Miss
- South Carolina
Let's see what the Aggies might do in their first season in the SEC:
Texas A&M will break through and win at least eight games: Key playmakers are still around on offense and defense.
There are holes on both sides of the ball that must be filled by the Aggies, but there is still some quality talent that will take the field this fall. Offensively, Texas A&M returns what could be one of the top lines in the SEC. It's headlined by left tackle Luke Joeckel and right tackle Jake Matthews, who could be early NFL draft picks next year, and should help provide good time for whichever young quarterback takes snaps this fall. There are also solid players in the middle, starting with veteran center Patrick Lewis. Behind that line you have potential 1,000-yard rusher Christine Michael, who appears to be 100 percent after tearing his ACL last season, and there's still the possibility that Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams could be cleared to play this fall. Wide receiver isn't too bad, either, as seniors Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu return. The two combined for 139 catches, 1,846 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. There are also a few potential breakout candidates at receiver.
On defense, the front seven has some strong components with outside linebacker Sean Porter and converted defensive end Damontre Moore returning. Both combined for 18 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss last year. Add senior Steven Jackson to outside linebacker, and the Aggies could yet again have another ferocious pass rush like the one that generated a nation-best 51 sacks last season. Having leading tackler Jonathan Stewart back at middle linebacker is a plus as well.
The Aggies are facing new challenges in the SEC, but with the key talent returning, they won't be pushovers for their new competition. If these players stay healthy, Texas A&M could pull a couple of surprises.
Why it won't: Too many changes.
While the Aggies do have some talented playmakers coming back, a lot will be different in College Station this fall. For starters, a brand new coaching staff is in place and so is a new offense and defense. The Aggies are moving to a 4-3 defensive scheme and Kevin Sumlin is hoping to incorporate as much of his up-tempo spread offense as possible. He'll do so with a gang of young quarterbacks, who have combined for five career pass attempts -- all from sophomore Jameill Showers, who has the edge at starter. Defensively, the Aggies return studs in the front seven but have a completely new secondary, which could feature three sophomore starters. There were bright spots from Texas A&M's young secondary, especially from Deshazor Everett and Floyd Raven, this spring, but they are still young and they'll have to grow up in the SEC.
Besides the personnel changes, Texas A&M is also entering college football's toughest conference. Division games will now include Alabama, LSU and Arkansas. Linemen are a little faster and a little bigger around these parts. Running backs pound a little harder and skill players have a little more kick in their steps. It's going to take some time for the Aggies to adjust and this year could be full of growing pains.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When Larry Jackson ventured to Norman to join the staff at Oklahoma in 2004, it was a business decision.
After spending six seasons at Texas A&M, his alma mater, as an assistant strength and conditioning coach, Jackson made a decision that he felt was best for his family. In 2006, when the chance to become a head strength and conditioning coach (or director of sports performance, as it is termed at Houston) opened, Jackson took it. Again, it was a business decision.
When Kevin Sumlin offered Jackson the chance to become the Aggies' director of sports performance after he accepted the head coaching job, Jackson took it. Being back in College Station, the place where Jackson spent his playing career and started his coaching career, is different.
"Whenever this job came around, after years of watching them play and obviously they weren't succeeding the way that they wanted to, then it became a very big deal when I came back to get this job," Jackson said. "This wasn't just business for me, this was a personal decision."
"When you come back to your alma mater and you played and you get to coach here, all the things that my buddies care about, for them it's a personal deal too because they feel like they have one of their own back in there," Jackson said from his office in the Aggies' new Player Development Center. "So all the guys that I played with, they know that for me, it's more than just a paycheck."
While the fruits of Jackson's labor won't be evident until the Aggies take the field against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 30, the players are already seeing his impact.
"Coach Jackson, he's a great guy, he's been working hard with us and pushing us," senior receiver Ryan Swope said. "You know this whole staff has done a great job this summer really taking us and pushing us to the max level. All the guys want to do extra; he's just been pushing us that hard. He just really shows us that this team has a lot of character."
Senior linebacker Sean Porter called Jackson "a player's coach."
While the 40-year-old Jackson can relate to his players well and has a personality that the Aggies appreciate, there are certainly times when the relationship isn't rosy.
"[Jackson’s] the devil during the workout," senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart said with a laugh. "You can get really upset because of what he's doing, but post-workout, you feel great. You'll go home and eat something nutritious and you feel like 'Wow, I got better today.' With his workouts, you feel like you've gotten better rather than just going in there and doing something redundant and coming out as the same person."
No. 23: Sean Porter, LB, Texas A&M, Sr.
2011 summary: Porter led the Big 12 with 9.5 sacks last season and was tied for 16th nationally. He tied for third in the Big 12 with 17 tackles for loss and had four or more tackles in every game. Porter was a first-team All-Big 12 selection by the media.
Most recent ranking: Not ranked in the 2011 postseason countdown.
Making the case for Porter: New defensive coordinator Mark Snyder wants to play faster than fast this season, and that's right up Porter's alley. The Aggies are switching from a 3-4 to 4-3 alignment on defense, which means the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Porter will go from a stand-up outside linebacker to a more traditional outside linebacker. He's proven how polished he is as a pass-rusher, and you can bet the Aggies will get him in position to rush the passer on key passing downs this season. But Porter will also be able to showcase his other skills and how complete he is as a linebacker in this new role. There's a chance that his sack numbers could go down in a 4-3 scheme. But as an overall playmaker on defense, Porter should still rate up there among the best in the league in what will be his first and only season in the SEC.