Dallas Colleges: Tra Carson
Texas A&M is not hurting for talent at running back.
It is perhaps the deepest position on the Aggies' roster and typically has been since Kevin Sumlin arrived prior to the 2012 season. The team has consistently used a rotation of running backs and that is likely to be the case this season, with the junior trio of Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams all returning and redshirt freshman James White joining the fray.
The previous two seasons saw Ben Malena emerge as the No. 1 running back in terms of workload and total production, but Malena has bid Aggieland farewell.
With Malena gone (as well as quarterback Johnny Manziel, who led the team in rushes each of his two seasons as quarterback), there are many carries up for grabs for the returning backs. Who will get the lion's share this fall?
He's the biggest back of the group, checking in at 6-foot-1 and around 235 pounds. He showed the ability last season to not only be a short-yardage back, but also illustrated his knack for getting larger chunks of yards by consistently breaking tackles.
The Texarkana (Texas) Liberty-Eylau product will never be confused with Trey Williams or Brandon Williams in terms of pure speed, so it would be unreasonable to expect him to start breaking off 60-yard runs. But he had a carry of 10 or more yards in eight of the 11 games in which he appeared last season, including touchdown runs of 29 yards and 21 yards in the final two games of the season. He finished last season with 329 yards and seven touchdowns on 62 carries.
His size and physicality makes him an ideal between-the-tackles back, and running backs coach Clarence McKinney noted last season that Carson has the best hands of the running back group. So even though he hasn't been used much in the passing game (Carson had three catches last season), McKinney's words suggest that Carson can fill that role when needed.
Trey Williams (58 carries, 407 yards, six touchdowns in 2013) is probably the most elusive back of the group and showed that in several opportunities last season. He'll continue to be a significant part of the Aggies' attack and likely could see his touches increase also with Malena and Manziel gone. His smaller frame (5-8, 195) is something to keep in mind when it comes to workload, however, and Williams has dealt with nagging injuries throughout his A&M career.
Brandon Williams had a lot in terms of expectations going into last season, but a foot injury during preseason camp disrupted his season's start. Once he got on the field, carries came sparingly (44 attempts). But he has appealing speed and playmaking ability, so it will be interesting to see how his workload is affected and where he winds up in the pecking order.
In A&M's uptempo offense, there is no such thing as an "every-down back," though Malena was as close to one as the Aggies had the last two seasons. I'm betting Carson is the most likely to emerge as the next one in that role this spring and fall.
When Kyle Field public address announce Chace Murphy introduced Malena, his teammate -- sophomore running back Tra Carson -- walked through the tunnel with a black cape, with the words "CASH OUT KING" in bold gold text, all caps.
Like a boxer stepping into the ring for a championship bout, Malena strutted in behind Carson, with his right hand in the air, fingers rubbing together for the "Cashing out" sign that has become a signature move for Malena and the Aggies when they score touchdowns. Of course, it wasn't complete without his headband, which has also become a Malena signature, with the hashtag "#CASHOUTKING" draped across the forehead.
Not a bad way to enter for the final time in front of the home crowd.
"I was sitting there talking to my roommate, and I figured if they're going to give me an opportunity to run out like they do in the NFL and call people one by one, I've got to do something crazy," Malena said after the game on Saturday. "I had my roommate do it and thanks to Tra Carson. He helped me out with walking it out. It was pretty cool."
With cameras trained on virtually his every move each Saturday, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel gets the majority of the national attention/discussion for his on-field actions, but it's Malena who has displayed the most style and flair among the Aggies this season. And he's become a fan favorite while doing it.
"Day to day, I guess he's kind of like Superman and Clark Kent," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said with a laugh. "You don't notice him during the day. You don't notice him in meetings. You don't notice him at practice. He doesn't say a whole lot. But when the lights come on and it's time to play that game, he's a different person."
But there is substance to accompany Malena's style. He's perhaps the most consistent of the team's four scholarship running backs when it comes to production. He leads the team in rushing touchdowns (nine) and has been a steady, though not necessarily explosive presence, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
He's a threat in the passing game as a receiver, catching a pass in all but one game this season and he's the best pass-protecting running back the Aggies have. He also is a willing special teams player, be it on kickoff return or kick or punt coverage -- whatever the coaching staff asks of him.
But probably his most talked-about quality among A&M players and coaches is his leadership.
"He's had some great moments here," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He's really been an emotional leader for us, maybe not as much as y'all see during the game, but in particular during practice time and in the offseason. There's a reason he's a captain and a reason why he plays a lot of special teams. He's been a leader by example, and this year he's been a vocal leader."
The style part seems to come naturally to Malena. He's been "cashing out" for years, even back to his early seasons at A&M when he was wearing No. 23 (he wore No. 1 in 2012 and this season). In an in-stadium jumbotron segment called "Ask the Aggies" that plays during home games, several teammates called Malena one of the "coolest" players on the team. And he likes to have fun with it, evidenced by his answer when a reporter asked him before senior day what his headband would say.
"I can't give that information out," Malena said smiling. "I change it up sometimes. I can't give the senior day bandana away. [My teammates] ask me every week, 'What's it going to say this week? I say 'Man, if I tell you, I have to kill you. You just have to wait until Saturday.'"
Malena enjoyed his senior day to the fullest, jumping into the crowd to celebrate the Aggies' win over Mississippi State with fans after the game. He even tossed his bandana into the crowd as he walked toward the locker room.
"I figured, why not?" Malena said. "Might as well jump in the stands and enjoy this moment."
A pair of sophomores, Tra Carson and Brandon Williams, joined the group. Both had to sit out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, as Carson transferred from Oregon and Williams from Oklahoma.
How carries would be divided was a frequent question from fans. All four were talented and highly touted recruits coming out of high school, and there was no question each had the ability to earn playing time.
But because of injuries, the Aggies haven't always had all four backs healthy and available for the entire season. Because of that, the depth they have built has become valuable as players shuffle in and out of the lineup.
On Saturday, in the Aggies' 57-7 victory over UTEP, Carson gave the Kyle Field crowd a scare after being carried away on a stretcher. Fortunately for the Aggies, Carson only had a sprained neck, but it underscores how critical it has been to the Aggies to have so many options.
"It's really helpful to have more than one guy," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "If you've got one guy and he goes down, you're scrambling for the next guy. Our situation, it's unfortunate that Tra had the injury that he went down with, but the next guy up is just as good, if not better. That's a really good position to be in as a running backs coach."
Early in the season, it was Trey Williams and Brandon Williams who battled through ailments. Brandon Williams had offseason foot surgery and missed the season opener against Rice. Trey Williams battled an ankle injury that caused him to miss the Aggies' games against Sam Houston State and Alabama. Carson has appeared in every game this year, though his status for Saturday's game against Mississippi State is uncertain.
The only player who hasn't missed game time because of an injury is Malena, who has 456 yards and eight touchdowns, best among the Aggies' running backs.
As Trey Williams (297 yards, five touchdowns) has become more and more healthy, his per-carry production has improved. He is averaging a team-high 7.6 yards per carry and has shown the explosiveness that the Aggies hoped to see when they recruited him at out of Spring (Texas) Dekaney High School.
Carson (269 yards, five touchdowns) has served as a hammer, a back who can get it done between the tackles. The contributions of Brandon Williams (206 yards, one touchdown) wasn't as significant at midseason, and he did not get any touches at Ole Miss or against Auburn. But he has carried the ball 16 times in the last two weeks, and he scored a touchdown against Vanderbilt.
Not surprisingly, quarterback Johnny Manziel is again the team's leading rusher (564 yards, eight touchdowns) but having a host of guys to hand off to has been valuable to A&M's offensive success and running game, which ranks 25th in the country (210.78 yards per game) and fourth in the SEC.
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."
The Aggies are a team that likes to operate at a fast pace, spread things out and get the ball to their playmakers in space.
The second half of the Aggies' 45-33 win consisted of them running the ball 29 times and throwing just seven passes. For the first time since the AT&T Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma in January, the Aggies finished the game with more rushing yards (262) than passing (261). And that second half stretch included two drives, one of nine plays and one of seven, that were all running plays that ended in touchdowns.
"That's probably the first series we've had ever since we've been here [as a coaching staff] that we didn't attempt one pass and scored in a seven-, eight- or nine-play drive," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "That says a lot about your team, your versatility and about where our confidence factor lies with our offensive line and our running game."
What it also says is that the Aggies are deep at the running back position. All four of the Aggies' scholarship running backs -- Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams -- touched the football on Saturday and combined for 203 rushing yards.
It was just the second time this season that all four have been available for a game, and was perhaps the best performance for the group this season.
"It's a luxury," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "It was really good to see all four of those guys out there. They were not only being competitive within the game, but they were competing with each other. That's how they do it every day."
Malena is the starter and elder statesman of the group. He emerged as the starter last season, claiming the top spot over then-senior Christine Michael, who's now with the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. Malena's combination of running, receiving and blocking ability makes him a versatile option that fits the A&M offense well. He is the leader among the team's four running backs with 303 yards and seven touchdowns. Coaches have praised his reliability and leadership all season.
But Saturday was a true showcase for Carson and Trey Williams, who provided a formidable one-two punch themselves. Carson, who has impressed since his Aggie debut on Aug. 31 against Rice, is a big, physical, north-south type of running back who also has good speed for someone carrying 230 pounds.
Averaging 5.6 yards per carry, he's second among the team's running backs this season with 229 yards and four touchdowns.
"You see Tra Carson out there running hard," Malena said. "It takes more than one guy to tackle him."
Trey Williams had a 100-yard game last season in a blowout against Auburn, but he hasn't always been healthy in his A&M career. He's still not 100 percent healthy but showed that he's getting close to that on Saturday, leading the team with 83 rushing yards and a touchdown while averaging 9.2 yards per carry.
"He's really, really good with the ball in his hands," McKinney said. "And he showed a little bit of that on Saturday and hopefully that'll kick start him for the rest of the year."
Brandon Williams missed the season opener while recovering from offseason foot surgery but has gradually been working his way back into the lineup. He showed his burst with a 20-yard carry against Arkansas and also has a touchdown reception to his name this season.
"He's the guy that probably has the most wire-to-wire potential," Sumlin said. "He's a home-run threat from anywhere."
The fascinating part about the Aggies' playcalling on Saturday, which led to 44 rushes and 30 pass attempts, is that there were no designed runs called for quarterback Johnny Manziel. McKinney noted that Manziel is going to run whether or not a run play is called for him but they wanted to limit how many hits he took.
Manziel wound up carrying the ball nine times for 59 yards with the four running backs accounting for the other 35 carries.
But as the Aggies get deeper into their SEC schedule, they can do so knowing that they have a multitude of options to go to and so far, all of them have proven capable of delivering.
"We've got a variety of guys," Sumlin said. "Our staff has done a good job with those guys and making sure they're sharing the wealth and that the more you can share it, the healthier you're going to be throughout the year. We're not even halfway [through the season] and we've got some bruised up guys.
"They know that and they help each other and I'm pleased with the direction that whole position has gone."
The offensive line and running game: There were some questions coming into the season about how the Aggies' offensive line would fare after losing Luke Joeckel to the NFL draft and center Patrick Lewis to graduation. So far, the Aggies have continued to shine in this area. The protection provided to Manziel when he passes has been stellar, and the Aggies have not had much trouble running the football, averaging 221.4 yards per game. On Saturday against Arkansas, the Aggies actually had more rushing yards than passing. And the last two weeks, we've seen the coaching staff use all four scholarship running backs (Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams) effectively. Malena continues to be a steady force, Carson has provided a hammer who can break tackles and get short yardage but is explosive enough to get chunks as well, and the Williamses are both explosive talents with a lot of speed.
Deshazor Everett: The junior defensive back has been the Aggies' best defensive player this year. Though cornerback is his usual home, he moved to safety for the last two weeks to help alleviate some issues in the secondary. He performed well in both positions, is second on the team with 31 tackles and leads the team with two interceptions, including a pick-six against Arkansas. If the Aggies had more Everetts, their defense would be better off.
Play-calling: The offensive staff, led by offensive coordinator and play-caller Clarence McKinney has done a solid job of ensuring the offense utilizes its many weapons. There has been plenty of balance in the play calls (Texas A&M has run the ball 202 times and attempted 179 passes), the pace of the offense remains high, and it appears the Aggies have had an answer for almost anything opposing defenses have thrown at them. The one game in which the Aggies came up short was due to two turnovers against No. 1 Alabama.
The defense: To say the Aggies have struggled defensively is an understatement. Texas A&M is 112th nationally in yards allowed per game (476.8), 109th in yards allowed per play (6.59), 107th in rushing yards allowed per game (214.8) and 94th in passing yards allowed per game (262). Some of those struggles were the result of missing personnel in the first two games because of suspensions, but that's not an excuse anymore. Alabama and Arkansas both moved the ball with relative ease against the unit. In the second half against Arkansas on Saturday, the A&M defense did show the ability to get some key stops and make a few plays, so that might be encouraging, but it will have to build on that when it faces Ole Miss on Oct. 12.
The kicking game: The Aggies had to make a change at place-kicker, removing Taylor Bertolet from PAT and field-goal duty and replacing him with walk-on Josh Lambo. The issues haven't just been with the actual kickers, but there were also a couple of botched holds in the first four games. Leaving points on the board might not cost Texas A&M against nonconference foes like Sam Houston State or SMU, but it will cost them in SEC play if it continues to happen. Is Lambo the answer? He had a solid day on Saturday against Arkansas, going 6-for-6 on PATs and hitting a 39-yard field goal. So far he's 2-for-2 on field goals and 7-for-8 on PATs with his only miss coming as the result of a fumbled hold.
Texas A&M has a chance to heal up some injuries this week, which is critical after three starters -- defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, linebacker Darian Claiborne and Evans -- got banged up. Safety Floyd Raven, who has been out with a collarbone injury, continues to make progress in hopes of a return before long.
With the meat of the SEC schedule coming up, the Aggies have to get better on defense if they hope to realize some of their season goals. The offense continues to put up 40 points per game, but if for some reason it has an off night, A&M has to be able to rely on the D to help it pull through. Aside from the kicking game, special teams has been solid overall, and if Lambo is the answer at place-kicker, that's a positive for A&M moving forward.
Perhaps most notably, the drama is behind the Aggies. The constant headlines and media circus that followed the team, specifically Manziel, is in the rearview mirror. Led by Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies handled it well and didn't allow it to distract them from the task at hand.
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- To the casual fan, it would be easy to surmise that Texas A&M is a one-man team.
With much of the national conversation surrounding the Aggies' quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, someone who hasn't paid close attention might jump to the conclusion that Manziel is the man who makes everything happen for Texas A&M.
It can seem like that at times. Manziel's performance certainly has a major role in the fate of the Aggies, but they proved Saturday that they are much more than just Johnny Football -- even with the game on the line.
With Arkansas breathing down their necks and the crowd of 72,613 at Razorback Stadium raising the decibel level as the host squad threatened an upset of No. 10 Texas A&M, the Aggies handed over the game not to their quarterback but to their running game. It helped them put away the Razorbacks 45-33 on Saturday night.
When the Razorbacks narrowed an 11-point lead to just four midway through the third quarter, A&M put the game in the hands of its offensive line and sophomore running backs Tra Carson and Trey Williams. Nine plays and 68 yards later, Williams hit pay dirt with a 17-yard touchdown run to extend the Aggies' lead to 38-27.
Arkansas cut the lead back to five, and early in the fourth quarter the Aggies went back to Carson and Williams, who ate up 56 yards before starting running back Ben Malena put the finishing touch on another touchdown drive, punching it in from a yard out for the final margin of victory with 10:08 to go.
"I think it just shows another dimension of our offense," Malena said. "People look at our offense being so spread out, being the 'Air Raid' offense, but I think we had two or three drives where we didn't throw the ball but maybe one or two times. I think it just shows how good our offensive line is and how talented our running backs are."
For the first time since their win over Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl in January, the Aggies finished with more rushing yards (262) than passing (261). That helped the Aggies' struggling defense immensely, particularly in the second half when they were able to chew up the yardage. The drives weren't long in terms of time (each of the two aforementioned scoring drives lasted 3:06 or less), but they did give the defense time to catch its breath.
And the Aggies were able to possess the ball for 9:45 of the final 15:00.
Saturday was the second consecutive week that the Aggies had all four of their scholarship running backs — Carson, Malena, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams — available and it was the first time this season Trey Williams looked like the explosive back the Aggies signed in the 2012 recruiting class and got to see flashes of last season. Each of the four contributed, and they combined for 203 rushing yards.
Coming into the season the coaching staff discussed the benefits of having four backs as talented as these. Saturday was a manifestation of what the coaches hoped could be when utilizing each of them.
"All of our backs have their own value," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "They all have their own pluses and we utilize them all and I think we're able to keep them all fresh that way."
And though Manziel didn't have to put the game on his shoulders in the second half, he played flawlessly when he had the ball. He was efficient as usual (23-of-30, 261 yards, no interceptions) and gave Arkansas headaches with his scrambling ability (59 rushing yards). Perhaps the most telling sign of the respect he has earned came late in the second quarter when Chris Smith and Deatrich Wise Jr. pulled Manziel down for a sack. The crowd erupted perhaps as loud as it did the entire night, and Wise proceeded to egg the crowd on with a celebratory sack dance.
But that was the only time the Razorbacks sacked Manziel.
"We ask him to make plays and he makes plays," Sumlin said. "He took care of the ball."
The defense, which didn't play well for large stretches on Saturday, even found its footing in the second half. Each of the three times that the Razorbacks were within five points or fewer in the second half, the Aggies responded with a stop.
Junior defensive back Deshazor Everett came up with the Aggies' biggest defensive play, a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown, on Arkansas' opening drive of the second half.
"Coach [Mark] Snyder told us on the sideline that he was going to change the call and he wants me to stay inside of [Julian Horton] and wait for the slant route," Everett said. "He dialed it up and called it and it was perfect. They ran the slant and I jumped it, just like he told me to."
After the next two times the Razorbacks narrowed the gap, the Aggies' D responded with three-and-outs each time. For a unit that was gashed for 483 yards, 201 rushing, 6.7 yards a carry and 7.3 yards per play — and lost starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis and middle linebacker Darian Claiborne to injuries in the process — it was a significant turn of events in an SEC road game.
The Aggies get next weekend off before traveling to Oxford, Miss., to take on Ole Miss. The open date comes at an appropriate time, with Claiborne, Ennis and receiver Mike Evans all suffering injuries on Saturday, though Evans returned to play the remainder of the game after a brief first-half exit. There are still several areas in which the Aggies must get better, but Saturday they showed a side of themselves that some might not have seen.
Aaron Murray, QB Georgia: It wasn’t long ago when Murray was labeled the quarterback who couldn’t win the big game. It’s time to throw that away. The senior finished 20-of-34 for 298 yards and five total touchdowns in Georgia’s biggest game of the year. He has always been productive -- he could soon become the SEC’s most productive quarterback of all time -- but add the clutch factor and there’s no reason not to think he’s a top contender for the Heisman this year. The Bulldogs control their own destiny in the SEC East, and Murray and company would love nothing more than a chance to avenge last year’s loss to Alabama in the conference championship. They have to get through Florida first.
Zach Mettenberger, QB LSU: It doesn’t matter how well somebody plays, there has to be a winner and there has to be a loser. Unfortunately for Mettenberger, he finished on the losing side Saturday, but the former Georgia quarterback played admirably against his former team. He finished 23-of-37 for 372 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Down the stretch, he made clutch throw after clutch throw to keep the Tigers in the game. LSU wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry had close to 300 yards receiving between them, but it starts with Mettenberger. He had a terrific homecoming but came up just short.
The Alabama secondary: Before the game, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace said he thought they could score on anybody. Evidently not Alabama. The No. 1 team in the nation shut out the Rebels, 25-0. Wallace singled out the Crimson Tide cornerbacks, saying they weren’t exactly first-rounders, but Deion Belue and Eddie Jackson stepped up on Saturday. Jackson, a true freshman, was especially impressive locking up Wallace’s favorite target Donte Moncrief for most of the game. He also came down with the Tide’s lone interception. As a whole, the UA secondary held Ole Miss to just 159 yards through the air.
Mike Davis, RB South Carolina: At halftime, it didn’t look good for South Carolina. The Gamecocks trailed Central Florida, 10-0, and quarterback Connor Shaw was lost for the game with a shoulder injury. But Davis didn’t care. He put his team on his back and carried it to victory. It started with a 53-yard touchdown run on the opening drive of the third quarter, the first points of the game for the Gamecocks. He scored twice more in the fourth quarter to extend the lead and put the game away. The sophomore back finished with 26 carries for 167 yards and three touchdowns as South Carolina survived a difficult road test.
The Texas A&M offensive line: Johnny Manziel gets most of the credit for Texas A&M’s high-powered offense, but it was the offensive line that absolutely dominated Arkansas up front on Saturday. The Aggies rushed for 262 yards against the Razorbacks, averaging six yards per carry. No one player reached 100 yards rushing, but Trey Williams and Tra Carson played well down the stretch, and starting running back Ben Malena scored twice. Manziel still finished with 261 yards and two touchdowns through the air and another 59 yards on the ground, but it all started with the offensive line.
It's the home of the Georgia Dome, site of the SEC championship game. It has frequently been the defacto play-in game to the BCS National Championship throughout the last decade. If you win in Atlanta, chances are you're playing for the crystal football.
While players stuck to their talking points of this week being "just another game" or this week being "like any other week," the fact that the Aggies discussed their initial season goal indicates that they understand what's at stake Saturday.
Win and get an edge in the SEC West race.
Internally, there always has been since head coach Kevin Sumlin arrived. Despite what others said, he made it clear to his players last season that they had the talent to win every game on their schedule. The win over Alabama verified that, but the Aggies had slipups against Florida and LSU earlier in the year.
Before training camp began, senior running back Ben Malena approached Sumlin about taking an expanded leadership role in order to help the team get to a "championship level." So how's the progress on that front so far?
"I think we're doing a very good job of taking strides to getting to Atlanta," Malena said. "Correcting some mistakes that we made from Week 1 to Week 2 was very good and we're going to need to correct some more stuff, especially going into this game, because they [the Crimson Tide] will be ready coming into Kyle Field."
Quarterback Johnny Manziel is key for sure, but if the team expects to get to Atlanta, it must be more than just Manziel carrying the load. Offensively, that doesn't appear to be an issue thus far. With four capable running backs (Malena, Tra Carson, Brandon Williams, Trey Williams), a veteran offensive line that excelled in the first two games and perhaps one of the nation's best receivers in Mike Evans, there are plenty of weapons for the Aggies to go to.
Defense is where the question marks are now, though the Aggies have a chance to answer some of those question marks on Saturday. They haven't yet had their full complement of defensive players because of injuries and suspensions, but will have virtually their entire first-team unit intact on Saturday. Though Alabama struggled offensively, and particularly on its offensive line, in its season-opening win against Virginia Tech, the Aggies are still expecting a strong effort from the Crimson Tide running game and offense.
"Coach [Nick] Saban is going to do what Coach Saban does," A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "They've won a lot of games doing it. Why change? There's not a dramatic dropoff between last year's team and this year's team. Their left tackle is still really good, their right guard is still really good. They got their feet wet for the first game and now they've had two weeks to kind of prepare and get those things fixed and we're expecting to get their best."
Some have said the Aggies entered the season with a target on their backs, whether it's because of their upstart inaugural season in the SEC or the exploits of Manziel, which have drawn plenty of headlines. In a way, the Aggies almost feel like underdogs though, because of how many around the nation feel that Saban and Co. will successfully redeem themselves with a win on Saturday.
"From last year, us beating them, people didn't expect that," Aggies receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "People probably don't expect it this year. But as I said, we just go week-to-week on a weekly basis and we just try to be 1-0 at the end of the week and that's how we're approaching this game."
No matter what happens, it's important to note that there's a lot of season left after this game. The Aggies have nine more contests, including road trips to Ole Miss and LSU, while Alabama has 10 more games. Despite the buildup, the SEC won't be won or lost on Saturday, though the result could play a critical role in deciding who gets the West division title at the end of the season.
In trying to get the team to a championship level, Sumlin has tried to keep his team focused on the game and not the noise around it while keeping their routine the same. Much like Saban's "The Process" axiom, Sumlin tries to keep his team consistent and avoid allowing them to "ride the wave."
"I'd probably be lying to you if I told you no, [that things haven't changed since last year]," Sumlin said. "In this room, it probably hasn't changed very much just because of our approach day-to-day with the players and our coaches.
“When we leave here, I take out my phone and all you guys are talking about what we're supposed to be and how big this game is and everything else, that's when the problems come,” Sumlin said with a smile.
"I think we're pretty visible right now and because of that, that's what you want as a coach. You come into situations and as things start to progress, you want to be in meaningful games,” he said. “You want your team to have a chance to play in meaningful games -- not just now, but in November."
Or December, in Atlanta.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — On the first day of Texas A&M's preseason training camp, senior running back Ben Malena journeyed to the third floor of the Bright Football Complex, where the coaches' offices are located.
His destination was the big office, coach Kevin Sumlin's. Malena wanted to discuss with Sumlin his role on the team. But Malena's purpose wasn't to discuss carries or touches in the Aggies' high-powered, fast-paced offense. It was about leadership, and, more specifically, how he could help provide more of it.
In Sumlin's first season in Aggieland, Malena showed just how much he cared by his willingness to contribute wherever needed. Although he began the season behind then-senior Christine Michael on the depth chart, Malena eventually seized the starting running back role. But his contributions went far beyond that.
He became a regular on special teams, helping on kick returns, a role he has again this season. He even spent time on the punt coverage team, running downfield to cover punts. He finished as the team's second-leading rusher and rushing leader among running backs last season (808 yards, 8 touchdowns) and was a weapon in the passing game, as well (18 catches, 111 yards, 1 touchdown). He also was lauded by the coaching staff for his work as a pass protector, helping to pick up blitzes from his position.
His start to this season has been strong. He's the team's leading rusher (173 yards, 2 touchdowns) and already has a receiving touchdown. He's averaging an impressive 7.9 yards per carry. More than 63 percent of his carries go for 5 yards or more, and he ranks fourth in the nation among running backs with at least 20 carries in that category.
He is part of what makes the Aggies' backfield a valuable asset.
"This offseason, I tried to improve on every single aspect that you can improve on as a player, whether it's getting stronger and faster, getting smarter mentally for the game, I just tried to improve on every single [aspect]," Malena said. "Also, I tried to improve my leadership skills."
Malena is one of four scholarship running backs, all of whom have carried the ball this season and are expected to be factors in the Aggies' offense. Sophomore Tra Carson, who transferred from Oregon and sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, has also had a productive start to the year with 23 carries for 127 yards and a team-high four rushing touchdowns. Sophomore Trey Williams is the team's primary kick returner and gets carries, but he missed Saturday's win over Sam Houston State with an ankle injury [Sumlin said he'll return this Saturday against Alabama]. And sophomore Brandon Williams, a transfer from Oklahoma, made his Aggies debut against Sam Houston State and scored a touchdown on a 10-yard reception from Johnny Manziel.
"One thing we have in common is work ethic," Malena said. "All of us go out there every day competing because it is, at the same time, a competition. Brandon Williams, like I said, he brings an element to this game that is hard to coach against, and that's speed. Tra Carson is a bigger back, about 230 pounds, and in this league you need a back that can really get the short yardage. And Trey Williams, he's a very electrifying player. He's really special in the return game and also running the ball. With this group, it all starts with me. As a unit, we work well together."
Although the Aggies' style offense is sometimes considered pass-happy because of the frequency of four-wide receiver sets and shotgun formations, Texas A&M has been one of the nation's best rushing teams. Including the ground exploits of quarterback Manziel, who was the SEC's leading rusher last season, the Aggies were 11th nationally in rushing yards per game (242.08) and first downs per rush (29.2 percent) and second in touchdowns per rush (nine percent) in 2012.
The Aggies are in the top 10 in the latter two categories so far this season and are 38th in rushing yards per game (219.5), with Manziel accounting for only for 55 yards thus far.
But it's Malena who sets the tone. A product of Cedar Hill (Texas) High School, he played a limited role as a freshman and saw an increase in time as a sophomore before emerging as the No. 1 back last season. Offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said Malena has come a long way since the current coaching staff arrived.
"I think the biggest improvement with Ben is his body," McKinney said. "He's really worked hard in the weight room to get his body prepared for all the different things he's doing for us, both special teams and offense and things of that nature."
His intelligence has also been an asset, McKinney said.
"From the day we got here and we started installing his offense, Ben Malena displayed that he's a smart football player and has a high IQ," McKinney said. "He's the one guy who in my room has never written anything down when we're going over new ideas and new plays, but he never messes up when he goes out to practice. He's a smart football player."
But Malena's desire to lead might turn out to be his most meaningful contribution to the Aggies this fall. With a battle against No. 1 Alabama looming and the Aggies constantly in the national spotlight for various reasons, some positive and some not, Malena feels as if it's something he can and should do.
"I feel as though, in this conference, with the level of competition throughout the SEC West and the East, I feel as though, in order for teams to take the step to get to championship level, you need to have player leadership also," Malena said. "So I just went up there in Coach Sumlin's office to discuss with him things and ask him for advice for different things that I can do to further help this team get to a championship level."
It’s time to check out Texas A&M's strongest position and weakest position heading into the 2013 season.
Strongest position: Running back
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is pumped about his depth at running back. But even more so, he's excited about all the different things the Aggies should be able to do with their backs. Christine Michael departed, but dependable Ben Malena returns after leading all running backs on the team with 808 rushing yards last season and averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams showed in the spring just how electrifying he can be and brings an element of speed and explosion that will go hand-in-hand with quarterback Johnny Manziel's ability to break down defenses. Don't forget about sophomore Trey Williams. He was a big-time recruit coming out of high school, and Oregon transfer Tra Carson will also be eligible. Carson is pushing 230 pounds and will be the brute of the bunch. "They can all play anywhere, and that changes what we do," Sumlin said of his four backs.
Weakest position: Linebackers
There will be considerable change at the linebacker position for the Aggies in 2013. Gone are senior starters Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, and the only returning starter -- senior Steven Jenkins -- was limited this spring after tearing his labrum. What's more, the guy coaching the Texas A&M linebackers will be new. Mark Hagen is in his first season on the Aggies' staff after coming over from Indiana. Junior Donnie Baggs was a backup last season, but he's the likely starter in the middle. The unnerving part for the Aggies is that they will have to rely on a lot of newcomers at linebacker, but several of those guys showed real promise this spring. Junior college transfer Tommy Sanders can fly and looks like a natural for the strong side linebacker spot. True freshman Reggie Chevis enrolled early and also went through the spring. He's already 250 pounds and a real thumper in the middle. Brett Wade was another true freshman who went through the spring and got a lot of work on the weak side. With so many new faces, there could be some growing pains early at linebacker.
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."
We asked you guys which of the three -- Florida, Missouri and Texas A&M -- would have the most success with their transfer players this season, and with more than 3,000 votes in our SportsNation poll, Texas A&M ran away with the win.
The Aggies, who welcome transfer running backs Brandon Williams and Tra Carson, grabbed 62 percent of the vote. Florida picked up 23 percent, while Missouri earned 15 percent of the vote.
If these running backs, especially Williams, are as good as advertised, the Aggies might have the most talented backfield in the SEC. Quarterback Johnny Manziel and running backs Ben Malena and Trey Williams are still around, so the Aggies will have plenty of options back there this fall.
The Gators gained two transfer offensive linemen in Max Garcia and Tyler Moore. Both entered spring practice as starters, but Garcia might have the best chance of keeping his starting role at left guard. That spot is open, while Moore will be challenging junior Chaz Green once Green returns from ankle surgery this fall. Regardless, both were much-needed additions to a line that is now expected to be stronger and more physical this fall.
As for Mizzou, the Tigers get another weapon at wide receiver with former Texas wide receiver Darius White's eligibility kicking in. The coaches are excited about his playmaking ability and he should push for playing time this spring. The Tigers' receiving corps struggled last season, so White will have every chance to be a factor in Mizzou's offense in the fall. Mitch Hall transferred in from Ole Miss last year and should push for playing time along the offensive line. The Tigers were really beat up along its line last year, and while Hall enters the spring behind Evan Boehm at left guard, Mizzou's coaches need to get him adequate reps during the spring and fall.
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