Dallas Colleges: Trey Williams
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.
Early in the fourth quarter of the Aggies' 51-41 win over Mississippi State last Saturday, Williams returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. As he approached the goal line, he kept in the air, diving in the end zone, but officials ruled it "unsportsmanlike conduct" as part of a new rule established in recent seasons. The fact that Williams began the act before the end zone meant the penalty would be enforced from that spot. The Aggies scored a few plays later and head coach Kevin Sumlin discussed the matter on the sideline with Williams shortly thereafter, but on Monday, Banks credited his return man anyway.
"I felt bad for Trey but yesterday, I rewarded him with an award [Monday] for having a -yard return for a touchdown," Banks said. "I think he knows enough what happened. I'm sure he'll be on a 'Not Top 10,' or a 'C'mon Man!'"
Jokes and penalties aside, it was part of a solid special teams performance for Banks' group, something that turned out to be significant in Saturday's win. Throughout the season, the Aggies have had their ups and downs in the third phase of the game, but lately it appears they're steadily improving.
Banks noted in recent weeks that his kickoff return group was getting closer and closer to breaking free for a score. When it finally happened, it was the result of Williams' ability, blocking and coaching.
"This was a team that was pretty good at kickoff coverage, but at the same time they had done something different every week," Banks said. "And Trey Williams is phenomenal in improvisation and being able to make people miss in short space and get to the open field. So it was a combination of both of those things."
Because of the different looks Mississippi State showed every week in covering kickoffs, Banks chose to have his group block man-on-man rather than try to scheme something in particular to generate a return. It paid off.
Perhaps the most significant progress on special teams has come in the kicking game. After an inconsistent start to the season on field goals and point-after-touchdown kicks by placekicker Taylor Bertolet (which followed a rough freshman season), Banks made a change, going with walk-on Josh Lambo.
Since taking over, Lambo is 6-of-7 on field-goal attempts and 39-of-40 on PATs. Both misses were the result of miscues on holds. His success includes a game-winning 33-yard field goal as time expired at Ole Miss on Oct. 12.
Bertolet still has a role in the kicking game, serving as the kickoff specialist. He's averaging 62.4 yards per kickoff and has 34 touchbacks to his credit.
"It's huge peace of mind, both on kickoff and the field-goal kicking situation, to know what we're getting every game and to know that they can do it at a high level," Banks said. "I think that's probably more of why I'm feeling so good now. Taylor Bertolet's kicking off really well, kicking to the corners when we need him to, kicking it out [of the end zone] when we need him to and then Lambo's kicking really well. He just hasn't had a lot of opportunities to kick field goals. ... I'm looking forward to him being a big factor in the next two weeks."
And in each of the past two weeks, the Aggies have also come up with a blocked punt. They started the UTEP game on Nov. 2 by blocking a punt on the Miners' first possession that turned into a safety. On Saturday against Mississippi State, they did it again ... and again ... got two points.
"They run several different protections, this last team, and we didn't know which one they would run, so we had to bring an overload type of a block that would block it versus every protection," Banks said. "We got lucky that they switched their protection completely and we wound up getting two guys free as opposed to one. There were some schematics involved with that."
The performance is certainly something that made Sumlin happy.
"I thought all in all, it was another really good performance by our special teams unit again," Sumlin said. "We blocked a punt and a field goal. We had a great kickoff return. All those things helped us win that football game. Across the board, we did some things that were really good, but I thought our special teams unit was exceptional.”
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.
The defense: Taking a little copout here, but it's hard to single out one performance from the Aggies' defense. The unit has taken a ton of criticism, much of it justified, throughout this season. Yes, they were playing against a freshman quarterback who was making his first start, but considering the struggles this year, any positive performance is something to talk about. Junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury had two sacks and nine tackles. Safety Howard Matthews had a team-high 14 tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception return for a touchdown that changed the momentum early in the second half. Linebacker Steven Jenkins had an impressive day (eight tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss). The Aggies finished with seven sacks and held Vanderbilt to 95 rushing yards.
Johnny Manziel: Have to give him one after fighting through a right shoulder injury to put together a stellar performance. He was 25-of-35 for 305 yards and four touchdowns with an interception. He was sacked twice but avoided falling on the injured shoulder and made smart decisions, carrying the ball just four times. Other than the pick, which was perhaps forced into coverage, it's hard to ask for much more from Johnny Football.
Trey Williams: The sophomore running back is beginning to look like the best back this team has. He ran for 65 yards and a touchdown on just six carries (10.8 average), caught a pass for 19 yards and finished with 102 all-purpose yards. He might not be as proficient in pass protection as someone like Ben Malena, but he's definitely improved in that area since last year and his speed and elusiveness is hard to match.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Just like it has been all season, the attention going into Saturday was on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Was he going to play, or would he sit? How was his shoulder? As he often has this year, Johnny provided a lot of drama.
But the real story from the Aggies' 56-24 win over Vanderbilt at Kyle Field was the performance of the A&M defense. A unit that came into the game ranked 118th in total defense, and was in the bottom 20 nationally in most major defensive statistical categories, put together what was easily one of its best performances of the season.
After taking a gut punch from Auburn last week to the tune of 45 points and 615 yards (379 rushing), any positive sign is acceptable at this point.
"We need an example to show us how we should play, and now we have an example," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "We can always go back to the Vandy tape. This type of production we expect from the defense, and this is the standard that we expect from our defense. So, it was good to have a game like this."
There was an energy there that didn't seem to exist consistently in recent weeks for the Aggies' D. Howard Matthews (14 tackles, one interception return for a touchdown) played probably his best game of the season. The pass rush was relentless, led by Gavin Stansbury's two sacks, and the 12 tackles for loss. The unit matched its season total for sacks with seven against the Commodores and held an opponent to under 100 yards rushing for just the second time this season. It finally looked like the unit defensive coordinator Mark Snyder envisioned he'd have coming into the season.
"I dialed it up," Snyder said of what generated the consistent pass rush. "We pressured a lot more than we have pressured because we finally could. We felt like we finally got to the point where all the pieces were in place. We had practiced together, and I felt comfortable calling some pressures because everybody knew where they were supposed to be."
Much of that came from a few noteworthy personnel moves. True freshman cornerback Noel Ellis got plenty of time in place of Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel cornerback. Junior linebacker Donnie Baggs, who hasn't started since Sept. 14 against Alabama, got the starting nod at strongside linebacker. True freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall didn't start but saw heavy playing time rotating with starting ends Stansbury and Obioha. Starting defensive tackle Alonzo Williams missed the game with a foot injury, and junior Ivan Robinson replaced him.
The Commodores' best weapon -- receiver Jordan Matthews -- had a solid day (eight catches, 92 yards), but his longest reception was 21 yards. The biggest play came from Jonathan Krause on a 44-yard reception in the first half. Matthews, to his credit, became the SEC's career receiving yards leader with 3,172.
If the Aggies can build on this performance, the outlook for the rest of the season is bright.
Although the defense showed well, most eyes were on Manziel in the early going. For a guy with an injured throwing shoulder, it sure didn't seem to affect him. He completed his first 10 passes and led the Aggies to four consecutive touchdown drives to start the game.
Coach Kevin Sumlin was tight-lipped about Manziel's status all week leading up to the game, calling the Heisman Trophy winner "hopeful." He never budged from that statement but said Saturday that he wasn't playing coy and that Manziel was truly a game-time decision as he tried to recover from the shoulder injury he suffered last week.
Manziel began throwing Wednesday and participated in 11-on-11 drills Friday and even woke up Saturday with soreness. But he said there was no keeping him off the field.
"In my mind, I was always going to play," Manziel said. "It would take a lot to keep me off the field and away from these guys. They count on me, and they expect me to be there."
He completed 25 of 35 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. He ran much less than he usually does because it wasn't in the game plan, mostly to protect him from further injury.
Although Manziel was able to make every throw necessary to put the Aggies' offense in the right position, he got plenty of support from the running game as the Aggies combined for 189 yards, led by Trey Williams' 65 and Brandon Williams' 61.
It was far from a clean win. The Aggies committed five turnovers and allowed the game to get closer than it had to in the first half. But it's something they can build off of as they approach the homestretch.
"It's been a little frustrating as of late with some games a little closer than we wanted," Manziel said. "We felt we've played pretty good all around, but we just need to continue to get better. That's the thing. We're not where we were last year in every aspect of our game, but we have a coaching staff that won't quit until we're where we need to be."
His 18-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter of the 41-38 victory -- Williams' first of two touchdown runs that night -- saw the 5-foot-8, 195-pound speedster make no fewer than eight Rebels defenders miss and saw him change direction three times, including a jump cut that seemed to magically sprung him from in the middle of a crowd into open field where all that became necessary was making one more defender miss en route to the end zone.
Williams' own description of the score is a modest one.
"I was just doing what I was pretty much used to in high school: seeing a hole and just trying to hit it as fast as I can and score a touchdown," he said. "That's the best thing for the team, I guess."
For Texas A&M fans, this is the Trey Williams they've been waiting to see. An ESPN 300 prospect and four-star recruit, Williams was ranked fifth at his position and 56th among all players in the 2012 recruiting class and arrived in Aggieland with a boatload of hype and expectations.
As one of the originators of the "Agg Swagg Movement" in the 2012 class, Williams came out Dekaney as an all-everything back who compiled a whopping 8,110 yards and 86 touchdowns in his high school career. He was a highlight waiting to happen because of his speed and elusiveness and helped the Wildcats to a Class 5A Division II state championship in his senior season.
While he won the kickoff return specialist job in his true freshman season, he didn't see as many carries as one might expect a caliber of that recruit might see. Part of it had to do with depth already in the backfield and part of it because Williams needed to become a more complete back.
"I think, just like most guys from high school, they were just handing it to him," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He didn't have to worry about protection. He didn't have to worry about blocking."
Though he appeared in all 13 games last season, there were four games which Williams didn't have any carries, including A&M's showdown against LSU. Sumlin said that Williams' need to become better in pass protection was at the heart of the decision.
Fast forward to 2013 and the diminutive, yet powerful back has made significant strides in that area. After a slow start to this season while bothered by an ankle injury, Williams is steadily working his way back to 100 percent health but has also become a much more versatile and complete back.
Williams has been key for the Aggies lately, leading the team in rushing on Sept. 28 at Arkansas and scoring two touchdowns against Ole Miss. He still is the primary kickoff returner and is averaging 7.8 yards per carry at running back this season.
"I think Trey is really growing into the position," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "He's finally healthy, first of all. He showed what he can do with the ball in his hands the other night. We've all seen it. He's really, really good with the ball in his hands and he has a better understanding of protections and that allows us to play him a lot more."
Given the lack of touches his first season, Williams admits he briefly considered transferring after his freshman season. But he discussed it with his family and decided against it, saying "I didn't come here to quit." Making the transition to the Aggies’ spread offense presented Williams with a difficult learning curve.
In high school, Williams toyed with opponents. In the SEC, defenders with NFL futures make it harder to do such a thing. But now, Williams seems to be adjusting well and beginning to realize some of those lofty expectations.
"It humbled me a lot and it actually opened my eyes that everybody's not going to just adjust to what you want to do," Williams said. "I had to adjust to it otherwise I wasn't going to be able to play. I had to learn the spread offense because I had never before been in the spread offense, ever in my life. So I had to learn how to adjust to that. Now I'm just here and God blessed me to do whatever I've been doing on the field."
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."
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."
Texas A&M started fast and never looked back, leaving the result of the game in virtually no doubt from start to finish, dominating Auburn 63-21 on Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Let's take a look at how the Aggies got it done:
It was over when: Johnny Manziel strolled into the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown run with 12:03 remaining in the third quarter to give the Aggies a 49-7 lead. It was the last drive of the night for Manziel and the first-team offense and capped what was a near-perfect night for that group.
Game ball goes to: Manziel. You could give it to a lot of folks, but once again, Manziel was a big-time playmaker, going 16-of-26 passing for 260 yards and two touchdowns while running for 90 yards and another three touchdowns on nine carries. That's 350 total offensive yards and five touchdowns in little more than a half of work. If the game wasn't out of reach, Manziel might have flirted with the SEC single-game total offense record, which he has already set twice this season.
Game ball, Part 2: The Texas A&M defense. It shut down the Tigers in the first quarter, making Auburn go three-and-out on its first three drives and forcing five three-and-outs for the night. The unit didn't get a turnover, but that's nitpicking in a win like this. They tackled well, kept the running game in check and pressured the Auburn quarterbacks.
Rising star: Trey Williams. The true freshman running back, who handles kick return duty, got some touches in the first half then got plenty in the second half once the game got out of hand. He finished with a team-high 109 yards, a career high, on 19 carries plus a 1-yard touchdown. He also caught three passes for 24 yards and added 45 kick return yards for 178 all-purpose yards.
What it means: Winning in this fashion was really good for the Aggies, as they have two tough SEC road games ahead against Mississippi State and Alabama in the next two weeks. They were able to rest several starters and key players for much of the second half. The Aggies are now over .500 in SEC play (3-2), and at 6-2 overall, the Aggies are now bowl-eligible. And while the Tigers are down and looked very much out, it's still worthwhile for the Aggies to win an SEC road game in this fashion. They continue to show that the indeed belong in the conference.
103.3 FM ESPN PODCASTS
Play Podcast Part 2 of the articles on OSU's involvment in academic fraud was released. Some claim the expose is unfounded. Ian and Richard warn that there are two sides to all stories.
Play Podcast Fitzsimmons and Durrett discuss Mack Brown, Manny Diaz and all the latest with the Texas Longhorns.
Play Podcast Fitzsimmons and Durrett give you the latest on the Johnny Manziel story and Charles Barkley weighs in. You won't believe who the outspoken NBA Hall of Famer is disappointed in and what he thinks about the autograph allegations.
Play Podcast Kirk Herbstreit joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett for his weekly visit to preview the 2013 college football season.
Play Podcast Former TCU and current Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to discuss the expectations for the Bengals this season, give a prediction for the TCU-LSU game and talk about what it's like having the Hard Knocks cameras follow him.
Play Podcast Randy Galloway, Matt Mosley, and Mark Friedman react to Dez Bryant's comments regarding the NCAA's ongoing investigation of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Play Podcast Richard Durrett, Ian Fitzsimmons and Glenn "Stretch" Smith react to Dez Bryant sounding off yesterday after practice about Johnny Manziel and the shadiness of the NCAA.
Play Podcast Former NCAA investigator and Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to weigh in on the Johnny Manziel drama and give some insight as to what goes on during an NCAA investigation.