- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — With Texas A&M locked in a tight battle at Ole Miss at halftime, receivers coach David Beaty went to head coach Kevin Sumlin and said he was going to make a change at one of the inside receiver positions.
Beaty's desire was to insert Travis Labhart, a senior who has had one of the more unique journeys among the Aggies, into the lineup. Looking for more production from the 'H' receiver position, Beaty believed Labhart would be the one who could deliver.
"[Sumlin] looked back at me and said, 'He'll be great,' " Beaty recalls. "'Put him in there and let's roll.'"
The rest is history. Labhart hauled in eight receptions that night and finished with a then-career-high 97 yards. He since has become one of the most reliable receiving targets for quarterback Johnny Manziel.
In the Aggies' last five games, the 5-foot-9, 182-pound Labhart has 30 receptions, more than sophomore standout Mike Evans, the team's leading receiver. The outsized production Evans had early in the season has forced opposing teams to devote more attention to him, opening the middle of the field for others. Labhart has taken advantage.
On Saturday against Mississippi State, he had 102 receiving yards and two touchdowns on six catches in a 51-41 victory. Not bad for a guy who was a walk-on a year ago.
"At this time of year, if you're going to continue to win, you have to have guys that play at a high level that maybe before the year you didn't even talk about," Sumlin said. "Every team, across the board, if you're trying to get to double-digit wins or play at a championship level, very few teams have the same 22 guys across the board in this league at the end of the year, or even the middle of the year.
"He's worked very hard -- [a] non-scholarship player that worked his way into that. Didn't back off once that happened. Continued to play and earn the respect of his teammates. ... So when he went in the game [against Ole Miss], for him to have the type of success he had is a surprise to a lot of people, but not guys on the team, because he practices like that."
Labhart wasn't recruited out of Whitesboro (Texas) High School and initially sought to walk on to the men's basketball team. While he waited for an opportunity to try out in his freshman year, he found a spot on the women's basketball practice squad, which consists of men. He did that for a brief period before deciding to try to walk on to the football team. With encouragement from his high school coach, Eddie Gill, Labhart decided to give it a try.
He was able to find a spot but didn't make the 105-man training camp roster in his first season, which was coach Mike Sherman's final season. Labhart did make it last season, Sumlin's first, and played sparingly. This year, Labhart came in ready to contribute in training camp. He learned every receiver position and started the season as Evans' backup, but his versatility allowed him to become an option at other areas.
He impressed the coaching staff enough to earn a scholarship before the season. He's currently fourth on the team with 33 catches for 442 yards and five touchdowns, but virtually all those numbers have come in the last five games. Labhart started the last two games.
"You always want to be involved with the offense or defense," Labhart said. "You always want to be a guy and not just be someone who sits on the sidelines. This year I really tried to focus on the offseason and put in a lot of work.
"... I started out as a backup to Mike and I knew I wasn't going to get much time there, but you just kind of keep plugging away and luckily I was able to get that [chance] and it's just been a blessing, going out every night and playing your hardest, knowing that you gave your best individual performance to help your team."
A senior, Labhart played his final game at Kyle Field on Saturday. He never imagined that would happen.
"It's a dream come true," Labhart said. I was here for so many games when I was little with my granddad in the stands. I never, in a million years, thought that I would be on Kyle Field, and now I take it for granted because I'm used to it. But when I was little, it was such a big deal. I would have never imagined being out there and just getting to play and contribute to the team."
18hTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney
2dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough
3dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman