NCF Nation: Ben Malena

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Will it be the pro day to end all pro days? The buildup certainly lends itself to such hyperbole.

There will be live national coverage, on television and the web. There will be countless hours of analysis on the airwaves in the aftermath -- and there already has been in the lead up to the event. Political figures, past and present, will be in the house. Johnny Manziel even got to spend time with a former president on Wednesday. Later in the day, Manziel's visit with Jon Gruden for Gruden's QB Camp will air on ESPN (you can get a sneak peek here). It's, as one NFL coach called it, "Johnny Day."

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergAfter participating in several drills at the NFL combine, Johnny Manziel will throw for NFL scouts at his pro day.
In case you were unaware (if you follow college football or the NFL draft closely, it's hard not to be aware), Johnny Football's biggest job interview to date takes place at 11 a.m. at Texas A&M's McFerrin Athletic Center.

At the NFL scouting combine last month, Manziel did almost everything except throw for the 32 teams on hand. Thursday, he will finally display the fruits of the intensive labor he has put into his right arm (as well as his footwork, accuracy, arm strength and mental capabilities) over the last 10 weeks.

In mid-January, less than a week after officially declaring for early entry into the NFL draft, Manziel headed west for San Diego, the city that would become his training ground to prepare for the combine and pro day. Working with his personal quarterback coach, George Whitfield Jr., Manziel went to work in what they dubbed "Dime City," hoping to prove to the NFL, and specifically the Houston Texans, that the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner is worth the No. 1 overall pick.

"I want them to say absolutely, without a doubt, with 100 percent certainty, that I'm who they want," Manziel told the Houston Chronicle and Fort Worth Star-Telegram in February. "I want everybody from the janitor at Reliant Stadium to the front-office executive assistant all the way up to [owner] Bob McNair to say, 'This kid is 100 percent, can't miss. This is who we want being the face of our program. We want the Texas kid staying in Texas and leading the Texans.'”

Thursday, personnel from the Texans and almost every other NFL team will be present. Texans general manager Rick Smith, head coach Bill O'Brien and quarterbacks coach George Godsey will be there watching closely. Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer will not be, but there won't be a shortage of pro personnel. NFL.com's Gil Brandt put the over/under on NFL folks at 125.

Manziel won't be the only one they are there to see, either. Receiver Mike Evans -- who like Manziel, did not work out at Texas A&M's first pro day on March 5 -- will also perform for the scouts on hand. A projected first-round pick, Evans has the opportunity to add to his already storybook career, one that includes him going from high school basketball star with no varsity football experience to one of the best receivers in college football.

Because Manziel is expected to be taken early and not every team needs a quarterback, there will be as many -- perhaps more -- eyes on Evans. Projected initially to be a mid-first round pick, some felt his performance at the combine last month might have given off a good enough impression to help Evans work his way into the top 10. Either way, there are plenty of teams that feel they might have a shot to take him.

At 6-foot-5 and 231 pounds, with a 37-inch vertical and a 40-yard dash time of 4.53 seconds, Evans has the physical tools coaches desire and was extremely productive in the SEC despite having only four years of football experience.

Joining the two projected first-rounders in the pro day performance will be their Texas A&M teammates, running back Ben Malena, receivers Travis Labhart and Derel Walker and tight end Nehemiah Hicks. Whitfield has been in town with the group this week working with them on the pro day script.

Texas A&M defensive back Toney Hurd Jr., who had to sit out the Aggies' March 5 pro day while awaiting medical clearance from offseason surgery, also plans to perform for scouts.

But the nation's attention will be on Manziel. He's a polarizing figure in this draft, just like he has been throughout his college career, for many reasons: his height (5-11 3/4), his scrambling ability, his tendency to orchestrate seemingly impossible plays and the headlines he has made, particularly off the field. The predictions and opinions about his future run the gamut, from those who feel he will excel at the next level to those who believe he will be a bust. Can he make all the throws? He has the opportunity to answer those questions now.

His accomplishments at Texas A&M are well-documented, but what kind of impression will he leave for his future employers? Most of his life, Manziel has been at his best when the lights have been brightest. A coach who knows him better than most expects that to be the case once again.

"I'm not going to be shocked when he does well," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Some other people may but it won't shock me at all when he does well."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As Texas A&M began its ninth practice of spring football on Monday, Johnny Manziel briefly roamed the sideline before hitting the turf for a pre-workout stretch.

Earlier that morning, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback was in Kevin Sumlin's office, catching up with his former head coach.

And in the afternoon, prior to his workout, he made headlines across the Internet with this viral video of him displaying his athleticism with a multitude of dunks.

Yes, it was just like old times in Aggieland for Manziel.

The difference this time is, he wasn't suiting up for practice with the Aggies. Instead, he was utilizing the facilities where he launched his memorable college career to prepare for the latest "most important day" of his young career, his pro day workout in front of NFL personnel on Thursday.

Though he has spent most of his time since January in San Diego, working with private quarterback coach George Whitfield and Aggies teammate Mike Evans (who will also perform on Thursday), Manziel is finding respite in the place he spent the last three years.

"It was kind of startling to open the door and see him there," Sumlin said of seeing Manziel in his office first thing Monday morning. "Obviously, he feels at home."

Manziel and Sumlin caught up briefly and the quarterback inquired on the team's practice times so he could schedule his workouts with Whitfield and a host of familiar A&M teammates like Evans, Travis Labhart, Derel Walker and Ben Malena.

Sumlin made sure to mention Manziel's television commercial debut, a McDonald's spot featuring LeBron James.

"We just talked about pro day, we talked about a lot of things," Sumlin said. "I haven't seen him since the first week of spring football, before spring break. I congratulated him on his commercial (laughs). We just talked about a couple things and asked him how he was doing. He wanted to know what time we were practicing and whether we were indoors or outdoors because he was going to come in and throw a little bit beforehand and come out and watch practice. Just regular stuff."

On Thursday, both Manziel and Aggieland will be the center of attention as he throws for NFL personnel who will be on hand. Evans -- who like Manziel is projected to be a first-round pick -- will also get a chance to shine since he didn't work out in the Aggies' first pro day on March 5. The pair's aforementioned workout partners will also be a part of the pro day script and will have the opportunity to prove their worth to those on hand.

There will be plenty of eyes on Manziel in particular, including those of the Houston Texans, who hold the No. 1 pick in the draft.

"I'm happy for him now," Sumlin said. "This will be a big day for him. The exposure, the bright lights, the video, the brand -- that carries worldwide and that's a big deal for everybody concerned."

Aggies road streak put to stiff test

November, 20, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Call them the road warriors.

Since coach Kevin Sumlin took over at Texas A&M, the Aggies have been perfect on the road. That run of success will be put to the test on Saturday when the No. 12 Aggies travel to No. 22 LSU to play in Tiger Stadium, also known as Death Valley.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesTexas A&M doesn't lose on the road under Kevin Sumlin, but LSU doesn't lose at home very often. Something has to give on Saturday.
As LSU coach Les Miles once said "It's truly a place where opponents’ dreams come to die."

On Tuesday, Sumlin said "We're trying to keep our dreams alive.”

The task is a tall one for sure. Under Miles, LSU is 55-7 at Tiger Stadium. Since 2010, the Tigers are 25-1 at home, with the lone loss coming to No. 1 Alabama last season.

But the Aggies are pretty good on the road. Since Sumlin took over, the Aggies are 9-0 away from Kyle Field.

Something's got to give.

"It's a tough environment," senior running back Ben Malena said. "It's probably one of the top-five toughest environments for an opposing team to actually go in there and win. Not a lot of people go into Death Valley and win. If you go into Death Valley and win, you've got to beat those guys. It's something we're looking forward to."

The challenges for the Aggies are plentiful, especially when looking back at last season's meeting. LSU was one of two teams to defeat the Aggies last year, doing so 24-19 at Kyle Field. It was a game which Texas A&M lost the turnover battle by a wide margin (5-0) and it was a day of struggles for eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who threw three interceptions that day. Special teams were also an issue, as the Aggies left points on the board with two missed field goals and a missed point after touchdown kick.

All of those things will have to be corrected if the Aggies are to keep their dreams alive. They'll also have to defend a strong LSU running game, led by Jeremy Hill, much better than they've defended the run all season (the Aggies are 105th nationally, allowing 210.7 rush yards per game).

Sumlin spoke with a level of confidence about his group heading into the tough tilt on Saturday. The Aggies have gone and won SEC road games at Arkansas and Ole Miss this year; Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State last year. This test will be a unique one for sure.

"It'll take a really good effort from all three phases -- offense, defense and special teams -- for us to go in there and win," Sumlin said. "Right now where we are, we're about as healthy as we've been. We've got a lot of energy. Our guys understand our schemes as much as any time this year. Even though I said it's going to take a lot, I think right now we're in a position where guys understand what we're doing and we're looking forward to going and playing."

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Before walking through the tunnel behind the south end zone after pregame warm-ups on Saturday, Johnny Manziel stopped near the goal post where his parents, Paul and Michelle, stood waiting for him.

The last player in maroon and white to walk off the field, it seemed as if the Texas A&M quarterback was savoring every moment of the last Aggies game at Kyle Field this season. Before following his teammates into the tunnel, Manziel gave his mother and father each a warm embrace, and they reciprocated. With arms wrapped around each other tight, the emotion on their faces seemed telling.

If it wasn't Johnny Manziel's last game, period, at Kyle Field, it certainly had that feeling.

The rest was vintage Johnny Football. If you tried to sum up his short college career in four quarters, Saturday's 51-41 win over Mississippi State would serve as a pretty accurate microcosm. A spin move here, a juke there. Touchdown passes in bunches, oohs and ahhs from the crowd when he scrambled for yardage or to extend passing plays and, yes, a few interceptions mixed in for good measure, because Manziel is nothing if not a risk-taker.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJohnny Manziel wouldn't say whether this was his last home game, but he savored it nonetheless.
Heisman Trophy winner. Riverboat gambler. Highlight reel waiting to happen. Relentless and unapologetic. It all accurately describes Manziel, who is right in the middle of this year's Heisman race as he pursues a second consecutive trophy.

The numbers were good: 30-of-39 passing, 446 yards, five touchdowns, plus 47 rushing yards. There were those three interceptions that he'd like to have back, too, but in the end, he played well enough for his team to win. Was this it for Manziel in Aggieland? He's not ready to say.

"Not one bit," Manziel said, when asked if he has thought about or made a decision about his football future. "I'm focused on still trying to get us into a BCS berth and the best bowl that we can possibly get to. That's my only focus right now."

Whether or not this was his last game in front of the home crowd, Manziel made sure to enjoy the moment to the fullest. With less than two minutes to go and the Aggies trying to take a knee to secure a win, he waved his arms emphatically toward the crowd, hyping up the fans, ordering them to get loud. After returning to the sideline with less than a minute to go, his face showed up on the JumboTron and he smiled and saluted. The fans went nuts and began chanting in unison, "One more year! One more year!"

After the game was over, as the Aggie War Hymn played, Manziel ran into the stands to enjoy the moment with the fans and saw varsity's horns off with the people who have adored him throughout his nearly two-season stint, one in which he has captivated the college football world. He smiled from ear to ear almost every second, soaking it all in.

"It was just kind of spur of the moment," Manziel said. "The way that the crowd acted that last 1:30, for me and Mike [Evans], with the chant and with the energy that they brought when the game was kind of slowing down, it kind of kept us focused. It was just a great way to end this year, celebrating with them."

If the Aggies can get to a BCS bowl, or at least win out with victories at LSU and Missouri to close out November, Manziel's chances of repeating as the Heisman winner are real. Oregon's loss to Stanford on Thursday significantly hindered Marcus Mariota's chances, and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, whose team beat Wake Forest 59-3 on Saturday, stands as Manziel's primary competition.

But Manziel will have to limit the mistakes he made on Saturday in those final games against LSU and Missouri, both of which are stronger opponents than the Mississippi State squad the Aggies played Saturday. The Bulldogs harassed Manziel quite a bit, sacking him three times and making him do a lot of work outside the pocket. Manziel admitted he got greedy at times, particularly on his final interception, when he tried to force a pass to Evans that was picked off by Mississippi State safety Nickoe Whitley.

"Greed is a terrible thing," Manziel said. "I really wanted to hit that touchdown to Mike. I tried to look off that safety, and still going to him anyway, as a football player and as a quarterback watching film, I know better than that."

But it was about more than just Manziel. It was a historic moment of sorts, because it's the last time Kyle Field will exist in its current state. Major work soon will begin as part of a $450 million renovation project to be completed in 2015 to turn the stadium into a pristine, 102,500-seat monstrosity. It was senior day, the last time guys such as left tackle Jake Matthews, running back Ben Malena, linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. would play in College Station. The 13 seniors there on Saturday have been part of a 35-14 overall record and the Aggies' quick and surprising rise upon entry into the SEC.

And it also could be the last home game for Evans, arguably college football's best pass catcher this year, who also is a draft-eligible sophomore after this season. He'll have a decision to make, just like Manziel.

There still are two games left for the Aggies and a lot out in front of them, but there certainly was plenty of emotion in the air on Saturday night in Aggieland.

"We know who the seniors are, and we know who the guys are that could potentially leave," junior receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "We want to play hard every game, but there was something inside of us that urged us to play harder, because we know this team won't be the same next year. Every year, regardless, there will be change, but there will be some drastic changes next year, and I just wish those guys the best."

Aggies show poise late in games

October, 14, 2013
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When Texas A&M's defense got the stop it needed to give the offense a chance to win against Ole Miss late in the fourth quarter on Saturday, players and coaches on the sideline elicited a knowing reaction.

"Everybody on the offensive side of the ball had a smile on their face," Malena said. "Especially all the coaches. They were so fiery."

They knew what was about to happen. With a tie game and the ball in the hands of one of college football's best offenses and arguably college football's best player, the coaches, players and plenty who were watching could guess what was coming: The Aggies would drive downfield and score.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel, Mike Hilton
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisJohnny Manziel added to his legend with a game-winning drive at Ole Miss.
They did, pulling out a thrilling, 41-38 road victory over the Rebels.

It was the second consecutive season that Texas A&M had to go into Oxford, Miss., and fight tooth-and-nail for a victory. In 2012, the Aggies had to crawl out of a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to escape with a 30-27 win.

What both instances showed is that the Aggies have tremendous poise when it comes to playing from behind and making plays with the game on the line.

"Championship teams know how to handle adversity," Malena said. "Just because we were down 31-24, with them having the momentum, as a championship team, you can't let that get you. Who said it was going to be easy every game? They have a great team over there, too. Hat's off to them."

There were plenty of ups and downs Saturday. From some brief uncertainty regarding the health of Johnny Manziel, to a couple of key turnovers in the second half, to a defense that struggled to get stops as Ole Miss made a charge and even a missed field goal, there were several situations that could have thrown the Aggies off course and given them their first road loss under Kevin Sumlin.

Instead, when crunch time came, the Aggies made the key plays in all three phases. The defense got a three-and-out on Ole Miss' final possession to force a punt. The offense drove downfield to put themselves in position for the winning points and, after missing an first-quarter field goal, kicker Josh Lambo drilled a 33-yarder to win it.

"I feel like our seniors and our captains, we lead by example," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "Starting with Ben and Johnny, they made big plays running behind Jake Matthews and our offensive line. On defense we just stepped up. In the fourth quarter we knew we had faced a lot of adversity, but we had to step up and make plays on offense, defense and special teams to win this game."

Sumlin noted earlier in the week that last year's battle in Oxford was significant because the Aggies needed a strong effort in the second half to escape. It gave the team confidence after 2011, when Texas A&M lost five games in which they held double-digit leads.

"The year before, I wasn't here, but I heard all the stories about what had happened and the mindset that those types of football games, we wouldn't win," Sumlin said. "There was a lot of emotion after the game [in 2012] and rightfully so and there's no doubt that it helped us gain confidence as the season went on and it helped us gain confidence at a time certainly at a time when we needed it."

Now you have an A&M team that finishes strong, even when behind. Even in losses, the Aggies have stayed in games until the final minute. When the Aggies trailed No. 1 Alabama by three touchdowns on Sept. 14, they kept rallying to keep it close but lost 49-42.

That type of effort is a big reason why the Aggies are 16-3 since Sumlin took over.

"One thing I'll say about our guys: They don't quit," Sumlin said. "It's been kind of a trademark here in the last year and a half. They're going to play until the end and then we'll see what happens."

Aggies' win at Ole Miss huge in 2012

October, 10, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — It seemed like nothing went right.

When Texas A&M went into Oxford, Miss., on Oct. 6, 2012, to take on Ole Miss, it was a nightmarish beginning. The Aggies couldn't hold on to the football, turning it over six times. Quarterback Johnny Manziel, who dazzled onlookers in the first four games, looked human.

With the Aggies down by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter and deep in their own territory, Manziel was sacked at the 1, putting the offense's back against the wall. One of the SEC's newest teams appeared to be failing in its first road test.

Mike Evans
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesTexas A&M's Mike Evans made eight catches for 105 yards against Ole Miss last season.
Then one Mike Evans catch changed it all.

An improbable, leaping, 32-yard grab over a defender on third-and-19 with just under seven minutes remaining kick-started a burst in which the Aggies scored 13 unanswered points and escaped Vaught-Hemingway Stadium with a 30-27 victory.

The rest is history. The Aggies went 11-2, finished tied for second in the SEC West and earned a berth in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, smashing preseason expectations by outsiders. Without the improbable comeback in Oxford, who knows what might have happened?

"I don't want to venture to the idea of us losing the game and how the season would have been, but that was an important game in our season," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "We needed a game where everything went wrong, but we still won the game, to show us how good we are."

Winning on the road in the SEC is rarely an easy thing to do and winning in Oxford was no exception. And thanks to a quirk in the conference schedule, No. 9 Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC) returns to the scene on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) to see if they can repeat that feat against the Rebels (3-2, 1-2), and perhaps with less of a struggle.

"Oxford is a very tough place to play," senior running back Ben Malena said. "I can't remember one time when that crowd wasn't electrifying. They had a lot of momentum and one thing that we have to do is go over there and play our game. We understand that it's a hostile environment, we understand that their crowd is going to be in the game and that they feed off that energy that the crowd gives them."

Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin acknowledged that the victory played a pivotal role in the later success in the 2012 season.

"You can point back to that and say that it was a pretty big deal," Sumlin said. " At the time, people said, 'Oh, you beat a team that hasn't won very much,' but that team ended up being a thorn in everybody's side. Full of talent, a tough team to beat. I understand that and you make steps as a program.

"There are things you point back to that are steps in your growth, and certainly us going on the road and winning our first SEC game last year on the road was a big deal for this program and a step in the right direction. It was a lot of emotion after the game and rightfully so, and there's no doubt it helped us gain confidence as the season went on at a time when we needed it."

Several players contributed to the comeback effort. The defense made a critical fourth-down stop in Ole Miss territory. Ryan Swope caught the game-winning touchdown pass. Toney Hurd Jr. intercepted Bo Wallace in the final minutes to stop the Rebels' final offensive drive and seal the win.

Nobody knows what would have happened had the Aggies not completed the victory, but you can make some educated guesses. Having three losses instead of two might have affected their postseason destination. It would have made it that much tougher for Manziel to win the Heisman Trophy, despite all his dazzling performances, though it was the Alabama win that really cinched that for him.

The confidence gained from such a victory perhaps played a role in the Aggies' success later in the season. That's something they've carried over to this season, showing that fight in their 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama when the Aggies were down by 21 points but still continued to fight to make it a close game.

"It showed what type of resiliency we had as a team," Malena said of the Ole Miss win. "Everything is not always going to go as planned. Everything is not going to go Xs and Os like the coaches draw it up. Bad things do happen. Championship teams know how to handle adversity well and I think that was a really good game of us handling adversity and pulling it out."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- For years, Texas A&M felt like its identity was defined by others.

Whether it was other schools in the state of Texas or other members of the Aggies' former conference, the Big 12, some felt that the outside world viewed A&M through another lens.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipKevin Sumlin is 15-3 as coach of the Aggies.
The move to the Southeastern Conference gave the school a chance to change that, and the hiring of Kevin Sumlin prior to the 2012 season gave the football program an opportunity to redefine itself. And while in the thick of its second year of SEC membership, A&M has taken full advantage of establishing its brand, not only regionally, but nationally.

While the exposure that comes with being in the SEC helps, winning football games helps quite a bit too.

"That's all it is," senior running back Ben Malena said. "When you're the so-called 'it' school, you must be winning. That's just something that Coach Sumlin has brought over, a winning attitude and believing that we could win every single game."

Texas A&M is a tradition-rich school and its roots as a regional, all-male military institution with a heavy focus on agriculture are what the school was long known for. As time passed, things changed.

While the Aggies are still very much about tradition, the school has grown into a research-intensive institution with more than $700 million invested in that endeavor. There are more than 27,000 women in the student body of more than 50,000, 50 years after women were first admitted to the school.

Changing the old perception of not only the school, but the football program, was something Texas A&M aimed to do upon entry into the SEC. So far, it appears A&M has been successful, especially on the football side of things.

"As your program starts to move on, you've got to be known for something," Sumlin said. "Whatever that is, you like to try to control what that is. Everyone's going to have their opinion about who you are and what your program is. What you try to do is get out there and speak for yourself and not let everybody else talk about Texas A&M and Texas A&M football."

Sumlin helped change the culture around A&M football in several ways. He put together an energetic coaching staff, several of which were assistants of his at his previous head coaching stop in Houston. They brought an aggressive, up-tempo, no-huddle offense that was a smashing success in its first SEC season.

He added nuances like playing hip-hop music during the team's practices (something he did at Houston and adopted from Washington coach Steve Sarkisian after a 2011 visit to the Huskies' spring practice), tweaking the uniforms the Aggies wore for some games last year (the Aggies sported all-white uniforms and all-black uniforms on separate occasions) or changing the team entrance to add music and smoke as the team comes out of the tunnel before home games. Players say he fosters an atmosphere that, while business-like, is about having fun.

"He's very plugged in helping shape how we want to present Texas A&M," said Jason Cook, associate athletic director for external affairs. "I think he really has a pulse on the things that are important to Texas A&M, but also the things that he can tweak around the edges.

"I think that he has brought a new look, a different feel, a new kind of energy behind Texas A&M that we haven't seen."

During a spring scrimmage in April, Sumlin wowed recruits and fans in attendance by bringing in a live disc jockey to spin tunes at Kyle Field. Sumlin and associate athletic director for football Justin Moore put together a unique experience by bringing an equipment truck onto the Kyle Field sideline with DJ Double R, a Texas deejay whom Sumlin has known since he was at Houston, inside with his turntables, flashing neon lights and a camera projecting the image of the scene onto the scoreboard for all in attendance to see while the Aggies participated in a roughly two-hour-long scrimmage dubbed "Friday Night Lights."

Things like that have helped shape the way recruits think about Texas A&M football. Sumlin and Moore also conceived the idea to start their own web site and "social content hub" for A&M football dubbed "AggieFBLife." Run by FusionSports, Inc., which is in the business of digital brand management for professional athletes, the website (AggieFBLife.com) as well as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Vine accounts by the same name provide a unique, insider view into Texas A&M football. The accounts often showcase behind-the-scenes videos of players conducting their daily business at practice, in games or in between, in the locker room or the Bright Football Complex. They're documented by a videographer that has complete access to all aspects of A&M football and the initiative is unique for a major college football program.

"We wanted to create the message of what Texas A&M football was, not what everybody else was telling them," Moore said. "Our goal was ... create our own brand and our own message of what Texas A&M football is and do it in a unique way that our target audience will actually consume the information."

But at the end of the day, it comes down to winning. What helped the Aggies expand their brand was the success had in their inaugural SEC season. After going 11-2 and having a Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel, who has become the biggest celebrity in college football, it created a perfect storm of sorts that pushed A&M football to the forefront of the national conversation. Merchandising sales went up, attention and coverage -- both football and non-football -- has increased significantly. Television ratings for A&M games are consistently high.

Accomplishing those things in the SEC, the country's premier football conference, opened the door for exposure that is unprecedented in A&M history. The difference in national exposure and national perception now compared to the Aggies' pre-SEC days is drastic.

"Night and day," Cook said. "They know who we are now."

Assessing the Aggies after five games

September, 30, 2013
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Texas A&M is 4-1 after its first five games of the season. The Aggies split their first two SEC games and get a brief break with an open date this weekend. With the bulk of their league schedule coming up after the off week, let's analyze where the Aggies are and what's ahead:

The good

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M's Mike Evans might be the best receiver in the nation and a Heisman candidate.
Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans: These two had high expectations coming into the season based on their 2012 performances, and you could argue that they have exceeded them thus far in 2013, especially Evans. The sophomore receiver is making his case to be considered among the best receivers in the country, if not the best. Only Oregon State's Brandin Cooks has more receiving yards than Evans' 691, but Evans's schedule includes Alabama, which he torched for a school-record 279 yards. Manziel ranks in the top 10 nationally in several categories, including total offense, passing efficiency, QBR, touchdowns responsible for and passing yards. He has made a concerted effort to become a better pocket passer, showing more patience when dropping back, but it hasn't taken away from his signature scrambling ability that makes him such an offensive force. If the Aggies continue to win and these two continue to play as they have, one could make the argument that both deserve to be in the Heisman Trophy discussion.

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 bad

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.

What's ahead

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.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
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Week 5 in the SEC provided what could have been the game of the year between Georgia and LSU. The nation’s No. 1 team played up to its ranking, and there were plenty of impressive performances across the league. It’s time to hand out the helmet stickers.

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.

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.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson was part of an RB quartet that posted more than 200 rushing yards against Arkansas.
Only once in those two scoring drives did Manziel run the ball, and he didn't throw it on either of those two series. He was responsible for two touchdowns, his lowest single-game total since the Aggies beat Alabama last November. And the Aggies still put up more than 40 points for the eighth straight game (best in the FBS) and at least 400 yards for 17th consecutive game.

"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.
Deshazor Everett Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesTexas A&M's willingness to use starters such as safety Deshazor Everett (right) on special teams has allowed the Aggies to have one of the best units in the SEC.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Alabama receiver and return specialist Christion Jones carried the ball out of the end zone on the Crimson Tide's first kickoff return against Texas A&M on Sept. 14, he was quickly faced with a host of defenders.

The first Aggie to make contact was cornerback Tramain Jacobs. Defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. followed him by wrapping up Jones for a tackle. If Hurd would have been unable to wrap him up, cornerback Deshazor Everett was nearby, and so was linebacker Steven Jenkins.

The common thread among the above names? They're all either regular starters or players who have started before for the Aggies.

Special teams -- kickoff and punt coverage units in particular -- are a place where many non-starters find their homes, and Texas A&M is no different. But the Aggies' coaching staff is also liberal about using its best players when the need arises.

The Alabama game was a prime example. With the threat of a return man such as Jones, who returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the Crimson Tide's season-opening win against Virginia Tech, Texas A&M special teams coordinator Jeff Banks wanted to ensure he had the best players available to prevent Jones from making a game-breaking play. The Aggies got the desired result, as Jones finished with 83 yards on four kickoff returns and just 5 yards on his one punt return.

"We're always going to use the best players," Banks said. "Coach Sumlin's an advocate of 'Jeff, you just tell me who you need and who you want and that's how we're going to do things.'"

Banks said offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder or any of the other A&M assistants also have no qualms about the policy. Since he has been at Texas A&M, Banks said not one coach has said a word about who he can use or not use on special teams, whether it's in the return game or punt or kick coverage.

That luxury is something Banks, who is in his first year in Aggieland, hasn't always had in his career as a special teams coach.

"Usually you get a deal where it's 'Hey, take that guy off of there,' or 'Hey, don't use that guy,'" Banks said. "And here's my deal with that: That's fine. Because I try to be as flexible as I can because we're dealing with 60-80 people and players that have to go in and out, seniors, veterans, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, true freshmen, you've got to coach what you can get and get the best on the field.

"But you also have to be careful because if you practice them in training camp for 30 days and then you get them in the first week and someone says 'Oh no, he can't play on that many special teams,' now you're playing a guy with no experience.'"

So the planning has to begin in August when preseason training camp starts. Banks tries to get a feel for which newcomers have the size, speed or physicality to contribute, and the first week of camp is largely spent trying out numerous players in different roles to get a feel for who he can rely on. The rest of training camp is about getting those that are going to make his two-deep on special teams as many repetitions as possible so that he's comfortable with who is out there come the start of the season.

Playing offensive and defensive starters is nothing new for a Sumlin-coached team. It was something done regularly at Houston when he was there. One of the Cougars' special teams aces in their 12-1 season in 2011 was running back Michael Hayes, who played a major role in the Cougars' backfield, but could regularly be seen making tackles in punt coverage.

That attitude has carried over to Texas A&M. McKinney, who also coaches running backs, made it clear to his position group in the spring of 2012 that they would be expected to contribute on special teams. Players accepted the challenge, and Ben Malena and Trey Williams became key players on special teams.

Malena eventually emerged as the starting running back for the Aggies last season and remains that this season but can be seen on the kickoff return team making blocks and last season spent time covering kicks and punts at times, too.

"You have to realize that special teams wins and loses games," Malena said. "You need the best players out there, whether you're a starter or just a special teams guy. If you're the best player at that position, we need you on the field to help us win. I just took that to heart and will do anything for my team to win."

The example set by players with that attitude has an effect on the younger players, many of whom have a role on special teams. Many true freshmen such as Darian Claiborne -- who started at linebacker last week -- linebacker Shaan Washington, safety Jonathan Wiggins and cornerbacks Alex Sezer and Tavares Garner are already playing key roles on coverage units, and the example set by their elders is important.

"It's huge," Banks said. "They see Ben in practice, they see Jenkins in practice, they see those guys doing special teams drills at a high level. Howard Matthews, De'Vante Harris, Floyd Raven when he was healthy. That's huge. That's bigger than anything I can say. When they go out there and they give us great effort as a staff, that sells it and now you get the buy-in of the younger guys."

Banks said it helps increase the desire for the younger players to contribute, particularly in high-profile games.

"You see the Alabama game and go 'Man, I want to be out there,'" Banks said. "Tavares Garner's a prime example. He gets substituted in for Deshazor Everett and he's like 'Man, I know Deshazor's a veteran guy and he's going to make the play, but I want to be in there.' Then he gets in there and makes a tackle."

There's a balance to be struck, however. Playing starters constantly on coverage teams can fatigue them, especially if they're playing a large amount of snaps on offense or defense. So Banks is conscious to employ the personnel wisely.

"You can't wear a guy out because a Deshazor Everett or a Toney Hurd is so good at everything, you can't overuse them and start them on four special teams and expect them to play 60-80 snaps on defense," Banks said. "There's kind of a responsibility on my end, because I've gotten the leeway from the head football coach and the coordinators to use whoever we want. I think it's really important that you don't take advantage of that deal either."

Complementing players such as Sam Moeller, who has been the Aggies' special teams player of the week twice already this season and doesn't have a major role on defense, with some of these starters are what help the Aggies find a mix that Banks and Sumlin hope lead to one them having one of the best special teams units in the SEC.

"With Coach Sumlin being as awesome as he is about letting us use whoever we need to in order to be the No. 1 team, special teams-wise, in the conference, I think we've got a good mix of him and I of making sure we have the right guys on there, but also give an opportunity to guys who maybe aren't starting on offense or defense," Banks said.

Aggies look to continue road success

September, 25, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Playing away from home is typically difficult in college football, but the road has been good to Kevin Sumlin in recent years, and as a result, Texas A&M last year.

After playing four straight games at home to start this season, the No. 10 Aggies (3-1) hit the road this weekend to resume their SEC schedule against Arkansas.

[+] Enlarge Julien Obioha
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesKevin Sumlin has all sorts of ways to motivate the Aggies for road games, such as the unveiling of all-black uniforms last season at Mississippi State.
Last season, the Aggies were undefeated away from Kyle Field, going 6-0 in road games and winning their neutral site contest in the AT&T Cotton Bowl over Oklahoma. Sumlin's teams have won 13 consecutive away from their home stadium dating back to his final season at Houston, where the Cougars were 6-0 on the road in 2011.

Sumlin said he believes the reason is consistency in approach.

"We don't change our routine much," Sumlin said. "The same routine we use at home, we use on the road. I think, just like a lot of different things, you try to keep it all the same. You go on the road, you try to create your own energy. We don't make a big deal about road trips."

The term "creating your own energy" can mean different things to different players.

"You just look around and you see the crowd and a lot of the times, I don't know if other players get the feeling but I get the feeling that they're cheering for me," junior receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "It's something weird. Different players have different methods of approaching it but it's a very awesome experience."

The Aggies have tackled some tough opponents on the road. Last season, their road triumphs included No. 1 Alabama and two other regular season wins over teams that were ranked at the time the Aggies played them -- Mississippi State (ranked No. 15 at the time of the meeting) and Louisiana Tech (No. 23).

And though the Rebels weren't ranked, the Aggies' comeback win at Ole Miss proved to be a significant one for Texas A&M, since the team didn't play well from start to finish. The Aggies turned the ball over six times in that game but still climbed out of a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to win.

"I feel like when we go on the road, it's us against the world," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "We go into the stadium with a mindset that we have to come out here on top. Coach Sumlin has instilled in us that we have to focus and keep the same mindset, just like we're playing at home, but we're away."

Sometimes, Sumlin might try to do something to trigger the Aggies' energy level. Against Mississippi State last season, it was the unveiling of new all-black uniforms. When the Aggies played at Alabama, it was the first time that season that they donned what A&M calls the "icy whites," which is an all-white uniform, helmet included.

It isn't always easy to guess what it is, but Kennedy said Sumlin usually comes up with something.

"It's so hard to tell with him," Kennedy said. "It just happens. The great thing about it when it happens is that players get this new life about them. It's always something, because he cares about the team. He's such a players' coach. He knows what we need and he knows what we want, so he'll always make the best decision for us. We just lay back and we expect something but we don't know what it is yet."

It certainly doesn't hurt that Sumlin's teams have had elite quarterbacks running the show during the streak. Last season, it was Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. In 2011, it was Case Keenum, who broke eight career FBS statistical records and was a dark-horse Heisman candidate until the final regular season game.

Having a good team with strong leadership helps also. The Aggies had much of that last season, as did Houston before that.

"When you're away, it really takes that leadership from your players," Aggies' senior running back Ben Malena said. "It takes guts, especially in this conference, to go out there and win on the road."

Aggies' defense shows progress in win

September, 22, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Coming off a thriller that few will soon forget, No. 10 Texas A&M had a few questions to answer going into Saturday's battle with SMU.

Though it's way too early to surmise that they've permanently answered some of those questions, the Aggies certainly took steps toward a few solutions in their dominant 42-13 win over the Mustangs at Kyle Field.

The biggest question about the Aggies after three games surrounded their defense, or lack thereof. If Texas A&M (3-1) couldn't prove that it could get stops against an opponent like SMU (the Aggies already allowed significant yardage to Rice and Sam Houston State, though the unit was shorthanded for both games), when would it ever show that? The rest of A&M's SEC schedule is coming, starting with a road game at Arkansas on Sept. 28.

Fortunately for the Aggies, the unit showed some progress.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett's move to safety this week was one of several moves that help jumpstart the Texas A&M defense.
Though SMU compiled 292 yards in the first three quarters as A&M built a 42-6 lead, the Aggies were stellar on third downs, holding the Mustangs to just four conversions on its first 14 attempts in that span and 5-of-16 for the game.

"We looked pretty fast out there tonight," Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "There were times where we looked extremely fast, which is what I was hoping was the case. We still have some areas that we've got to work on, but it was a much better game from our sideline tonight."

Snyder made two key personnel changes this week. He moved starting cornerback Deshazor Everett to safety to help address the issues the Aggies have had in coverage and he inserted true freshman Darian Claiborne into the starting lineup at middle linebacker.

"I think we have the right guys on the field right now," Snyder said. "[Claiborne] needs to play and needs to be on the field. He was able to make the adjustment from [weakside linebacker] to [middle linebacker] in a week. … I was really proud of him. He handled getting the front [seven] set, he brought a lot of energy, he's a lot like Steven Jenkins and I was very, very happy with that."

Everett spent time at both cornerback and safety last season, so it's not an unfamiliar move for the junior. By moving him back there, the Aggies moved third cornerback Tramain Jacobs to the starting lineup next to De'Vante Harris, and he didn't appear to miss a beat. Everett said because SMU runs an offense similar to A&M's, the transition was smooth.

"It was pretty simple," Everett said. "I see those formations a lot and I know what the safety's checks are to me at corner. … It kind of helped me because I know where the corner is going to be and where I should be if I were a corner, to want safety help."

Was Saturday a sign that a cure-all is coming to a defense that ranked in the bottom 20 in the nation in total yards allowed and rushing yards allowed coming into the game? Far from it. But it was a much-needed positive performance from a group that has struggled through youth, inexperience and missing personnel because of suspensions or injuries in the first three games. On-field communication and the ability to make adjustments in the first three games was a chore simply because of the lack of consistency in starting personnel from week to week.

"In the first couple, three weeks … there were a lot of moving parts and guys out there just worrying about doing their job, not being able to communicate," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "There's definitely a comfort factor with having all your pieces back and being able to not only play that play but also make adjustments as the game moves on."

With the Aggies resuming SEC play next week in Fayetteville, Ark., having some success on defense is key.

Offensively, the Aggies ran smoothly, as they have most of the year. Quarterback Johnny Manziel threw strikes when he stayed in the pocket and chewed up rushing yards when he darted out of it. His night, which included 244 passing yards, 102 rushing yards and three total touchdowns, was done by the 10:06 mark of the third quarter with the Aggies leading 39-6. Malcome Kennedy (six catches, 83 yards) continued to show that will be a legitimate receiving threat to complement star sophomore receiver Mike Evans and the running game was productive and efficient, led by Manziel and Ben Malena (13 carries, 71 yards, two touchdowns).

The win wasn't without its warts though. Like SMU, the Aggies were heavily penalized (there were 29 accepted penalties in the game, 13 of which went against the Aggies for 114 yards) and the kicking game continues to be a struggle. Sophomore place-kicker Taylor Bertolet missed back-to-back point-after-touchdown kick attempts in the first half and was replaced thereafter by junior walk-on Josh Lambo. And what happened when Lambo entered the game? Holder Drew Kaser bobbled a snap -- the second time that's happened this season -- and as a result, Lambo's first PAT attempt failed.

When Lambo connected on a PAT after a Malena touchdown run with 11:34 remaining in the third quarter, it almost seemed as if the cheers for Lambo were as loud as those for Malena's touchdown. Finding a solution at place-kicker is critical if the Aggies expect to remain contenders in the SEC West. Against SMU, those points left on the field didn't matter. Against Ole Miss or LSU on the road later this season, they might.

Sumlin, when asked who will be kicking field goals and PATs moving forward, called the situation "a competition."

"We're going to keep the competition up just like we do at every position," Sumlin said. "Lambo came in and did a good job. … It's just like any other position. … We evaluate guys every week, no matter what the position, so there will be competition there."

But the Aggies made some plays on defense. They forced a turnover that led directly to points when defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. jolted the ball loose from receiver Jeremiah Gaines, a fumble that Everett returned for a 12-yard touchdown. Linebacker Tommy Sanders intercepted a pass late, and though he fumbled, freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall was able to scoop it up for a 39-yard return. The secondary was tested a few times in the first half by SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert (37-of-62 passing, 310 yards) but passed with flying colors when it came to third downs or plays near the end zone or red zone.

"I feel like going back into SEC play [next week] it was great for us to come and play well," Hurd said. "It was great for our defense to put a good showing out tonight."

No hype, no problem for steady Aggies

September, 18, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Unlike last week, there weren't national television production trucks parked outside the Bright Football Complex or Kyle Field on Tuesday. There isn't a sizeable buzz or buildup to Texas A&M's upcoming game against SMU on Saturday. The "zoo" or "noise," as Aggies coaches termed what was forming outside of the football facilities in anticipation of the A&M-Alabama tilt last Saturday, is gone for now.

Questions at Tuesday's weekly news conference centered not around national attention or off-the-field matters, but instead about the team, personnel issues, the aftermath of the Alabama game and even coach Kevin Sumlin's offensive principles and coaching roots.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipCoach Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies are moving on from the loss to Alabama.
Inside Bright, everything appears to be business as usual. Coaches and players are going about their regularly-scheduled business. Construction continues on the new lobby at the front of Bright, where the Heisman Trophy and other notable things will be displayed. And the players are focused on putting Saturday's 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama behind them.

Win or lose, that was going to be Sumlin's message to them.

"We have nine more games," Sumlin said Tuesday. "That's been my approach to how we've done things wherever I've been, whether [or not] they're big games. To you guys, they're big games and we get that. But they become big when you're winning or you're in a position to have success. So in order to do that, it doesn't matter whether you're mad or you're ecstatic. The next week, you've got to move on and that's what we've done."

The emotion and pageantry that came with Saturday's game, which pitted the Heisman Trophy-winner, quarterback Johnny Manziel, and the No. 10 Aggies (2-1) against the defending BCS champion Crimson Tide, was built up in large part because the Aggies were the only team to beat Alabama in 2012.

Despite the loss, expectations remain the same for the Aggies, who all cited Alabama's title run with one loss as evidence that they, too, can do it. Now that they do have a loss, senior running back Ben Malena feels it will be easier for the players to focus solely on their upcoming game.

"I think it will be easier," he said. "I think it's easier just for the fact that we do have a loss. We understand how important it is to take it one game at a time. It's a one-game season every week and you have to prepare for it like it is a one-game season. This week, we have SMU, we're looking at it, we accept the challenge from those guys and they're going to be coming at us, ready to knock us off. We're going to prepare like we did last week."

When asked after Saturday's loss if it was a "relief" to get past Alabama week because of all the hype and buildup, Manziel maintained that the Aggies as a team did not over-emphasize the game against the Crimson Tide over its other games.

"For me, to be honest, as much as people tried to say it was a big game, I know for the guys in the locker room and the guys who are experienced, I probably came out less nervous today than I was in the other games," Manziel said. "What did we have to lose? The pressure wasn't on us. The pressure was on Alabama to try and three-peat and do all this stuff. We were just going to try to go and play our hearts out and leave it all out on the field and that's all we could do."

A&M did that and came within a touchdown of the champs. If the Aggies can continue to do it, it's reasonable to believe that they have a chance to win the rest of the games on their schedule, though some of the tougher tests include a return trip to Oxford, Miss., against Ole Miss and to Death Valley to meet LSU.

Can the Aggies bring the same kind of emotion to this Saturday's non-conference game that they did to the latest "Game of the Century?" Malena believes they can.

"I don't think it'll be difficult at all for us as a team," Malena said. "That's what championship teams do, play at a consistent level. Have similar emotion within a week-to-week basis. We do understand that last week was a big game and it is going to be challenging to have that same kind of enthusiasm just because of the different circumstances but our play on the field is not going to change, our emotion is not going to change. We're still going to be the same team we were last week, this week."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The word hasn't been used very often around Aggieland since Texas A&M joined the SEC but when the Aggies met with the media on Tuesday, it was spoken a few times.

Atlanta.

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.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin, Johnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesIf Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel want to make it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, they can take a big step forward with a win over No. 1 Alabama.
If the sixth-ranked Aggies truly are to be considered a national title contender, then their chance to prove it is at 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday at Kyle Field against No. 1 Alabama. Last season, the Aggies went 11-2 without much expectation from outsiders. This year, with a preseason top-10 ranking, a Heisman Trophy winner in tow and a level of coverage not seen, perhaps ever, of its program, there is an expectation for success externally.

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.

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