COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Mark Snyder has been down this road before, so before Texas A&M took the field on Thursday against South Carolina, he made sure to look into the eyes of his freshmen.
After a nightmarish 2013 defensive campaign, one which included roughly a dozen freshmen in the two-deep -- many of which had their hands full trying to figure out where to line up and what to do -- the Aggies' defensive coordinator knew this group of freshmen was different but surveyed them visually prior to their season opener. He searched for evidence of nerves, jitters, any sign that they'd be overwhelmed playing on the road in the SEC at a venue where the home team possessed an 18-game winning streak.
He found no such thing.
"I was looking pregame, I promise you, at the hotel and pregame on the field," Snyder said. "I really liked the looks in their eyes. These young guys didn't bat an eye. It was really refreshing to see."
Many of the Aggies' true freshmen and members of the 2014 recruiting class played like veterans in Texas A&M's 52-28 destruction of South Carolina last week. And that's a relief for Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies staff.
Nine members of Texas A&M's 2014 class saw the field in the season opener, eight of which were true freshmen (one, Joshua Reynolds, is a junior college transfer and a sophomore). Most of the true freshmen were on defense: defensive linemen Myles Garrett, Zaycoven Henderson, Qualen Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson, safety Armani Watts and cornerback Nick Harvey.
Garrett and Watts separated themselves as playmakers in their respective debuts. Garrett, a five-star defensive end and the No. 4 overall player in the 2014 class, recorded a sack and two quarterback hurries and was active against opposing offensive linemen throughout the night.
"The thing that doesn't show up in the statistics is the number of times he got pressure on the quarterback and forced a bad throw," Snyder said. "Myles has a ways to go; he's got to learn the defense, he left a lot of plays out there. He had the opportunity to have a three or four sack game. He'll learn and grow from that. But the pressure he put on Dylan Thompson with some of those errant throws, that's as good as a sack in my book."
While Garrett's appearance was highly anticipated and almost expected, Watts, an ESPN 300 recruit, was a pleasant surprise at a critical position. The Aggies are sorely seeking upgraded safety play this season and Watts got the start at free safety and performed exceptionally, recording and interception and two pass breakups, including one that saved a touchdown. He, too, didn't seem nervous, according to Sumlin.
"Was the atmosphere, was the stage, was that going to be too big for them?" Sumlin said. "It's pretty good when you have a guy like Armani Watts say, 'This is the best day of my life.' So I don't think he was really worried about playing. I kind of like that. We need more guys like that."
It wasn't all roses. Snyder referenced the fact that a few of his young defensive linemen, Cunningham, Henderson and Johnson specifically, got "baptized" by South Carolina's veteran offensive linemen. And Noil, who played relatively well offensively at receiver, did drop a pass, which offensive coordinator Jake Spavital feels is easily corrected. But there is time and room for improvement. More importantly, the emergence of many of these freshmen is significant for the Aggies, who had several questions to be answered at key positions across the board.
Part of those contributions are a byproduct of recruiting at an elite level, which the Aggies have done since Sumlin arrived. They turned in two consecutive top-10 recruiting classes and they're on track for a third straight in this cycle [the Aggies' class is currently fourth nationally]. Rankings that high means elite players are being signed, several of which are good enough to get on the field immediately rather than having to redshirt.
And the nine 2014 class members who played won't be the only ones. Expect more to see the field Saturday when the Aggies host Lamar.
Players say the added contributions are a significant boost for the team.
"[It's a] very big relief," middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni said. "They've done well in practice and the weight room, all that kind of stuff, but it's very big to see them actually come out and perform in a game. If they keep that up, I think we'll be in great shape."