NCF Nation: Howard Matthews



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.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M turned Darian Claiborne and its pass rush loose, which resulted in seven sacks against Vanderbilt.
Sure, Vanderbilt was playing with a backup quarterback (freshman Patton Robinette made his first start in place of injured Austyn Carta-Samuels), but honestly, that mattered little. This is an A&M defense that struggles to stop virtually everybody. The Aggies allowed 306 rushing yards to Rice. They allowed 240 to FCS opponent Sam Houston State.

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."
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.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In all its crystal glory, college football's national championship trophy made a brief stop at Kyle Field on Saturday.

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.

[+] 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.
Yes, it currently belongs to Alabama, the reigning BCS champions, and it will remain that way for the months to come. However, the Aggies were the only team in 2012 to defeat the Crimson Tide, and if they are able to repeat that accomplishment in September, the Aggies should control their own destiny in the title chase.

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 linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive back Howard Matthews have been suspended one game by coach Kevin Sumlin for violating a team policy.

Jenkins, who will be a senior this fall, is expected to be a major piece of the Aggies' defense. He started six games last year, but recorded 61 tackles and a sack. Jenkins had what many consider a breakout spring and is expected to excel in Texas A&M's new 4-3 defensive scheme at outside linebacker.

Like Jenkins, Matthews played in all 13 of the Aggies' games last year, but made just two starts. He collected 28 tackles, including three for loss and two sacks. He will also compete for one of the starting safety spots.

This is the first disciplinary action Sumlin has taken publicly since he took over for former coach Mike Sherman, and he's making a pretty big statement to his new team. With a defense that lost six starters from a year ago and is changing schemes, Sumlin is taking a chance by sitting two potential starters for at least a game. That game hasn't been determined, but it really doesn't matter which game it is; this defense has to have all of its pieces in place early in order to develop the proper chemistry.

Now, the Aggies are basically playing from behind to start the season. And if these players are suspended for the opener against Louisiana Tech, expect some sort of impact on this defense. Louisiana Tech isn't exactly a pushover and this game isn't exactly in College Station, Texas.

In his first chance to make a point with his team when it came to transgressions made by his players, Sumlin sent a strong message. He's benching two players who could have an impact on a defense that will go through some growing pains and some adjustments this fall as it not only transitions over to the 4-3 but transitions to the SEC.

Sumlin's team isn't getting off on the right foot heading into the season, but Sumlin is by informing his players that there will be consequences for the wrong actions taken by players.

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