- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — On the first day of Texas A&M's preseason training camp, senior running back Ben Malena journeyed to the third floor of the Bright Football Complex, where the coaches' offices are located.
His destination was the big office, coach Kevin Sumlin's. Malena wanted to discuss with Sumlin his role on the team. But Malena's purpose wasn't to discuss carries or touches in the Aggies' high-powered, fast-paced offense. It was about leadership, and, more specifically, how he could help provide more of it.
"For a guy to come in and sit down in front of you at your desk and say, 'Coach, can I talk to you for a second? I want to talk to you about my role -- not as a player -- but my role as a leader on this team. What do you think about this? What if I do this?' That shows you the type of maturity that the young man has," Sumlin said. "It shows you the level that he cares."
In Sumlin's first season in Aggieland, Malena showed just how much he cared by his willingness to contribute wherever needed. Although he began the season behind then-senior Christine Michael on the depth chart, Malena eventually seized the starting running back role. But his contributions went far beyond that.
He became a regular on special teams, helping on kick returns, a role he has again this season. He even spent time on the punt coverage team, running downfield to cover punts. He finished as the team's second-leading rusher and rushing leader among running backs last season (808 yards, 8 touchdowns) and was a weapon in the passing game, as well (18 catches, 111 yards, 1 touchdown). He also was lauded by the coaching staff for his work as a pass protector, helping to pick up blitzes from his position.
His start to this season has been strong. He's the team's leading rusher (173 yards, 2 touchdowns) and already has a receiving touchdown. He's averaging an impressive 7.9 yards per carry. More than 63 percent of his carries go for 5 yards or more, and he ranks fourth in the nation among running backs with at least 20 carries in that category.
He is part of what makes the Aggies' backfield a valuable asset.
"This offseason, I tried to improve on every single aspect that you can improve on as a player, whether it's getting stronger and faster, getting smarter mentally for the game, I just tried to improve on every single [aspect]," Malena said. "Also, I tried to improve my leadership skills."
Malena is one of four scholarship running backs, all of whom have carried the ball this season and are expected to be factors in the Aggies' offense. Sophomore Tra Carson, who transferred from Oregon and sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, has also had a productive start to the year with 23 carries for 127 yards and a team-high four rushing touchdowns. Sophomore Trey Williams is the team's primary kick returner and gets carries, but he missed Saturday's win over Sam Houston State with an ankle injury [Sumlin said he'll return this Saturday against Alabama]. And sophomore Brandon Williams, a transfer from Oklahoma, made his Aggies debut against Sam Houston State and scored a touchdown on a 10-yard reception from Johnny Manziel.
"One thing we have in common is work ethic," Malena said. "All of us go out there every day competing because it is, at the same time, a competition. Brandon Williams, like I said, he brings an element to this game that is hard to coach against, and that's speed. Tra Carson is a bigger back, about 230 pounds, and in this league you need a back that can really get the short yardage. And Trey Williams, he's a very electrifying player. He's really special in the return game and also running the ball. With this group, it all starts with me. As a unit, we work well together."
Although the Aggies' style offense is sometimes considered pass-happy because of the frequency of four-wide receiver sets and shotgun formations, Texas A&M has been one of the nation's best rushing teams. Including the ground exploits of quarterback Manziel, who was the SEC's leading rusher last season, the Aggies were 11th nationally in rushing yards per game (242.08) and first downs per rush (29.2 percent) and second in touchdowns per rush (nine percent) in 2012.
The Aggies are in the top 10 in the latter two categories so far this season and are 38th in rushing yards per game (219.5), with Manziel accounting for only for 55 yards thus far.
But it's Malena who sets the tone. A product of Cedar Hill (Texas) High School, he played a limited role as a freshman and saw an increase in time as a sophomore before emerging as the No. 1 back last season. Offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said Malena has come a long way since the current coaching staff arrived.
"I think the biggest improvement with Ben is his body," McKinney said. "He's really worked hard in the weight room to get his body prepared for all the different things he's doing for us, both special teams and offense and things of that nature."
His intelligence has also been an asset, McKinney said.
"From the day we got here and we started installing his offense, Ben Malena displayed that he's a smart football player and has a high IQ," McKinney said. "He's the one guy who in my room has never written anything down when we're going over new ideas and new plays, but he never messes up when he goes out to practice. He's a smart football player."
But Malena's desire to lead might turn out to be his most meaningful contribution to the Aggies this fall. With a battle against No. 1 Alabama looming and the Aggies constantly in the national spotlight for various reasons, some positive and some not, Malena feels as if it's something he can and should do.
"I feel as though, in this conference, with the level of competition throughout the SEC West and the East, I feel as though, in order for teams to take the step to get to championship level, you need to have player leadership also," Malena said. "So I just went up there in Coach Sumlin's office to discuss with him things and ask him for advice for different things that I can do to further help this team get to a championship level."