SEC: Armani Watts

What a roller coaster of a season for Texas A&M. There were some lofty highs and some deep lows. The 2014 Aggies kept everyone guessing en route to an 8-5 finish. Let’s grade out how they did:

Offense -- B-minus: By the standards set in head coach Kevin Sumlin's first two seasons at Texas A&M, this season was a down one for the offense. The Aggies are used to ranking in the top five or top 10 nationally in offense; this season they were 26th in scoring (35.2 points per game), 30th in yards per game (455.4), and the running game left much to be desired (149.9 yards per game, 82nd nationally). There were flashes of greatness in the season-opening win at South Carolina, the upset at Auburn, and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl victory against West Virginia. There were other times when the unit sputtered or just stopped (Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama come to mind). Some of that is to be expected with first-year starters at quarterback (sophomore Kenny Hill, then true freshman Kyle Allen) so it’s forgivable.

Defense -- F: Finishing last in the SEC in yards allowed per game and rushing isn’t going to cut it. That’s what Texas A&M did for a second straight season, and it cost former defensive coordinator Mark Snyder his job. There were some bright spots, especially from the Aggies’ young players like freshman defensive end Myles Garrett, freshman safety Armani Watts, and freshmen linebackers Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker to name a few. There were also times when the defense shined (at South Carolina, and against West Virginia) or kept the Aggies in a game while the offense sputtered. Ultimately, allowing 280-plus rushing yards, which the Aggies did six times this season, is unacceptable.

Special teams -- A-minus: This season was a good one for the Texas A&M special teams. For the first time in the Sumlin era, the placekicking was solid and without issue (Josh Lambo was 13-of-15 on field goals and perfect on 59 point-after-touchdown kick attempts). The Aggies allowed fewer than 20 yards per kickoff return. The team was 14th nationally in net punting (40.48 net yards per punt). The Aggies were in the top 25 nationally in both yards per kickoff return (22.9) and yards per punt return (12.4). Also, one of the biggest plays of the season came via special teams: the Garrett blocked field goal that was returned by Deshazor Everett for a touchdown in the 41-38 upset win against Auburn.

Coaching -- B: Considering the preseason expectations and everything the Aggies lost off their 2013 team, they finished with a win total many likely expected, going 8-5. It’s how they got there that makes things interesting. The first five games of the season gave fans visions of the College Football Playoff; the next three were a nightmare. The Aggies finished by winning three of their final five. Getting hammered during the midseason three-game losing streak looked bad, but the way the Sumlin and his coaching staff addressed the problems, via personnel and game-plan changes, turned out to be effective, and produced the huge win at Auburn. The season could have easily spiraled out of control and didn’t, and the staff ended the year on a positive note with the Liberty Bowl win.

Overall -- C-plus: The three-game losing streak in the middle of the year is hard to ignore, and finishing sixth in the SEC West is not what this team was looking for -- especially after a 5-0 start. It was a transitional year without a ton of preseason expectations, but it still could have been better. Sumlin hired defensive coordinator John Chavis away from LSU to address the defensive issues, and with a returning quarterback (Allen) the future looks bright in Aggieland.
Texas A&M fans were hoping for a "home-run" hire when Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin began his search for a new defensive coordinator in late November.

Snagging "The Chief" from a division rival whom they have yet to beat or finish ahead of in the standings since joining the SEC qualifies as a grand slam.

Bringing John Chavis to Aggieland to revive Texas A&M's defense could have significant positive consequences in 2015 and beyond.

[+] EnlargeJohn Chavis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe arrival of veteran coordinator John Chavis at Texas A&M is expected to fix a defense that has been the program's weakness under Kevin Sumlin.
Chavis' résumé speaks for itself. He has coached in the SEC continuously since 1989, with the past 20 years spent as a defensive coordinator -- the first 14 for Tennessee, the past six for LSU. At Tennessee, he was part of a national-championship team and regularly had his defenses ranked in the top 25 nationally. During the six-season span Chavis led the LSU defense, only one team in the nation allowed fewer points per game than the 17.1 the Tigers allowed: Alabama (12.8).

Choose the measuring stick, and Chavis' Tigers stood up well. Over the past six seasons combined, the Tigers rank in the top five nationally in yards per game, yards per play, passing defense, red-zone defense and defensive goal-to-go efficiency. They were 11th nationally in rushing defense and 17th in defensive third-down conversion percentage over the past six seasons (35.3 percent).

Against only SEC teams, LSU remained strong. The Tigers are either second, third or fourth in the SEC over the past six years in 11 separate defensive categories, including scoring, third downs, and turnovers.

The Aggies are in dire need of defensive improvement after spending the past two seasons at the bottom of the SEC in yards per game allowed and rushing defense. In the three-year span since Texas A&M joined the SEC, the Aggies rank among the bottom five teams in the league against SEC competition in each of those 11 defensive categories: scoring, yards per game, yards per play, rushing, yards per rush, passing, yards per pass attempt, third down, goal-to-go, red-zone conversion rates, and turnovers. Sumlin went after Chavis precisely to remedy those glaring statistics.

On paper, it looks like a dream team: Sumlin's offensive reputation paired with Chavis' defensive experience.

At LSU, Chavis didn't usually have the benefit of a top-flight offense to go with the Tigers' salty defense. Quarterback questions were the norm rather than the exception, though LSU traditionally has a strong ground game stocked with good offensive linemen and quality running backs. In Chavis' six seasons at LSU, the Tigers averaged 26.1 points per game against SEC opponents, which ranked seventh in the conference.

Now, he's joining a Texas A&M program that has averaged 35.1 points per game against SEC teams since joining the league in 2012. The Aggies have a wealth of young playmakers, including a bright-eyed freshman quarterback, Kyle Allen, who just came off a career performance in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Like any transition, it's unlikely to progress snags. Chavis is used to having a team that controls time of possession and thus doesn't leave his defenses on the field for the majority of the game. Sumlin has never been a time-of-possession head coach, and his teams usually operate at a breakneck tempo, though he did show signs this season of slowing the pace occasionally in wins against Auburn and Louisiana-Monroe.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Chavis had the benefit of deeper and more talented defenses than what will initially be at his disposal in College Station, Texas. It's normal for LSU to have multiple defensive players chosen in the NFL draft, but for the Aggies in recent years, it has been the exception.

Young talent does exist across Aggies' current defensive two-deep, led by true freshman defensive end Myles Garrett. Of the 29 players on the Aggies' final 2014 depth chart, 15 were freshmen or sophomores, and seven true freshmen -- Garrett, defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, linebackers Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker, and defensive backs Armani Watts, Nick Harvey and Donovan Wilson -- started at least one game for the Aggies this season.

The Aggies are still trying to stock sufficient defensive talent to field a top-flight SEC defense. They did a good job in the 2014 recruiting class, which yielded those true freshmen starters, but they still need more talent, frankly, LSU-type talent -- and depth -- in order to make this work how they hopes it will.

If they continue to acquire the necessary talent, the potential that exists in the Aggies' marriage to Chavis seems limitless. The expectations will certainly be stratospheric.

Sumlin's teams have never been known for great defense: his squads finished worse than 100th nationally in yards allowed per game in five of his seven seasons as a head coach. But this is a promising sign that he's committed to reversing that trend.

He reached across the Texas-Louisiana border to pluck one of the most respected defensive names in the country from an SEC West rival, one that coordinated defenses that even Johnny Manziel couldn't conquer. Sumlin had a front row seat to the Chief's success the past three years and took a simple approach in hopes of delivering defensive success at Texas A&M:

If you can't beat 'em, hire 'em.
Will Muschamp is a wanted man. The former Florida coach was once a premier defensive coordinator in college football, and now he’s being sought out for the same position by both Auburn and Texas A&M.

Muschamp isn’t the only name to have come up. Others have been linked to the two openings, including former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, who won a national championship as LSU’s defensive coordinator in 2007, as well as current Houston defensive coordinator David Gibbs, who spent a year at Auburn in 2005 and is not far from Texas A&M.

The question is – whether it’s Muschamp, Pelini or even Gibbs – which defensive coordinator job is more attractive to potential suitors, Auburn or Texas A&M?

Greg Ostendorf: If the goal is to play for national championships, then this is a no-brainer. Auburn won a national championship in 2010 and played for another one just last season. As long as Gus Malzahn is the head coach, the Tigers will be good enough offensively to make the playoff year in and year out.

They’re also better suited to make a run next year. Despite all the young talent on the Aggies’ roster, I argue that an incoming defensive coordinator will have more to work with at Auburn than he would at Texas A&M.

 Assuming nobody leaves early, the Tigers will have seven starters returning on defense, including the top three leading tacklers (Johnathan Ford, Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost), the team leader in sacks (DaVonte Lambert) and the team leader in interceptions (Jonathan Jones). Can Texas A&M say the same thing?

The defense will also welcome back Carl Lawson, the team’s top pass rusher who missed the entire season due to injury. Lawson didn’t have the same type of production as the Aggies' Myles Garrett did his freshman year, but when healthy, he still has NFL potential written all over him.

That alone is a solid group, especially with Lawson coming back, but when you throw in Tre' Williams, Nick Ruffin and Stephen Roberts, a trio of promising young freshmen who all played this season and gained valuable experience, the potential for a turnaround is there as long as Auburn finds the right guy to take charge.

Some argue that Malzahn focuses primarily on offense when it comes to recruiting, but Auburn’s current 2015 class has three linebackers ranked in the ESPN 300, and the right hire could be just what the Tigers need to land a star like Jeffery Holland or Daron Payne. Can you imagine the success Muschamp would have in Florida, a state Auburn recruits well already? He would have no trouble convincing top defensive targets to join him on the Plains.

The question I have for the future defensive coordinator at Texas A&M is how long will your head coach be around? Kevin Sumlin’s name has been linked to NFL jobs the past two seasons, and it will likely come up again this offseason. Granted, Malzahn might also have a future in the NFL, but Sumlin seems closer to realizing that dream.

Let’s be honest. Both schools have money, both have top-notch facilities, and both have the resources to be successful. The difference is Auburn has better players and a better opportunity to win next year. For a defensive coordinator who might want to coach again soon, i.e. Muschamp or Pelini, there’s not a better job out there.

Sam Khan: Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator position is an appealing opportunity for prospective defensive coaches.

For starters, there is nowhere to go but up. The Aggies ranked last in the SEC in yards per game allowed in each of the past two seasons, so the room for improvement is plentiful.

 The real reason it’s a good opportunity though, is the personnel. The Aggies have ripe young talent to work with. Myles Garrett. Armani Watts. Otaro Alaka. Josh Walker. Zaycoven Henderson. Those are all true freshmen who started games for the Aggies this year.

Garrett is a bonafide star. He shattered Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC freshman sack record (Garrett has 11 sacks this season) and is the type of player the Aggies’ next defensive coordinator can build around the next two seasons (let’s be honest, the chances of Garrett exhausting his college eligibility seem slim given his production so far).

Watts showed promise at safety this season with three interceptions and seven pass breakups. Alaka and Walker performed admirably when inserted into the starting lineup late in the season and look like the linebackers of the future. Henderson is a big body with quickness to plug in the middle. And that’s not to mention a host of other underclassmen who were forced into action each of the past two seasons who will continue to grow in the coming years.

The Aggies have more young talent coming in via the 2015 recruiting class, like 5-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack, four-star defensive end James Lockhart and ESPN 300 safeties Larry Pryor Jr. and Justin Dunning. The foundation for future success is there.

Money won’t be an issue for the Aggies when it comes to paying their defensive coordinator of choice. The school is in the middle of spending nearly $500 million on football facilities upgrades and shelled out $5 million per season for Kevin Sumlin. They’re not going to go cheap on the defensive coordinator, which is a pivotal hire heading into Sumlin’s fourth season in Aggieland, just for the sake of saving a few bucks. They have to get this hire right, and they’ll spend what’s necessary to do it.

The resources to attract more defensive talent is there. The player’s locker room and lounge is second-to-none. The Aggies have one of the best weight rooms in the country. Sumlin is a master recruiter who excels at closing the deal with elite recruits.

And Sumlin is willing to give his choice a chance. Auburn has had seven defensive coordinators in the past 10 seasons. Sumlin, who has been a head coach since 2008, is going on his fourth. Sumlin has no problem making changes when necessary, but he usually isn’t the type to overreact to one season’s worth of results.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Prior to what proved to be his final game as Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator, Mark Snyder acknowledged the pressure that comes with his profession.

If you don’t succeed, you’ll be looking for another job in short order.

"I learned at 30 years old, the second you take a job in this profession, you're on the hot seat," Snyder said on Nov. 20, a week before the Aggies’ 23-17 loss to LSU. "The day you take the job, you're on the hot seat. All the young people that want to get into coaching need to understand that. This is a production-based business, period."

Snyder’s defense came under fire the past two seasons because of the production, or lack thereof, it showed. After a promising debut season in Aggieland in 2012, the Texas A&M defense couldn’t find its footing under Snyder’s watch the next two years, which ultimately led to his firing by head coach Kevin Sumlin on Friday, fewer than 24 hours after the Aggies yielded 384 rushing yards and nearly 500 total yards to LSU.

[+] EnlargeMark Snyder
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M coordinator Mark Snyder's defense finished last in the SEC in yards allowed per game (449) and rushing (223.5 yards per game).
As Snyder alluded to, it’s a results-based industry and the results weren’t good in 2013 or 2014 for the Aggies’ defense. In 2013 the Aggies ranked last in the SEC in scoring defense, yards allowed per game, yards allowed per play, rushing defense, yards allowed per carry, and red-zone efficiency.

There were numerous contributing factors, perhaps none larger than the youth and inexperience that existed on the defense. At least a dozen freshmen permeated the two-deep depth chart, and suspensions and injuries didn’t help. In 2012, the Aggies had the good fortune of a veteran-laden defense with two NFL draft picks (defensive end Damontre Moore and linebacker Sean Porter), but the 2013 unit was void of that type of talent, leadership and experience.

This season was supposed to be different. With most of the 2013 defense returning and the addition of a strong freshman class, led by 5-star defensive end Myles Garrett, depth and talent improved. There was a sense of optimism surrounding the unit with six returning starters and the influx of young talent, which yielded season-opening starting freshmen at defensive end (Garrett), safety (Armani Watts), and eventual starters at linebacker (Otaro Alaka, Josh Walker).

The start to the season was different, with the Aggies posting a solid performance at South Carolina, holding the Gamecocks to 67 rushing yards, 3.0 yards per carry, and collecting three sacks, things that were weak spots the season before. Throughout Texas A&M’s 5-0 start, there were ups and downs, but reasons to believe progress was happening.

As the schedule stiffened and the Aggies navigated the SEC gauntlet, the numbers got worse: 559 yards and 48 points allowed to Mississippi State. A whopping 602 yards and 59 points allowed to Alabama. Even though the Aggies beat Auburn, the Tigers rolled up 363 rushing yards. The final nails in the coffin came against Missouri (587 yards) and LSU (491), both of whom ran for more than 330 yards.

At season’s end, the Aggies were right back where they were at the end of 2013: last in the SEC in yards allowed per game (449) and rushing (223.5 yards per game). Problems that existed the year before, like tackling or fitting proper gaps in the run game, resurfaced.

If the Aggies, with nearly $500 million being spent on upgrading football facilities and a $5 million coach, wish to be true SEC contenders, those types of defensive performances can’t happen.

Were there circumstances that contributed to the struggles? Absolutely. Three players who would have likely started this season -- defensive end Gavin Stansbury, defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne -- were no longer on the team for various reasons. Injuries mounted as the season went on. Some players who the staff relied on to take big steps forward this season didn’t. Linebacker depth was poor. The sputtering offense that resulted in a quarterback change didn’t help the defense, either, at times. That is the nature of SEC football though, and regardless of circumstances, results are required.

Sumlin knows that, which is why he’s making a change. He’ll search far and wide for a coach he believes is the best fit to take the promising young talent on the defensive side of the ball and elevate the results to the necessary level. Whether that is a high-profile, high-priced name like former Florida head coach Will Muschamp, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi or someone more under-the-radar like Houston’s David Gibbs remains to be seen, but the hire will be critical for Sumlin, who replaced his offensive coordinator last season with Jake Spavital and is now making another coordinator hire.

The 2015 season could be a big one for the Aggies, but in order for it to be the type of season Sumlin has been building toward, he must get the right guy, and get a lot better than worst-in-the-SEC defensive results.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has long been known as an offensive mind. Though he was a linebacker in his playing days at Purdue, Sumlin’s coaching career as an assistant was on the offensive side of the football, a trend that began in his first job under former Washington State coach Mike Price more than two decades ago. Even as a head coach, Sumlin has had a reputation for offensive prowess, including his knack for having star quarterbacks.

As his third season in Aggieland winds down and fans decry the defensive performances Texas A&M has put on the field this season -- which follows a poor 2013 -- it’s worth taking a look at how defenses have fared under Sumlin’s watch. While coordinators and defensive assistants do the heavy lifting, Sumlin ultimately puts those individuals in place by hiring them.

[+] EnlargeMark Snyder
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsMark Snyder's defense is ranked 101st against the pass and 70th against the run this season.
In his seven seasons as a head coach, only two seasons have yielded what could be considered good defensive results: his fourth and final season at Houston in 2011 and his first season at Texas A&M in 2012.

Looking at key categories such as scoring defense, third-down defense and turnover margin, the results were generally good in those areas those seasons. Houston was 35th nationally in scoring defense (22.4 points per game), 44th in third-down conversion rate allowed (37.3 percent) and tied for third nationally in turnover margin (plus-16) in 2011. In Sumlin’s first season at Texas A&M, the Aggies were 26th in scoring defense (21.8), 16th on third downs (32.4 percent) though they weren’t good on turnovers (a minus-five margin tied them for 87th nationally).

In the other five seasons, including this one, Sumlin’s teams have ranked 77th or worse in scoring and 78th or worse on third downs. In four of the previous six seasons, Sumlin's teams have been 92nd nationally or worse in scoring defense and have allowed at least 30 points per game.

Turnover margin has been varied from year to year, though this season the Aggies are 105th in that statistic (minus-six). Aside from 2011 and 2012, Sumlin’s teams have ranked 100th or worse nationally in yards per game (the Aggies are exactly 100th currently, allowing 445.2 yards per game). In 2011 Houston was 62nd (380.3) and in 2012 Texas A&M was 57th (390.2).

Because of the nature of his team’s offensive success and penchant to rank among the top teams nationally in scoring, yards per game and more, Sumlin’s defenses never needed to be perfect. With a potent offense, an elite defense usually hasn’t been necessary to win, evidenced by his 62-27 career record. However, the two best seasons Sumlin’s teams had record-wise were those two: 2011 and 2012 when his teams went a combined 23-3 under his watch.

At Houston, Sumlin made a defensive coordinator change after 2009, his second season, which also meant a scheme change from a base 4-3 alignment to Brian Stewart’s 3-4. The first season under Stewart was difficult but significant improvement was evident in 2011, Sumlin’s final season there as the UH defense posted its best numbers in four years in scoring, yards per game, rushing, passing, third downs, red zone efficiency and turnover margin.

It’s also worth noting that the best season of defense under Sumlin at Houston was one comprised entirely of starters that signed with Sumlin as recruits.

The 2012 season at Texas A&M, Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder had the luxury of many veteran defensive players on the roster, such as linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, defensive linemen Damontre Moore and Spencer Nealy and safety Steven Terrell.

Seemingly the heart of that 2012 unit, once key players graduated (and Moore exited early for the draft) it left a void of leadership and experience. Filled with underclassmen, the 2013 Texas A&M defense struggled mightily, allowing 32.2 points per game (95th in the country) and 475.8 yards per game (109th). The unit ranked last in the SEC in scoring, yards per game, yards per play, rushing yards per game, yards per rush and red zone efficiency.

The 2014 Texas A&M defense showed some improvement early this season during the team’s 5-0 start but has struggled in the second half. The Aggies are still better in most categories than they were a year ago, but not by much and are trending toward the 2013 numbers. The one area the Aggies have posted their best mark in the past three seasons is goal-to-go efficiency (65.4 percent), where they are 26th nationally.

The most eye-opening numbers have come against the best teams they’ve played this season. Against its best five opponents -- Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri -- Texas A&M has allowed an average of 533.6 offensive yards per game and 40 points per game. And while there are still some players starting that signed under the previous coaching staff, this unit mostly has players recruited by the current staff.

Recruiting in the past two years has been good, though, especially in the 2014 class, which produced true freshman like defensive end Myles Garrett, who is second in the SEC in sacks this season, safety Armani Watts (three interceptions) and linebackers Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker. Getting that talent to translate to on-field results will be crucial for Sumlin and the Aggies moving forward.

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 12

November, 19, 2014
Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett were once again the stars of the weekend among the SEC’s true freshmen, with both rookies helping their teams earn blowout wins against conference competitors.

Let’s recap how the dynamic duo, and several other members of the SEC’s true freshman class, performed last Saturday:

DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee

What he did: Barnett notched seven tackles, four tackles for loss and a pair of sacks in the Volunteers’ blowout win against Kentucky.

What it means: He probably wasn’t getting enough attention before, but Barnett is getting it now. Barnett is tied for fifth nationally in tackles for loss with Missouri’s Shane Ray. They share the SEC lead with 18 apiece. Barnett is also third in the SEC with nine sacks.

RB Nick Chubb, Georgia

What he did: The return of -- and subsequent injury to -- Todd Gurley generated most of the attention in Saturday’s win against Auburn, but the Chubb Train kept rolling. Georgia’s star freshman ran 19 times for 144 yards and scored touchdowns of 9 and 11 yards. He also caught two passes for 48 yards.

What it means: Chubb has rushed for at least 140 yards in all five games since Gurley was initially suspended. During that time, he has been arguably the SEC’s most dynamic running back. He has run for 815 yards in the past five games and pushed his season total past the 1,000-yard mark (to 1,039) against Auburn.

RB Jalen Hurd, Tennessee

What he did: He hasn’t put up comparable numbers to Chubb, but Hurd has been impressive while running behind a much less experienced offensive line. He rushed 23 times for 118 yards and scored a 4-yard touchdown against Kentucky. He also made a reception for an 11-yard gain.

What it means: Through 10 games, Hurd has rushed for 716 yards and three touchdowns and ranks third on the team with 27 catches for 177 yards and two more scores. He is easily one of the Volunteers' most valuable offensive players and he’s only getting started.

QB Treon Harris, Florida

What he did: The South Carolina game ended terribly for Florida -- with the Gamecocks tying the score late and winning in overtime -- but Harris is a clear upgrade over Jeff Driskel at quarterback. He completed just 5 of 11 passes for 60 yards and a touchdown, but Harris also ran 20 times for 111 yards.

What it means: Starting for the third straight game, Harris suffered his first loss as a starter against the Gamecocks. Nonetheless, Florida has become a more competitive team with him under center. His 100-yard outing was the first by a Florida quarterback since Driskel in 2012.

S Armani Watts, Texas A&M

What he did: The freshman safety made four tackles and broke up two passes in a loss against Missouri, but his biggest play came late in the second quarter when he picked off a Maty Mauk pass at the Texas A&M 12-yard line and returned it 36 yards to the Aggies 48. A&M then drove to Mizzou’s 13 and kicked a field goal at the buzzer to go up 13-6 at halftime.

What it means: Other A&M freshmen like Myles Garrett, Speedy Noil and Kyle Allen have garnered more attention, but Watts has become a solid contributor on defense. He leads the team with three interceptions and 10 passes defended, is second with seven pass breakups and sixth with 52 tackles. It’s shaping up to be a strong rookie season for the young defensive back.

Other notables:

QB Kyle Allen, Texas A&M: Completed 24 of 35 passes for 237 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in a loss to Missouri.

LB Bryson Allen-Williams, South Carolina: Made three tackles, a career-high 2.5 tackles for loss and forced a fumble while combining for a sack in a win against Florida.

DB/KR Evan Berry, Tennessee: Vols legend Eric Berry’s younger brother made two tackles and returned three kickoffs for 91 yards (30.3 ypr) with a long of 39 against Kentucky.

WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: Caught three passes for 36 yards and totaled 95 yards on two kickoff returns in a loss to Missouri.

DB Malkom Parrish, Georgia: Made five tackles and forced a fourth-quarter fumble that outside linebacker Davin Bellamy recovered in a win against Auburn.

P J.K. Scott, Alabama: Punted seven times for 319 yards (45.6 ypp) in a win against Mississippi State with a long of 56.

RB Ish Witter, Missouri: Ran four times for 34 yards and rushed for a key third-quarter touchdown that gave the Tigers a 14-point lead in a 34-27 win over Texas A&M.

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 10

November, 5, 2014
True freshmen from around the SEC were relatively quiet two Saturdays ago, but they were back in full force over the weekend, with players on both offense and defense making big impacts.

Here is a recap of what the top five true freshmen accomplished, plus five more notables:

DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
What he did:
The defenses didn’t exactly dominate the South Carolina-Tennessee game, but Barnett made some huge plays in the Volunteers’ comeback win, including a sack of South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson in overtime. Barnett finished with five tackles, three sacks and two quarterback hurries.

What it means: Barnett is already one of the SEC’s top pass-rushers. He is second in the league with 14 tackles for loss and is tied for fifth with six sacks. That’s impressive production for any player, but it’s incredible for a true freshman.

RB Nick Chubb, Georgia
What he did:
Chubb got off to a hot start against Florida with 100 rushing yards -- and a beautiful touchdown run -- in the first quarter. He and the Bulldogs bogged down on offense a bit afterward, with Florida running away with an upset win. Chubb still finished with impressive totals, however: 21 carries for 156 yards and a touchdown, plus five catches for 59 yards and another score.

What it means: Chubb also lost his first fumble of the season at the end of a 35-yard run in the third quarter, ending a drive when the Bulldogs were trying to scratch their way back into the game. Nonetheless, nobody will pin this loss -- their first since Todd Gurley was suspended -- on Chubb. The freshman has one more game until Gurley returns to the lineup, and Chubb has been outstanding thus far.

DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
What he did:
Sure it was against Louisiana-Monroe, but Garrett still was a force as the Aggies snapped a three-game losing streak. He finished with six tackles, 3.5 sacks and one hurry in the 21-16 win against the Warhawks.

What it means: As with Barnett, Garrett already ranks among the top players at his position. He now has 11 sacks, which is a record for an SEC freshman, and sits just behind Barnett in TFLs with 12.5. What’s scary is he’s only going to keep getting better.

RB Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
What he did:
Hurd had his best game as a Vol against South Carolina, rushing 21 times for 125 yards and catching seven passes for 58 yards and a score. His biggest play of the game came midway through the fourth quarter, when he caught a fourth-down pass from Josh Dobbs and not only spun past the first-down marker, but bolted 21 yards for a touchdown to keep the Vols’ comeback bid alive.

What it means: Hurd has made this list before and he will almost certainly make it again. He’s that good. The touchdown catch might have been his biggest play of the season, as it trimmed South Carolina’s lead to 35-28 with 6:34 to play. If he gets stopped short of the marker for a turnover on downs, it’s difficult to imagine that Tennessee completes its comeback.

WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M
What he did:
Noil’s numbers from the Louisiana-Monroe game -- five catches for 69 yards and a touchdown, plus 51 yards on four punt returns -- are nice, but what we’ll remember is his spectacular 39-yard touchdown catch after it was deflected by a defender.

What it means: It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time since Noil’s second-quarter catch gave the Aggies a 21-7 lead against an underwhelming opponent, but it wound up making a big difference. Texas A&M’s offense bogged down in the second half and the Aggies barely held on for a 21-16 win. If they don’t get six points from the freshman’s acrobatic catch, who knows what might have happened.

video Other notables:

QB Kyle Allen, Texas A&M: Endured a rocky starting debut against ULM, hitting 13 of 28 passes for 106 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

K Aaron Medley, Tennessee: Missed his first two field goals (from 43 and 45 yards), but hit the game-winning kick from 32 yards in overtime against South Carolina. Medley also went 6-for-6 on PATs.

RB Dallas Rivers, Vanderbilt: Ran 17 times for 73 yards and returned three kickoffs for 44 yards in a win against Old Dominion.

S Armani Watts, Texas A&M: Registered five tackles against ULM and also intercepted one pass and broke up another.

RB Stanley Williams, Kentucky: Ran 12 times for 39 yards against Missouri and caught five passes for 58 yards.

Issues remain for Aggies despite win

November, 3, 2014
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Kevin Sumlin was right about at least one thing following Texas A&M’s narrow 21-16 escape of Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday at Kyle Field.

"We need to win," Sumlin said. "It’s been awhile since we won."

It’s true. The entire month of October passed without a win for the Aggies (6-3), once a trendy pick for one the four inaugural College Football Playoff berths after a hot start.

How quickly things have changed and how far this team has fallen.

[+] EnlargeKyle Allen
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsThe Aggies need QB Kyle Allen to play well to have any chance against Auburn on Saturday.
The images from the end of Saturday’s close win against a sub-.500 team from the Sun Belt Conference were almost the polar opposite of what was seen in Columbia, South Carolina, on Aug. 28 when Texas A&M stunned the nation by wiping the floor with the Gamecocks.

Perhaps most telling words about where the Aggies are came out from Sumlin after Saturday’s game.

"This game was won a week ago in the off week with how we practiced from a physical standpoint and a toughness standpoint," Sumlin said. "To close out the game being able to run the football and take some time off the clock and have our defense make some stops at the end to win the game. From my standpoint, two or three weeks ago, I don’t know if we win this game."

The fact that the Aggies might have once been at a point where they lost to a Group of 5 team that is now 3-5 and ranks 101st or worst nationally in almost every major offensive statistical category, is troubling.

That day was probably Oct. 18 when the Aggies were systematically destroyed 59-0 at Alabama. Sumlin is probably right -- they wouldn’t have beaten Louisiana-Monroe or just about anybody that afternoon. The Aggies that day turned in their worst performance since joining the SEC in 2012, and easily their worst since a 77-0 loss to Oklahoma in 2003, which was two head coaching changes ago.

High-powered offense and opportunistic defense against an SEC opponent on the road, like what was witnessed on Aug. 28 at South Carolina, has been traded for squeaking out a meager offensive output, a defensive unit that bent, but didn’t break on Saturday, and a host of freshmen in key positions on both sides of the ball, including at quarterback.

A team that racked up 680 yards in its opener is a shell of its former self, managing only 243 offensive yards (104 fewer than Louisiana-Monroe posted Saturday) and was running clock, moving the chains late in the fourth quarter in an effort to secure a win.

There was once a time when the clock was mostly irrelevant to the Aggies' offense, except for timing how quickly the team could score. Now it seems the breakneck offensive tempo that the Aggies have been known for in recent years is nonexistent.

Of course, starting a true freshman quarterback for the first time -- Kyle Allen -- contributed to the offensive struggles. Allen, the No. 1-ranked pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class, is quite talented physically but doesn’t have a full grasp of the offense yet. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital scaled down the Aggies' offense significantly as to not give Allen too much to digest.

They will open the playbook more heading into Saturday’s game at No. 3 Auburn. They have no choice but to do so as Allen makes his second start. But the Aggies are also in this position partially because the quarterback who performed so impressively in the first five games of the season, Kenny Hill, is suspended for two games for a violation of team rules. One of the team’s supposed leaders has now been suspended twice in this calendar year (he was suspended in March during spring practice following an arrest on a public intoxication charge).

Upcoming is a treacherous three-game stretch to close out the regular season -- at Auburn and at home vs. Missouri and LSU. That the Aggies still seem to be trying to find the right answers on each side of the ball more than two-thirds into the season is cause for concern.

The good news is that some of the personnel changes seen on the field Saturday show potential. Two true freshmen -- Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker -- gave the linebacker position an energy jolt with their starts on Saturday. They were active and flashed some of the ability that made them so heavily recruited, combining for 12 tackles and a half-sack on Saturday.

True freshman defensive end Jarrett Johnson, who has seen some time this season, saw quite a bit Saturday and finished with five tackles and a tackle for loss. Safety Armani Watts, who started the season brilliantly but had been mostly missing from the lineup of late, recaptured some of his playmaking magic with an interception.

Offensively, the running game was much more productive than it had been in the previous two games. Taking away sacks and kneel downs at the end of the game, the Aggies averaged 4.6 yards per carry, totaling 168 yards on the ground on 36 attempts.

True freshman defensive end Myles Garrett and receiver Speedy Noil continue to play at a high level as they have most of this season. They are two of the bright spots of the Aggies' 2014 campaign.

There are still issues -- pass protection needs to improve (they yielded three sacks on Saturday), receivers will have to be better, and Allen will have to be more productive than the 106 yards and two turnovers that comprised his day on Saturday. The Aggies still have many problems to solve.

If they are going to win any of their last three games, the answers have to come sooner rather than later.

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 4

September, 24, 2014
Several true freshmen once again made an impact last week in the SEC -- particularly in Georgia’s rout of Troy, when former high school teammates Sony Michel and Isaiah McKenzie stole the show. They’re on our list of five SEC freshmen who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) last Saturday.

CB Tony Brown, Alabama

What he did: Against Florida, the former five-star prospect made the first start of his young career at Alabama. Put up against the likes of Demarcus Robinson, he didn't back down. He ended up with three tackles, including one that went for a loss, and helped contribute to a secondary that limited QB Jeff Driskel to just 9 of 28 passing.

What it means: Alabama desperately needed help at cornerback. Bradley Sylve showed in the season opener he can't hold down a starting job, and Eddie Jackson hasn't proven he can stay healthy enough to start either. Though Brown is young, he seems like the man for the job. Growing pains will likely occur, but his ceiling is certainly high. (Alex Scarborough)

WR Malachi Dupre, LSU

What he did: Dupre caught touchdown passes of 31 and 30 yards in the final two minutes of a 34-29 loss to Mississippi State, helping the Tigers close within striking distance after trailing by 24 points early in the quarter. Dupre finished with four catches for 120 yards, notching the first 100-yard outing of his young career.

What it means: Dupre didn’t make much of an impact in LSU’s first three games, and in truth he didn’t make an enormous impact in the first three quarters against Mississippi State. But he was one of the key figures in LSU’s comeback bid, and that might be a sign of things to come for the former No. 1 receiver prospect. (David Ching)

QB Brandon Harris, LSU

What he did: Like Dupre, Harris made his presence felt in the closing minutes against Mississippi State. He first entered the game with 3:43 to play and LSU trailing 34-16 and promptly led touchdown drives of 95 and 30 yards. Harris drove the offense to the Mississippi State 46 on LSU’s final drive and attempted a game-winning heave to the end zone, only to have the pass intercepted at the goal line by Will Redmond.

What it means: Harris nearly led LSU to what would have been one of the most miraculous comeback win in its history. He finished 6-for-9 for 140 yards and two touchdowns in barely more than two series, while Anthony Jennings was 13-for-26 for 157 yards in three-and-a-half quarters. The freshman provided a spark that Jennings did not, and that seems to have reignited the Tigers’ quarterback battle. (David Ching)

RS Isaiah McKenzie, Georgia

What he did: With a zig-zagging 52-yard score against Troy, McKenzie provided Georgia’s first punt return for a touchdown since Brandon Boykin did it against Michigan State in the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2011 season. McKenzie also ran twice on sweeps and picked up 54 yards, including one that one for a 49-yard gain.

What it means: Opponents had punted 160 times since Boykin’s touchdown and Georgia had not scored once. In fact, the Bulldogs hadn’t broken a return longer than 30 yards since then. But McKenzie and sophomore Reggie Davis (51 yards) both broke long punt returns in the Troy game, so perhaps Georgia’s unproductive return game might actually develop into a weapon like it was several years back. (David Ching)

RB Sony Michel, Georgia

What he did: With Todd Gurley taking a seat on the sideline early and Nick Chubb and Keith Marshall limited by injuries, Michel got a chance to be the star in Georgia’s backfield against Troy. He made good use of the opportunity, rushing 10 times for 155 yards and three touchdowns. His long run of the day, which covered 75 yards, actually didn’t go for a score, but it set up his 8-yard score on the next play.

What it means: Georgia has no shortage of backfield talent, so don’t look for Michel to post enormous numbers this season -- particularly if Gurley remains healthy. But Michel and Chubb have already given Bulldogs fans reason to be excited about the running game even after their Heisman Trophy-contending star leaves campus. The freshmen look like future stars themselves. (David Ching)

Other notables:

QB Kyle Allen, Texas A&M: Took over for Kenny Hill in a 58-6 rout of SMU and went 8-for-15 for 130 yards and connected with Jeremy Tabuyo on a 50-yard touchdown strike.

RB Leonard Fournette, LSU: Rushed seven times for 38 yards, all in the first half, caught a pass for a 1-yard gain and returned three kickoffs for 60 yards against Mississippi State.

QB Wade Freebeck, Vanderbilt: Replaced injured starter Patton Robinette against South Carolina and went 11-for-20 for 168 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

OT Cam Robinson, Alabama: Started at left tackle for the fourth time in four games and continues to impress at the position. In last Saturday’s win against Florida, the Gators rarely pressured quarterback Blake Sims. Meanwhile, Alabama’s offense generated 672 yards of total offense.

S Armani Watts, Texas A&M: Started at safety against SMU and posted five tackles and one stop for a 3-yard loss.

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
Here are five true freshmen in the SEC who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) from the Week 3:

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
What he did: Another week, another sack (or two) for Myles Garrett. In Texas A&M’s 38-10 win over Rice, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Garrett tallied 2.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and eight total tackles. He continues to live up to the hype that surrounded his recruitment and is now second in the country in sacks with 5.5 this season.

What it means: Garrett has already tied the Aggies’ school record for sacks in a season by a freshman and he is on pace to shatter Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC record for sacks by a freshman (eight). If Garrett continues to play the way he has as competition stiffens on A&M’s schedule, we're now talking about an All-SEC-caliber season. (Sam Khan)

Garrett Johnson, Kentucky
What he did: Johnson led the Wildcats with six receptions for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He had three of UK’s biggest plays of the game: A 60-yard touchdown in which Johnson danced between two Florida safeties before running to the end zone; a back-breaking third-down conversion when he beat his man on a 30-yard catch and absorbed a big hit from the safety; then on the next play, Johnson gave Kentucky a 17-13 lead back when he streaked past a confused secondary and hauled in an easy 33-yard touchdown.

What it means: Johnson was Patrick Towles' favorite receiver in a triple-overtime game that opened a lot of eyes. Although the Cats lost, Johnson must have been especially pleased with his performance in The Swamp. The three-star recruit from Winter Garden, Florida, was rated the No. 84 prospect in the state and didn’t have a committable offer from the Gators. (Jeff Barlis)

Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
What he did: Although Oklahoma’s defense completely shut down the Tennessee running game in the first half, Hurd broke runs of 43 and 29 yards after halftime as the Volunteers tried to stay in the game. Oklahoma ultimately pulled away for a 34-10 win, but Hurd gave a standout performance with 97 rushing yards on 14 carries, plus 24 receiving yards on two catches. It was the best rushing outing by a Tennessee true freshman since Bryce Brown in 2009.

What it means: Although he hasn’t started yet, Hurd is Tennessee’s leading rusher with 48 carries for 209 yards and one touchdown. Each week he emerges a bit more as a star in the Vols’ backfield. Up next for Hurd and the Vols’ young offensive line will be a Sept. 27 trip to Georgia in Tennessee’s SEC opener. If the Bulldogs don’t clean up the run defense that South Carolina exploited last Saturday, Hurd might have a field day. (David Ching)

Armani Watts, Texas A&M
What he did: Watts had six tackles against Rice, but perhaps most notable was a play that won't end up on the stat sheet. After a blocked field goal, Watts raced to his own 7-yard line to pick up the ball and run across the width and length of the field for a 93-yard touchdown return. The only problem? A&M was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct as players on the sideline entered the field.

What it means: Though Watts' return didn't count, he has had three good games in an Aggies uniform. He has been one of the pleasant surprises at a position the Aggies sorely needed help: Safety. He's fifth on the team in tackles, leads in pass breakups (three) and has made an interception and two tackles for loss. He has been an impact player with a nose for the football, huge for an A&M defense trying to improve. (Sam Khan)

Darrel Williams, LSU
What he did: Williams took the fewest carries of anyone in LSU’s four-man tailback rotation, but he scored twice -- once on a nifty fullback dive where he broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and broke away for a 22-yard scoring run -- and again showed off a powerful running style. Williams finished the game against Louisiana-Monroe with seven carries for 37 yards and is now tied with senior Kenny Hilliard for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with three.

What it means: Williams has been impressive in limited work in the Tigers’ last two nonconference games. While he won’t become LSU’s No. 1 running back this season, he has flashed some versatility by contributing at both tailback and fullback. He and Hilliard took the bulk of LSU’s short-yardage carries against ULM, so Williams has clearly done enough to expect to see more of him once the Tigers open SEC play this weekend against Mississippi State. (David Ching)

Other notables:

OLB Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: Carter recovered a Brandon Wilds fumble at the South Carolina 26-yard line to set up a field goal that gave Georgia a 10-7 lead in the first quarter. He finished the day with three tackles, a fumble recovery and a quarterback pressure.

RB Leonard Fournette, LSU: Fournette ran 10 times for 52 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown, caught a 20-yard pass and returned the opening kickoff 40 yards in a win against Louisiana-Monroe.

WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: Noil caught three passes for 71 yards and scored on a 14-yard touchdown pass against Rice before leaving the game in the third quarter with an injury.

CB Henre' Toliver, Arkansas: Toliver started for the first time and helped the Razorbacks put the finishing touches on an enormous win over Texas Tech by intercepting a Davis Webb pass at the Arkansas 15-yard line on the Red Raiders’ final possession.

RB Stanley Williams, Kentucky: Williams made one of Kentucky’s plays of the night against Florida. On the Wildcats’ first overtime possession, he ran right after catching a pass, then reversed field all the way to the opposite sideline and dove to the pylon for a 25-yard touchdown that put Kentucky up 27-20.

SEC morning links

September, 17, 2014
Much was made of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's hire at Florida this offseason. He was brought to inject life into a struggling unit and so far, he has done that -- hiccups in the first half against Kentucky notwithstanding. The true measuring stick for the Gators' offensive progress will come this week at Alabama. Fortunately for the Gators, Roper has experience against the Crimson Tide, though it wasn't a good experience (Duke lost to Alabama 62-13 in 2010 when Roper was with the Blue Devils). These are different circumstances and Roper has Will Muschamp -- who knows Nick Saban well from his days as an assistant on his staff -- as a resource. While Florida still has plenty of room for improvement, Saturday's clash in Tuscaloosa will be revealing when it comes to understanding how far the Gators' offense has come in a short time.

Texas A&M hasn't taken a step back -- like many thought they would in the post Johnny Manziel-era -- and contributions from the Aggies' freshmen is a big part of that equation. So far, 14 true freshmen from the Aggies' fourth-ranked 2014 recruiting class have seen the field and several have become impact players immediately: defensive end Myles Garrett, safety Armani Watts and receiver Speedy Noil, just to name a few. The Aggies' move to the SEC did quite a bit for the program in terms of visibility, fundraising, image but the impact has probably been felt most in recruiting, where the Aggies have hauled in two consecutive top-10 recruiting classes and are on track for a third straight this fall.

Vanderbilt started three different quarterbacks in their first three games, and suffice it to say, it has been an adventure. Against Massachusetts, true freshman Wade Freebeck started but Patton Robinette -- the Game 1 starter -- came in later to lead a comeback victory. What to make of the way coach Derek Mason has handled quarterbacks? It certainly has been a guessing game for fans and observers. This week, Mason said Robinette is starting and he's sticking with him until there's a reason to go another direction. Here's hoping that is the case. Robinette was pulled quickly in the opener against Temple but perhaps gained confidence from his relief performance last week. Confidence can be a fragile thing with a quarterback since it's a position of high visibility. Hopefully Mason can help Robinette keep that confidence up and stick with him through thick and thin, which would show the rest of the team that it should be confident in him as well.

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Wild sequence for Aggies, Owls

September, 14, 2014
A 12th man saved Texas A&M three points. Then, more than 12 men took six away.

In a wild sequence to end the first half of Saturday's game against Rice, the Aggies went from allowing three points to scoring six to scoring none. Rice kicker James Hairston made a 53-yard field goal to end the first half and pull the Owls to within 11 points of Texas A&M at 21-10.

However, the field goal was waved off by officials after they ruled that the Aggies made an illegal substitution. They had 12 men on the field and because it was a dead-ball foul, the play didn't count.

So Hairston and the Owls had to attempt the field goal again, this time five yards closer, and the 48-yard attempt was blocked. As the ball rolled toward the goal line, Texas A&M freshman safety Armani Watts sprinted to pick up the ball at the 7-yard line, ran all the way across the field and returned it 93 yards for a touchdown and a 27-7 lead.

However, some of the Aggies players on the sideline ran onto the field after the block and Texas A&M was assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at its own 42. The Aggies received an untimed down at their own 27, but Kenny Hill took a knee and the half expired with the score the same way it was before Hairston connected on his first field goal try at 21-7.

The bizarre series of plays was followed shortly thereafter by a halftime interview where Kevin Sumlin discussed his team's dumb penalties and "bad football."

Here's the block and return that went for naught:


Sumlin spoke about the sequence after the Aggies' 38-10 victory.

“We coach our team that if the ball is blocked and it goes on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage then we will pick it up, scoop and try to score," Sumlin said. "If the ball is blocked and it goes on our side of the line of scrimmage, then we leave it alone, because there are only bad things that can happen. Unless you’ve got a guy like Armani Watts who has never played and been on the field goal block team."

Sumlin noted the chaos of having players run off the field, others running on it and Watts sprinting by them all en route to the end zone.

"I’ve been around 20-something years, I’ve never seen that happen," Sumlin said. "It was just a really bizarre ending to the first half. Hopefully we won’t see anything like that again."

Aggies show improvement in secondary

September, 11, 2014
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Even though its season-opening win over South Carolina was a smashing success, Texas A&M still showed flaws in its 52-28 rout of the Gamecocks.

They most noticeable one turned up in the secondary on the night of Aug. 28, as the Aggies yielded 366 passing yards, a total that included two blown coverages that resulted in 69- and 46-yard touchdown passes.

 Taking into account that their next opponent was much weaker than its first one, Texas A&M did show some improvement in that area in a 73-3 win over FCS foe Lamar on Saturday. And when reigning Conference USA champion Rice comes to town in a couple days, the Aggies will have more chances to see how their secondary has progressed.

Still, there are signs of optimism for the group. True freshman Armani Watts has been a pleasant surprise, sliding into the free safety position and immediately becoming a playmaker. In the season opener, he broke up two passes, including one that would have been a touchdown. He also intercepted a pass.

"Armani has been a pleasant surprise back there," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "I think [secondary coach] Terry [Joseph] has done a good job of getting across the message that we need to become more physical, disciplined, all those things. "

Watts is providing quality play at a position the Aggies sorely needed after they struggled at free safety in 2013. Big plays being given up were a routine occurrence, and Joseph is working on making sure that isn't happening this fall.

Both Snyder and Kevin Sumlin have been pleased with what their new secondary coach has done so far.

"Terry is very detailed-oriented," Snyder said. "He not only talks about the secondary, but he'll also talk about what's going on up front at the linebacker position, what's going on up front with the D-line, to give a broader perspective of what the whole defense is about, not just doing 'my role' or 'my job.' As kids get older, that's the way it should be. We've had to play catch-up there, but as time goes on, you see that maturation."

The unit is not operating with a full deck, either. Junior cornerback De'Vante Harris has been out nursing an injury he suffered during preseason training camp so redshirt freshman Victor Davis has had to slide into his position opposite senior corner Deshazor Everett. Howard Matthews continues to patrol strong safety, but the Aggies have added depth across the secondary thanks to their 2014 recruiting class and emerging veterans like Devonta Burns, who is the team's primary nickel back.

Allowing only 153 passing yards and not allowing any big pass plays was a sign of progress last week in the win over Lamar.

"There weren't a lot of guys [who] cut loose and were running free; we challenged routes," Sumlin said. "You've got to say there was at least some improvement from a week ago when we had a busted coverage for a touchdown and a bad eye violation with Howard for a touchdown."

Eye discipline will be tested further this week when Rice arrives. The Owls will use play action passing regularly so it'll give the Aggies an opportunity to see how they've progressed. But so far, Snyder is pleased with what he is seeing.

"I think Terry has done a good job of getting across the message that we need to become more physical, disciplined, all those things," Snyder said. "We're playing a little bit of catch-up there. I've been pleased with the progress of those guys. We'll see a lot more over the next couple of weeks where we're at."
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."

[+] EnlargeMyles Garrett and Dylan Thompson
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsTrue freshman Myles Garrett had a sack and two quarterback hurries last week against South Carolina.
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."

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 1

September, 3, 2014

The SEC appears to be loaded with true freshmen who will make immediate impacts with their teams this season. Let's take a look at five who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) from the first weekend of the fall.


What he did: Chubb ran like a grown man against Clemson, particularly on a 47-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that essentially put away the Bulldogs' victory. Chubb took a pitch right and burst through a pile of Tigers -- literally dragging linebacker Stephone Anthony for 5 yards after Anthony grabbed him by the left ankle -- before breaking into the open field and outrunning all defenders. Chubb finished the day with four carries for 70 yards.

What it means: Chubb and Sony Michel proved against Clemson why they generated preseason buzz, with both freshmen making plays that helped the Bulldogs earn a key opening win. Chubb is going to be a superb complement to Todd Gurley in Georgia's backfield, as both players have shown the ability to run with speed and power. Gurley might be the nation's top tailback, but the freshmen have proven that the Bulldogs have more than one dynamic weapon in the backfield. -- David Ching


What he did: The five-star defensive end showed why he has received so much offseason buzz, having an immediate impact in the Aggies' win over South Carolina. Garrett had a sack and two quarterback hurries and came close to hitting Dylan Thompson several more times. Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said Garrett's stat line didn't show his total impact, and forcing Thompson into errant throws is “as good as sacks.”

What it means: He has the look of an All-SEC Freshman Team selection right out of the gate. The Aggies had virtually no pass rush last season (they were last in the SEC in sack percentage), but the addition of Garrett remedies that immediately. Combined with returning defensive end Daeshon Hall, the Aggies have speed on the edge to pressure quarterbacks and Garrett looks poised to live up to his lofty status as the No. 4 player in the 2014 class. -- Sam Khan Jr.


What he did: Freshman running back Hurd enjoyed his introduction to the Neyland Stadium faithful, scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown on a 15-yard screen pass from Justin Worley. Hurd struggled to find much running room out of the backfield, rushing 11 times for 29 yards, but his touchdown pushed the Volunteers' lead to 31-0 in a momentum-building 38-7 victory against Utah State.

What it means: Tennessee needs to develop a more dangerous running game, so the shifty moves Hurd displayed on his touchdown might be a positive sign of things to come. He was a U.S. Army All-American and former Mr. Football in Tennessee in high school, so Vols fans expect big things from the freshman back. Last Saturday provided just a small taste of his capabilities, but he looked awfully natural slipping tacklers and exploding into the end zone for his first career touchdown. -- David Ching


What he did: Noil didn't have quite the explosive start that some expected, but still performed well in his collegiate debut. He caught five passes for 55 yards and served as the team's primary punt returner. He did drop a pass, but that's easily corrected, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said. Spavital said he was impressed with Noil's physical ability as a blocker when the Aggies ran the football.

What it means: As long as drops don't become a trend, Noil should be an impact receiver for the A&M offense. The Aggies have plenty of receivers to go to and Kenny Hill threw to 12 different players on Thursday night, but Noil's speed and physicality are going to make him a factor in the Aggies' offense. He won a starting job for a reason, so while Thursday didn't blow anybody away, expect him to prove his worth sooner rather than later. -- Sam Khan Jr.


What he did: He had his freshmen moments -- at one time Blake Sims had to literally move him into the proper position -- but Robinson more than held his own against West Virginia. Neither he nor the entire Alabama offensive line allowed a single sack in Atlanta, helping the offense stay balanced with 288 yards rushing and 250 yards through the air.

What it means: The former five-star prospect showed all the tools that earned him the job of starting left tackle: ideal size, great feet and good hands. Granted he'll make some mistakes this season, but his ceiling is off the charts. As he begins to play with more confidence, he could become a real road grader for the Tide. -- Alex Scarborough

Other notables:

Leonard Fournette, LSU: Ran eight times for 18 yards and returned five kickoffs for 117 yards (23.4 ypr, with a long of 33 yards) against Wisconsin.

Mikel Horton, Kentucky: Ran seven times for 45 yards and scored touchdowns of 18 and 14 yards against UT-Martin.

Sony Michel, Georgia: Ran six times for 33 yards, caught three passes for 20 yards and made two tackles on special teams against Clemson.

J.K. Scott, Alabama: Only punted twice, but one of them was a booming 62-yard effort that led to West Virginia taking over at its own 7-yard line. That helped the freshman average 50.5 yards per punt in the win.

Armani Watts, Texas A&M: Started at safety and had an interception, two pass breakups and three tackles in a win over South Carolina.