SEC: Clarence McKinney
Four scholarship running backs, all with different talents, shared carries not only with each other, but with quarterback Johnny Manziel, who was the team's leading rusher and had the most carries of any Aggie each of the last two seasons.
"Maybe y'all should have [been surprised] because y'all hadn't seen me do it," Carson told reporters last week. "But I wasn't surprised."
With Manziel and running back Ben Malena -- last season's leader in touches and yards among the running backs -- having moved on, there are likely to be more touches to go around this fall for the running backs: Carson, Brandon Williams, Trey Williams and redshirt freshman James White.
Carson put together a solid spring and is positioning himself to be more than a situational back this fall.
"He's really smart, he understands what we're doing," running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "He's running the ball really well right now, and as you know, when he gets that opportunity to get in the secondary he can really hurt you."
When he arrived in Aggieland, Carson needed some work and patience. A transfer from Oregon, he had to sit out the 2012 season per NCAA transfer rules. McKinney said there was some obstacles for Carson, but he waited his turn and met that challenge head on.
"Tra's biggest issue when he first got here has been conditioning," McKinney said. "He's lost about 15 pounds since he's been here. He's picked up our offense."
Carson said he was initially drawn to Oregon coming out of high school because of his friendship with current NFL running back LaMichael James, who hails from the same high school that Carson does -- Texarkana (Texas) Liberty-Eylau -- and was playing for the Ducks at the time Carson committed.
Though he appeared in 10 games as a true freshman, Carson decided Oregon wasn't the right fit and decided to return to the Lone Star State.
"For me, it was the weather, it was too far away from home," Carson said. "I wasn't ready to make that adjustment as an 18-year-old kid out of high school. Now that I'm matured, it's just different."
Carson said he and James remain close friends to this day.
Now a junior, Carson is working to be a well-rounded player -- not just a running back -- for the Aggies. He played on special teams last season and continued to get work in that phase this spring, earning practice time as a member of the kickoff return team, though not as the primary return man. Malena served a similar role last season.
With 58 carries in 11 games last season, Carson has yet to be a full-time player. If Carson has to carry an increased load this season, McKinney has no doubt that he can.
"He just understands what we're doing really well," McKinney said. "He's really great in protection. He's not just a big back that's in the third-down and goal-line package. He's a guy who can make people miss and he can play in our open sets as well as our big sets. He's a complete back."
But if Manziel and Co. want redemption against LSU, the opportunity affords itself on Saturday in Death Valley. The Tigers are the dragon that Johnny Football has yet to slay.
The 2012 season was a wild one for Manziel, who became the first freshman in college football history to take home Heisman Trophy. Team after team seemed to struggle to find an answer for the unpredictability that Manziel possesses.
LSU was not one of those teams.
The Tigers are the team that held Manziel to career-worsts in several areas. according to ESPN Stats and Information. His completion percentage was the lowest he has ever had (51.8) in a game. So were his yards per pass attempt (4.9). His minus-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio was a career low as was his Total QBR (25.8). His signature running ability? That was bottled up too, as LSU held him to 27 yards, a season-low in 2012 and a career-low 1.6 yards per carry.
A lot of factors went into that performance and much has changed since the two teams met on Oct. 20, 2012 at Kyle Field.
LSU's defensive front was filled with elite talent last season. Five players from LSU's two-deep in the front seven were chosen in the first five rounds of the 2013 NFL draft (four of them were juniors who declared for early entry into the draft – defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, defensive tackle Bennie Logan and linebacker Kevin Minter).
While the Tigers are still talented up front, they're not quite as experienced and might not be up to the caliber that last season's group was.
"I think their defense last year, you had a bunch of NFL guys [who] were pass rushers," Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "Not that these guys aren't, but those guys were really, really good. It was just a battle between our tackles and their outside rush guys."
Those battles were key in LSU's success. Tigers defensive coordinator John Chavis appeared to craft an effective plan against Manziel, who had a tendency to escape the pocket and devastate teams with his running ability. Combine the strategy Chavis and his assistants employed with the speed and athleticism of guys like Mingo, Montgomery and others, and you had the desired result for the Tigers.
Earlier this season, Texas A&M offensive line coach B.J. Anderson recalled specific strategies used by the LSU defensive ends.
"They rush hard vertically, then you can tell Chavis has given them spots [on the field to pause]," Anderson said. "When they get to [the spot, they] stop and they squeeze and press those [offensive] tackles. They want him to feel the pressure, but they know if they blow up the field, he'll just run underneath him and there he goes. We had to adjust to that."
LSU head coach Les Miles said that there are elements of the 2012 attack that the Tigers will employ, but it won't necessarily be the same game plan.
"We're going to do similar things," Miles said. "We're going to not necessarily do what we did a year ago, but I think some of the principles will be the same."
The Tigers also appeared careful not to "over-rush" too hard vertically up the field off the edges to prevent open running lanes for Manziel. However, they were still able to get good pursuit, often times bringing a quick linebacker or even a safety off the edge to utilize their speed and catch Manziel before he could escape. That helped them limit him to a career-low 2.6 yards per play on plays outside the pocket, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
"You'd like for him to be pressured, not only by a rush lane, but by coverage," Miles said. "In other words, not necessarily say hold, but you would push the pocket at him, and hopefully his running opportunities would minimize as his time to throw it grew short, he had to make a decision. And that's what you'd like to have happen.
"And then cover during that time. At those other times, where you add a guy to the rush, now you'd better cover it very quickly and then you'd better be able to chase. I think chase is a part of the game, as well."
This will be a grand stage and a challenging setting, as LSU is an elite home team that's 25-1 at Tiger Stadium since 2010. Manziel, however, has thrived on the road, where he's 9-0 and has been responsible for 31 touchdowns with just eight turnovers, while averaging 417.2 yards of offense.
Manziel has improved significantly since the teams' meeting in 2012, the seventh game of his career. Miles noted earlier this week that Manziel is "bigger, faster, stronger," and it's clear that he has improved as a passer, something that should help him this week.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin noted that not much stock should be put into last season's game because of the difference in the teams, as well as the fact that the Aggies progressed and even changed some after the 24-19 loss to the Tigers last October.
"I'll be honest with you, there's two different football teams on the field this year," Sumlin said. "They lost a bunch of guys, particularly edge players defensively. I think it goes without saying that offensively, schematically, we changed as the season went on after that football game. Last year's video is important, but not nearly as important as the last seven or eight weeks of video."
When Kyle Field public address announce Chace Murphy introduced Malena, his teammate -- sophomore running back Tra Carson -- walked through the tunnel with a black cape, with the words "CASH OUT KING" in bold gold text, all caps.
Like a boxer stepping into the ring for a championship bout, Malena strutted in behind Carson, with his right hand in the air, fingers rubbing together for the "Cashing out" sign that has become a signature move for Malena and the Aggies when they score touchdowns. Of course, it wasn't complete without his headband, which has also become a Malena signature, with the hashtag "#CASHOUTKING" draped across the forehead.
Not a bad way to enter for the final time in front of the home crowd.
"I was sitting there talking to my roommate, and I figured if they're going to give me an opportunity to run out like they do in the NFL and call people one by one, I've got to do something crazy," Malena said after the game on Saturday. "I had my roommate do it and thanks to Tra Carson. He helped me out with walking it out. It was pretty cool."
With cameras trained on virtually his every move each Saturday, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel gets the majority of the national attention/discussion for his on-field actions, but it's Malena who has displayed the most style and flair among the Aggies this season. And he's become a fan favorite while doing it.
"Day to day, I guess he's kind of like Superman and Clark Kent," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said with a laugh. "You don't notice him during the day. You don't notice him in meetings. You don't notice him at practice. He doesn't say a whole lot. But when the lights come on and it's time to play that game, he's a different person."
But there is substance to accompany Malena's style. He's perhaps the most consistent of the team's four scholarship running backs when it comes to production. He leads the team in rushing touchdowns (nine) and has been a steady, though not necessarily explosive presence, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
He's a threat in the passing game as a receiver, catching a pass in all but one game this season and he's the best pass-protecting running back the Aggies have. He also is a willing special teams player, be it on kickoff return or kick or punt coverage -- whatever the coaching staff asks of him.
But probably his most talked-about quality among A&M players and coaches is his leadership.
"He's had some great moments here," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He's really been an emotional leader for us, maybe not as much as y'all see during the game, but in particular during practice time and in the offseason. There's a reason he's a captain and a reason why he plays a lot of special teams. He's been a leader by example, and this year he's been a vocal leader."
The style part seems to come naturally to Malena. He's been "cashing out" for years, even back to his early seasons at A&M when he was wearing No. 23 (he wore No. 1 in 2012 and this season). In an in-stadium jumbotron segment called "Ask the Aggies" that plays during home games, several teammates called Malena one of the "coolest" players on the team. And he likes to have fun with it, evidenced by his answer when a reporter asked him before senior day what his headband would say.
"I can't give that information out," Malena said smiling. "I change it up sometimes. I can't give the senior day bandana away. [My teammates] ask me every week, 'What's it going to say this week? I say 'Man, if I tell you, I have to kill you. You just have to wait until Saturday.'"
Malena enjoyed his senior day to the fullest, jumping into the crowd to celebrate the Aggies' win over Mississippi State with fans after the game. He even tossed his bandana into the crowd as he walked toward the locker room.
"I figured, why not?" Malena said. "Might as well jump in the stands and enjoy this moment."
A pair of sophomores, Tra Carson and Brandon Williams, joined the group. Both had to sit out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, as Carson transferred from Oregon and Williams from Oklahoma.
How carries would be divided was a frequent question from fans. All four were talented and highly touted recruits coming out of high school, and there was no question each had the ability to earn playing time.
But because of injuries, the Aggies haven't always had all four backs healthy and available for the entire season. Because of that, the depth they have built has become valuable as players shuffle in and out of the lineup.
On Saturday, in the Aggies' 57-7 victory over UTEP, Carson gave the Kyle Field crowd a scare after being carried away on a stretcher. Fortunately for the Aggies, Carson only had a sprained neck, but it underscores how critical it has been to the Aggies to have so many options.
"It's really helpful to have more than one guy," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "If you've got one guy and he goes down, you're scrambling for the next guy. Our situation, it's unfortunate that Tra had the injury that he went down with, but the next guy up is just as good, if not better. That's a really good position to be in as a running backs coach."
Early in the season, it was Trey Williams and Brandon Williams who battled through ailments. Brandon Williams had offseason foot surgery and missed the season opener against Rice. Trey Williams battled an ankle injury that caused him to miss the Aggies' games against Sam Houston State and Alabama. Carson has appeared in every game this year, though his status for Saturday's game against Mississippi State is uncertain.
The only player who hasn't missed game time because of an injury is Malena, who has 456 yards and eight touchdowns, best among the Aggies' running backs.
As Trey Williams (297 yards, five touchdowns) has become more and more healthy, his per-carry production has improved. He is averaging a team-high 7.6 yards per carry and has shown the explosiveness that the Aggies hoped to see when they recruited him at out of Spring (Texas) Dekaney High School.
Carson (269 yards, five touchdowns) has served as a hammer, a back who can get it done between the tackles. The contributions of Brandon Williams (206 yards, one touchdown) wasn't as significant at midseason, and he did not get any touches at Ole Miss or against Auburn. But he has carried the ball 16 times in the last two weeks, and he scored a touchdown against Vanderbilt.
Not surprisingly, quarterback Johnny Manziel is again the team's leading rusher (564 yards, eight touchdowns) but having a host of guys to hand off to has been valuable to A&M's offensive success and running game, which ranks 25th in the country (210.78 yards per game) and fourth in the SEC.
His 18-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter of the 41-38 victory -- Williams' first of two touchdown runs that night -- saw the 5-foot-8, 195-pound speedster make no fewer than eight Rebels defenders miss and saw him change direction three times, including a jump cut that seemed to magically sprung him from in the middle of a crowd into open field where all that became necessary was making one more defender miss en route to the end zone.
Williams' own description of the score is a modest one.
"I was just doing what I was pretty much used to in high school: seeing a hole and just trying to hit it as fast as I can and score a touchdown," he said. "That's the best thing for the team, I guess."
For Texas A&M fans, this is the Trey Williams they've been waiting to see. An ESPN 300 prospect and four-star recruit, Williams was ranked fifth at his position and 56th among all players in the 2012 recruiting class and arrived in Aggieland with a boatload of hype and expectations.
As one of the originators of the "Agg Swagg Movement" in the 2012 class, Williams came out Dekaney as an all-everything back who compiled a whopping 8,110 yards and 86 touchdowns in his high school career. He was a highlight waiting to happen because of his speed and elusiveness and helped the Wildcats to a Class 5A Division II state championship in his senior season.
While he won the kickoff return specialist job in his true freshman season, he didn't see as many carries as one might expect a caliber of that recruit might see. Part of it had to do with depth already in the backfield and part of it because Williams needed to become a more complete back.
"I think, just like most guys from high school, they were just handing it to him," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He didn't have to worry about protection. He didn't have to worry about blocking."
Though he appeared in all 13 games last season, there were four games which Williams didn't have any carries, including A&M's showdown against LSU. Sumlin said that Williams' need to become better in pass protection was at the heart of the decision.
Fast forward to 2013 and the diminutive, yet powerful back has made significant strides in that area. After a slow start to this season while bothered by an ankle injury, Williams is steadily working his way back to 100 percent health but has also become a much more versatile and complete back.
Williams has been key for the Aggies lately, leading the team in rushing on Sept. 28 at Arkansas and scoring two touchdowns against Ole Miss. He still is the primary kickoff returner and is averaging 7.8 yards per carry at running back this season.
"I think Trey is really growing into the position," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "He's finally healthy, first of all. He showed what he can do with the ball in his hands the other night. We've all seen it. He's really, really good with the ball in his hands and he has a better understanding of protections and that allows us to play him a lot more."
Given the lack of touches his first season, Williams admits he briefly considered transferring after his freshman season. But he discussed it with his family and decided against it, saying "I didn't come here to quit." Making the transition to the Aggies’ spread offense presented Williams with a difficult learning curve.
In high school, Williams toyed with opponents. In the SEC, defenders with NFL futures make it harder to do such a thing. But now, Williams seems to be adjusting well and beginning to realize some of those lofty expectations.
"It humbled me a lot and it actually opened my eyes that everybody's not going to just adjust to what you want to do," Williams said. "I had to adjust to it otherwise I wasn't going to be able to play. I had to learn the spread offense because I had never before been in the spread offense, ever in my life. So I had to learn how to adjust to that. Now I'm just here and God blessed me to do whatever I've been doing on the field."
Through six games, the No. 7 Aggies can safely say all is well up front. Even with two newcomers and some shuffling by moving returning starters around, the unit is again performing at a high level and is one of the reasons Texas A&M's offense continues to be one of the best in college football.
While it's difficult to replicate what the Aggies had last season, when all five starters last season played multiple seasons together, it's easy to see how well this year's group is doing. All it takes is watching quarterback Johnny Manziel drop back and sit comfortably in the pocket for five, six and sometimes seven seconds looking for a receiver or deciding to use his scrambling ability to gain yardage.
"Offensive line has played really good, with the exception of one game," offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "I think those young guys in one of those six games -- I think it was SMU -- had some struggles. But for the most part, they've played great."
Against SMU, there were some penalties and self-inflicted errors that the Aggies needed to clean up. Their performance against No. 1 Alabama was strong and they've been consistent, for the most part, the rest of the year.
The transition began back in spring, moving Jake Matthews from right tackle to left tackle to replace Luke Joeckel. To fill Matthews' void, right guard Cedric Ogbuehi kicked out to right tackle. Jake's younger brother Mike Matthews stepped in as the starter at center and redshirt freshman Germain Ifedi slid in at right guard. The only player still in the same position last season is left guard Jarvis Harrison.
Behind that quintet, the Aggies are putting up 586.5 yards per game (No. 3 in the country) and have allowed only seven sacks, which puts them in the top 30 statistically in the country. They're 20th in rushing yards (224.6 yards per game) and sixth in passing yards (361.8 per game).
"They're getting better every week," senior running back Ben Malena said. "It's hard to compare this year's group to last year's because they're only six games in, but I can tell you every week they are getting better."
The biggest question marks coming into the season centered around the first-time starters. So far, they've answered the questions.
"I'm really pleased with the young guys," offensive line coach B.J. Anderson said. "I think they've made some strides. They've played in some atmospheres where we had to communicate. Mike's done a really good job. I've changed protections on him a couple games. ... I'm really pleased with where he's at, and the same way with Germain. He's getting better every game and we're fixing some things that need to get fixed and we'll just keep working."
Anderson noted that they're not holding anything back from Mike Matthews, who is just a sophomore, when it comes to game-planning and protections. That's critical considering the vast array of defensive looks Anderson said opponents have thrown at the Aggies.
"If you had told me that I had that flexibility back in August, I'm not sure I would have believed you," Anderson said. "But he's got the kitchen sink right now. I'm not doing anything that I didn't do with Pat Lewis, who was a senior. He's able to make all the adjustments I need and I'm really pleased with the mental work he does during the week, preparation-wise."
The "older guys" -- senior Jake Matthews and juniors Harrison and Ogbuehi -- have also shined. Matthews' adjustment to left tackle has been smooth, as has Ogbuehi's to right tackle. Harrison has impressed Anderson with his effort week to week.
"Jake's Jake and Ced's doing a good job and Jarvis Harrison is playing his tail off -- as well as he's played since I've been here," Anderson said. "He's playing with great effort. It shows on tape and I'm happy with those older guys."
Manziel's progression and mastery of the offense in the second season in the scheme has helped as well. Players say they notice Manziel has tried to stay in the pocket more often.
"I feel more this year that he hasn't scrambled as much and he has been more patient," Ogbuehi said. "He looks to throw more, too. He's always looking to make a big play with his arm, and that's good."
Perhaps the best aspect of this group is it has stayed healthy. The Aggies were fortunate to keep all five starters healthy last season, and that's been the case this year, too. It isn't a perfect group, but it is a smart, talented one that continues to improve every day.
"This year, we're still trying to get there but so far we're getting there," Ogbuehi said. "It's exciting so far what we've done in the little time we've had together."
Despite some of the injuries, defensive struggles, early-season attention (both positive and negative), sitting at 5-1 and No. 7 in the country is a pretty good place to be.
Many preseason questions have been answered. Will quarterback Johnny Manziel's offseason affect his play or affect the team? The answer is a resounding "no," and Manziel has been arguably the best player in college football through the first half of the season.
How will the Aggies' offense run with a new offensive coordinator, Clarence McKinney? So far, pretty smoothly. The Aggies haven't missed a beat in the transition from former offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury to McKinney as the playcaller. They're No. 3 in the nation in total offense, No. 4 in scoring offense and No. 2 in the all-important third-down conversion category. Mike Evans has emerged as one of the nation's best receivers and the running game has been strong.
Will the defense come along quickly? This one hasn't netted a positive answer. The Aggies have been one of the worst defensive teams in the country statistically, ranking 113th in yards allowed per game (474.3) and 104th against the run, though they have been middle of the pack on third downs (72nd). Youth, inexperience and ever-shifting personnel have made the job a challenging one in Year 2 for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder after an impressive first year in Aggieland when the Aggies' D outperformed expectations and operated with limited depth in 2012.
That being said, the Aggies have still won and lost only to the No. 1 team in the country, Alabama, by seven points. Certainly, they'd like to be undefeated, but if they continue to win in the second half of the season, a bright outlook lay ahead for Texas A&M.
Offensive MVP: Johnny Manziel
Anybody wondering if Manziel would have a "sophomore slump" or that his eventful offseason would affect him can forget about it. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner has looked even better this season, completing 73.2 percent of his passes for 1,835 yards and 14 touchdowns while rushing for 438 yards and five scores. He's focused on passing more, but is still as dangerous as ever with his feet and delivers in the clutch.
Defensive MVP: Deshazor Everett
If Everett could play every position on defense, you'd have to think the Aggies would utilize him as such. As it is, he has been terrific at both cornerback and safety, playing the first five games with a cast from a broken thumb suffered in preseason camp. He has 33 tackles, two tackles for loss, two interceptions, two pass breakups, a fumble recovery and two defensive touchdowns.
The Aggies are a team that likes to operate at a fast pace, spread things out and get the ball to their playmakers in space.
The second half of the Aggies' 45-33 win consisted of them running the ball 29 times and throwing just seven passes. For the first time since the AT&T Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma in January, the Aggies finished the game with more rushing yards (262) than passing (261). And that second half stretch included two drives, one of nine plays and one of seven, that were all running plays that ended in touchdowns.
"That's probably the first series we've had ever since we've been here [as a coaching staff] that we didn't attempt one pass and scored in a seven-, eight- or nine-play drive," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "That says a lot about your team, your versatility and about where our confidence factor lies with our offensive line and our running game."
What it also says is that the Aggies are deep at the running back position. All four of the Aggies' scholarship running backs -- Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams -- touched the football on Saturday and combined for 203 rushing yards.
It was just the second time this season that all four have been available for a game, and was perhaps the best performance for the group this season.
"It's a luxury," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "It was really good to see all four of those guys out there. They were not only being competitive within the game, but they were competing with each other. That's how they do it every day."
Malena is the starter and elder statesman of the group. He emerged as the starter last season, claiming the top spot over then-senior Christine Michael, who's now with the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. Malena's combination of running, receiving and blocking ability makes him a versatile option that fits the A&M offense well. He is the leader among the team's four running backs with 303 yards and seven touchdowns. Coaches have praised his reliability and leadership all season.
But Saturday was a true showcase for Carson and Trey Williams, who provided a formidable one-two punch themselves. Carson, who has impressed since his Aggie debut on Aug. 31 against Rice, is a big, physical, north-south type of running back who also has good speed for someone carrying 230 pounds.
Averaging 5.6 yards per carry, he's second among the team's running backs this season with 229 yards and four touchdowns.
"You see Tra Carson out there running hard," Malena said. "It takes more than one guy to tackle him."
Trey Williams had a 100-yard game last season in a blowout against Auburn, but he hasn't always been healthy in his A&M career. He's still not 100 percent healthy but showed that he's getting close to that on Saturday, leading the team with 83 rushing yards and a touchdown while averaging 9.2 yards per carry.
"He's really, really good with the ball in his hands," McKinney said. "And he showed a little bit of that on Saturday and hopefully that'll kick start him for the rest of the year."
Brandon Williams missed the season opener while recovering from offseason foot surgery but has gradually been working his way back into the lineup. He showed his burst with a 20-yard carry against Arkansas and also has a touchdown reception to his name this season.
"He's the guy that probably has the most wire-to-wire potential," Sumlin said. "He's a home-run threat from anywhere."
The fascinating part about the Aggies' playcalling on Saturday, which led to 44 rushes and 30 pass attempts, is that there were no designed runs called for quarterback Johnny Manziel. McKinney noted that Manziel is going to run whether or not a run play is called for him but they wanted to limit how many hits he took.
Manziel wound up carrying the ball nine times for 59 yards with the four running backs accounting for the other 35 carries. He is still the team's overall leading rusher with 314 yards on the season.
But as the Aggies get deeper into their SEC schedule, they can do so knowing that they have a multitude of running back options to go to and so far, all of them have proven capable of delivering.
"We've got a variety of guys," Sumlin said. "Our staff has done a good job with those guys and making sure they're sharing the wealth and that the more you can share it, the healthier you're going to be throughout the year. We're not even halfway [through the season] and we've got some bruised up guys.
"They know that and they help each other and I'm pleased with the direction that whole position has gone."
The offensive line and running game: There were some questions coming into the season about how the Aggies' offensive line would fare after losing Luke Joeckel to the NFL draft and center Patrick Lewis to graduation. So far, the Aggies have continued to shine in this area. The protection provided to Manziel when he passes has been stellar, and the Aggies have not had much trouble running the football, averaging 221.4 yards per game. On Saturday against Arkansas, the Aggies actually had more rushing yards than passing. And the last two weeks, we've seen the coaching staff use all four scholarship running backs (Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams) effectively. Malena continues to be a steady force, Carson has provided a hammer who can break tackles and get short yardage but is explosive enough to get chunks as well, and the Williamses are both explosive talents with a lot of speed.
Deshazor Everett: The junior defensive back has been the Aggies' best defensive player this year. Though cornerback is his usual home, he moved to safety for the last two weeks to help alleviate some issues in the secondary. He performed well in both positions, is second on the team with 31 tackles and leads the team with two interceptions, including a pick-six against Arkansas. If the Aggies had more Everetts, their defense would be better off.
Play-calling: The offensive staff, led by offensive coordinator and play-caller Clarence McKinney has done a solid job of ensuring the offense utilizes its many weapons. There has been plenty of balance in the play calls (Texas A&M has run the ball 202 times and attempted 179 passes), the pace of the offense remains high, and it appears the Aggies have had an answer for almost anything opposing defenses have thrown at them. The one game in which the Aggies came up short was due to two turnovers against No. 1 Alabama.
The defense: To say the Aggies have struggled defensively is an understatement. Texas A&M is 112th nationally in yards allowed per game (476.8), 109th in yards allowed per play (6.59), 107th in rushing yards allowed per game (214.8) and 94th in passing yards allowed per game (262). Some of those struggles were the result of missing personnel in the first two games because of suspensions, but that's not an excuse anymore. Alabama and Arkansas both moved the ball with relative ease against the unit. In the second half against Arkansas on Saturday, the A&M defense did show the ability to get some key stops and make a few plays, so that might be encouraging, but it will have to build on that when it faces Ole Miss on Oct. 12.
The kicking game: The Aggies had to make a change at place-kicker, removing Taylor Bertolet from PAT and field-goal duty and replacing him with walk-on Josh Lambo. The issues haven't just been with the actual kickers, but there were also a couple of botched holds in the first four games. Leaving points on the board might not cost Texas A&M against nonconference foes like Sam Houston State or SMU, but it will cost them in SEC play if it continues to happen. Is Lambo the answer? He had a solid day on Saturday against Arkansas, going 6-for-6 on PATs and hitting a 39-yard field goal. So far he's 2-for-2 on field goals and 7-for-8 on PATs with his only miss coming as the result of a fumbled hold.
Texas A&M has a chance to heal up some injuries this week, which is critical after three starters -- defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, linebacker Darian Claiborne and Evans -- got banged up. Safety Floyd Raven, who has been out with a collarbone injury, continues to make progress in hopes of a return before long.
With the meat of the SEC schedule coming up, the Aggies have to get better on defense if they hope to realize some of their season goals. The offense continues to put up 40 points per game, but if for some reason it has an off night, A&M has to be able to rely on the D to help it pull through. Aside from the kicking game, special teams has been solid overall, and if Lambo is the answer at place-kicker, that's a positive for A&M moving forward.
Perhaps most notably, the drama is behind the Aggies. The constant headlines and media circus that followed the team, specifically Manziel, is in the rearview mirror. Led by Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies handled it well and didn't allow it to distract them from the task at hand.
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.
Alabama's coach had reached his boiling point in his talk with the media. He was tired of all the talk about the young, unproven players on his team: who didn't play and why, who stood out in relief, who could see more time moving forward. Saban bent his knees at the podium and put his hand to his forehead in frustration before deciding to ask his own pointed question in return.
"You know, what I’d like to ask is, we’ve got a lot of really good players around here, all right, that really play like crazy, you know, like C.J. Mosley," Saban said. "The guy plays every play in the game and on two special teams [units], he’s running down the sidelines with Christion Jones, faster than Christion Jones is, cuts the angle off the safety so the guy can run for a touchdown. How about somebody asking about him? What’s wrong with asking about him and what kind of player he is and how did he do? Because I mean, that guy does fantastic, alright?"
The problem with asking about C.J. Mosley is that C.J. Mosley doesn't have a lot to say about himself. Alabama's senior linebacker is deferential by nature. It's either about the system he's in or the players around him, but it's never about him. He's quiet, bordering on shy, and he'd cop to that assessment. Though he's a leader on the football team, he'd rather lead by example. He may play like his hero, Ray Lewis, but he doesn't shout or prance or bloviate like him.
His play speaks for itself. Last season he became the first Alabama linebacker since Rolando McClain to record more than 100 tackles. He won All-American honors and was second on the team in sacks and tackles for loss, all while playing a part-time role behind starting mike linebacker Nico Johnson. Mosley was the best backup in the country, and now he might be the best linebacker in all of college football.
If you don't know him by now, you will after Saturday's game against Texas A&M. Mosley is Alabama's best defender and arguably its best hope of stopping the Aggies' sensation at quarterback, Johnny Manziel.
Mosley, for his part, doesn't want the game to be about him versus Manziel. He said as much in a one-on-one interview with ESPN.com on Tuesday, but that might be what it comes down to. On and off the field, the comparisons are inevitable. In one corner, there's the media circus of Johnny Football: the big plays, the celebrations, the autographs, the social media outbursts, the NCAA investigation. And in the other corner, there's the media black hole around Mosley, smiling for the camera, albeit awkwardly. The most high-profile thing he did during the offseason was receive the keys to his home town of Mobile, Ala. Even then he told reporters, "Usually you see stuff like that on the movies with a superhero getting it." He couldn't see himself as the leading man.
Saban won't say it and neither will Mosley, but Bill Meredith had no problem putting the obvious comparison into words. In fact, it was the first thing Mosley's former coach at Theodore High wanted to talk about when he got on the phone this week.
"He’s what football is all about," Meredith said. "We’ve got Johnny Manziel all over the place. Let me tell you who C.J. is: he’s at church every Sunday, he’s so humble that if he owed a dollar to the football team he’d pay it, his Momma and Daddy was at every booster club meeting, he’s ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir,’ he’s never been in trouble one time in his life. He’s exactly what you look for as a human being. He is the opposite of Johnny Manziel. Why don’t we write more stuff about him?”
Well, Bill, this story's for you, too.
The problem with writing about C.J. Mosley is there isn't all that much to write about C.J. Mosley's life. Often you look for a hook in a story, a moment where the subject had to overcome adversity to get to where he is today. With Mosley, it's hard to pinpoint just where that is. By all accounts, he's never had an obstacle in his way. Why? Because he never put one there.
Mosley comes from a blue-collar family. His mother, Tracy, is a substitute teacher, and his father, Clinton, a supervisor at a ship yard, kept the leash tight on their two boys, C.J. and younger brother Jamey. Dad was the disciplinarian, and Mom checked in on the kids' homework. Both boys knew if school wasn't taken care of there would be no sports. Clinton once brought C.J. to tears when he told him he'd miss a game because he didn't have his work done.
Clinton was the one to get C.J. involved in football. Father and son took a trip to see a football game when C.J. was three years old. Clinton pushed C.J. in the stroller and looked around, eventually turning his attention to his son.
"He looked at it and stuck his head out and all the time he kept his eyes on the field," Clinton said, recalling the first time he understood that football would mean something to his son.
It took a year of watching from the sidelines before Tracy could be convinced that the game was safe enough for her boy to play. It was a good way to keep him occupied and out of the streets, the couple determined. And it didn't take long to realize they made the right decision. C.J. was tall and "thick" for his age, but Clinton could see his burgeoning athleticism.
"I can remember him being 6 years old on the defensive line kids running around the end and down the field. Everyone on the sidelines would say, 'Watch this, watch this,' C.J. would bust out the pack and run the whole length of the field all the way behind the kid to the end zone," Clinton said.
"That's everything in a nutshell. He's gifted."
C.J. played football, basketball and baseball growing up. He ran track and even sang tenor in the church choir. Everything he did, he did well. On the football field he played offense and defense, scoring as many touchdowns as he stopped.
Meredith happened upon Mosley at a middle school track meet and couldn't help but marvel at the 6-foot-1 runner lined up for the 100-yard dash.
"All of the sudden, they start the gun and here comes this kid from the middle school leading the pack," he said. "You look up here and C.J., this huge monster, is running down the track and I said, 'Oh my God, this kid's special.'"
In Mosley's first game in high school, he had 22 tackles against powerhouse Prattville. The following Monday, a member of Auburn's coaching staff called to offer him a scholarship.
He couldn't bench his weight, but boy could Mosley fly. He thinned out in high school and played at a slender 210 pounds, racking up a school-record 186 tackles his senior season. He wound up at Alabama's camp for prospective athletes and impressed former linebackers coach James Willis with his speed and determination.
"Coach Willis came up to me and said, 'Man, C.J. won't get out of the drills,' " Meredith said. "Here's all these top recruits, and he's out there learning football.
"Let's just say that before it was over Coach Saban was coming up really friendly to me. After that I started being C.J.'s coach instead of the coach from Theodore."
Mosley was always determined to sign with Alabama, and in February 2010, he did. He was a Top-100 player nationally and the second-highest ranked player from the state.
At home, though, he was still the same C.J., or Clinton Jr., as his parents know him. Even after all the awards, he came back to Mobile to do his chores and sing in the church youth choir, even though he may be a little too old to do so. Co-workers ask the senior Clinton about his son all the time, hoping for a story of his celebrity only to have him say, "He's just a child like anyone else."
But there was an opportunity for Mosley's life to change after last season. He could have entered the NFL draft and likely would have been selected in the first or second round. Mosley instead chose to return to school, and there was plenty of speculation why. But according to Mosley's parents, it was never even an option.
"There was no decision," Clinton said, emphatically. "There was never a discussion about it."
The Mosleys admit that their son has insurance in case an injury occurred and an NFL career was no longer an option, but they wouldn't say how much the policy is worth, only that, "He's taken care of."
Mosley said he told Saban his plans to return to school before his junior season ever began. When the season ended, Saban asked to be sure his mind hadn't changed, curious if a first-round grade had piqued his interest. It hadn't. The truth is Mosley never looked into it.
"No, not at all," Mosley said of seeking advice from the NFL. "For me, I still felt like I had things to prove. I wasn't an every down linebacker [last year]. People are saying, 'Well, he's not big enough to stop the run' and this and that. From a football standpoint, I felt like I had something to prove."
Well, for the doubters, this story's for you, too.
C.J. Mosley doesn't look like your typical linebacker prospect at 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds, but most linebackers can't run like C.J. Mosley. Most don't have his reputation, either.
"You can see that he's the leader," Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said of Mosley. "He's a playmaker. That guy never leaves the field, I don't care what package they're using. He's always the guy out there getting them lined up and making plays."
Mosley is the heartbeat of the defense. He may be quiet in public, but when he steps onto the football field, he changes. He said as a senior in high school that his favorite part about football was "trying to kill somebody." He's just not all that flamboyant when he goes about it.
"He's a competitor," Meredith said. "It's all business. There's no backing down about him."
And this weekend, he'll face the biggest challenge of his career as he's tasked with shadowing Manziel. Mosley wasn't aggressive enough during last season's loss to the Aggies when he spied Manziel, giving him too much of a cushion to run with the football and make plays with his arm. But Mosley says this time it will be different. This time he feels ready for what's to come.
"Every time I see it on TV or hear about how they came into our house and killed our momentum and how he lifted his season and their season ... "That's what happens when you're a great team, the bull's eye is on your back.
"I'm pretty confident. I know the coaches are. We feel more comfortable about it than last year."
Mosley has the skill and the speed to do the job. He may play linebacker, but he can fly. It wasn't that long ago that he ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at Alabama's camp, where reports put Manziel's 40 time somewhere around 4.5 seconds.
"I just have to make sure I play my type of football," Mosley said. "When I have a chance to make a play on him, I have to execute."
You may not hear Mosley's name mentioned often in the build-up to the game, but expect it to be called plenty by announcers after kickoff.
Mosley wants to return the favor of losing at home a season ago, but he's not making the game about himself. Saban and others may want the focus to be on him, but that's not Mosley's attitude. He's not talked about like Manziel and other stars in college football for a reason. That kind of spotlight would be too uncomfortable. He'd rather just play his game, quietly and without fanfare.
"There's a lot of talk about me versus him or Alabama versus Texas A&M and their crowd and all this stuff, but at the end of the day it's all going to come down to execution," Mosley said. "The big thing would be beating them in their house like they did to us last year.
"I'm ready for that game day."
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.
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."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The saga involving Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel and the NCAA investigation into allegations that he profited from signing autographs saw a resolution Wednesday, as it was determined that Manziel will be suspended for the first half of the Aggies' season opener against Rice on Saturday.
While the investigation was ongoing, many turned their attention to the quarterbacks on the roster not wearing No. 2 on the chance that one of them might have to play. With Manziel missing a half, the Aggies will begin Saturday's showdown against the Owls with either junior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kenny Hill calling the signals.
Both were engaged in a three-way backup quarterback competition during preseason training camp, one that included redshirt freshman Matt Davis, who last week decided to transfer to Tyler (Texas) Junior College, leaving just two contenders. On Tuesday, coach Kevin Sumlin did not name a backup and said the battle between the two is an "ongoing competition."
What does each player bring to the table?
Joeckel's advantage is experience. Though he doesn't have much game experience -- appearing in five games and attempting 11 passes last season -- it's still more than Hill, and Joeckel has already spent a season working in the Aggies' offense, serving as the No. 3 quarterback last season. He's more of a traditional pocket passer.
"He's a big kid [6-foot-4, 234 pounds] but not the most mobile guy, so you'd probably call the game a little differently than with Johnny in the game than him," Aggies quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said earlier this month.
The 6-1, 215-pound Hill, who has no collegiate experience, comes from a Texas high school powerhouse, Southlake Carroll, known for producing Division I quarterbacks. Chase Daniel, Greg McElroy, Kyle Padron and David Piland are among those who signed with Football Bowl Subdivision schools in the past decade.
"He's talented," Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "He was the Gatorade Player of the [Year in the] state. He's a dual-threat guy. With what they did at Southlake Carroll -- a lot of the Texas high schools are going to a similar offense to what we're running. I think it prepares guys like him to play at this level. The operation of it is real similar to what he's already done."
Spavital has made sure to give Hill plenty of practice repetitions during camp to help him grasp the offense. Teammates say both have competed well in training camp.
"Both of those guys have really done great things when they've had their opportunities during practice," senior running back Ben Malena said. "Both of those guys are really smart guys, and they've both had their opportunities to make plays and they have. It's great competition at the backup quarterback spot."
Sophomore center Mike Matthews echoes that sentiment.
"As [Hill has] progressed, he's really proven to me that he's a real good quarterback," Matthews said. "He can move around the pocket. If it comes down to it, he can scramble and run with the ball, and he's also been throwing the ball pretty well. Matt, he's an older guy, 6-5, more of a pocket passer, so I'm confident with both of them."
Sumlin said he has tried to rotate each quarterback with the first team in certain instances during training camp. It's something he has done in the past simply so his backup quarterbacks can build a camaraderie with the first unit should they ever be pressed into duty.
Hill and Joeckel's teammates are confident they'll play well no matter who is calling the signals.
"The backup quarterbacks are putting in the time and effort," Matthews said. "I believe in them. Matt and Kenny, they come in every day and they put the work in, so I'm confident in the quarterbacks that we have. So if it turns out that [Manziel] isn't able to play, I'll be confident in our backup quarterback."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M held its regularly scheduled weekly news conference on Tuesday in advance of its season opener against Rice on Saturday. While many wonder about the status of quarterback Johnny Manziel, there are other things to keep an eye on. Here are five storylines facing the Aggies as they await the Owls at Kyle Field:
1. Will Manziel play?
That's what Texas A&M fans and much of the college football wants to know: will Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel start on Saturday for Texas A&M? The question remains unanswered officially. Athletic director Eric Hyman released a statement on Monday evening indicated that he instructed the coaching staff and players to not comment on Manziel's status. When Kevin Sumlin was asked about it on Tuesday he said "We're not discussing that....I can't talk about how that decision is going to be made and what goes into that decision. I said from day one, the first day [of training camp], that there will be a lot of people involved in that decision. So what goes into how that decision's made, obviously I can't discuss." So for now, the wait continues.
2. What if Manziel doesn't play?
At this point, the Aggies turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kenny Hill. Both received praise from coaches and teammates alike on Tuesday. Senior running back Ben Malena said he believes the team will be comfortable with whoever is taking snaps on Saturday. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said offensively, the Aggies would still remain the same. Joeckel brings the presence of a pocket passer who has already spent a year learning the offense while Hill is a dual threat who can run and throw and has had to learn the offense quickly. But on Tuesday, the Aggies appeared confident in both of them should either be pressed into duty.
3. New faces
Sumlin advised fans attending Saturday's game to "buy a program or bring a flip card," because of how many newcomers will see time on the field. Of the 31 players who signed with the Aggies in February, Sumlin said he expects at least 10 to play a role this season, and perhaps as many as 15. Some of the notable newcomers to look for on Saturday include freshmen receivers Ricky Seals-Jones and LaQuvionte Gonzalez, tight end Cameron Clear, who was a juco transfer, linebacker Tommy Sanders -- also a juco transfer -- and true freshman linebacker Shaan Washington. Look for even more newcomers to get looks on special teams, including some of the aforementioned names.
4. Missing personnel
There are suspensions facing three defensive players: senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, junior cornerback Deshazor Everett and junior safety Floyd Raven, all three of whom had off-the-field legal trouble this offseason. Ennis and Raven will miss the entire game; Everett will miss a half. Ennis is a starter, so that means you could see a true freshman -- either Isaiah Golden or Hardreck Walker -- in his place when the Aggies go to four defensive linemen. In place of Everett, also a starter, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that the Aggies will rotate cornerbacks. Expect to see a heavy dose of Tramain Jacobs but possibly some freshmen such as Alex Sezer, Victor Davis or Tavares Garner as possibilities.Raven isn't listed as the starter at free safety like he was coming out of spring football. Instead, it's junior Clay Honeycutt, who Snyder was complimentary of on Tuesday. Honeycutt, a former high school quarterback at Dickinson (Texas) High, has come a long way according to Snyder and has earned himself the start against Rice.
Also of note, running back Brandon Williams [foot surgery] might be limited. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said "I wouldn't expect to see a lot from Brandon on Saturday."
5. Familiar foes
The Aggies and Owls haven't met on the field since the Southwest Conference folded in 1995, as both teams were part of the now-defunct league, but the coaching staffs do have recent history. David Bailiff is in his seventh season at Rice, a rival of Houston, where Sumlin was the head coach for four seasons (2008-2011). Snyder also stood on a sideline opposite Bailiff when Snyder was the head coach at Marshall from 2005-09. Sumlin's staff also recruited Rice starting quarterback Taylor McHargue when Sumlin was with the Cougars. So there is plenty of familiarity, at least in terms of coaching staffs, between the two squads.
The reason? To see if the news surrounding Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was the top story, or if it was beat out in the rundown by the news of MLB's suspension of New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez.
When the rundown appeared and Manziel was found behind Rodriguez and the news of other MLB suspensions, the official remarked "Johnny's three," in an optimistic tone of voice.
The Aggies will take small victories where they can get them right about now.
While Manziel is still practicing and taking his repetitions with the team, there is a cloud of uncertainty that exists over the program because of the uncertain status of its star player.
Media from across the country descended on the Bright Football Complex on Monday as A&M coach Kevin Sumlin took the microphone, making the first public comments since the news of the investigation broke on Sunday.
A year ago -- almost to the day -- Sumlin estimated there to be about 15-20 media members in the room 229 of the Nye Academic Complex, a relatively small room in the academic wing of the Bright Complex.
When Sumlin faced the media Monday, the gathering was roughly three times that size and the news conference was moved to the much larger Hagner Auditorium. More than 15 television cameras were pointing straight at the Aggies' head coach and more than three dozen media members sat below those cameras, hanging on each word spoken by Sumlin.
The 49-year-old coach presented himself with poise and appeared to have a grasp on the situation, or at least as much as he possibly could after claiming that he learned of the allegations less than 24 hours prior.
"It's not what happens to you, it's how you deal with it," Sumlin said. "Your ability to deal with those types of situations define what kind of team you are and what kind of person you are."
Not surprisingly, Manziel is the talk of the town in College Station. Even those in the student body have opinions on Johnny Football's eventful offseason.
While several students said they hope Manziel is eligible to play this fall, some are concerned about the attention Texas A&M has received thanks to Manziel.
"It seems like he doesn't make the best choices," said Leah Bailey, a sophomore biology major at A&M. "My main concern is how [his actions] reflect on the A&M campus. We're all a family."
Grayson Blair, an 18-year-old freshman who is majoring in industrial engineering, said he understands why Manziel has enjoyed himself this offseason but feels he could have dealt with his fame better.
"If I had won the Heisman Trophy, I would be doing the same thing as him and partying just as much," Blair said. "I would keep it on a much more low key, though. He obviously doesn't know how to."
Blair said he felt Manziel's actions have reflected poorly on A&M.
"It definitely has," Blair said.
The Aggies will press forward, though. The students and fans still want him to be on the field on Saturdays, leading Texas A&M to a banner 2013 season. Sumlin and the team will continue to press on and handle the situation as best as they can. Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney might have said it best when asked about Manziel on Monday.
"Johnny's our quarterback, he has been our quarterback, and until I'm told differently by Coach Sumlin, we're going to proceed as if Johnny's our quarterback," McKinney said.