SEC: Damontre Moore

Defensive struggles continue for Aggies

October, 21, 2014
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Texas A&M’s 59-0 loss to Alabama on Saturday raised a lot of questions about the Aggies. The team was inferior to the Crimson Tide in all three phases of the game -- offense, defense and special teams -- and the loss brings into question the direction the Aggies are headed.

One of the many areas of concern is a theme that hasn’t drastically changed since last season: the struggles on defense.

Texas A&M’s 2013 defense was poor by any measure. This season began with some promise, but many of the reasons for optimism have gone by the wayside with recent performances. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, in discussing his team’s loss Saturday, noted the Aggies had to evaluate where they are in all three phases of the game and that changes could be in store.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonThe Texas A&M defense has been behind the curve far too often in the past four games.
Defensively, the question is whether the changes need to be in personnel, coaching staff or both. The reasons for the struggles have been varied, but let’s take a look at each season and where the defense is under coordinator Mark Snyder, who is in his third season at the defensive helm.

The 2012 season was by far the Aggies’ best under Snyder. Though depth wasn’t ideal, the combination of experience and leadership in key areas in Texas A&M’s first-team defense is something the group hasn’t had since. Players like linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, safety Steven Terrell and defensive tackle Spencer Nealy (not to mention the pure pass-rushing production of defensive end Damontre Moore) are what the Aggies have been missing the last two seasons.

That season, the Aggies ranked in the top half or, in some cases, the top third nationally in several categories. They were 26th in scoring defense (21.8 points per game), 37th in yards per play (5.22), 31st in yards per rush (3.72), 43rd in yards per pass attempt (6.72) and 16th in third-down conversions (32.4 percent).

In other areas they weren’t as strong but still respectable, like yards per game (390.2, 57th nationally), rushing yards per game (139.5, 35th), red-zone efficiency (58.1 percent, 51st) and goal-to-go efficiency (71.4 percent, 46th).

The 2013 season, on the other hand, was easily the worst so far. With those aforementioned veterans moving on as graduated seniors (or in Moore’s case, early entry into the NFL draft), the Aggies plugged in a ton of youth and were a porous unit for virtually the entire season.

Last year’s defense ranked worse than 100th nationally in yards per game (475.8), yards per play (6.36), rushing yards per game (222.31), yards per carry (5.38) and red-zone efficiency (71.4 percent).

Their rankings in several other areas weren’t much better. Those included scoring defense (32.2 points per game, 95th), passing yards per game (253.46, 95th), yards per pass attempt (7.56, 91st), sacks (21, 84th) and third-down conversions (41 percent, 78th).

That brings us to 2014, where the Aggies have shown statistical improvement in every one of the above-mentioned statistical categories. A solid start in the first four weeks of the season against South Carolina and three non-Power 5 teams in nonconference play gave the illusion of marked improvement.

In addition, increased depth, particularly along the defensive line thanks to the 2014 recruiting class, has helped. A pass-rushing presence that was sorely missed last season has been found in a player like true freshman Myles Garrett, a four-star recruit who is closing in on Jadeveon Clowney's SEC freshman sack record.

Depth is still thin at linebacker, however, where the Aggies dismissed a starter this offseason (Darian Claiborne) and lost another to injury in the season opener (A.J. Hilliard). In the secondary, there’s a mix of veterans and youth, seemingly plenty of depth but much inconsistency in terms of performance.

While the start to this season was good, the past four games, which have all been against SEC opponents (Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama) have established an alarming trend. The Aggies’ defense is trending statistically worse in that four-game stretch.

In just the last four games, the Aggies have allowed 42.5 points per game, which ranks 119th nationally. Yardage numbers have been poor, too: yards per game (495.8, 110th), yards per play (6.96, 117th), rushing yards per game (255.75, 117th), yards per carry (5.78, 117th) and yards per pass attempt (8.89, 115th).

In key conversion areas, Texas A&M has also struggled. The Aggies' third-down conversion defense in the last four games (41.2 percent, 75th nationally) is about where it was a season ago. Similar traits apply for red-zone efficiency (68.2 percent, 103rd) and goal-to-go efficiency (76.5 percent, 72nd).

And while the numbers tell enough of a story, so do a layman’s eyes. It doesn’t take a genius to understand the Aggies are struggling defensively. Just look at Saturday’s game against Alabama and watch Crimson Tide quarterback Blake Sims evade about six Texas A&M defenders en route to a 43-yard touchdown run. Or Amari Cooper catch eight passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Or T.J. Yeldon run for 114 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. The Aggies allowed 602 total yards -- poor any way you slice it.

Senior linebacker Justin Bass put it plainly after Saturday’s game.

“You can’t play defense if you can’t tackle,” Bass said. “It’s as simple as that. ... If you don’t tackle, you aren’t going to win games.”
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Perhaps the most telling sign of how poor Texas A&M's pass rush was in the first half of the season came when the Aggies finally found one.

Two weeks ago, when the Aggies hosted Vanderbilt, they came up with seven sacks in a 56-24 win over the Commodores.

[+] EnlargeGavin Stansbury
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsWith three talented quarterbacks remaining on the Aggies' scheduled, they will need Gavin Stansbury and the pass rush to continue its quick development.
The telling part was that the seven sacks that day matched what A&M had produced in the first seven games combined.

Last week against UTEP, the Aggies picked up two more sacks in a 57-7 victory. Suddenly, a team that struggled to get near the quarterback is showing signs of being able to do it with consistency.

"We've been able to turn it up a little bit," head coach Kevin Sumlin said.

One of the key figures in the Aggies' recent improvement is junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury. In the last two weeks, Stansbury has been a force, picking up a combined 16 tackles and three sacks, two of which came against Vanderbilt.

Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder felt like that game could be a turning point for Stansbury.

"He's got a different look in his eye," Snyder said. "He comes in here to meetings and he's bouncing around, having a game like that is really going to be good for his confidence too. Everybody needs that game."

The Aggies were efficient at getting to the quarterback last season behind the strength of defensive end Damontre Moore, who led the team with 12.5 sacks. Moore declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft and is now with the New York Giants.

Moore’s departure left a void in the production, and throughout the season, the Aggies have rotated players in and out of the lineup, with the primary three being Stansbury, sophomore Julien Obioha and true freshman Daeshon Hall. Each has had their ups and downs this season, but Stansbury's strong play as of late has been noticeable.

Hall and Obioha have also both picked up tackles for losses in each of the last two games, so it seems like the defensive ends are finding their groove.

Sumlin points out that just because the Aggies weren't racking up sacks, it doesn't mean they weren't getting a pass rush. They were struggling in other areas as well.

"I think early in the year, we had guys get loose, but because we were taking some other chances, we had no contain on the other side," Sumlin said. "So the quarterback flushes out the back door. Or we've got pressure here and we didn't hold our gaps in the middle and the quarterback just runs up the field. So the pressure has been there but the quarterback has escaped a bunch in the first part of the year.

"I think we've been a lot more sound in what we're doing and guys understand that 'Hey, just running to the quarterback isn't going to get it. These guys have a plan too.' They're going to take off and go somewhere. You need to maintain your gap structure, even in the pass rush. And I think that's really, really helped us."

Stansbury started the season off on a bad note, missing the first two games after being suspended for violating athletic department rules and regulations. He said he has played that much harder to "make up for it" and that he's working on continuing to develop. His three sacks are currently tied for the team lead.

"My thing is, I feel like I'm getting better but I need to improve every week," Stansbury said. "It's not a satisfying thing but it's getting better every week."

Stansbury said the intensity has been dialed up and that has led to the defensive line’s resurgence.

"Emotion and effort," he said. "Swarming to the ball. Just trying to get there. Everybody's playing with intensity and going off each other."

The No. 15 Aggies will have to continue that if they hope to keep having success when they host Mississippi State on Saturday at Kyle Field. They'll face a talented dual-threat quarterback in Dak Prescott.

As for Stansbury, much like Moore a year ago, Snyder thinks things might finally be clicking for his new star pass-rusher.

"I don't remember what game it was for Damontre last year but he had one of those games ... where he kind of turned it on and the ball started rolling for him," Snyder said. "Hopefully the same thing happens for Gavin."

Texas A&M season preview

August, 5, 2013
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Today, we're looking at Texas A&M as the Aggies try to expand on their success in their first season in the SEC.

Coach: Kevin Sumlin (46-19 overall, 11-2 at Texas A&M)

2012 record: 11-2

Key losses: OT Luke Joeckel, DE Damontre Moore, LB Sean Porter, LB Jonathan Stewart, WR Ryan Swope

Key returnees: WR Mike Evans, DB Toney Hurd, QB Johnny Manziel, OT Jake Matthews, OT Cedric Ogbuehi

Newcomer to watch: RB Brandon Williams

[+] Enlargejm
Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun/LandovThe Aggies' season will hinge on quarterback Johnny Manziel's eligibility.
Biggest games in 2013: vs. Alabama (Sept. 14), at Ole Miss (Oct. 12), vs. Vanderbilt (Oct. 26), at LSU (Nov. 23)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The status of quarterback Johnny Manziel. Looming over the Aggies is the NCAA investigation of Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, about whether he accepted payment for signing autographs. There's concern whether his eligibility for the upcoming season will be affected. If it is, the Aggies would have to turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or redshirt freshman Matt Davis at quarterback.

Forecast: If Manziel is cleared of any wrongdoing, then the Aggies are legitimate SEC West, SEC championship and perhaps BCS National Championship contenders. They'll likely be favored in every game except their home matchup against Alabama on Sept. 14, and perhaps the game at LSU on Nov. 23, one of the two teams they lost to last season.

Aside from Manziel, the biggest on-field questions for the Aggies are on defense. Three of their most productive players from 2012 -- defensive end Damontre Moore, and linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart -- are now in the NFL. The Aggies are young and inexperienced in the front seven, and the status of two starting defensive backs (cornerback Deshazor Everett and safety Floyd Raven) are still to be determined after offseason arrests.

Still, with the return of Manziel, leading receiver Mike Evans and three offensive linemen, the Aggies have the offensive personnel to compete with any team in the country. They proved as much in their upset of eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last season. If the defense can make the kind of strides it did a season ago, when the Aggies had depth questions and concern about size up front in a line-of-scrimmage league, then Texas A&M can seriously contend.

If Manziel's eligibility is affected as a result of the NCAA investigation, the Aggies have no quarterback on the roster who has started a college game. Joeckel and Davis will battle it out in training camp. While the Aggies can be a good team without Manziel, dreams of reaching the highest heights will be severely limited if he is forced to miss more than two games.

Texas A&M Aggies spring wrap

May, 6, 2013
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2012 record: 11-2
2012 conference record: 6-2 (tied for second, West Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Texas A&MTop returners

QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews, WR Mike Evans, DT Kirby Ennis, OLB Steven Jenkins, CB Deshazor Everett, S Howard Matthews

Key losses

LT Luke Joeckel, C Patrick Lewis, WR Ryan Swope, DE Damontre Moore, OLB Sean Porter, MLB Johnathan Stewart, FS Steven Terrell

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Johnny Manziel* (1,409 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel* (3,706)
Receiving: Mike Evans* (1,105)
Tackles: Damontre Moore (85)
Sacks: Damontre Moore (12.5)
Interceptions: Deshazor Everett* and Steven Terrell (2)

Spring answers

1. Johnny Football: The Aggies are in the rare position of returning the previous season's Heisman Trophy winner. Heading into his sophomore season, Texas A&M is hoping that quarterback Johnny Manziel can be even better than he was a season ago. This will be his second year in the offense and for quarterbacks who have played in this system, year two is typically a season in which they progress significantly as passers. That's one of Manziel's primary goals, even though he'll still run when the time calls for it. As long as he's healthy and playing well, things bode well for the Aggies.

2. Experienced secondary: Last season, the defensive backfield was young and inexperienced. This fall, there are still young players back there, but it is the most experienced unit on the Aggies' defense. Three of the four starters in the secondary from the AT&T Cotton Bowl are back: Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris and Howard Matthews. Junior Floyd Raven has moved from cornerback to free safety and appears to have the skill set (range and tackling prowess) to fit into the position well.

3. Loaded backfield: The Aggies have four good options in their offensive backfield for Manziel to hand off or throw to. Starting running back Ben Malena returns, as does Trey Williams, who returned kicks and received carries as a true freshman. Add to the mix a pair of transfer backs who sat out last season, Brandon Williams (Oklahoma) and Tra Carson (Oregon) and the Aggies have a quartet that gives them a multitude of options.

Fall questions

1. Front seven: The Aggies are looking for someone to replace the production that third-round NFL draft pick Damontre Moore brought last season. Moore led the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks a year ago. Also, with two senior leaders gone from linebacker (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart) Texas A&M not only has to replace the bodies but also the leadership. Because of injuries, the Aggies were thin up front in the spring but when all their key players return in the fall, it will ease at least some of those concerns. Keep an eye on names like defensive end Julien Obioha (who started opposite Moore last year), defensive tackle Alonzo Williams and linebacker Donnie Baggs as players who have a chance to see their contributions increase significantly this year.

2. New receivers: Only one starting receiver returns from last year's squad: Mike Evans. Four of the top six players in receiving yardage are no longer on the roster, including second-leading receiver Ryan Swope. So who will Johnny Manziel throw to? Keep an eye on guys like Malcome Kennedy, who caught a fourth-quarter touchdown against Alabama last season, Derel Walker, who had a strong spring game, Edward Pope, who was a star on the scout team when he redshirted last year and a host of recruits from the 2013 class like Ja'Quay Williams and ESPN 150 duo Ricky Seals-Jones and Sebastian LaRue. Developing other reliable pass-catching options is critical, so keep an eye on how they use the tight ends with newcomer Cameron Clear (6-foot-7, 270 pounds) on campus.

3. Kicking game: One player who fans kept a close eye on this spring was kicker Taylor Bertolet. In his redshirt freshman season, the strong-legged kicker struggled with consistency, hitting just 13-of-22 field goal attempts and missing seven point-after attempts. With a new special-teams coordinator (Jeff Banks) who has college punting and kicking experience around to guide him, the Aggies are looking for an improvement from Bertolet this fall. Also the Aggies are working in a new punter, Drew Kaser, who takes the reins after senior Ryan Epperson graduated.
You've seen Mel Kiper Jr.'s second-round mock draft so we thought we'd throw another one at you before tonight's festivities begin. This time, we're taking a look at Scouts Inc.'s predictions for the second round.

Kiper had eight SEC players projected to go in the second around, while Scouts Inc. has nine, including former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu.

Here's a look at Scouts Inc.'s second-round predictions for SEC players:

No. 34: Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee (San Francisco 49ers)

No. 37: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama (Cincinnati Bengals)

No. 43: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

No. 45: John Jenkins, DT, Georgia (San Diego Chargers)

No. 48: D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina (Pittsburgh Steelers)

No. 49: Kevin Minter, ILB, LSU (New York Giants)

No. 51: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State (Washington Redskins)

No. 53: Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU (Cincinnati Bengals)

No. 61: Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama (San Francisco 49ers)
After seeing a record 12 SEC players taken in the first round of the NFL draft, it's time to look at who could go in the second round.

NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. has his second-round mock draftInsider all ready and has eight SEC players going in tonight's second round. There are some real SEC gems remaining and I'm sure there will be a few surprises as well.

Here's a look at Kiper's mock draft:

No. 41: Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee (Buffalo Bills)

No. 43: John Jenkins, DT, Georgia (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

No. 46: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama (Buffalo Bills)

No. 48: D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina (Pittsburgh Steelers)

No. 51: Kevin Minter, LB, LSU (Washington Redskins)

No. 54: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State (Miami Dolphins)

No. 55: Cornelius Washington, OLB, Georgia (Green Bay Packers)

No. 58: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M (Denver Broncos)

Kiper also has his list of the 10 best available players on Day 2Insider. Three of them are SEC players, including Lacy, who is listed at No. 2 on Kiper's list. He was a projected first-rounder heading into the draft, and even though he is listed as Kiper's top running back in the draft, he fell out of the first round.

Talk about a second-round steal.

Here are the SEC players listed and a little from Kiper on each:

No. 2: Lacy -- "The top runner on my board, I think Lacy has more talent coming into the pros than former Alabama star Mark Ingram."

No. 8: Minter -- "Minter has solid sideline-to-sideline range, even though he didn't jump out on film."

No. 9: Jenkins -- "Jenkins fits as a 3-4 nose tackle who can stuff the run and take on double teams."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M wrapped up spring football on Saturday with the annual Maroon and White game. After 15 practices, there's plenty to take away, but here's five things we learned during the Aggies' spring:

Mel Kiper Jr. Mock Draft 4.0

April, 8, 2013
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We are getting even closer to this month's NFL draft, so get ready for yet another mock draft.

This time, ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. is at it again, but has added a second-round mock as well in his Mock Draft 4.0 . Kiper projects that 21 former SEC players will be taken within the first two rounds, including what would be a record 13 in the first round.

Eleven players were drafted out of the SEC in the 2007 draft, and the record for the most taken from one conference in the first round belongs to the ACC, which had 12 taken in 2006.

Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel is still projected to be taken No. 1 overall by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Here's a look at where Kiper has SEC players in the first two rounds:

FIRST ROUND

No. 1: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M (Kansas City Chiefs)
No. 3: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida (Oakland Raiders)
No. 5: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama (Detroit Lions)
No. 9: Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU (New York Jets)
No. 10: Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama (Tennessee Titans)
No. 12: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama (Miami Dolphins)
No. 14: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri (Carolina Panthers)
No. 15: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia (New Orleans Saints)
No. 21: Alec Ogletree, ILB, Georgia (Cincinnati Bengals)
No. 23: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee (Minnesota Vikings)
No. 25: Kevin Minter, ILB, LSU (Minnesota Vikings)
No. 26: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama (Green Bay Packers)
No. 29: Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee (New England Patriots)

SECOND ROUND

No. 34: Matt Elam, S, Florida (San Francisco 49ers)
No. 44: D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina (Carolina Panthers)
No. 48: Cornelius Washington, OLB, Georgia (Pittsburgh Steelers)
No. 50: Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama (Chicago Bears)
No. 53: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State (Cincinnati Bengals)
No. 57: John Jenkins, DT, Georgia (Houston Texans)
No. 58: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M (Denver Broncos)
No. 59: Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU (New England Patriots)
  • Alabama leads the way with five players projected to go within the first two rounds.
  • Moore has really seen his draft stock fall since his dismal showing at the NFL combine in February. He went from a top-five pick to out of the first round. Now, he's projected to go 58th to the Broncos. LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery, who was viewed as a first-round pick before last season, has also seen his stock plummet.
  • Swearinger is rising up the draft charts. His impressive workouts this spring and keen field instinct make him a very attractive prospect to teams looking for a ball hawk in the second round. While Swearinger is moving upward, LSU safety Eric Reid is falling. Another projected first-rounder before last season, Kiper doesn't even have him in the first two rounds, despite a solid workout at the combine.
  • Mathieu looked to have played himself out of the first couple of rounds because of his off-field issues, but after impressing scouts this spring, he's back in the good graces of the draft. He might not be an every-down cover corner, but there's no denying Mathieu's athleticism and game-changing ability.

Returning tacklers in the SEC: West

March, 12, 2013
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Now that we’ve examined who's bringing back what defensively in the East, let’s take a look at the schools in the West.

It was a mixed bag on defense in the West last season.

Alabama and LSU both had top 10 defenses nationally. Texas A&M had one of the more underrated defenses in the league. The Aggies finished 26th nationally in scoring defense, and after the Louisiana Tech debacle, put together an impressive stretch of defensive football to close out the season. Most of the points they gave up came after the outcome had long since been decided, but a lot of the players who played key roles on that defense are gone.

Here’s a closer look at the West:

AUBURN
  • Eight of the Tigers' top 10 tacklers return.
  • Leading returning tackler: Safety Demetruce McNeal was second on the team with 90 total tackles. He tied for the team lead with seven tackles for loss.
  • Gone is linebacker Daren Bates, who was the Tigers’ leading tackler last season. Auburn returns six of its top seven tacklers among defensive linemen, including end Dee Ford, who led the team with six sacks. Also back is tackle Angelo Blackson, who had seven tackles for loss to tie with McNeal for the team lead.
OLE MISS
  • Eight of the Rebels' top 10 tacklers return.
  • Leading returning tackler: Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche led the team with 82 total tackles as a redshirt freshman.
  • The Rebels return their top six tacklers. That includes all three players who had double-digit tackles for loss last season -- Nkemdiche (13), linebacker Mike Marry (10.5) and tackle Issac Gross (10).
ALABAMA
  • Seven of the Crimson Tide's top 10 tacklers return.
  • Leading returning tackler: Linebacker C.J. Mosley led the team with 107 total tackles and was third with eight tackles for loss.
  • The Crimson Tide return three of their top five tacklers as well as outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard, who led the team with 11 tackles for loss. End Ed Stinson was second with 8.5 tackles for loss, and he also returns.
ARKANSAS
  • Six of the Hogs' top 10 tacklers return.
  • Leading returning tackler: Safety Rohan Gaines was second on the team with 75 total tackles as a redshirt freshman.
  • The Hogs lost three of their top four tacklers. Defensive ends Trey Flowers and Chris Smith led the team in tackles for loss with 13 apiece, and they both return in 2013. Smith was fourth in the SEC with 9.5 sacks.
MISSISSIPPI STATE
  • Six of the Bulldogs' top 10 tacklers return.
  • Leading returning tackler: Middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney was second on the team with 102 total tackles as a redshirt freshman.
  • Starting defensive backs Johnthan Banks, Darius Slay and Corey Broomfield are gone, and all three were among the Bulldogs’ top 10 tacklers last season. Also gone is linebacker Cameron Lawrence, who led the team in total tackles (120) and tackles for loss (10). End Denico Autry is back after finishing second on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss last season.
LSU

  • Four of the Tigers' top 10 tacklers return.
  • Leading returning tackler: Linebacker Lamin Barrow was second on the team with 104 total tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss.
  • The Tigers return three of their top five tacklers. Gone are linebacker Kevin Minter and ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, who combined for 36.5 tackles for loss. Five of LSU's top six tacklers among defensive linemen are gone. Tackle Anthony Johnson was third on the team with 10 tackles for loss, and he's back.
TEXAS A&M
  • Three of the Aggies' top 10 tacklers return.
  • Leading returning tackler: Safety Toney Hurd, Jr. was fourth on the team with 67 total tackles.
  • The Aggies lost their top three tacklers and five of their top six. End Damontre Moore left early for the NFL draft. He led the team and was second in the SEC with 21 tackles for loss. Nobody on the team returns who had more than 4.5 tackles for loss last season.

There’s no point in trying to sugarcoat this for Texas A&M: The Aggies have become the hunted.

A year after the real training began for their official move to the SEC from the Big 12, the Aggies enter spring practice with loftier expectations and more eyes fixated on them. They can no longer be considered the supposed ragtag group that was expected to struggle for relevance in their new home.

After shocking their new conference mates with 11 wins, including one over eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, A&M enters spring figuratively glancing over its shoulder.

"Now that we know for a fact that we have enough talent and a new group of guys coming in, we know that this year we have a target on our back,” rising senior running back Ben Malena said. “The workouts have stepped up even more. The work ethic of the team collectively has stepped up even more. Coach [Kevin] Sumlin, he's let us know that last year's success was last year's success, but this year's success is gonna be even harder because now you have a target on your back."

Teams don’t lead the SEC in scoring (44.5 points per game), rushing (242.1 yards per game), passing (316.5 YPG) and total offense (558.5 YPG) in their first season in a new conference without feeling the heat in Year 2. And this league intends to bring more than just the heat to the Aggies.

If A&M is going to make strides in 2013, it has to push for conference supremacy. It'll have to be better than it was in 2012, and it'll have to pursue dethroning the mighty Crimson Tide. It's a tough job, but it really is the next step.

To do that, Sumlin and his crew will have to work even harder than they did last season. Players will have to be willing to sweat, bleed and push even more as the Aggies enter spring shorthanded once again.

[+] EnlargeLuke Joeckel
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M has to replace a number of starters on offense, including left tackle Luke Joeckel.
Johnny Manziel and his Heisman award-winning slipperiness returns, but he’ll be without five offensive starters from 2012, including left tackle Luke Joeckel, who could be a top-five pick in April’s NFL draft, and veteran receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu, who combined for 98 catches, 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. Offensive coordinator and major Manziel mentor Kliff Kingsbury also left to become the head coach at Texas Tech.

Defensively, five starters from the front seven are gone, including All-America defensive end Damontre Moore and top-notch linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Dustin Harris and Steven Terrell must also be replaced in the secondary.

“We got a lot of young guys -- a bunch of new guys,” defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said of his defense.

And those youngsters need to learn quickly because the injury bug attacked the defense this spring, especially up front. It’s a necessary evil, but getting young players these kinds of reps excites Snyder because it helps with depth, which the Aggies need.

Not only did A&M lose two valuable linebackers but a wide receiver was moved to the position this spring and linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt was replaced by Mark Hagen, giving the Aggies even more change to deal with.

"There will be some challenges there,” Snyder said about the new faces on defense, “but that's what makes spring ball fun."

What will also be fun is finding out who the new leaders are.

Senior Toney Hurd Jr., who is battling for a starting safety spot, has been pegged as one of those new leaders. He’s always led by example, and Hurd knows younger players are looking up to veterans like him. He’ll have to come through because, although the talent might be there, inexperience needs guidance.

"I wouldn't say I'll be this year's Sean Porter, but I'll be this year's Tony Hurd Jr.,” he said. “I'll give the vocal leadership when needed.”

Some interesting months lie ahead for the Aggies, as they look to make more upward moves in 2013. But before A&M can worry about challenging Alabama -- or anyone, really -- Sumlin needs his team to get better. He needs youngsters to take advantage of more reps and he needs the veterans to evolve on the field and in the locker room.

It sounds clichéd, but it's true.

To be elite again and embrace this new-found target on its back, A&M needs even more resolve and toughness in Year 2. And to Sumlin, it’ll be quite an uphill battle.

"We're nowhere near that stage,” he said. “I've said that from every standpoint, from every aspect of this program, we're still playing catch-up to everybody in the SEC.

"From my standpoint it's always a new team, it's always a new personality. As coaches, what you're trying to do is figure out where you are, who can do what and put them in the best position to try to win games."
This marks the final year of the BCS, and you better believe the SEC would love to close the BCS era with eight straight titles. It would also ensure that the league has even more momentum going into the playoff, which starts during the 2014 season.

Colleague Travis Haney took a look at which conference has the best playoff path starting next year. He makes a pretty good case for the SEC, which should be able to get its conference champion in every year.

But who can wait for 2014 title talk? Yeah, me either, so why not take a look at SEC teams with the best BCS title paths in 2013? Spring practice begins this month, so we might as well throw out some very, very early thoughts on teams' championship hopes.

Let's take a look at which SEC teams have real BCS title shots in 2013:

ALABAMA

Pros: The Crimson Tide still have Nick Saban. That should be reason enough to make Alabama the odds on favorite to win its third straight national championship and fourth in five years. But there are many other reasons why Alabama tops our list. The offensive line might have to be rebuilt, but Alabama returns the nation's most efficient quarterback in AJ McCarron, who could have easily opted for the NFL after his junior year, a beast at running back in rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon, a host of talent -- and explosiveness -- at wide receiver, and most of the pieces to last year's top-ranked defense. Some big names have to be replaced on both sides, but this team really is reloading in 2013. Also, if the Tide can escape Virginia Tech (in Atlanta) and Texas A&M (in College Station) early, Alabama could go through the year unscathed, with road games coming against Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn.

Cons: Forget the pressure. Saban doesn't allow pressure to eat at his players. What Alabama has to do is replace three studs on that offensive line. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker are all gone. Winning the battle in the trenches is essential to competing in the SEC, so Alabama's less experienced linemen have to grow up in a hurry. Also, no team can do it three times in a row, right?

TEXAS A&M

Pros: Johnny Manziel is back and last year proved that the Aggies are tough enough to compete in the big, bad SEC. Kliff Kingsbury might not be calling the plays anymore, but there is a lot of young talent on offense, including wide receiver Mike Evans and running backs Brandon Williams and Trey Williams, that should still give SEC defenses fits. A&M gets Alabama at home in Week 3 and trade Florida for Vanderbilt.

Cons: The Aggies lost a lot from their 2012 team. Left tackle Luke Joeckel is gone, along with receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu, who combined for 98 catches for 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns. The front seven has a lot to replace, including All-American defensive end Damontre Moore and linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Kingsbury's sideline work with Manziel will be missed, and the Aggies have to play LSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas on the road.

GEORGIA

Pros: Georgia will be down wide receiver Tavarres King on offense, but it shouldn't be too hard to find someone to help make up for the loss of his production with all those talented receivers. "Gurshall" returns and so does quarterback Aaron Murray, who could become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in each of his four years on campus. Bringing back the entire starting five on offense will also keep this offense trending upward.

Cons: The Bulldogs lost 12 players who either started or saw significant time on defense. Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo are just a few of the big names that are gone. There certainly is talent remaining, but replacing all those players would be tough for anyone. Also, look at that schedule. The Dawgs start the year with Clemson, South Carolina and LSU before September even arrives. Losing more than one game during that stretch could all but end Georgia's title hopes.

FLORIDA

Pros: The Gators lost some key players on defense, but coach Will Muschamp is bringing back a host of defensive talent that should do just fine in 2013. Marcus Roberson could be an All-SEC performer at cornerback, and incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the talent to start opposite him immediately. Ronald Powell returns to help out a young but very talented front seven that includes rising sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard. Also, the Gators should be very deep at running back and have a more complete offensive line in 2013.

Cons: No one is quite sure what to make of that offense. Sure, the Gators should be able to run the ball, even without workhorse Mike Gillislee, but what about throwing it? Jeff Driskel really struggled last year, and the Gators lost their best receiving option in tight end Jordan Reed. Florida will have to rely on five true freshmen to help at receiver, but Driskel has to increase his confidence and become a better presense in the huddle for this offense to improve at all. Florida also takes on Miami, LSU and South Carolina on the road.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Pros: The Gamecocks might be without Marcus Lattimore and Ace Sanders, but they should be very balanced on offense in 2013. South Carolina has two very capable quarterbacks to work with in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson, a talented group of running backs returning, led by rising sophomore Mike Davis, and more experience at receiver. One-man wrecking crew Jadeveon Clowney is back, and could be a legit Heisman candidate. South Carolina also spends the final month of the season at home.

Cons: Replacing Sanders will be tough because he did so much on offense and special teams. Clowney will have help up front, but South Carolina must replace its two-deep at linebacker. That's going to be quite the chore. Also, stud safety D.J. Swearinger, Spur DeVonte Holloman and cornerback Akeem Auguste all have to be replaced. Right now, this staff will have to rely on a handful of youngsters to help out this spring. The Gamecocks must also go to Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas.

LSU

Pros: The offense has to be more well-rounded in 2013. Cam Cameron is in at offensive coordinator, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger made major strides during the last month of the season. All of his receiving weapons are back, the offensive line should be better and there is a wealth of talent still at running back. The Tigers also get Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas at home.

Cons: The defense was gutted after the 2012 season. The defensive line has to be rebuilt, someone has to step in for Kevin Minter at middle linebacker and the secondary must fill in the holes left by Eric Reid and Tharold Simon. There is a lot of young talent on defense, but guys have to grow up quickly in Baton Rouge this year. Playing Alabama and Georgia on the road will be very tough as well.

Opening spring camp: Texas A&M

March, 1, 2013
3/01/13
11:05
AM ET
Schedule: The Aggies will open spring practice Saturday and conclude on April 13 with their annual Maroon & White Game at 4:30 p.m. ET at Kyle Field. Practices will be closed to the public, but the Friday Night Lights event on April 5 will be open and free of charge. It will include a scrimmage at Kyle Field.

[+] EnlargeManziel
John David Mercer/US PresswireQuarterback Johnny Manziel is undoubtedly the player to watch this spring, but who else will step up on offense for the Aggies?
What’s new: Clarence McKinney takes over as the Aggies’ primary playcaller on offense. McKinney called the plays in the 41-13 win over Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl after Kliff Kingsbury left to take the Texas Tech head-coaching job. Sumlin then promoted McKinney to offensive coordinator. McKinney will also still coach the running backs. Jake Spavital joins the staff as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after spending the past two seasons on the West Virginia staff under Dana Holgorsen. Jeff Banks replaces Brian Polian as special-teams coordinator and tight ends coach after spending the past nine seasons on the UTEP staff.

On the mend: Sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha missed the Cotton Bowl with an injury, so his status this spring is up in the air. Sophomore linebacker Michael Richardson is recovering from a spine surgery.

On the move: Junior Cedric Ogbuehi is moving from right guard to right tackle and will take over for senior Jake Matthews, who will be sliding over from right tackle and stepping in at left tackle for Outland Trophy winner Luke Joeckel.

Prime positioning: Junior Deshazor Everett could play cornerback or safety. He started all 13 games last season, but shuffled between cornerback and safety. Junior Howard Matthews returns at safety after having a breakout 2012 season.

Question marks: The status of returning starter Kirby Ennis at defensive tackle is up in the air after his arrest and subsequent suspension from the team. He was arrested on a gun charge last month. Two other senior tackles -- Spencer Nealy and Jonathan Mathis -- are also gone. The Aggies will need some younger players to develop in the middle of that defensive line, and replacing Damontre Moore at end will also be a challenge. Sophomore Alonzo Williams could factor in at both end and tackle after playing some last season as a true freshman. He started for the injured Obioha in the Cotton Bowl.

New faces: Eight players from the 2013 class are already enrolled and will go through spring practice. Four linebackers are part of that group, and the Aggies lost two senior starters -- Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Tommy Sanders, one of the top-ranked junior college linebackers in the country, could be an immediate contributor as an outside linebacker. Freshman Reggie Chevis of Houston will get a long look at middle linebacker. Freshman Alex Sezer of Orange, Texas, could make a run at one of the starting cornerback jobs. Junior college newcomer Cameron Clear, who started his career at Tennessee, will be somebody to watch at both tight end and H-back.

Breaking out: There’s another Matthews on the horizon. Mike Matthews, the younger brother of Jake Matthews, is the front-runner to replace Patrick Lewis at center. The younger Matthews played some last season as a true freshman. Also, junior receiver Malcome Kennedy had a strong close to last season and will be looking to build off that momentum. The Aggies are losing three senior starters at receiver, including Ryan Swope.

Don’t forget about: Junior running back Brandon Williams is ready to go after sitting out last season. A transfer from Oklahoma, Williams could also be a factor on kickoff returns. He’s one of the most explosive players on the roster and has big play written all over him.

Backed up: The Aggies shouldn’t have any shortage of options at running back, even with Christine Michael departing. In addition to Williams, Oregon transfer Tra Carson will be eligible in 2013. At 240 pounds, he projects as the short-yardage guy. Sophomore Trey Williams rates up there with Brandon Williams as a solid breakout candidate and averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season on limited touches. Senior Ben Malena returns as the feature back. He was one of the more underrated running backs in the SEC last season with 808 rushing yards and eight touchdowns and is also a solid pass protector.

All eyes on: What does Johnny Manziel do for an encore, and how does he mesh with his new offensive coordinator? He set an SEC record with 5,116 yards of total offense last season and won the Heisman Trophy. Redshirt freshmen simply aren’t supposed to put up those kinds of numbers, but Manziel just got better and better as the season progressed. Now, the question becomes: How does he handle that success, and what kind of blow will it be for him to lose Kingsbury as his coordinator and quarterbacks coach? It certainly didn’t seem to faze him in the bowl game. The bigger question may be Manziel’s backup. Jameill Showers transferred to UTEP. Redshirt freshman Matt Davis will battle junior Matt Joeckel for that job.
Now that the NFL combine is over, we know a little bit more about the draft stocks of many players looking to make the jump to the NFL.

All that running, jumping, catching and throwing in Indianapolis can make a big difference for the majority of guys, and a lot of players saw their stock rise and fall after a few hours of moving around inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. kept a close eye on everyone out there and has updated his Big Board Insider to reflect the performances from the few days in Indy. After the NFL combine, Kiper has 11 SEC players among his top 25 players, including six in his top 10. Before the combine, he had 12 SEC players in his rankings.

Who fell? Well, Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore took quite the stumble after a very rough outing at the combine. Moore went from No. 3 on Kiper's Big Board to unranked. He had a slow 40-yard-dash time of 4.95 seconds, and was weak on the bench press, doing just 12 reps at 225 pounds. That was the lowest of the 37 defensive linemen working out. Moore needs a strong pro day to get back in the good graces of everyone keeping a close eye on the draft.

While Moore tumbled down and out of Kiper's rankings, Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd made a major jump, moving from No. 8 to No. 2. His 4.92 in the 40 was huge for him, and with Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei not being able to work out because of a heart condition, Floyd is now considered the top defensive tackle in the draft.

Even though Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones didn't work out in Indy, he's still at the top of Kiper's board.

Here is where the 11 SEC players rank on Kiper's updated Big Board:

1. Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia (Last week: 1)

2. Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida (LW: 8th)

5. Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M (LW: 2)

6. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama (LW: 6)

7. Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU (LW: 12)

9. Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama (LW: 9)

17. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee (LW: 21)

19. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri (LW: 15)

20. D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama (LW: 16)

22. Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia (LW: 18)

25. Matt Elam, S, Florida (LW: 25)
SEC players received a lot of attention during Monday's workout sessions with linebackers and defensive linemen at the NFL combine.

Speed is the first thing that comes to mind with this group of SEC studs. Missouri linebacker Zaviar Gooden registered the fastest time of the day in the 40-yard dash with his mark of 4.47 seconds. Right behind him was Georgia's Cornelius Washington, who moved to defensive end last fall but is listed as a linebacker at the combine. Washington ran a 4.55 in the 40.

Gooden and Washington also impressed in the weight room. Washington led all linebackers with 36 reps of the 225-pound bench press. Gooden finished with 27 reps. Washington was also second overall in the vertical jump, with a height of 39 inches, while Gooden grabbed 34 inches. Both impressed in the broad jump as well, with Gooden getting a distance of 131 inches and Washington jumping 128 inches.

[+] EnlargeZaviar Gooden
AP Photo/Dave MartinLinebacker Zaviar Gooden likely wowed scouts with his speed during drills at the NFL combine.
Gooden crushed all the speed drills, taking first in the three-cone drill (6.71 seconds), the 20-yard shuttle (4.18) and the 60-yard shuttle (11.28). Gooden showed off a ton of athleticism, and Monday should help him out considerably when it comes to April's NFL draft. The same can be said for Washington, who really showed out in Indy.

LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo turned a lot of heads with his 4.58 time in the 40, which was the second-fastest among defensive linemen. He also had a 37-inch vertical and posted a 128-inch broad jump, which tied for first among defensive linemen with South Carolina's Devin Taylor. Mingo was projected to be a first-round draft pick heading into the combine, and he pretty much made sure it stayed that way Monday.

Texas A&M defensive Damontre Moore didn't exactly have the day many expected him to have. For starters, his 40 was on the slow side for a rush end, as he was clocked running a 4.95. It was the lowest time of the 37 defensive linemen at the combine, but Moore did tweak his hamstring during his run. But what really created a not-so-flattering buzz around Moore was his bench press. He sported a very unimpressive 12 reps of 225, which struck a nerve with NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock.

"I wasn't high on Damontre Moore," Mayock said. "I hear top five, I don't believe it. And by the way, he did (12) reps at (225 pounds). That is totally unacceptable. I don't know how you convert speed to power if at 250 pounds you can only bench press 225 (12) times. So I'm kind of poking holes in all these supposed top-10 guys because I'm not seeing it."

Moore will have to get his 40 time down and his bench reps up at Texas A&M's pro day on March 8 if he wants to stay near the top of this year's draft.

Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier and Florida linebacker Jon Bostic both impressed with their 40 times. Lemonier ran a 4.6 flat, while Bostic was timed at 4.61.

Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd continues to hear his name creep into the top 10 of the draft. He ran a 4.92 in the 40, had a 30-inch vertical and a 106-inch broad jump.

You can read more about how all the SEC defensive linemen and linebackers did during Monday's portion of the combine at NFL. com.
Players are gathering in Indianapolis, so that means this year's NFL combine is officially underway. The first two days are all about the interviews and eye tests, while the on-field workouts begin Saturday.

But before any of them stepped foot in Indy, ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. released his pre-Combine Big Board Insider. Naturally, it's loaded with SEC players. Twelve of the 25 players on Kiper's Big Board are from the SEC, including six of the top 10 players.

Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones kept his place in the No. 1 spot, while Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel jumped in front of teammate Damontre Moore to move from No. 3 to No. 2.

Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd made a major move up Kiper's rankings, moving from No. 15 to No. 8.

Here's where all 12 SEC players ranked on Kiper's Big Board heading into the Combine:

1. Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia

2. Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M

3. Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M

6. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama

8. Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida

10. Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama

12. Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU

15. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri

16. D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama

18. Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia

21. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee

25. Matt Elam, S, Florida

Kiper also updated his position rankings Insider this week. Twenty-eight SEC players made Kiper's position rankings, and the league was represented by at least one player at every position, except fullback.

Here's where Kiper put SEC players in his position rankings:

Quarterbacks

4. Tyler Wilson, Arkansas

Running backs

1. Eddie Lacy, Alabama

5. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina

Fullbacks

None

Wide receivers

1. Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee

Tight ends

3. Jordan Reed, Florida

Offensive tackles

1. Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M

3. D.J. Fluker, Alabama

Offensive guards

1. Chance Warmack, Alabama

3. Larry Warford, Kentucky

4. Dallas Thomas, Tennessee

Centers

2. Barrett Jones, Alabama

Defensive ends

1. Damontre Moore, Texas A&M

4. Barkevious Mingo, LSU

Defensive tackles

2. Sharrif Floyd, Florida

3. Sheldon Richardson, Missouri

Inside linebackers

1. Alec Ogletree, Georgia

3. Kevin Minter, LSU

5. Jon Bostic, Florida

Outside linebackers

1. Jarvis Jones, Georgia

4. Zaviar Gooden, Missouri

5. Cornelius Washington, Georgia

Cornerbacks

1. Dee Milliner, Alabama

3. Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State

Safeties

2. Matt Elam, Florida

4. Eric Reid, LSU

5. D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina

Kickers

2. Caleb Sturgis, Florida

Punters

2. Brad Wing, LSU

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