SEC: Noel Ellis

Today, we continue our break down of each position group in the SEC by looking at an area of defense that has a lot to prove after last season.

We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.

Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.

With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.

Secondary position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the leader of an experienced, talented Rebels secondary.
1. Ole Miss: Talent and experience. Both are worth their weight in gold, and Ole Miss has loads of each. We’re probably not giving anything away when we say that both Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner will make the list of the league’s top 10 safeties later today. Prewitt led the league in interceptions last season, and Conner, a former four-star recruit, has barely scratched the surface on what he can do. Trae Elston and Senquez Golson, meanwhile, are potential impact players, along with Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones. If C.J. Hampton lives up to the hype, he could be a true freshman to keep an eye on.

2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.

3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.

4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.

5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.

6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.

7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.

9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett has all-conference potential, but the Texas A&M secondary is filled with question marks.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies return plenty of experience in the secondary this season. That's good in the sense that they have a defensive backfield with a lot of SEC football under its belt but make no mistake, this unit has a lot of room for improvement. Cornerback Deshazor Everett is the best player of the group and could be headed for an all-conference season, while junior corner De'Vante Harris continues to grow as a player. The safeties -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt -- must show improvement this season after last year's performance. The nickel position is open and a number of candidates could step in, including sophomore Noel Ellis or junior Devonta Burns.

11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.

12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.

13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.

Second-year stars: Texas A&M

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Texas A&M is a young team, so there are plenty of freshmen and sophomores who will be counted on to play key roles in 2014. With three offensive standouts chosen in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, there are big shoes to fill.

So as we continue our second-year star installment, there is no shortage of candidates to choose from when looking for sophomores or redshirt freshmen poised for a breakout seasons.

[+] EnlargeRicky Seals-Jones
AP Photo/Eric GayWideout Ricky Seals-Jones could have a big season for the Aggies in 2014.
Class recap: In Kevin Sumlin’s first full year of recruiting in Aggieland, Texas A&M turned in the nation’s eighth-ranked 2013 class. It was a group that was heavy on numbers (32 players signed) and the class has had a mix of contributors and attrition. Several players are expected to play prominent roles this season, such as linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni, receivers LaQuvionte Gonzalez and Ricky Seals-Jones, defensive end Daeshon Hall and possibly quarterback Kenny Hill and transfer linebacker A.J. Hilliard. On the flip side, some potential stars from the class were recently dismissed from the team (linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden) and four others have either transferred or are no longer with the program.

Second-year star: WR Ricky Seals-Jones (6-foot-5, 225 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Seals-Jones was the highest-ranked prospect the Aggies signed in the 2013 class. A four-star prospect, Seals-Jones was the nation’s No. 8 receiver, the sixth overall prospect in the state of Texas and the No. 61 player in the ESPN 300. He played myriad positions at Sealy (Texas) High, including quarterback, receiver, safety and return specialist. A former Texas commitment, the Aggies eventually won his signature over SEC foe LSU, which pursued Seals-Jones throughout the fall of 2012. Landing his verbal commitment in December 2012 was a significant coup for Texas A&M recruiting at that point, given Seals-Jones’ profile.

2013 in review: A knee injury suffered on his first college touchdown led to a premature ending to Seals-Jones’ 2013 season. He caught three passes for 84 yards, one of which was a 71-yard touchdown, in the season-opening win over Rice. He tried to give it a go two weeks later against Alabama, but had limited playing time and soon thereafter opted for season-ending surgery on his knee. The Aggies applied for a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility so he can be classified as a redshirt freshman this fall.

2014 potential: Barring injuries, Seals-Jones has star potential. It was clear to see last August what kind of ability he brings. After a season of rehabilitation and a good spring, he looks poised to start and play a major role in the Aggies offense. With three starting receivers from 2013 pursuing pro careers now, there will be plenty of catches to go around (Malcome Kennedy is the only returning starting receiver for Texas A&M). Seals-Jones is big, fast and is versatile enough to line up at inside receiver or outside receiver.

Also watch for: If Hill wins the competition for the starting job over freshman Kyle Allen, it stands to reason that Hill, a sophomore, will be poised for a breakout season in the Aggies’ up-tempo offense. Mastrogiovanni will step in as the starter at middle linebacker and coaches raved about him during the spring. Sumlin pointed out the kind of leader Mastrogiovanni is becoming and the Aggies’ defense sorely needs it. Keep an eye on defensive ends Hall and Jay Arnold. Both played as freshmen and received increased playing time late last season. Both sat out spring recovering from offseason surgeries, but should be good to go for the fall. Defensive tackle Hardreck Walker, a sophomore, is likely to have a prominent role on the defensive interior now that projected starter Golden is no longer around. Cornerback Noel Ellis received valuable experience late last season and will compete for a spot on the field, likely at nickel cornerback. And watch for another young receiver, Gonzalez, who is very quick and a good fit for the Aggies’ offense. He is likely to get more touches this fall.

A&M finds success in Louisiana

November, 19, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When it comes to the presence schools have in their respective home states, few are stronger than LSU in the state of Louisiana.

The Tigers' success, conference affiliation and game day atmosphere are just a few of the unique advantages for natives of the Pelican State.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesTexas A&M freshman Darian Claiborne (48) took over the middle linebacker job before the fourth game of the season.
Port Allen (Louisiana) High School head coach Guy Blanchard vividly remembers the emotions of one of his players, Darian Claiborne, when LSU took a tough loss early in 2012.

"When Darian was in January of his junior year (of high school) and LSU lost the national championship game to Alabama, you would have thought his best friend died the next day at school," Blanchard said. "He was a big LSU fan. You can't grow up in Southeast Louisiana and not have some kind of attachment or an eye on the prize, however you want to say it, [to LSU]."

Claiborne, a true freshman, is now the starting middle linebacker for No. 12 Texas A&M, which heads to Death Valley on Saturday to play No. 22 LSU. But Port Allen is fewer than seven miles from the LSU campus, so it's understandable how he could have envisioned a future with the Bayou Bengals.

But Texas A&M’s staff developed a strong relationship with Claiborne, a three-star prospect. Furthermore, the Aggies made a strong impression and made it clear they wanted him while LSU didn’t officially extend an offer. The Aggies’ diligence paid off because Claiborne has played a key part on the A&M defense.

In recent years, Texas A&M has had success recruiting the state of Louisiana. Texas is and will continue to be the home base for Texas A&M recruiting for good reason -- it's fertile recruiting ground that most colleges attempt to pick from, because of the vast number of players and caliber of talent the state produces. But Louisiana is also known for producing high-caliber recruits as well and head coach Kevin Sumlin has made sure to make "The Boot" part of his recruiting footprint.

Currently, the Aggies have nine players that are from Louisiana on the roster and all of them are on the Aggies' two deep. Some of them have been recruited by the current staff, others are holdovers from the previous staff, but all of them currently contribute on the field.

All nine are defensive players and five of them are regular starters: Claiborne, defensive back Deshazor Everett, defensive ends Julien Obioha, safety Floyd Raven and defensive end Gavin Stansbury. The others have played key roles: true freshman cornerback Noel Ellis has seen significant time in recent weeks and is the Aggies' future at the nickel cornerback position. Cornerback Tramain Jacobs started six games this season while the Aggies' dealt with injuries in the secondary and has been a reliable rotation player among the cornerbacks. True freshman linebacker Shaan Washington has found his way onto the field in a special teams capacity but also saw time at linebacker early in the year and defensive tackle Ivan Robinson has been a part of the rotation at his position when healthy.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett, another Louisiana native, was recruited my Mike Sherman's staff but has been the Aggies' most reliable defensive back.
There's no doubt the Aggies have received bang for their buck with the "Louisianimals," the term former Texas A&M center Patrick Lewis coined for his fellow Louisiana products last season. Claiborne and Everett have been arguably the Aggies' best defensive players this season. Everett has done whatever the Texas A&M coaches have asked, whether it's playing safety while Raven was injured or going back to his traditional position of cornerback, while playing with a broken thumb early in the year. Claiborne got the starting job at middle linebacker -- which is not his traditional position -- before the fourth game of the season and hasn't let go of it.

Stansbury has emerged as a playmaker while Obioha and Raven have each been a steady presence at their respective positions.

Even when he was at Houston, where the Cougars put their primary focus on their own city, Sumlin's staff would travel across the border to recruit talent out of Louisiana. But in the SEC it's a different story, because the caliber of player Texas A&M is searching for is often the same that LSU is trying to keep in state.

With the Tigers being the signature program in Louisiana, it makes it all the more difficult to pull a kid out of the state when LSU wants him.

The Aggies are experiencing that in their early SEC years. In this recruiting cycle, the Aggies are going after some of Louisiana's finest, like ESPN 300 athlete Speedy Noil and ESPN 300 defensive end Gerald Willis III. The Aggies are also trying to make inroads with the top 2015 prospects from the state, like receiver Tyron Johnson.

All have LSU offers and the battle for Noil and Willis III has been hotly contested and will be until signing day approaches.

But the Aggies have found success in recruiting prospects from the state that might have been overlooked or not as heavily pursued. If those players continue to play like Claiborne, the in-state powerhouse will start taking notice.

"Yeah, we've run across them at times," said LSU coach Les Miles of seeing A&M recruiting in Louisiana. "We recognize some of the [players] that they have there, and we wish them the very best. It's an opportunity to play in this league, and we're for that."

SEC Friday mailbag: Week 10

November, 1, 2013
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A light load with this week's mailbag and it's Texas A&M-specific. Thanks to those that did send in questions.

Oliver Howard (@ManfreAg95): Why is Mike Evans not top 5 Heisman consideration?

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipMike Evans has been dominant at times this season, but receivers rarely garner Heisman buzz.
Sam Khan Jr.: Mainly because it appears the public sentiment traditionally falls toward a quarterback or running back. The last time a non-quarterback or non-running back won the trophy was in 1997, when Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson took home the hardware. Historically, the players who touch the ball most frequently, which are quarterbacks and running backs, seem to be the ones getting most of the votes. Whether that's right or just is up for debate; personally, I don't like it. But I don't have a Heisman vote.

To your point, I agree that Evans has been one of the nation's best players, regardless of position. Alabama, the No. 1 team in the country, had to try three different defenders to cover him, and he still finished that day with 279 receiving yards, including a 95-yard touchdown catch-and-run. Against a ranked Auburn team, Evans put up 289 yards and four touchdowns and again was unstoppable. When the stage is big and the lights bright, Evans has delivered for Texas A&M.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin even went out of his way to mention that he feels the sophomore receiver deserves to be in the Heisman discussion. "I'm also puzzled, why people aren't talking about Mike Evans in the Heisman race, to be honest with you," Sumlin said. "I think he's as good a player as there is in the country." He's second in the country in receiving yards (1,101), third in receiving touchdowns (11) and leads the SEC in both categories. Hat tip to SEC blogger Edward Aschoff, who argued back in September after the Alabama game that Evans should be in the discussion.


Delvin Bennett (@DelvinJokes): Where do you think Mike Evans will be next year?

Sam Khan Jr: He hasn't said whether he's considering making the jump to the NFL after this season (because he's a redshirt sophomore, he's eligible to declare for early entry into the NFL draft), but I won't be surprised if he does. If he gets talked about as a potential first-round pick (and considering his size, speed and pure ability, I don't see why he wouldn't be), I think he'll seriously consider making the jump. What will be worth watching is whether Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel's decision affects what Evans chooses to do. I doubt that it will, but you never know.


Josh Lee (@JoshLee_ar): How much do young players actually improve between 19 and 21? Re: A&M defense.

Sam Khan Jr.: It all depends on the individual, because different guys have different work ethic, mental toughness, physical ability, etc. Basically, will the Texas A&M defense -- which has been porous almost all season, save a couple games -- be better in a few years as the 11 freshmen currently on the two-deep grow into juniors and seniors? I think so.

Some might progress faster than others but I think when you see a guy like true freshman middle linebacker Darian Claiborne, who has been starting since the fourth game, or defensive end Daeshon Hall, who is getting more playing time as of late, or cornerback Noel Ellis, who played a lot against Vanderbilt, those guys look like potential stars once they mature as players.

Plus, Texas A&M continues to recruit heavily on the defensive side of the ball, and the Aggies are landing elite talent: Of their last four verbal commitments, which all came in October, three were on the defensive line and were in the ESPN 300 of their respective classes. If this group can grow together and the scheme and coaching staff stays intact, I think they could be significantly improved in a couple years.


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Just like it has been all season, the attention going into Saturday was on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Was he going to play, or would he sit? How was his shoulder? As he often has this year, Johnny provided a lot of drama.

But the real story from the Aggies' 56-24 win over Vanderbilt at Kyle Field was the performance of the A&M defense. A unit that came into the game ranked 118th in total defense, and was in the bottom 20 nationally in most major defensive statistical categories, put together what was easily one of its best performances of the season.

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

After taking a gut punch from Auburn last week to the tune of 45 points and 615 yards (379 rushing), any positive sign is acceptable at this point.

"We need an example to show us how we should play, and now we have an example," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "We can always go back to the Vandy tape. This type of production we expect from the defense, and this is the standard that we expect from our defense. So, it was good to have a game like this."

There was an energy there that didn't seem to exist consistently in recent weeks for the Aggies' D. Howard Matthews (14 tackles, one interception return for a touchdown) played probably his best game of the season. The pass rush was relentless, led by Gavin Stansbury's two sacks, and the 12 tackles for loss. The unit matched its season total for sacks with seven against the Commodores and held an opponent to under 100 yards rushing for just the second time this season. It finally looked like the unit defensive coordinator Mark Snyder envisioned he'd have coming into the season.

"I dialed it up," Snyder said of what generated the consistent pass rush. "We pressured a lot more than we have pressured because we finally could. We felt like we finally got to the point where all the pieces were in place. We had practiced together, and I felt comfortable calling some pressures because everybody knew where they were supposed to be."

Much of that came from a few noteworthy personnel moves. True freshman cornerback Noel Ellis got plenty of time in place of Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel cornerback. Junior linebacker Donnie Baggs, who hasn't started since Sept. 14 against Alabama, got the starting nod at strongside linebacker. True freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall didn't start but saw heavy playing time rotating with starting ends Stansbury and Obioha. Starting defensive tackle Alonzo Williams missed the game with a foot injury, and junior Ivan Robinson replaced him.

The Commodores' best weapon -- receiver Jordan Matthews -- had a solid day (eight catches, 92 yards), but his longest reception was 21 yards. The biggest play came from Jonathan Krause on a 44-yard reception in the first half. Matthews, to his credit, became the SEC's career receiving yards leader with 3,172.

If the Aggies can build on this performance, the outlook for the rest of the season is bright.

Although the defense showed well, most eyes were on Manziel in the early going. For a guy with an injured throwing shoulder, it sure didn't seem to affect him. He completed his first 10 passes and led the Aggies to four consecutive touchdown drives to start the game.

Coach Kevin Sumlin was tight-lipped about Manziel's status all week leading up to the game, calling the Heisman Trophy winner "hopeful." He never budged from that statement but said Saturday that he wasn't playing coy and that Manziel was truly a game-time decision as he tried to recover from the shoulder injury he suffered last week.

Manziel began throwing Wednesday and participated in 11-on-11 drills Friday and even woke up Saturday with soreness. But he said there was no keeping him off the field.

"In my mind, I was always going to play," Manziel said. "It would take a lot to keep me off the field and away from these guys. They count on me, and they expect me to be there."

He completed 25 of 35 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. He ran much less than he usually does because it wasn't in the game plan, mostly to protect him from further injury.

Although Manziel was able to make every throw necessary to put the Aggies' offense in the right position, he got plenty of support from the running game as the Aggies combined for 189 yards, led by Trey Williams' 65 and Brandon Williams' 61.

It was far from a clean win. The Aggies committed five turnovers and allowed the game to get closer than it had to in the first half. But it's something they can build off of as they approach the homestretch.

"It's been a little frustrating as of late with some games a little closer than we wanted," Manziel said. "We felt we've played pretty good all around, but we just need to continue to get better. That's the thing. We're not where we were last year in every aspect of our game, but we have a coaching staff that won't quit until we're where we need to be."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Silence isn't a word typically synonymous with a stadium hosting more than 86,000 rabid fans, particularly at Kyle Field, where Texas A&M is known to hold a tremendous home-field advantage.

But silence is a key word in describing some of the growing pains the Aggies had to go through in their season-opening win against Rice on Saturday, as they played 16 true freshmen, 11 of which were defensive players.

A&M coach Kevin Sumlin illustrated that point thusly:

"We had a couple situations where a couple guys actually froze up out there and wouldn't even open their mouths and couldn't get lined up," Sumlin said after Saturday's 52-31 victory. "The D-line said they couldn't hear and then one of them admitted to me "Coach, I just didn't say anything. I was just standing there.'"

Not exactly what a coach is looking to hear from defensive players, particularly when facing a no-huddle offense. Communication, especially in those situations, is key for a defense.

[+] EnlargeRicky Seals-Jones
AP Photo/Eric GayFreshman wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones made an impact in his college debut, hauling in a 71-yard touchdown pass.
But that was the position the Aggies were put in, missing eight players to start the game, six on defense -- including five defensive players who were listed as starters on the week's depth chart -- because of suspensions. There were true freshmen playing in every defensive position group, plus some at receiver. That doesn't include a handful of redshirt freshmen and junior college players who were making their debuts as well.

The Aggies coaches did what they could to prepare their newcomers, but some lessons are only learned the hard way.

"It's like anything else," Sumlin said. "As a coach, you try to prepare guys for all situations, but until the live bullets are flying, you don't know. It'll get better as it goes on, but I think the experience that we gained from today will help us down the road, a bunch. Particularly [in the front seven] because that's where most of the guys are gone."

The struggles were clear. As the defense tried to find its footing, Rice showed the ability to move the ball with ease. The Owls finished the game with 509 total offensive yards, including 306 rushing. The last time they gave up that many offensive yards was in their marathon battle against Louisiana Tech last October (615) and they haven't allowed that many rushing yards since a 66-28 drubbing at the hands of Oklahoma on Nov. 8, 2008.

True freshman played on the defensive line (Jay Arnold, Isaiah Golden, Daeshon Hall and Hardreck Walker), at linebacker (Darian Claiborne, Jordan Mastrogiovanni, Shaan Washington) and defensive back (Noel Ellis, Tavares Garner, Alex Sezer Jr. and Jonathan Wiggins).

"There's no way to duplicate the tempo and the emotion [of a game]," Sumlin said on Tuesday. "You know what you're doing, but the pressure to perform in that environment can be very, very difficult on a young guy, and that's what experience is all about."

Offensively, the Aggies were much better off. Even though Matt Joeckel made his first career start at quarterback, he's a junior who has spent more than a year practicing in the offense and he had at least seen some game time. Center Mike Matthews, who received high praise from Sumlin on Tuesday, also played in games and traveled with the team last season.

The true freshmen who saw the field for the first time on offense were all receivers: Ricky Seals-Jones, Jeremy Tabuyo, LaQuvionte Gonzalez and Ja'Quay Williams. But because there were more experienced players surrounding them on Saturday, not to mention Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel entered the game in the third quarter, the transition was smoother for the Aggies' offense.

In total, 21 newcomers saw the field for Texas A&M on Saturday, many in significant roles. Plenty will log significant time this Saturday against Sam Houston State, as four players received two-game suspensions and won't be back until Sept. 14 against Alabama. With a signing class of 31 players in February, there was no question the Aggies were going to need some of the newcomers to contribute. By being forced to play so many in the first game, Sumlin feels like it could be a positive later in the season.

"[It's] a real, real learning experience," Sumlin said. "I think for those guys, that's going to pay dividends for us down the road."

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