SEC: Steven Jenkins

A&M LB Jenkins managing ups, downs

November, 15, 2013
11/15/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The linebacker position has been one of change for Texas A&M this season. With some early season struggles, an injection of youth and some growth needed, it has been an area where defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and linebackers coach Mark Hagen have tinkered to find the right combination of players. The group as a whole has had its fair share of ups and downs this season.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jenkins
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesSince returning from suspension, Steven Jenkins has been a key part of Texas A&M's defense, both on and off the field.
The same could be said for the elder statesman of the group, senior Steven Jenkins. Though Snyder feels like lately, that Jenkins, the most veteran presence in the group, is trending up.

"Up and down," Snyder said when asked to assess Jenkins' season. "I think he's coming on a little bit [lately]."

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Jenkins has started the last eight games for the Aggies (he missed the first two, the result of a suspension for violations of Texas A&M athletic department rules and regulations) and is second on the team in tackles with 69, while also tied for second in tackles for loss (five). He has been productive, though not necessarily always consistent. When he's at his best, he might be the best defensive player the Aggies have.

Jenkins has kept a positive outlook and consistent approach throughout this season.

"You have to keep trying to get better every week," Jenkins said. "Everyone has their highs and lows, a good day and a bad day. You just have to keep a positive attitude moving forward and try to get better each week."

Knowing there were a lot of young players and newcomers among the A&M linebackers, Jenkins wanted to step into more of a leadership role. Teammates have noticed his effort in that area.

"He wasn’t a very vocal guy at the beginning of the year, but he’s really opened up and he’s been a great leader for us in the linebacker unit," senior linebacker Nate Askew said. "On the backend, everybody talks and everybody communicates, and that’s the most important thing. We need to communicate."

Snyder said he has noticed Jenkins getting tired toward the ends of games recently and he might start working in true freshman Jordan Mastrogiovanni into the lineup more at middle linebacker while sliding starting middle linebacker Darian Claiborne back to his natural position of weakside linebacker, which is usually manned by Jenkins. That would enable Jenkins to get a breather and be fresher for the fourth quarter of games.

Now in his third year in Aggieland after transferring from Coffeyville Community College, Jenkins is continuing to work and trying to improve. He’s also making an impact. Jenkins had an interception return for a touchdown in Texas A&M's thrilling win at Ole Miss in 2012 and has had a plethora of big-time hits or tackles for loss accumulated over the last two seasons.

When it comes to his setback that kept him on the sideline to start the season, Jenkins said he "definitely took some life lessons and learned from it." If the Aggies are going to finish the way they hope to, winning their final two games later this month at LSU and at Missouri, Jenkins and the linebackers probably have to play a key role in that.

The senior simply wants to push forward, play well and have fun while doing so.

"I'm just trying to lead by example for the younger guys, trying to bring energy to the field so we can have some Aggie swag," Jenkins said with a smile. "Just have fun on the field. We do make mistakes but move on from it. ... Just have fun and go out there and try to win."

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Before walking through the tunnel behind the south end zone after pregame warm-ups on Saturday, Johnny Manziel stopped near the goal post where his parents, Paul and Michelle, stood waiting for him.

The last player in maroon and white to walk off the field, it seemed as if the Texas A&M quarterback was savoring every moment of the last Aggies game at Kyle Field this season. Before following his teammates into the tunnel, Manziel gave his mother and father each a warm embrace, and they reciprocated. With arms wrapped around each other tight, the emotion on their faces seemed telling.

If it wasn't Johnny Manziel's last game, period, at Kyle Field, it certainly had that feeling.

The rest was vintage Johnny Football. If you tried to sum up his short college career in four quarters, Saturday's 51-41 win over Mississippi State would serve as a pretty accurate microcosm. A spin move here, a juke there. Touchdown passes in bunches, oohs and ahhs from the crowd when he scrambled for yardage or to extend passing plays and, yes, a few interceptions mixed in for good measure, because Manziel is nothing if not a risk-taker.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJohnny Manziel wouldn't say whether this was his last home game, but he savored it nonetheless.
Heisman Trophy winner. Riverboat gambler. Highlight reel waiting to happen. Relentless and unapologetic. It all accurately describes Manziel, who is right in the middle of this year's Heisman race as he pursues a second consecutive trophy.

The numbers were good: 30-of-39 passing, 446 yards, five touchdowns, plus 47 rushing yards. There were those three interceptions that he'd like to have back, too, but in the end, he played well enough for his team to win. Was this it for Manziel in Aggieland? He's not ready to say.

"Not one bit," Manziel said, when asked if he has thought about or made a decision about his football future. "I'm focused on still trying to get us into a BCS berth and the best bowl that we can possibly get to. That's my only focus right now."

Whether or not this was his last game in front of the home crowd, Manziel made sure to enjoy the moment to the fullest. With less than two minutes to go and the Aggies trying to take a knee to secure a win, he waved his arms emphatically toward the crowd, hyping up the fans, ordering them to get loud. After returning to the sideline with less than a minute to go, his face showed up on the JumboTron and he smiled and saluted. The fans went nuts and began chanting in unison, "One more year! One more year!"

After the game was over, as the Aggie War Hymn played, Manziel ran into the stands to enjoy the moment with the fans and saw varsity's horns off with the people who have adored him throughout his nearly two-season stint, one in which he has captivated the college football world. He smiled from ear to ear almost every second, soaking it all in.

"It was just kind of spur of the moment," Manziel said. "The way that the crowd acted that last 1:30, for me and Mike [Evans], with the chant and with the energy that they brought when the game was kind of slowing down, it kind of kept us focused. It was just a great way to end this year, celebrating with them."

If the Aggies can get to a BCS bowl, or at least win out with victories at LSU and Missouri to close out November, Manziel's chances of repeating as the Heisman winner are real. Oregon's loss to Stanford on Thursday significantly hindered Marcus Mariota's chances, and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, whose team beat Wake Forest 59-3 on Saturday, stands as Manziel's primary competition.

But Manziel will have to limit the mistakes he made on Saturday in those final games against LSU and Missouri, both of which are stronger opponents than the Mississippi State squad the Aggies played Saturday. The Bulldogs harassed Manziel quite a bit, sacking him three times and making him do a lot of work outside the pocket. Manziel admitted he got greedy at times, particularly on his final interception, when he tried to force a pass to Evans that was picked off by Mississippi State safety Nickoe Whitley.

"Greed is a terrible thing," Manziel said. "I really wanted to hit that touchdown to Mike. I tried to look off that safety, and still going to him anyway, as a football player and as a quarterback watching film, I know better than that."

But it was about more than just Manziel. It was a historic moment of sorts, because it's the last time Kyle Field will exist in its current state. Major work soon will begin as part of a $450 million renovation project to be completed in 2015 to turn the stadium into a pristine, 102,500-seat monstrosity. It was senior day, the last time guys such as left tackle Jake Matthews, running back Ben Malena, linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. would play in College Station. The 13 seniors there on Saturday have been part of a 35-14 overall record and the Aggies' quick and surprising rise upon entry into the SEC.

And it also could be the last home game for Evans, arguably college football's best pass catcher this year, who also is a draft-eligible sophomore after this season. He'll have a decision to make, just like Manziel.

There still are two games left for the Aggies and a lot out in front of them, but there certainly was plenty of emotion in the air on Saturday night in Aggieland.

"We know who the seniors are, and we know who the guys are that could potentially leave," junior receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "We want to play hard every game, but there was something inside of us that urged us to play harder, because we know this team won't be the same next year. Every year, regardless, there will be change, but there will be some drastic changes next year, and I just wish those guys the best."

Why A&M has so much youth on defense

October, 25, 2013
10/25/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The words "youth" and "inexperience" are frequently used to describe the Texas A&M defense this season.

The struggles are significant. The Aggies rank near the bottom of the FBS in most defensive statistical categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the five teams that have allowed more yards per game than the Aggies -- New Mexico State, Idaho, California, Nevada and Indiana -- have a combined record of 8-27.

Texas A&M is fortunate enough to have a 5-2 record (2-2 in the SEC). It certainly helps to have one of the nation's most high-powered offenses and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Johnny Manziel).

For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff, it has been a challenge from the start of the season. Suspensions, injuries and ineffectiveness are all to blame.

The Aggies currently have 11 freshmen in their defensive two-deep depth chart. Two true freshmen (defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne) are starting. The four defensive line first-team spots include Golden and two sophomores. At linebacker, a former receiver who moved to linebacker this offseason (Nate Askew) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Of the seven linebackers on the Aggies' two-deep, only one (Steven Jenkins) started a full season at the position before this year.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin's first signing class that was completely under his watch had 32 members, 18 of whom were on defense. Of those 18, a dozen have already played this season.

But how did the Aggies get to this point, playing this many freshmen and newcomers? There are some juniors and seniors on the field, but there aren't nearly as many as there were a year ago when the Aggies went 11-2 in their debut season in the SEC.

In 2012, the Aggies were fortunate to have the benefit of some good leaders on defense and others who were productive. At linebacker, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart both provided leadership and production. Along the defensive line, Spencer Nealy made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle effectively despite not having the ideal size for the position. Steven Terrell was a steady and heady player at free safety. All four of those players were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. So was Dustin Harris, who didn't always start but played plenty at cornerback and was the team's primary punt returner.

One defensive player still remains from that 2009 class: defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who started last season and this year but suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 28 against Arkansas. But last year's A&M starting defense was more than half made up of what turned out to be a solid recruiting class on the defensive side of the ball.

So to understand why A&M is in the position it is now, take a look at the recruiting classes on defense since then:
  • In 2010, the Aggies signed seven defensive players and two more that were offensive players but eventually moved to defense. Defensive end Damontre Moore turned out to be a star, but declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. For a team that's lacking in its pass rush (only three FBS teams have fewer sacks than Texas A&M's seven this season) a guy like that could help. Of the remainders in that class, three are starting: Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel back, Gavin Stansbury at defensive end and Askew, who was recruited and spent his first three years at receiver, at strongside linebacker. Two others (defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and quarterback Clay Honeycutt, who's now a reserve safety) are playing but not starting. Nehemiah Hicks was considered to be either a defensive end or tight end and became a tight end. The other two players in the defensive class are no longer on the team.
  • The 2011 class -- the final class signed by former head coach Mike Sherman -- brought 13 defensive players. Deshazor Everett, a cornerback with ability to play safety, is currently the defense's best player. Safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven and linebacker Steven Jenkins also emerged as starters out of that group. One of the big fish landed late in that class, defensive end Brandon Alexander, has rarely played. He's now getting some playing time at tight end. Linebacker Donnie Baggs entered this season as the starting middle linebacker but is now a reserve. Tyrell Taylor is rotating at defensive end. The rest of the group hasn't made any impact at all. Five players in that group are no longer with the program.
  • The 2012 class, the first one Sumlin signed after essentially two months on the job, had some holdovers that committed to the program under Sherman. It is a mixed bag. Four of those players are starting as either true sophomores (Julien Obioha at defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle and De'Vante Harris at cornerback) or in one case, a senior (cornerback Tramain Jacobs, who was a junior college transfer). Defensive end Tyrone Taylor, brother of Tyrell, gets some playing time at defensive end. Edward Pope, who was a receiver/defensive back, is playing receiver for the Aggies. A car accident took away one member from that class -- defensive tackle Polo Manukainiu, who died in a crash in July and is being honored by the team every week this season. A spinal injury took away another member, linebacker Michael Richardson, who played as a freshman. He had successful surgery and was fortunate to not suffer any major physical issues, but is no longer playing football. Defensive back Kenneth Marshall, though on the team, was not part of the 105-man roster during preseason training camp. Linebacker Jordan Richmond transferred to Navarro College in the offseason and one player in the class, defensive tackle Edmund Ray, never made it to campus because of qualifying issues.
Deshazor Everett Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesTexas A&M's willingness to use starters such as safety Deshazor Everett (right) on special teams has allowed the Aggies to have one of the best units in the SEC.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Alabama receiver and return specialist Christion Jones carried the ball out of the end zone on the Crimson Tide's first kickoff return against Texas A&M on Sept. 14, he was quickly faced with a host of defenders.

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.

Improvement needed from A&M defense

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Coming into the season, there were plenty of questions about Texas A&M's defense.

It didn't seem much different from the circumstances a year ago. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder even said, on the first day of preseason training camp, that the challenges were "exactly the same."

By the end of 2012 the results were positive, with the Aggies performing much better on defense than many expected. If they're to do the same in 2013, they still have a long way to go. The Aggies statistically are among the worst defenses in the nation after a 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at Kyle Field.

"We're going to learn a lot of lessons come Monday when we watch this film," Snyder said. "Lots of lessons."

They had better, because on Saturday, once Alabama got its footing, it seemed able to do whatever it pleased. The Crimson Tide finished with 568 offensive yards -- 334 passing and 234 rushing. After forcing a punt on Alabama's first drive of the game, the Aggies allowed four consecutive touchdown drives, all of which covered 75 yards or more. In the second half, the Tide had three drives of 65 yards or longer, two that turned into touchdowns and another where the Aggies forced a turnover near the goal line.

[+] EnlargeMark Snyder
Sam Khan/ESPN.comMark Snyder's Texas A&M defense yielded 568 yards to Alabama on Saturday and gave up too many big plays.
One thing that stuck out to Snyder was how many big plays the Tide hit on. More than half of Alabama's yards (280) came on plays that gained 15 yards or more. Alabama had 11 such plays in the game.

"We knew it was going to be a day of big plays," Snyder said. "And I'm sure when I go back and look at the film, if you count up the number of big plays and subtract that yardage, you have a pretty good day. That's something we're going to have to learn from."

The Aggies generated virtually no pressure against Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. He was never sacked and the Aggies only recorded one quarterback hurry as a team, by defensive tackle Kirby Ennis. Pressure was one of the Aggies' strong suits last year behind the efforts of defensive end Damontre Moore, who now plays for the New York Giants.

"You can't let a great quarterback like AJ McCarron not even get hit or pressured at all," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "They ran a lot of play action, which doesn't help the defensive line get any pressure, but we've got to come up with a way to get pressure on the quarterback. He can't sit there all day. He's too good."

Senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. detailed the struggles of the secondary, which allowed a 44-yard touchdown pass on a fleaflicker and a 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the first half to Kenny Bell.

"First and foremost, hat's off to AJ McCarron and their offensive coordinator [Doug Nussmeier]," Hurd said. "They dialed up some great plays. In the back end, I feel like sometimes we had bad eyes. Sometimes we just didn't trust our keys and techniques and they got us on a few big plays. But I'm sure on Monday we'll get back to work and get those things figured out."

Defending the run wasn't much better for the Aggies and that's been a consistent problem through three games. A&M yielded 6.3 yards per rush attempt on Saturday and it marked the third consecutive game that the Aggies have allowed at least 200 rushing yards.

In their first two games, the Aggies were missing starters at defensive end (Gavin Stansbury), linebacker (Steven Jenkins) and cornerback (De'Vante Harris) because of suspensions. All three returned to the lineup against Alabama, but it didn't stem A&M's struggles.

"Give Alabama credit," Snyder said. "They did a nice job; they had some nice wrinkles. It's hard if you haven't been playing and you haven't seen them to kind of adjust to them. But that's no excuse. We have our guys back and we just have to play better, period."

As it stands currently, the Aggies rank 112th nationally in total defense (489 yards allowed per game), 111th in yards allowed per play (6.92), 115th in run defense (260 yards per game) and 81st on allowing third-down conversions (44 percent).

It's worth noting that the Aggies have a lot of youth and inexperience on the field after graduating key players and suffering a key injury (safety Floyd Raven). True freshman linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni made his first start Saturday; junior safety Clay Honeycutt was making only his second career start. There are 11 true freshmen on A&M's defensive two-deep roster. Growing pains are a part of the deal.

But they'll have to grow up quickly. A&M players and coaches spoke on Saturday of their lofty goals still being intact despite one loss. But the defense must improve significantly for them to have a chance at fulfilling those goals.

Snyder believes his unit has that opportunity.

"I told the kids, 'I know what it looks like and we've got a chance to be good,' " Snyder said. "I thought last year as the season went on, we learned [how to minimize big plays]. Our big-play numbers came down and we started playing better defense. So for us today, it was a matter of big plays on our side of the ball and allowed them to get into a groove running the ball once they got the lead."

Manziel, Aggies good but flawed

September, 14, 2013
9/14/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — There was no plan for Johnny Manziel to speak to the media on Saturday.

In fact, win or lose, Texas A&M officials made it clear before the game that the Heisman Trophy winner would not be available for postgame interviews. Earlier this week, coach Kevin Sumlin noted that Manziel's family and attorneys advised him not to speak publicly this week.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel produced more than 500 yards but admitted there were a couple of throws he wished he could take back.
But Manziel wasn't going to be told no. He approached Sumlin and Texas A&M associate athletic director for media relations Alan Cannon and said he was going to speak. When Cannon mentioned the objections from Manziel's parents and lawyers, Manziel said, according to Cannon, "My team didn't quit on me, so I'm not quitting on them."

The No. 6 Aggies showed no quit in their 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at Kyle Field in one of the most highly anticipated games in school history. What they did show is that they're a good team with a lot of flaws that still need ironing out.

The message from Manziel, who played brilliantly for much of the day but had a couple of throws he'd like to have back, was that the Aggies had to keep playing -- both on Saturday and moving forward.

"My initial reaction is that I'm just proud of these guys," said Manziel, who threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns and ran for 98 yards. "I kept telling them that no matter what point in the game it was, we were never out of it. Didn't matter what [Alabama] did. I told the offense that going into it, that no matter what happened on the defensive side of the ball, no matter what happened on special teams, we felt like we could come out and score points. So I was proud initially more than anything else, proud of the way they kept fighting until the very end. I mean, we're a young team. That's impressive to me."

The Aggies (2-1) were down by as many as 21 points in the third quarter after taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Alabama roared back with 35 unanswered points and used its power running game and efficient passing attack behind AJ McCarron to eat up yardage and extend drives to score points while keeping the Aggies' offense on the sideline.

The biggest flaw seen on Saturday was on defense. The Aggies' front seven was hammered by the Alabama offensive line -- a unit that struggled in its season opener against Virginia Tech -- to the tune of 234 rushing yards and 6.3 yards per carry, led by T.J. Yeldon's 149-yard effort. McCarron was rarely pressured in the passing game and wasn't sacked a single time; only one player on the Aggies defense, Kirby Ennis, recorded a quarterback hurry. There were big plays given up in the passing game as well, as the Tide threw for 334 yards.

"We've got to get some things shored up in our front defensively," Sumlin said. "We're playing a lot of young guys in there. [Gavin] Stansbury was back and [Steven] Jenkins was back [from suspensions], so they were a little rusty. We didn't have Isaiah Golden today because of the tragedy [involving the death of a family member] earlier this week. That put a lot of pressure on Hardreck [Walker] to handle that type of stuff with Kirby. We just have to get those guys in a routine, a steady routine and a rotation and shore some things up up front."

Mike Evans, who already was considered one of the country's better receivers, made his case to be considered among the best after catching seven passes for a school-record 279 yards and a touchdown. He beat man-to-man coverage consistently, ran good routes and was an asset for Manziel when scrambling.

"I couldn't be prouder of him," Manziel said. "Last night in the hotel, me and him, we're roommates, and we were just talking about how the game was going to play out. I knew he was going to come out and play really well."

Manziel wasn't perfect. A fade pass to Ja'Quay Williams in the end zone was intercepted by Cyrus Jones in the second quarter ("We probably could have run a better route," Sumlin said). He tried to squeeze a pass in to Travis Labhart early in the third quarter but it was tipped by Alabama defensive back Jarrick Williams and intercepted by Vinnie Sunseri, who returned it 73 yards for a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipMike Evans set a school record with 279 receiving yards, including this 95-yard touchdown.
"I had a couple throws that I want to have back, two in particular," Manziel said. "Coach Sumlin always says there's no regrets. Leave it all out on the field. I think that's what we all did. I know I did."

But he was, like the Aggies, still very good. He set the single-game school record for passing yards and put up the second-most total offensive yards in a game (562), second only to his own total (576) against Louisiana Tech last year.

He made what many would call an ill-advised throw in the second quarter after magically evading a sack while in the grasp of Alabama defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, heaving a jump ball 40 yards downfield while falling backward. The ball wound up in the hands of a leaping Edward Pope for a first down that sent the crowd into a frenzy. The gain was only 12 yards; Manziel retreated back far to evade pressure.

At some point, it seems it might just be worth chalking it up to a little Manziel magic, since he has seemingly found an uncanny ability to make jaw-dropping plays of the sort each week. It's part of what captivated the college football world en route to his Heisman Trophy last year.

For those who said Manziel's eventful and sometimes tumultuous offseason would come back to haunt him when the games started this year, none of that seemed to be a factor. Though there were some mistakes made on the field, Manziel's play is hard to criticize, especially against the team that was No. 1 in the country last season in total defense. Manziel said afterward that it wasn't a factor.

But for all the flash, the bottom line was that Manziel and the Aggies fell short of their goal on Saturday. They were beaten by a better team.

The disappointment could be heard in the voices of the players afterward; they wanted Saturday's win badly. But with nine games to go in their season, they feel that what they want -- an SEC West title, SEC title and BCS title game berth -- is still within reach; it's just more difficult to obtain now that they're 0-1 in SEC play.

But if the Aggies are still serious about pursuing those goals, there's still much work to do.

"Just got to go game by game," Manziel said. "Just like last year, continue to get better, week by week, and the result was what happened in the Cotton Bowl. For us this wasn't the end of our season. This wasn't the Super Bowl. This wasn't the last game of the season.

"Alabama lost a game last year and still went on to win a national championship. They lost to LSU the year before and still went on to win the national championship. Our season isn't over. Anything can happen. This is college football. Some of the craziest things happen every week. So you never know. All we can do is take care of ourselves, take care of what's in this locker room and continue to get better as a team."

Age, suspensions, challenge A&M D

September, 5, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The statistics weren't pretty.

Rice compiled 509 offensive yards, 306 of which were chewed up on the ground, against Texas A&M in its season opener. The most important stat -- the score, 52-31 in favor of the Aggies -- was what mattered in the end but with a defense that was gutted by suspensions and filled with newcomers playing for the first time, it provided for some early growing pains for Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder.

Of the 16 true freshmen that saw the field in the Aggies' opener, 11 were defensive players. That doesn't include yet another newcomer, junior college transfer linebacker Tommy Sanders, meaning a dozen defensive players who appeared on Saturday were newcomers.

[+] EnlargeAlex Sezer
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M freshman corner Alex Sezer got some much-needed game experience against Rice.
"They all had goods and bads, all the guys that played," Snyder said. "You could tell, pregame, over at the hotel there was a little bit of nervousness. You can imagine being 18 and being in front of all those people."

The Aggies have FCS opponent Sam Houston State this week, but they still won't have their full arsenal of defensive players. Cornerback De'Vante Harris, linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive end Gavin Stansbury -- all three of whom are starters -- will miss the game while serving the second of a two-game suspension for violating athletic department rules. Cornerback Deshazor Everett will miss the first half because he was ejected for targeting in the second half of the Rice win and, by rule, must sit out the first half of this game as a result. Freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall will also miss the first half after being ejected in the second half for throwing a punch at Rice player.

While the Aggies are heavily favored and the losses are unlikely to keep Texas A&M from winning this week, it does pose an interesting dilemma for Snyder and his staff moving forward. The first time the full complement of defensive players will be available for the Aggies will be Sept. 14, for the showdown against Alabama.

"The good thing is we're going to be fresh, that's for sure," Snyder joked. "We're going to be injury-free and we're going to be fresh."

Snyder noted that the advantage for Alabama in that regard might not be as significant since the Crimson Tide have an open date this weekend, so they'll only have one more game under their belts than the Aggies' suspended players do come next weekend. Those players are still practicing -- with the second-team -- and getting repetitions in the meantime.

There were some short-term struggles with so many new bodies on the field, even in play-calling. Snyder said he couldn't "get in a rhythm," calling plays because of how many new pieces and moving parts there were.

"[Rice] came out and showed us some things that we had not seen and not having a veteran group, I can't call timeout and run out on the field and say 'Hey, they're getting in diamond formation and running three levels, or they're getting three out into the flat weak,'" Snyder said. "Those are things that we had to get adjusted."

Snyder was encouraged by how much better the defense performed in the second half, making adjustments and responding to the coaching given at halftime. The unit came up with two turnovers and didn't allow the Owls to score in the first three series of the third quarter. Snyder looks as the growing pains and the game experience that freshmen like linebacker Darian Claiborne, cornerback Alex Sezer and a host of others received as an advantage down the road.

"We're building depth right now for our future, for the rest of this season," Snyder said. "So what might be hurting us right now, in the future is going to help us. We've got to live with that and we've got to deal with that."


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- There are several reasons Texas A&M was so highly thought of and had lofty expectations coming into the 2013 season.

The No. 7 Aggies, who were ranked in the top 10 of both preseason polls (they were No. 6 in the coaches' poll), returned a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, a plethora of running backs and an All-America caliber tackle, and play a style of offense that many SEC teams -- defending champion Alabama included -- find hard to defend.

And while there were several positives to take away from Texas A&M's season-opening 52-31 win over Rice on Saturday at Kyle Field, the win also illustrated that the Aggies still have a long way to go in several areas if they plan on fulfilling championship expectations.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Eric GayThe good news is Johnny Manziel looked like his Heisman Trophy winning self once he got in the game. The bad news is the Aggies look like they still have lots of work to do if they want to win titles.
One of those areas is maturity. Head coach Kevin Sumlin discussed that after the game, and while he was specifically addressing it in relation to the ejection of freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall and the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty drawn by quarterback Johnny Manziel after a touchdown pass, Sumlin's words can apply across the board.

The Aggies had eight players miss at least the first half of Saturday's game. Four were suspended for "violating Texas A&M athletics department rules and regulations." Three were suspended after offseason arrests and Manziel was suspended for the first half after "inadvertent violations" that occurred as a result of signing autographs after the conclusion of an NCAA investigation.

That was also part of Manziel's message, according to Sumlin, to his teammates when he addressed them on Friday as part of the requirements of restoring his eligibility.

"Actions just like today and just like other guys on this team, those actions may be actions that you think just hurt you, but they end up hurting the whole football team," Sumlin said. "That was the real gist of [Manziel's] message to the team. That everybody's individual acts affect the team. When that happens, it's not good."

Of the suspended players, five were defensive starters (defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris, linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive end Gavin Stansbury). Another, Floyd Raven, is a key player expected to contribute this fall and was one time projected to start at free safety before Clay Honeycutt wound up first on the depth chart after a strong training camp.

As a result, the Aggies' defense was filled with true freshmen and newcomers getting significant playing time on Saturday and ended up surrendering 509 total offensive yards. Now, Rice is a good team in Conference USA that could contend for the league title, but it’s not nearly the caliber of opponent Texas A&M will see on its SEC schedule. The Owls ran for a whopping 306 yards -- six yards a carry -- and appeared able to run right at the Aggies' defense.

The Aggies struggled with missed tackles and missed assignments, which are to be expected when you have a significant number of 18- and 19-year-olds on the field.

"We played 20 guys out there that had never played before," Sumlin said. "Is that an excuse for our play? No. I think we learned from today."

The Aggies regain the services of Ennis and Raven next week, though Everett will again have to sit out a half, by rule, because he was ejected in the second half after being called for a targeting penalty. The other four suspended -- Jenkins, Harris, Stansbury and receiver Edward Pope -- won't return until Sept. 14 when the Aggies host No. 1 Alabama.

But there were plenty of positives to be seen as well, most notably in the win column. Backup quarterback Matt Joeckel showed he was capable of moving the offense, leading the Aggies to 28 first-half points while putting up more than respectable numbers (14-of-19 passing, 190 yards). Joeckel's lone touchdown pass was a 71-yard catch-and-run completion to an apparent star in the making, 6-foot-5, 240-pound true freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones.

Players who are considered to be among the team's leaders, running back Ben Malena (100 total offensive yards, two touchdowns) and Mike Evans (84 receiving yards, two touchdowns) played their roles aptly. The kicking game was consistent as Taylor Bertolet was perfect on all his kick attempts, something he struggled with last season. And as Sumlin noted, the positive to having so many young players on the field on defense means they'll have a chance to learn from their mistakes and develop. Though there were struggles, they came up with turnovers and still did enough to win.

Most importantly, the Aggies got their quarterback, Manziel, back on the field in the second half and he looked like the player who captivated the nation a season ago. He was 6-of-8 passing for 94 yards with three touchdown passes and showed his trademark scrambling ability, though Rice did a solid job of keeping him from running too wild.

This is a team that has encountered a lot this offseason. From the headlines Manziel made and the NCAA investigation, to the suspensions and most importantly, the death of a teammate -- Polo Manukainiu -- the Aggies have already dealt with their fair share of adversity.

The Aggies honored Manukainiu on Saturday by wearing decals with his number, first name and a Tongan-inspired design on their helmets and electing sophomore defensive tackle Alonzo Williams to wear Maunkainiu's No. 90. The team will elect a different defensive lineman to do so each week as a nod to Manukainiu and his family that he is "still out there with us," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said.

This team has lofty goals. Hurd mentioned Saturday the team would wear the Manukainiu decal "each and every week, leading [up] to the national championship." If they plan to get there, they have a lot of work still to do.
Texas A&M announced before Saturday's kickoff against Rice that four players will be suspended for the first two games of the season.

Senior linebacker Steven Jenkins, junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury, sophomore cornerback De'Vante Harris and redshirt freshman receiver Edward Pope are all suspended two games for "violating Texas A&M athletics department rules and regulations," according to the school.

Jenkins, Stansbury and Harris are starters and the Aggies already had three other key defensive players (defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, cornerback Deshazor Everett and junior safety Floyd Raven) suspended for some or all of Saturday's game. Ennis and Raven are missing the entire game; Everett is missing a half.

Read the full story here.
In the SEC, it's all about recruiting and player development. It's the big reason why the league has won seven straight BCS championships and produced more NFL players than any other conference. The two go hand-in-hand.

The Senior Bowl, which released its 2014 Watch List on Tuesday, further illustrated that fact, selecting nearly 20 percent (72) of its 400 candidates from the SEC. The ACC twas nearly lapped with 48 selections, followed by the Big 10 (46) and the Pac-12 (38).

And the team with the most players should come as no surprise as defending-champion Alabama had 10 make the list, including quarterback AJ McCarron and All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley. Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri tied for the second-most players taken from the SEC with six apiece.

Alabama: WR Kenny Bell, CB Deion Belue, CB John Fulton, P Cody Mandell, QB AJ McCarron, LB C.J. Mosley, WR Kevin Norwood, RG Anthony Steen, S Nick Perry.

Arkansas: WR Jevontee Herndon, DT Brian Jones, DE Chris Smith, C Travis Swanson, DT Robert Thomas.

Auburn: P Steven Clark, DC Chris Davis, DE Nosa Eguae, DE Dee Ford, FB Jay Prosch, DT Jeffrey Whitaker

Florida: WR Andre Debose, DE Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonatthan Harrison, WR Soloman Patton, DC Jaylen Watkins.

Georgia: OG Chris Burnett, OG Kernarious Gates, TE Arthur Lynch, QB Aaron Murray, OB Garrison Smith.

Kentucky: IB Avery Williamson

LSU: IB Lamin Barrow, RB Alfred Blue, FB JC Copeland, FS Craig Loston, QB Zach Mettenberger

Mississippi State: DE Denico Autry, OG Gabe Jackson, RB LeDarious Perkins, QB Tyler Russell, OB Deontae Skinner, FS Nickoe Whitley

Missouri: OT Justin Britt, QB James Franklin, DC EJ Gaines, WR Marcus Lucas, WR L'Damian Washington, IB Andrew Wilson

Ole Miss: PT Tyler Campbell, IB Mike Marry, DC Charles Sawyer, RB Jeff Scott, IB DT Shackleford

South Carolina: DC Jimmy Legree, QB Connor Shaw, DE Chaz Sutton

Tennessee: OT Ju'Wuan James, DT Daniel McCuller, RB Rajon Neal, DE Jacques Smith, C James Stone

Texas A&M: LB Steven Jenkins, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews

Vanderbilt: IB Chase Garnham, DC Andre Hal, OT Wesley Johnson, FS Kenny Ladler, WR Jordan Matthews
In order to make a stand in the SEC, you have to have a strong front seven. It starts with a stout defensive line, but don't forget about those cats behind that front line.

Linebackers need love, too:

1. Alabama: For starters, "Linebacker U" will enter the 2013 season with three linebackers -- C.J. Mosley, Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest -- who started 10 or more games last season. Then there's Xzavier Dickson, who started seven games at the rush-end "Jack" position. All four played in every game last year, making play after play. Mosley was considered one of the nation's best linebackers and could have opted for the NFL early. He'll get even more time with Nico Johnson gone. Hubbard is the team's top pass-rusher, DePriest has transformed into a top linebacker prospect in next year's NFL draft and Dickson is versatile enough to play linebacker and on the line. There is also a ton of young talent to watch, starting with sophomore Denzel Devall, who could really break out.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLamin Barrow should replace some of the production the Tigers lost when Kevin Minter moved on to the NFL.
2. LSU: Kevin Minter might be gone, but the Tigers still have some quality players roaming around the position. Lamin Barrow will anchor the group and is coming off a season in which he registered 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He's getting a ton of NFL love and will get help from very talented sophomore Kwon Alexander, who only played seven games, but would have seen plenty more action if hadn't suffered a broken ankle midseason. Alexander could be primed for a huge season and might be the team's best linebacker. Senior Tahj Jones only played in one game last year because of academic issues, but he'll have every chance to start outside. Sophomores Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist all saw good time last year and will be in the rotation along with incoming freshman Kendell Beckwith, who could immediately push for a starting spot.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels work in that 4-2-5 defense, but have a lot of talent at linebacker, starting with big-hitting senior captain Mike Marry, who has 22 career starts and finished last season with 78 tackles with 10.5 for loss. The pleasant surprise from this group last year was Denzel Nkemdiche, who was a second-team All-SEC member as a freshman after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). The thing that makes Nkemdiche so valuable is that he knows all of the linebacker positions and covers a ton of ground with his speed. Long-time Rebel D.T. Shackelford is back after two knee surgeries, but had a very good spring and should provide quality depth and excellent leadership. Then you have talented reserve Serderius Bryant, who could start at a lot of schools. Don't forget about the hybrid "Husky" position that will feature top recruit Antonio Conner.

4. Tennessee: The Vols bring back the league's top tackler in A.J. Johnson and excellent pass-rusher Curt Maggitt, who had his 2012 season shortened because of injury. He should be back to full health this fall, but could move to defensive end. Johnson has a chance to play his way into the first round of next year's NFL draft. Senior Dontavis Sapp doesn't have a ton of experience, but was a star this spring and has the ability to play any of the linebacker spots. Four senior backups return and have combined to play in nearly 140 games. The only problem is that they've also combined for just one start. Senior Brent Brewer also moved from safety to linebacker to give the Vols a lot of speed on the outside.

5. Florida: The Gators lost two valuable players in Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, but they still have a ton of young talent to work with, starting with Antonio Morrison. He ran into legal trouble this summer, but he has a chance to be an All-SEC player after moving from outside to middle linebacker. Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell will rotate at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker "Buck" position, but Powell could see more time at strongside linebacker. If he's healthy after his two ACL injuries, he could be an elite pass-rusher. Hard-hitting and dependable Michael Taylor left spring as the starting weakside linebacker, while freshman Daniel McMillian had an outstanding spring at the Will position. Fellow freshman Alex Anzalone was a top recruit in the 2013 class and should vie for plenty of time, while vets Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball will push for starting spots.

6. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a concern for the Commodores last year, but it ended up being a strength. Do-everything leader Chase Garnham is back, along with his 43 solo tackles, seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He's the heart of the defense. Hybrid linebacker/safety (Star) Karl Butler returns and should continue to put a lot of heat on opposing backfields. He registered 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Darreon Herring has to replace the very reliable Archibald Barnes, but saw plenty of time last year as the Commodores' top reserve at linebacker. Sophomores Larry Franklin and Jake Sealand provide good depth after seeing significant time last year.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreBenardrick McKinney was named to the Freshman All-SEC Team following last season.
7. Mississippi State: Starters Benardrick McKinney (102 tackles) and Deontae Skinner (62 tackles) return, giving Mississippi State a very sound foundation to work with. McKinney was quietly one of the league's top linebackers last year and could be even better this fall. Veteran Ferlando Bohanna, who has tremendous speed, will provide good depth, and the staff is excited about the versatility junior Matt Wells has. Losing Chris Hughes this summer hurts, but the Bulldogs will be able to cover a lot of ground with this group of rangy, athletic linebackers.

8. Georgia: Like every defensive position, the Bulldogs lost a lot at linebacker, but there is some promising young talent that should get better as the season goes on. Everything revolves around sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who could end up being an elite pass-rusher after learning under Jarvis Jones last season. Jenkins was second on the team in sacks last season with five and should be even more disruptive in Jones' old spot. Junior Amarlo Herrera started nine games and will be the captain of the unit inside. Junior Ramik Wilson had a very good spring and has found his spot inside, while sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons will play some linebacker when he isn't at safety and has a chance to be a star. Sophomore James DeLoach also had a very good spring outside. Freshmen Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin will also have ample opportunities for good playing time this fall.

9. Kentucky: Having Alvin "Bud" Dupree moving to defensive end hurts, but the Wildcats still have two solid options returning in Avery Williamson and youngster Khalid Henderson, who has playmaker written all over him. Williamson enters his senior season with 194 career tackles. Finding someone to take the other linebacker spot is the goal of fall camp. Miles Simpson started 11 games and had 70 tackles last year, but has to be more consistent. Junior Kory Brown and sophomore Josh Forrest will compete for that spot too and might be more athletic, but they lack experience. Malcolm McDuffen still hasn't reached his potential and Demarius Rancifer has decided to transfer.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost starters Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter and are now surrounded by youth. Veteran Steven Jenkins is back, but he missed spring practice due to offseason shoulder surgery. He had time to work with junior college transfer Tommy Sanders, which will help a lot this fall, as he vies for a starting spot outside. The Aggies will have to rely on youngsters at linebacker, but junior Donnie Baggs looks like he'll start at middle linebacker. But after that it's all about newcomers, including new linebackers coach Mark Hagen. Freshmen Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade both went through spring practice, which helps, but expect growing pains from this unit.

11. Missouri: The Tigers are fortunate to have senior Andrew Wilson and his 23 career starts back, but there isn't a lot of experience beyond that. Wilson has also led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back seasons (79 last year). Donovan Bonner, a senior, and Kentrell Brothers showed flashes this spring, but both have to be more consistent. The same goes for Darvin Ruise, who entered the spring as a starter and played primarily on special teams last year. Keep an eye on freshman Michael Scherer, who has the talent to be a stud. There is athleticism here, but tackling was a major issue with this unit last year.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return veterans A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, but the best overall player at this position might be junior college transfer Martrell Spaight. That could be both good and bad, but the fact of the matter is that Turner and Peters have to improve and get over their injuries from the spring if they want starting jobs this fall. Senior Jarrett Lake had a good spring and could be the leader here. Freshman Brooks Ellis could make an immediate impact too. Experience is a bigger issue than talent with this unit. Also, the staff could spend the preseason moving everyone around.

13. Auburn: This unit really struggled last year with getting lined up right and making tackles. There should be improvement with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense, but players need to get better. Star hybrid Justin Garrett had a great spring and could be primed for a breakout year. He can play in the box and cover, so he'll really help this unit. The good news is that Johnson needs just two linebackers for his 4-2-5 scheme. But those players have to perform. Sophomore Kris Frost made strides this spring and Jake Holland is experienced, while Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell should vie for the other linebacker spot.

14. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost their entire two-deep at linebacker and had to move tight end Kelvin Rainey to linebacker to help with depth. There are a lot of bodies, but the experience is really lacking. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis made strides this spring at middle linebacker, while junior Sharrod Golightly left spring with the edge at the hybrid Spur position. Freshmen T.J. Holloman and Jordan Diggs will compete for time this spring, but, again, they have no experience. Sophomore Cedrick Cooper missed spring while recovering from knee surgery, but should start at weakside linebacker.

Strong and weak: Texas A&M

July, 8, 2013
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It’s time to check out Texas A&M's strongest position and weakest position heading into the 2013 season.

Strongest position: Running back

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is pumped about his depth at running back. But even more so, he's excited about all the different things the Aggies should be able to do with their backs. Christine Michael departed, but dependable Ben Malena returns after leading all running backs on the team with 808 rushing yards last season and averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams showed in the spring just how electrifying he can be and brings an element of speed and explosion that will go hand-in-hand with quarterback Johnny Manziel's ability to break down defenses. Don't forget about sophomore Trey Williams. He was a big-time recruit coming out of high school, and Oregon transfer Tra Carson will also be eligible. Carson is pushing 230 pounds and will be the brute of the bunch. "They can all play anywhere, and that changes what we do," Sumlin said of his four backs.

Weakest position: Linebackers

There will be considerable change at the linebacker position for the Aggies in 2013. Gone are senior starters Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, and the only returning starter -- senior Steven Jenkins -- was limited this spring after tearing his labrum. What's more, the guy coaching the Texas A&M linebackers will be new. Mark Hagen is in his first season on the Aggies' staff after coming over from Indiana. Junior Donnie Baggs was a backup last season, but he's the likely starter in the middle. The unnerving part for the Aggies is that they will have to rely on a lot of newcomers at linebacker, but several of those guys showed real promise this spring. Junior college transfer Tommy Sanders can fly and looks like a natural for the strong side linebacker spot. True freshman Reggie Chevis enrolled early and also went through the spring. He's already 250 pounds and a real thumper in the middle. Brett Wade was another true freshman who went through the spring and got a lot of work on the weak side. With so many new faces, there could be some growing pains early at linebacker.
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. is rolling out his early top five rankings at each position this week.

Here are the positions he's looked at so far:
Now, we're checking out the top linebacker prospects for next year's NFL draft. Kiper divided things up to look at outside linebackers and inside linebackers . I'm just combing the two to make things easier for everyone.

When it comes to outside linebackers, Alabama's Adrian Hubbard comes in at No. 2 on Kiper's list. Hubbard led Alabama with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season. He has what it takes to be an elite pass-rusher in the SEC, but he still has some growing to do. He has great speed, but just has to stay consistent with his speed off the edge. He's a player who Nick Saban is very excited about in 2013.

Other draft-eligible outside linebackers I'll keep an eye on this fall:
  • Tahj Jones, LSU: An academic issue kept him out of all but one game last year, but Jones should start at one of the outside spots for the Tigers this fall. He's been very productive in the 28 games he's appeared in.
  • Ronald Powell, Florida: He's coming off two ACL injuries and will be a hybrid defensive end as well. Powell was the top recruit a couple of years ago and had his best spring last year before his injury. He has all the skill to be a top-notch pass-rusher.
  • Steven Jenkins, Texas A&M: He's versatile and experienced enough to play both outside and inside. He grabbed 79 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and two sacks last year.
  • Deontae Skinner, Mississippi State: He was a little overlooked last year at his position, but Skinner is a player. He grabbed 62 tackles last year, including five for loss and forced a fumble.


As for the inside linebackers, Kiper went SEC-heavy with his top five. Alabama's C.J. Mosley comes in at No. 1 in Kiper's top five, while Trey DePriest ranks second, and Tennessee's A.J. Johnson ranks fourth.

Mosley flirted with leaving early for the NFL this year, but he will likely enhance his draft stock with one more year at Alabama. He can be an extremely aggressive player in the run, but also knows how to drop back into coverage to make plays. He's an extremely smart player and will be relied upon to be the quarterback of Bama's defense.

Joining Mosley in the middle is DePriest, who might be bigger than Mosley but is also pretty good in coverage. He's tough against the run and can get after the quarterback as well. He also puts his strength to good use on the field.

Johnson has really blossomed since arriving at Tennessee in 2011. Last year, he led the SEC with 138 tackles and continued to develop pretty much every area of his game. A lot of people think he could be a first-round draft pick next year.

Other draft-eligible inside linebackers I'll keep an eye on:
  • Lamin Barrow, LSU: He's LSU's top returning tackler (104) and he'll take over as the Tigers' defensive captain. He's a very versatile player and can play both inside and outside if needed.
  • Chase Garnham, Vanderbilt: He might not have received the same sort of attention as his fellow middle linebackers last year, but Garnham is a solid player. He not only registered 84 tackles last year but he led Vandy with seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss.
  • Mike Marry, Ole Miss: He's a fierce competitor and worker for the Rebels. He's become a true leader with both his words and play, coming away with 78 tackles, including 10.5 for loss last year.
  • Curt Maggit, Tennessee: He's another player who is versatile to play both inside and outside. He's coming off an ACL injury but should be ready to go this fall.
  • Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: The redshirt sophomore was extremely busy during his first year on the field in 2012, collecting 102 tackles. He should be looked at as one of the top inside linebackers in the SEC this fall.
  • Andrew Wilson, Missouri: The old man of Mizzou's linebacking corps has a ton of experience -- and tackles -- under his belt. He can make plays against the run and the pass.

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.
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:


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