SEC: Tra Carson

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- With a backfield as deep as Texas A&M's was in 2013, it wasn't easy to find a healthy number of carries for everyone.

Four scholarship running backs, all with different talents, shared carries not only with each other, but with quarterback Johnny Manziel, who was the team's leading rusher and had the most carries of any Aggie each of the last two seasons.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson is making a push for more carries in Texas A&M's backfield rotation.
For instance, Tra Carson's role primarily consisted of short-yardage situations, including third downs and goal-to-go scenarios. Given his size (6 feet, 230 pounds), it seemed appropriate. But in several instances, including late in the season against Missouri and in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Duke, Carson showed he was more than a power back: he had some agility and speed also.

"Maybe y'all should have [been surprised] because y'all hadn't seen me do it," Carson told reporters last week. "But I wasn't surprised."

With Manziel and running back Ben Malena -- last season's leader in touches and yards among the running backs -- having moved on, there are likely to be more touches to go around this fall for the running backs: Carson, Brandon Williams, Trey Williams and redshirt freshman James White.

Carson put together a solid spring and is positioning himself to be more than a situational back this fall.

"He's really smart, he understands what we're doing," running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "He's running the ball really well right now, and as you know, when he gets that opportunity to get in the secondary he can really hurt you."

When he arrived in Aggieland, Carson needed some work and patience. A transfer from Oregon, he had to sit out the 2012 season per NCAA transfer rules. McKinney said there was some obstacles for Carson, but he waited his turn and met that challenge head on.

"Tra's biggest issue when he first got here has been conditioning," McKinney said. "He's lost about 15 pounds since he's been here. He's picked up our offense."

Carson said he was initially drawn to Oregon coming out of high school because of his friendship with current NFL running back LaMichael James, who hails from the same high school that Carson does -- Texarkana (Texas) Liberty-Eylau -- and was playing for the Ducks at the time Carson committed.

Though he appeared in 10 games as a true freshman, Carson decided Oregon wasn't the right fit and decided to return to the Lone Star State.

"For me, it was the weather, it was too far away from home," Carson said. "I wasn't ready to make that adjustment as an 18-year-old kid out of high school. Now that I'm matured, it's just different."

Carson said he and James remain close friends to this day.

Now a junior, Carson is working to be a well-rounded player -- not just a running back -- for the Aggies. He played on special teams last season and continued to get work in that phase this spring, earning practice time as a member of the kickoff return team, though not as the primary return man. Malena served a similar role last season.

With 58 carries in 11 games last season, Carson has yet to be a full-time player. If Carson has to carry an increased load this season, McKinney has no doubt that he can.

"He just understands what we're doing really well," McKinney said. "He's really great in protection. He's not just a big back that's in the third-down and goal-line package. He's a guy who can make people miss and he can play in our open sets as well as our big sets. He's a complete back."

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
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LSU and Ole Miss will hold their spring games on Saturday, with six more teams set to play their games next Saturday. As spring practice winds to a close at many of the schools around the conference, let's take a look at some of today's headlines.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Running back is one of positions on Texas A&M's roster with few, if any, real question marks or concerns heading into 2014.

There is talent and depth. Most of the returning players have experience. The main question might be which player emerges as the most reliable and productive.

The candidates are plenty, though, and that's pleasing to head coach Kevin Sumlin.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson has had a good spring, but still faces plenty of competition to be Texas A&M's first-string running back.
"We feel real good with our depth at running back," Sumlin said.

Junior running back Tra Carson has been the most consistent of the group this spring. Sumlin has praised his work several times in recent weeks, and the 6-foot, 230-pound Carson seems to be positioning himself well for the fall.

"I think Tra Carson has been very, very solid," Sumlin said. "I think James White has progressed and is probably a little bit further ahead than I thought he would be. Brandon Williams is doing well. Trey Williams -- they're all good backs. It depends on what you want to do."

Both Trey Williams and Brandon Williams had to miss brief portions of spring practice with minor injuries, but they have returned. Sumlin noted earlier this spring, particularly when Trey Williams was out, that every day he missed was "not helping his cause." Since returning, both have been able to shoulder more of the workload in practice.

"Trey's healthy and has been involved in the return game, obviously," Sumlin said. "Brandon has come back. We worked Tra Carson pretty hard early. Those guys missed a little bit, so Tra Carson's getting a little bit of a rest right now and they're catching up. But we know what we've got in those three guys."

Trey Williams is the returning yardage leader of the group, with 407 yards and six touchdowns on 58 carries last season. Carson is the returning leader in touchdowns (7) and logged 329 yards on 62 carries in 2013. Brandon Williams contributed but didn't play as much as Carson or Tra Williams, logging 44 carries for 269 yards and a score.

But with Malena (115 carries last season) gone, there are carries available. It's reasonable to expect the returning trio will get more carries, but don't count out White, a redshirt freshman, being a factor as well based on his spring performance.

"I think the surprise has been James White," Sumlin said. "He has really come on to be pretty solid. He's a guy that's going to play special teams for us this year, and then we'll see where he fits in this group. James does everything pretty good. He's big enough at 215, 220 [pounds]. He has soft hands, is a good runner, a good blocker, so he's another guy that gives us a mix."

Sumlin expects all of them to push each other as the Aggies wrap up spring practice and continue preparing for the 2014 season.

"That competition will continue and they know that," he said. "It's good for all of us to have to compete for playing time, and that's what happens in a real program."

Style and substance for A&M RB Malena

November, 13, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- For his last walk through the tunnel at Kyle Field, senior running back Ben Malena felt like he needed a grand entrance.

[+] EnlargeBen Malena
AP Photo/David J. PhillipBen Malena knows how to have fun, but he's also proven to be a strong leader for Texas A&M.
As part of senior day on Saturday, the Aggies' last game at home this season, each senior was introduced one-by-one and given a chance to be applauded by the crowd. So Malena, with the flair and flamboyance that has been his signature all season, walked in with the flashiest entrance of all.

When Kyle Field public address announce Chace Murphy introduced Malena, his teammate -- sophomore running back Tra Carson -- walked through the tunnel with a black cape, with the words "CASH OUT KING" in bold gold text, all caps.

Like a boxer stepping into the ring for a championship bout, Malena strutted in behind Carson, with his right hand in the air, fingers rubbing together for the "Cashing out" sign that has become a signature move for Malena and the Aggies when they score touchdowns. Of course, it wasn't complete without his headband, which has also become a Malena signature, with the hashtag "#CASHOUTKING" draped across the forehead.

Not a bad way to enter for the final time in front of the home crowd.

"I was sitting there talking to my roommate, and I figured if they're going to give me an opportunity to run out like they do in the NFL and call people one by one, I've got to do something crazy," Malena said after the game on Saturday. "I had my roommate do it and thanks to Tra Carson. He helped me out with walking it out. It was pretty cool."

With cameras trained on virtually his every move each Saturday, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel gets the majority of the national attention/discussion for his on-field actions, but it's Malena who has displayed the most style and flair among the Aggies this season. And he's become a fan favorite while doing it.

"Day to day, I guess he's kind of like Superman and Clark Kent," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said with a laugh. "You don't notice him during the day. You don't notice him in meetings. You don't notice him at practice. He doesn't say a whole lot. But when the lights come on and it's time to play that game, he's a different person."

But there is substance to accompany Malena's style. He's perhaps the most consistent of the team's four scholarship running backs when it comes to production. He leads the team in rushing touchdowns (nine) and has been a steady, though not necessarily explosive presence, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.

He's a threat in the passing game as a receiver, catching a pass in all but one game this season and he's the best pass-protecting running back the Aggies have. He also is a willing special teams player, be it on kickoff return or kick or punt coverage -- whatever the coaching staff asks of him.

But probably his most talked-about quality among A&M players and coaches is his leadership.

"He's had some great moments here," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He's really been an emotional leader for us, maybe not as much as y'all see during the game, but in particular during practice time and in the offseason. There's a reason he's a captain and a reason why he plays a lot of special teams. He's been a leader by example, and this year he's been a vocal leader."

The style part seems to come naturally to Malena. He's been "cashing out" for years, even back to his early seasons at A&M when he was wearing No. 23 (he wore No. 1 in 2012 and this season). In an in-stadium jumbotron segment called "Ask the Aggies" that plays during home games, several teammates called Malena one of the "coolest" players on the team. And he likes to have fun with it, evidenced by his answer when a reporter asked him before senior day what his headband would say.

"I can't give that information out," Malena said smiling. "I change it up sometimes. I can't give the senior day bandana away. [My teammates] ask me every week, 'What's it going to say this week? I say 'Man, if I tell you, I have to kill you. You just have to wait until Saturday.'"

Malena enjoyed his senior day to the fullest, jumping into the crowd to celebrate the Aggies' win over Mississippi State with fans after the game. He even tossed his bandana into the crowd as he walked toward the locker room.

"I figured, why not?" Malena said. "Might as well jump in the stands and enjoy this moment."

Running back depth key for A&M

November, 7, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Coming into this season, there was much discussion from Texas A&M coaches about its options in its offensive backfield.

[+] EnlargeTrey Williams
AP Photo/Eric Christian SmithTexas A&M's Trey Williams is averaging 7.6 yards per carry.
The stable of running backs the Aggies was both deep and talented this summer. Ben Malena was the returning starter of the group, the senior who found his way into the starting lineup a year ago, and Trey Williams, who contributed as a freshman, was back for what he hoped would be a super sophomore season.

A pair of sophomores, Tra Carson and Brandon Williams, joined the group. Both had to sit out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, as Carson transferred from Oregon and Williams from Oklahoma.

How carries would be divided was a frequent question from fans. All four were talented and highly touted recruits coming out of high school, and there was no question each had the ability to earn playing time.

But because of injuries, the Aggies haven't always had all four backs healthy and available for the entire season. Because of that, the depth they have built has become valuable as players shuffle in and out of the lineup.

On Saturday, in the Aggies' 57-7 victory over UTEP, Carson gave the Kyle Field crowd a scare after being carried away on a stretcher. Fortunately for the Aggies, Carson only had a sprained neck, but it underscores how critical it has been to the Aggies to have so many options.

"It's really helpful to have more than one guy," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "If you've got one guy and he goes down, you're scrambling for the next guy. Our situation, it's unfortunate that Tra had the injury that he went down with, but the next guy up is just as good, if not better. That's a really good position to be in as a running backs coach."

Early in the season, it was Trey Williams and Brandon Williams who battled through ailments. Brandon Williams had offseason foot surgery and missed the season opener against Rice. Trey Williams battled an ankle injury that caused him to miss the Aggies' games against Sam Houston State and Alabama. Carson has appeared in every game this year, though his status for Saturday's game against Mississippi State is uncertain.

The only player who hasn't missed game time because of an injury is Malena, who has 456 yards and eight touchdowns, best among the Aggies' running backs.

As Trey Williams (297 yards, five touchdowns) has become more and more healthy, his per-carry production has improved. He is averaging a team-high 7.6 yards per carry and has shown the explosiveness that the Aggies hoped to see when they recruited him at out of Spring (Texas) Dekaney High School.

Carson (269 yards, five touchdowns) has served as a hammer, a back who can get it done between the tackles. The contributions of Brandon Williams (206 yards, one touchdown) wasn't as significant at midseason, and he did not get any touches at Ole Miss or against Auburn. But he has carried the ball 16 times in the last two weeks, and he scored a touchdown against Vanderbilt.

Not surprisingly, quarterback Johnny Manziel is again the team's leading rusher (564 yards, eight touchdowns) but having a host of guys to hand off to has been valuable to A&M's offensive success and running game, which ranks 25th in the country (210.78 yards per game) and fourth in the SEC.

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has a saying that is echoed by his players, especially at this time of the season.

"It's about us."

The message is clear and self-explanatory. And if the Aggies are going to do what they hope to -- win out the remainder of the season -- Sumlin wants them to take heed of those three words.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesTexas A&M signal-caller Johnny Manziel threw four more touchdown passes on Saturday night. He now has 26 TD passes on the season, matching his total from 2012.
On Saturday night, in a 57-7 win over UTEP at Kyle Field, it was all about the Aggies, who took care of business by dominating a beaten-up team. What's interesting is that No. 12 A&M (7-2) has the same record as it did at this time a season ago. The feelings are different, but that's partially because last season the Aggies exceeded expectations. Few outside of this town expected them to do much better than 6-6 or 7-5 in their first season in the SEC. This season, the bar was set so high that the same record at the same point seems almost pedestrian.

And while their own preseason goals -- an SEC championship and a run at a BCS national championship -- are out the window, there are still things left for Texas A&M to play for. If the Aggies win the remainder of their games, who knows? They might just sneak their way into their first BCS bowl since 1998.

The final three-game stretch is a challenging one. The Aggies host Mississippi State next weekend, then are off the following week before the difficulty level ramps up with trips to LSU and Missouri to close out the season. Both of those teams are still playing for a chance to go to Atlanta to play in the SEC title game, and in order to knock them off in their respective stadiums, the Aggies will have to put together a complete game, for four quarters -- something they really haven't done yet this season.

But in the past two weeks, in a 56-24 victory over Vanderbilt and on Saturday in the blowout win over UTEP, the Aggies have begun inching closer to playing that type of game. Throughout the first seven games, the defense was mostly poor while the offense carried the load. Special teams had issues, too, as the Aggies battled an inconsistent situation at place-kicker before moving Josh Lambo into the role, one that he has taken and run with.

The past two weeks, the Aggies defense has performed admirably. It had probably its best all-around performance against the Commodores, and on Saturday, against a much weaker opponent, the Aggies really only had one bad drive on defense, the nine-play, 73-yard touchdown drive that gave the Miners an early 7-2 lead.

UTEP, which came into the game without starting quarterback Jameill Showers (shoulder injury), couldn't move the ball with consistency against A&M when the Aggies began to rack up points. On top of that, A&M's defense was ball-hawking in the second stanza, coming up with three turnovers. The offense turned those into 21 points and blew the game open. UTEP finished with just 198 total yards, and life was understandably difficult with backup Blaire Sullivan running the offense. Still, this is an Aggies defense that had trouble stopping virtually everybody earlier this season.

"We've been having great practices the last few weeks," junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury said. "Also, I think it has to do with confidence. You have to have confidence in yourself and in your team to have a great game."

While the defense has stepped up its efforts the last two weeks, the offense has had its hiccups. Last week it was bitten by the turnover bug, giving the ball away four times. On Saturday against the Miners, the Aggies seemed out of sync in the first quarter. Quarterback Johnny Manziel and receiver Mike Evans couldn't get on the same page, though opportunities were there. The Aggies punted twice in the first quarter -- a rarity for them in any single frame.

What began as a snoozer with Texas A&M's offense sputtering turned into a rout with an explosive second quarter by the Aggies, who outscored UTEP 27-0 in the second quarter to take a commanding 36-7 halftime lead. From there, no doubt remained of the outcome as Manziel led two more scoring drives in the third quarter before calling it a night, after throwing for four touchdowns and running for two, including an impressive 49-yarder that looked like the 2012 version of Manziel.

The A&M special teams started well, meanwhile, blocking a punt that led to a safety and giving the Aggies an early 2-0 lead. But the unit had its issues, too. Punter Drew Kaser, who serves as the holder on point-after-touchdown kicks and field goals, bobbled a snap, which left a point off the board. Freshman LaQuvionte Gonzalez also muffed a punt in the second half, though the game was well in hand.

Those are issues that have to be rectified if the Aggies hope to close out the final three-game stretch with three wins. They still haven't put a good performance from all three phases together on one night, though they might be inching closer to doing so.

"It's hard to say, when you win 57-7, to say that you didn't play a complete game," Sumlin said. "As a coach, there's some positives there. Our guys understand that we can be better than we were tonight."

Quartet powers Aggies' running game

October, 2, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Nobody is going to confuse Texas A&M's offense with an old-school, power running attack.

The Aggies are a team that likes to operate at a fast pace, spread things out and get the ball to their playmakers in space.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTailback Tra Carson rushed for 64 yards on nine carries in the Aggies' win over Arkansas.
But that doesn't mean they can't run the ball right at an opponent, which is what they did in their most recent win over Arkansas.

The second half of the Aggies' 45-33 win consisted of them running the ball 29 times and throwing just seven passes. For the first time since the AT&T Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma in January, the Aggies finished the game with more rushing yards (262) than passing (261). And that second half stretch included two drives, one of nine plays and one of seven, that were all running plays that ended in touchdowns.

"That's probably the first series we've had ever since we've been here [as a coaching staff] that we didn't attempt one pass and scored in a seven-, eight- or nine-play drive," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "That says a lot about your team, your versatility and about where our confidence factor lies with our offensive line and our running game."

What it also says is that the Aggies are deep at the running back position. All four of the Aggies' scholarship running backs -- Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams -- touched the football on Saturday and combined for 203 rushing yards.

It was just the second time this season that all four have been available for a game, and was perhaps the best performance for the group this season.

"It's a luxury," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "It was really good to see all four of those guys out there. They were not only being competitive within the game, but they were competing with each other. That's how they do it every day."

Malena is the starter and elder statesman of the group. He emerged as the starter last season, claiming the top spot over then-senior Christine Michael, who's now with the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. Malena's combination of running, receiving and blocking ability makes him a versatile option that fits the A&M offense well. He is the leader among the team's four running backs with 303 yards and seven touchdowns. Coaches have praised his reliability and leadership all season.

But Saturday was a true showcase for Carson and Trey Williams, who provided a formidable one-two punch themselves. Carson, who has impressed since his Aggie debut on Aug. 31 against Rice, is a big, physical, north-south type of running back who also has good speed for someone carrying 230 pounds.

Averaging 5.6 yards per carry, he's second among the team's running backs this season with 229 yards and four touchdowns.

"You see Tra Carson out there running hard," Malena said. "It takes more than one guy to tackle him."

Trey Williams had a 100-yard game last season in a blowout against Auburn, but he hasn't always been healthy in his A&M career. He's still not 100 percent healthy but showed that he's getting close to that on Saturday, leading the team with 83 rushing yards and a touchdown while averaging 9.2 yards per carry.

"He's really, really good with the ball in his hands," McKinney said. "And he showed a little bit of that on Saturday and hopefully that'll kick start him for the rest of the year."

Brandon Williams missed the season opener while recovering from offseason foot surgery but has gradually been working his way back into the lineup. He showed his burst with a 20-yard carry against Arkansas and also has a touchdown reception to his name this season.

"He's the guy that probably has the most wire-to-wire potential," Sumlin said. "He's a home-run threat from anywhere."

The fascinating part about the Aggies' playcalling on Saturday, which led to 44 rushes and 30 pass attempts, is that there were no designed runs called for quarterback Johnny Manziel. McKinney noted that Manziel is going to run whether or not a run play is called for him but they wanted to limit how many hits he took.

Manziel wound up carrying the ball nine times for 59 yards with the four running backs accounting for the other 35 carries. He is still the team's overall leading rusher with 314 yards on the season.

But as the Aggies get deeper into their SEC schedule, they can do so knowing that they have a multitude of running back options to go to and so far, all of them have proven capable of delivering.

"We've got a variety of guys," Sumlin said. "Our staff has done a good job with those guys and making sure they're sharing the wealth and that the more you can share it, the healthier you're going to be throughout the year. We're not even halfway [through the season] and we've got some bruised up guys.

"They know that and they help each other and I'm pleased with the direction that whole position has gone."

Assessing the Aggies after five games

September, 30, 2013
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Texas A&M is 4-1 after its first five games of the season. The Aggies split their first two SEC games and get a brief break with an open date this weekend. With the bulk of their league schedule coming up after the off week, let's analyze where the Aggies are and what's ahead:

The good

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M's Mike Evans might be the best receiver in the nation and a Heisman candidate.
Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans: These two had high expectations coming into the season based on their 2012 performances, and you could argue that they have exceeded them thus far in 2013, especially Evans. The sophomore receiver is making his case to be considered among the best receivers in the country, if not the best. Only Oregon State's Brandin Cooks has more receiving yards than Evans' 691, but Evans's schedule includes Alabama, which he torched for a school-record 279 yards. Manziel ranks in the top 10 nationally in several categories, including total offense, passing efficiency, QBR, touchdowns responsible for and passing yards. He has made a concerted effort to become a better pocket passer, showing more patience when dropping back, but it hasn't taken away from his signature scrambling ability that makes him such an offensive force. If the Aggies continue to win and these two continue to play as they have, one could make the argument that both deserve to be in the Heisman Trophy discussion.

The offensive line and running game: There were some questions coming into the season about how the Aggies' offensive line would fare after losing Luke Joeckel to the NFL draft and center Patrick Lewis to graduation. So far, the Aggies have continued to shine in this area. The protection provided to Manziel when he passes has been stellar, and the Aggies have not had much trouble running the football, averaging 221.4 yards per game. On Saturday against Arkansas, the Aggies actually had more rushing yards than passing. And the last two weeks, we've seen the coaching staff use all four scholarship running backs (Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams) effectively. Malena continues to be a steady force, Carson has provided a hammer who can break tackles and get short yardage but is explosive enough to get chunks as well, and the Williamses are both explosive talents with a lot of speed.

Deshazor Everett: The junior defensive back has been the Aggies' best defensive player this year. Though cornerback is his usual home, he moved to safety for the last two weeks to help alleviate some issues in the secondary. He performed well in both positions, is second on the team with 31 tackles and leads the team with two interceptions, including a pick-six against Arkansas. If the Aggies had more Everetts, their defense would be better off.

Play-calling: The offensive staff, led by offensive coordinator and play-caller Clarence McKinney has done a solid job of ensuring the offense utilizes its many weapons. There has been plenty of balance in the play calls (Texas A&M has run the ball 202 times and attempted 179 passes), the pace of the offense remains high, and it appears the Aggies have had an answer for almost anything opposing defenses have thrown at them. The one game in which the Aggies came up short was due to two turnovers against No. 1 Alabama.

The bad

The defense: To say the Aggies have struggled defensively is an understatement. Texas A&M is 112th nationally in yards allowed per game (476.8), 109th in yards allowed per play (6.59), 107th in rushing yards allowed per game (214.8) and 94th in passing yards allowed per game (262). Some of those struggles were the result of missing personnel in the first two games because of suspensions, but that's not an excuse anymore. Alabama and Arkansas both moved the ball with relative ease against the unit. In the second half against Arkansas on Saturday, the A&M defense did show the ability to get some key stops and make a few plays, so that might be encouraging, but it will have to build on that when it faces Ole Miss on Oct. 12.

The kicking game: The Aggies had to make a change at place-kicker, removing Taylor Bertolet from PAT and field-goal duty and replacing him with walk-on Josh Lambo. The issues haven't just been with the actual kickers, but there were also a couple of botched holds in the first four games. Leaving points on the board might not cost Texas A&M against nonconference foes like Sam Houston State or SMU, but it will cost them in SEC play if it continues to happen. Is Lambo the answer? He had a solid day on Saturday against Arkansas, going 6-for-6 on PATs and hitting a 39-yard field goal. So far he's 2-for-2 on field goals and 7-for-8 on PATs with his only miss coming as the result of a fumbled hold.

What's ahead

Texas A&M has a chance to heal up some injuries this week, which is critical after three starters -- defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, linebacker Darian Claiborne and Evans -- got banged up. Safety Floyd Raven, who has been out with a collarbone injury, continues to make progress in hopes of a return before long.

With the meat of the SEC schedule coming up, the Aggies have to get better on defense if they hope to realize some of their season goals. The offense continues to put up 40 points per game, but if for some reason it has an off night, A&M has to be able to rely on the D to help it pull through. Aside from the kicking game, special teams has been solid overall, and if Lambo is the answer at place-kicker, that's a positive for A&M moving forward.

Perhaps most notably, the drama is behind the Aggies. The constant headlines and media circus that followed the team, specifically Manziel, is in the rearview mirror. Led by Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies handled it well and didn't allow it to distract them from the task at hand.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
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Week 5 in the SEC provided what could have been the game of the year between Georgia and LSU. The nation’s No. 1 team played up to its ranking, and there were plenty of impressive performances across the league. It’s time to hand out the helmet stickers.

Aaron Murray, QB Georgia: It wasn’t long ago when Murray was labeled the quarterback who couldn’t win the big game. It’s time to throw that away. The senior finished 20-of-34 for 298 yards and five total touchdowns in Georgia’s biggest game of the year. He has always been productive -- he could soon become the SEC’s most productive quarterback of all time -- but add the clutch factor and there’s no reason not to think he’s a top contender for the Heisman this year. The Bulldogs control their own destiny in the SEC East, and Murray and company would love nothing more than a chance to avenge last year’s loss to Alabama in the conference championship. They have to get through Florida first.

Zach Mettenberger, QB LSU: It doesn’t matter how well somebody plays, there has to be a winner and there has to be a loser. Unfortunately for Mettenberger, he finished on the losing side Saturday, but the former Georgia quarterback played admirably against his former team. He finished 23-of-37 for 372 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Down the stretch, he made clutch throw after clutch throw to keep the Tigers in the game. LSU wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry had close to 300 yards receiving between them, but it starts with Mettenberger. He had a terrific homecoming but came up just short.

The Alabama secondary: Before the game, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace said he thought they could score on anybody. Evidently not Alabama. The No. 1 team in the nation shut out the Rebels, 25-0. Wallace singled out the Crimson Tide cornerbacks, saying they weren’t exactly first-rounders, but Deion Belue and Eddie Jackson stepped up on Saturday. Jackson, a true freshman, was especially impressive locking up Wallace’s favorite target Donte Moncrief for most of the game. He also came down with the Tide’s lone interception. As a whole, the UA secondary held Ole Miss to just 159 yards through the air.

Mike Davis, RB South Carolina: At halftime, it didn’t look good for South Carolina. The Gamecocks trailed Central Florida, 10-0, and quarterback Connor Shaw was lost for the game with a shoulder injury. But Davis didn’t care. He put his team on his back and carried it to victory. It started with a 53-yard touchdown run on the opening drive of the third quarter, the first points of the game for the Gamecocks. He scored twice more in the fourth quarter to extend the lead and put the game away. The sophomore back finished with 26 carries for 167 yards and three touchdowns as South Carolina survived a difficult road test.

The Texas A&M offensive line: Johnny Manziel gets most of the credit for Texas A&M’s high-powered offense, but it was the offensive line that absolutely dominated Arkansas up front on Saturday. The Aggies rushed for 262 yards against the Razorbacks, averaging six yards per carry. No one player reached 100 yards rushing, but Trey Williams and Tra Carson played well down the stretch, and starting running back Ben Malena scored twice. Manziel still finished with 261 yards and two touchdowns through the air and another 59 yards on the ground, but it all started with the offensive line.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- To the casual fan, it would be easy to surmise that Texas A&M is a one-man team.

With much of the national conversation surrounding the Aggies' quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, someone who hasn't paid close attention might jump to the conclusion that Manziel is the man who makes everything happen for Texas A&M.

It can seem like that at times. Manziel's performance certainly has a major role in the fate of the Aggies, but they proved Saturday that they are much more than just Johnny Football -- even with the game on the line.

With Arkansas breathing down their necks and the crowd of 72,613 at Razorback Stadium raising the decibel level as the host squad threatened an upset of No. 10 Texas A&M, the Aggies handed over the game not to their quarterback but to their running game. It helped them put away the Razorbacks 45-33 on Saturday night.

When the Razorbacks narrowed an 11-point lead to just four midway through the third quarter, A&M put the game in the hands of its offensive line and sophomore running backs Tra Carson and Trey Williams. Nine plays and 68 yards later, Williams hit pay dirt with a 17-yard touchdown run to extend the Aggies' lead to 38-27.

Arkansas cut the lead back to five, and early in the fourth quarter the Aggies went back to Carson and Williams, who ate up 56 yards before starting running back Ben Malena put the finishing touch on another touchdown drive, punching it in from a yard out for the final margin of victory with 10:08 to go.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson was part of an RB quartet that posted more than 200 rushing yards against Arkansas.
Only once in those two scoring drives did Manziel run the ball, and he didn't throw it on either of those two series. He was responsible for two touchdowns, his lowest single-game total since the Aggies beat Alabama last November. And the Aggies still put up more than 40 points for the eighth straight game (best in the FBS) and at least 400 yards for 17th consecutive game.

"I think it just shows another dimension of our offense," Malena said. "People look at our offense being so spread out, being the 'Air Raid' offense, but I think we had two or three drives where we didn't throw the ball but maybe one or two times. I think it just shows how good our offensive line is and how talented our running backs are."

For the first time since their win over Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl in January, the Aggies finished with more rushing yards (262) than passing (261). That helped the Aggies' struggling defense immensely, particularly in the second half when they were able to chew up the yardage. The drives weren't long in terms of time (each of the two aforementioned scoring drives lasted 3:06 or less), but they did give the defense time to catch its breath.

And the Aggies were able to possess the ball for 9:45 of the final 15:00.

Saturday was the second consecutive week that the Aggies had all four of their scholarship running backs — Carson, Malena, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams — available and it was the first time this season Trey Williams looked like the explosive back the Aggies signed in the 2012 recruiting class and got to see flashes of last season. Each of the four contributed, and they combined for 203 rushing yards.

Coming into the season the coaching staff discussed the benefits of having four backs as talented as these. Saturday was a manifestation of what the coaches hoped could be when utilizing each of them.

"All of our backs have their own value," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "They all have their own pluses and we utilize them all and I think we're able to keep them all fresh that way."

And though Manziel didn't have to put the game on his shoulders in the second half, he played flawlessly when he had the ball. He was efficient as usual (23-of-30, 261 yards, no interceptions) and gave Arkansas headaches with his scrambling ability (59 rushing yards). Perhaps the most telling sign of the respect he has earned came late in the second quarter when Chris Smith and Deatrich Wise Jr. pulled Manziel down for a sack. The crowd erupted perhaps as loud as it did the entire night, and Wise proceeded to egg the crowd on with a celebratory sack dance.

But that was the only time the Razorbacks sacked Manziel.

"We ask him to make plays and he makes plays," Sumlin said. "He took care of the ball."

The defense, which didn't play well for large stretches on Saturday, even found its footing in the second half. Each of the three times that the Razorbacks were within five points or fewer in the second half, the Aggies responded with a stop.

Junior defensive back Deshazor Everett came up with the Aggies' biggest defensive play, a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown, on Arkansas' opening drive of the second half.

"Coach [Mark] Snyder told us on the sideline that he was going to change the call and he wants me to stay inside of [Julian Horton] and wait for the slant route," Everett said. "He dialed it up and called it and it was perfect. They ran the slant and I jumped it, just like he told me to."

After the next two times the Razorbacks narrowed the gap, the Aggies' D responded with three-and-outs each time. For a unit that was gashed for 483 yards, 201 rushing, 6.7 yards a carry and 7.3 yards per play — and lost starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis and middle linebacker Darian Claiborne to injuries in the process — it was a significant turn of events in an SEC road game.

The Aggies get next weekend off before traveling to Oxford, Miss., to take on Ole Miss. The open date comes at an appropriate time, with Claiborne, Ennis and receiver Mike Evans all suffering injuries on Saturday, though Evans returned to play the remainder of the game after a brief first-half exit. There are still several areas in which the Aggies must get better, but Saturday they showed a side of themselves that some might not have seen.

SEC Friday mailbag: Week 3

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
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From Matt Freeman (@Onearmbird): How slow will Tennessee look this [Saturday] at Oregon?

I'm afraid the Vols will look a little sluggish in Eugene, and not just because of the jet lag from the cross-country trip. Oregon runs a play every 17 seconds or so. I get lightheaded just watching it. While I applaud the job Butch Jones has done in Knoxville thus far, injecting life into what was a downtrodden program, I just don't see him having the bodies on defense to keep up with Oregon's attack. Keeping the Ducks under 50 could be seen as a victory. In this case, Tennessee's 2-0 start may be misleading. Austin Peay was a pushover, and Western Kentucky all but gave last week's game away with five turnovers in a span of six plays. The Vols defense gave up almost 400 yards that game, and I don't see Marcus Mariota and Co. giving the ball away and failing to capitalize like that.




From Jeremy Garcia (@theFAKEJeremyG): How would you rank Texas A&M's depth at RB, compared to the rest of the conference?

It's among the best in the conference with Ben Malena, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams. Oh yeah, and Tra Carson is no slouch either. All four backs have the skill to start at other programs, and playing alongside Johnny Manziel, they're made even more lethal. I came across an interesting stat on Malena while researching Saturday's game against Alabama: Malena is 10th nationally (minimum 20 carries) with 61.9 percent of his carries going for 5 or more yards. Compare that to All-ACC tailback Duke Johnson, who came in at 47.5 percent.




From Matt Siggelow (@CFBPOexpert): How is it possible that [Alabama] never travels outside of their region or the U.S. to play BCS programs in their stadiums?

Simply put, they don't have to. The sudden rise in popularity of neutral-site games have allowed Alabama to stay away from nonconference games in road environments. Traveling to Texas last year was big, but it was a mostly 50-50 crowd against Michigan. And against Virginia Tech this year, the crowd wasn't too far in Alabama's favor even though Atlanta is much closer to Tuscaloosa than it is Blacksburg. I think it's hard to blame Alabama for the lack of road nonconference games, though. I don't see schools wanting to schedule more than a one-off neutral-site game much these days, whether that's against Alabama or another school. That said, there is a home-and-home scheduled between Alabama and Michigan State in 2016 and 2017 to look forward to.




From Ryan W. Tyler (@ryanwtyler): One-loss [Georgia] that beat undefeated Alabama in SEC champ over either undefeated Oregon or OSU?

Based on Georgia's schedule, it would be hard to keep them out of the championship game. Beating ranked opponents South Carolina, LSU and Florida is more than enough on a one-loss résumé, especially when that one loss came on the road in a close game against a ranked opponent in Clemson. That said, I can see conference fatigue setting in, and the two teams you brought up might be the only ones who could come in ahead of a one-loss SEC team like Georgia. While their schedules aren't spectacular, Ohio State and Oregon will have high profile games to showcase themselves to national voters: the Buckeyes play Michigan, and the Ducks face Stanford.




From Levi Weeks (@Weemsy_1): How do you think Alabama's defense will contain the multi-threat QB Johnny Manziel this Saturday?

Playing gap assignment football will be the key for Alabama's defense. That means the the defensive line must avoid going after the sack and instead maintain its lanes in order to not give Manziel too much room to run when the pocket does break down. C.J. Mosley is a good spy to keep on Manziel at Mike linebacker, but he'll need help up front. Alabama doesn't have a dominant pass-rusher, but in this game it doesn't need one. Pressure is important, but it's even more important that the defense not get out of position and allow the big play. As we all have seen over the past year or so, Manziel is his best when the play breaks down and he can improvise in space.




From Jeremy Davis (@JT_Dav): Which Arkansas team will show up for SEC play? Week 1 or Week 2?

I may be skirting the question a little here, but I think the Razorbacks team that show up for SEC play will be the once that plays Southern Miss this weekend. Back-to-back wins were a nice way to kick off a new era in Arkansas football -- however uninspiring last week's win against Samford might have been -- but we'll see what kind of team Bret Beilema has assembled this weekend against a program that mimics a lot of the size and speed of the SEC. Southern Miss averages right around 300 yards through the air per game, which could be a problem for an Arkansas defense that's had trouble in pass coverage. Having a good game defensively and continuing to establish the running game with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams would be a good way to work toward the start of SEC play in a few weeks.




From Brandon Truett (@do_it_truett89): Do you think the latest allegations are true about Alabama? Also who wins #BAMAvsTAMU?

It's not my place to comment on another story, but I will give my game prediction since this is the last question of the post. Alabama wins by two scores -- I'm thinking 34-21 -- if the offensive line plays better than it did Week 1 against Virginia Tech and limits the pressure in the backfield. Getting the running game going early will be huge for Nick Saban and the coaching staff. Moving the sticks with T.J. Yeldon and Co. will help control the tempo of the game and allow AJ McCarron to do what he does best -- work off play-action. With an entire offseason to prepare, I think Alabama's defense builds off last year's game, in which it held the Aggies to nine points over the final three quarters, and keeps Manziel in check, for the most part.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The word hasn't been used very often around Aggieland since Texas A&M joined the SEC but when the Aggies met with the media on Tuesday, it was spoken a few times.

Atlanta.

It's the home of the Georgia Dome, site of the SEC championship game. It has frequently been the defacto play-in game to the BCS National Championship throughout the last decade. If you win in Atlanta, chances are you're playing for the crystal football.

While players stuck to their talking points of this week being "just another game" or this week being "like any other week," the fact that the Aggies discussed their initial season goal indicates that they understand what's at stake Saturday.

Win and get an edge in the SEC West race.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin, Johnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesIf Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel want to make it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, they can take a big step forward with a win over No. 1 Alabama.
If the sixth-ranked Aggies truly are to be considered a national title contender, then their chance to prove it is at 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday at Kyle Field against No. 1 Alabama. Last season, the Aggies went 11-2 without much expectation from outsiders. This year, with a preseason top-10 ranking, a Heisman Trophy winner in tow and a level of coverage not seen, perhaps ever, of its program, there is an expectation for success externally.

Internally, there always has been since head coach Kevin Sumlin arrived. Despite what others said, he made it clear to his players last season that they had the talent to win every game on their schedule. The win over Alabama verified that, but the Aggies had slipups against Florida and LSU earlier in the year.

Before training camp began, senior running back Ben Malena approached Sumlin about taking an expanded leadership role in order to help the team get to a "championship level." So how's the progress on that front so far?

"I think we're doing a very good job of taking strides to getting to Atlanta," Malena said. "Correcting some mistakes that we made from Week 1 to Week 2 was very good and we're going to need to correct some more stuff, especially going into this game, because they [the Crimson Tide] will be ready coming into Kyle Field."

Quarterback Johnny Manziel is key for sure, but if the team expects to get to Atlanta, it must be more than just Manziel carrying the load. Offensively, that doesn't appear to be an issue thus far. With four capable running backs (Malena, Tra Carson, Brandon Williams, Trey Williams), a veteran offensive line that excelled in the first two games and perhaps one of the nation's best receivers in Mike Evans, there are plenty of weapons for the Aggies to go to.

Defense is where the question marks are now, though the Aggies have a chance to answer some of those question marks on Saturday. They haven't yet had their full complement of defensive players because of injuries and suspensions, but will have virtually their entire first-team unit intact on Saturday. Though Alabama struggled offensively, and particularly on its offensive line, in its season-opening win against Virginia Tech, the Aggies are still expecting a strong effort from the Crimson Tide running game and offense.

"Coach [Nick] Saban is going to do what Coach Saban does," A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "They've won a lot of games doing it. Why change? There's not a dramatic dropoff between last year's team and this year's team. Their left tackle is still really good, their right guard is still really good. They got their feet wet for the first game and now they've had two weeks to kind of prepare and get those things fixed and we're expecting to get their best."

Some have said the Aggies entered the season with a target on their backs, whether it's because of their upstart inaugural season in the SEC or the exploits of Manziel, which have drawn plenty of headlines. In a way, the Aggies almost feel like underdogs though, because of how many around the nation feel that Saban and Co. will successfully redeem themselves with a win on Saturday.

"From last year, us beating them, people didn't expect that," Aggies receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "People probably don't expect it this year. But as I said, we just go week-to-week on a weekly basis and we just try to be 1-0 at the end of the week and that's how we're approaching this game."

No matter what happens, it's important to note that there's a lot of season left after this game. The Aggies have nine more contests, including road trips to Ole Miss and LSU, while Alabama has 10 more games. Despite the buildup, the SEC won't be won or lost on Saturday, though the result could play a critical role in deciding who gets the West division title at the end of the season.

In trying to get the team to a championship level, Sumlin has tried to keep his team focused on the game and not the noise around it while keeping their routine the same. Much like Saban's "The Process" axiom, Sumlin tries to keep his team consistent and avoid allowing them to "ride the wave."

"I'd probably be lying to you if I told you no, [that things haven't changed since last year]," Sumlin said. "In this room, it probably hasn't changed very much just because of our approach day-to-day with the players and our coaches.

“When we leave here, I take out my phone and all you guys are talking about what we're supposed to be and how big this game is and everything else, that's when the problems come,” Sumlin said with a smile.

"I think we're pretty visible right now and because of that, that's what you want as a coach. You come into situations and as things start to progress, you want to be in meaningful games,” he said. “You want your team to have a chance to play in meaningful games -- not just now, but in November."

Or December, in Atlanta.

RB Malena provides leadership and more

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — On the first day of Texas A&M's preseason training camp, senior running back Ben Malena journeyed to the third floor of the Bright Football Complex, where the coaches' offices are located.

His destination was the big office, coach Kevin Sumlin's. Malena wanted to discuss with Sumlin his role on the team. But Malena's purpose wasn't to discuss carries or touches in the Aggies' high-powered, fast-paced offense. It was about leadership, and, more specifically, how he could help provide more of it.

[+] EnlargeBen Malena
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesBen Malena gets some tough yardage against Sam Houston State.
"For a guy to come in and sit down in front of you at your desk and say, 'Coach, can I talk to you for a second? I want to talk to you about my role -- not as a player -- but my role as a leader on this team. What do you think about this? What if I do this?' That shows you the type of maturity that the young man has," Sumlin said. "It shows you the level that he cares."

In Sumlin's first season in Aggieland, Malena showed just how much he cared by his willingness to contribute wherever needed. Although he began the season behind then-senior Christine Michael on the depth chart, Malena eventually seized the starting running back role. But his contributions went far beyond that.

He became a regular on special teams, helping on kick returns, a role he has again this season. He even spent time on the punt coverage team, running downfield to cover punts. He finished as the team's second-leading rusher and rushing leader among running backs last season (808 yards, 8 touchdowns) and was a weapon in the passing game, as well (18 catches, 111 yards, 1 touchdown). He also was lauded by the coaching staff for his work as a pass protector, helping to pick up blitzes from his position.

His start to this season has been strong. He's the team's leading rusher (173 yards, 2 touchdowns) and already has a receiving touchdown. He's averaging an impressive 7.9 yards per carry. More than 63 percent of his carries go for 5 yards or more, and he ranks fourth in the nation among running backs with at least 20 carries in that category.

He is part of what makes the Aggies' backfield a valuable asset.

"This offseason, I tried to improve on every single aspect that you can improve on as a player, whether it's getting stronger and faster, getting smarter mentally for the game, I just tried to improve on every single [aspect]," Malena said. "Also, I tried to improve my leadership skills."

Malena is one of four scholarship running backs, all of whom have carried the ball this season and are expected to be factors in the Aggies' offense. Sophomore Tra Carson, who transferred from Oregon and sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, has also had a productive start to the year with 23 carries for 127 yards and a team-high four rushing touchdowns. Sophomore Trey Williams is the team's primary kick returner and gets carries, but he missed Saturday's win over Sam Houston State with an ankle injury [Sumlin said he'll return this Saturday against Alabama]. And sophomore Brandon Williams, a transfer from Oklahoma, made his Aggies debut against Sam Houston State and scored a touchdown on a 10-yard reception from Johnny Manziel.

"One thing we have in common is work ethic," Malena said. "All of us go out there every day competing because it is, at the same time, a competition. Brandon Williams, like I said, he brings an element to this game that is hard to coach against, and that's speed. Tra Carson is a bigger back, about 230 pounds, and in this league you need a back that can really get the short yardage. And Trey Williams, he's a very electrifying player. He's really special in the return game and also running the ball. With this group, it all starts with me. As a unit, we work well together."

Although the Aggies' style offense is sometimes considered pass-happy because of the frequency of four-wide receiver sets and shotgun formations, Texas A&M has been one of the nation's best rushing teams. Including the ground exploits of quarterback Manziel, who was the SEC's leading rusher last season, the Aggies were 11th nationally in rushing yards per game (242.08) and first downs per rush (29.2 percent) and second in touchdowns per rush (nine percent) in 2012.

The Aggies are in the top 10 in the latter two categories so far this season and are 38th in rushing yards per game (219.5), with Manziel accounting for only for 55 yards thus far.

But it's Malena who sets the tone. A product of Cedar Hill (Texas) High School, he played a limited role as a freshman and saw an increase in time as a sophomore before emerging as the No. 1 back last season. Offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said Malena has come a long way since the current coaching staff arrived.

"I think the biggest improvement with Ben is his body," McKinney said. "He's really worked hard in the weight room to get his body prepared for all the different things he's doing for us, both special teams and offense and things of that nature."

His intelligence has also been an asset, McKinney said.

"From the day we got here and we started installing his offense, Ben Malena displayed that he's a smart football player and has a high IQ," McKinney said. "He's the one guy who in my room has never written anything down when we're going over new ideas and new plays, but he never messes up when he goes out to practice. He's a smart football player."

But Malena's desire to lead might turn out to be his most meaningful contribution to the Aggies this fall. With a battle against No. 1 Alabama looming and the Aggies constantly in the national spotlight for various reasons, some positive and some not, Malena feels as if it's something he can and should do.

"I feel as though, in this conference, with the level of competition throughout the SEC West and the East, I feel as though, in order for teams to take the step to get to championship level, you need to have player leadership also," Malena said. "So I just went up there in Coach Sumlin's office to discuss with him things and ask him for advice for different things that I can do to further help this team get to a championship level."

Aggies win in tuneup for Bama showdown

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
1:30
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — With the biggest game of the season a week away, there's still some good and bad when it comes to Texas A&M. And that should make the Aggies' showdown with Alabama on Sept. 14 even more compelling.

The Aggies ran away with a 65-28 win over FCS power Sam Houston State on Saturday at Kyle Field in a game that provided plenty of positives for A&M but also raises some concerns.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesQuarterback Johnny Manziel, who passed for 403 yards in Texas A&M's win over Sam Houston State, said he had an emotional meeting with his teammates last week after the conclusion of an NCAA investigation.
Saturday was the final dress rehearsal for Texas A&M (2-0) before it opens up SEC play against defending BCS champion Alabama, the nation's No. 1 team. The Aggies defeated the Crimson Tide 29-24 last season in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and will be looking to make it two in a row against coach Nick Saban & Co.

Offensively, the Aggies looked like one of the nation's best teams on Saturday against Sam Houston State, rolling up 714 yards in quarterback Johnny Manziel's first start of the year. The Heisman Trophy winner played a little more than a quarter last week and didn't start while serving a suspension in the first half of a win over Rice.

The redshirt sophomore quarterback showed shades of the player that won the Heisman last season, making a few plays with his feet. He scooted for a 6-yard touchdown run with 5:24 to go in the third quarter that kick-started a string of 21 unanswered points that the Aggies would close the game out with.

He also showed plenty of his signature emotion on the field, including when he lowered his head like a power running back and ran through cornerback Shelby Davis for a would-be 7-yard touchdown run that was reviewed on replay and later turned into a 6-yard gain for stepping out of bounds, setting up a 1-yard Ben Malena touchdown in the second quarter.

"It was just an emotional play and I play with my heart on my sleeve," Manziel said. "That play, I was doing anything I could to get six points on the board and get this team a bigger lead, to, by any means, get this team six points. That's what I was going for."

While his feet were still a factor occasionally, Manziel showed his progression as a pocket passer when planting his feet and throwing the ball downfield. He found his favorite receiver, sophomore Mike Evans (seven catches, 155 yards) plenty of times and threw a picturesque fade pass to freshman Ja'Quay Williams for a 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter. He finished 28 of 41 passing for 403 yards and three touchdown tosses.

"He was very efficient," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "There was some maturity shown on the scrambles, the ability to throw the ball away and not take big losses and take care of the football in times where he might have just slung it up in the middle of the field."

His only significant mistake was an interception thrown when the Aggies were inside the Bearkats' 10 in the first quarter, something Sumlin attributed to a bad play call.

The Aggies were also effective running the ball, compiling 214 yards between five different players, led by Ben Malena (10 carries, 91 yards) and Tra Carson (nine carries, 51 yards) who combined for three scores.

And while the offense functioned smoothly, the area that the Aggies struggled for a second straight week was on defense and specifically, defending the run. Sam Houston State's option attack was effective early, as the Bearkats marched 74 yards on six plays -- all runs -- on their first drive of the game.

For the night, Sam Houston State finished with 240 rushing yards, 170 of which came from running back Timothy Flanders. In the first game of the season, the Aggies allowed 306 rushing yards to Rice, while missing six key defensive players to suspensions (Texas A&M was still missing three starters to suspension on Saturday, plus starting defensive end Julien Obioha, who was injured). There were also big plays given up in the passing game, notably a 75-yard touchdown pass from Brian Bell to Torrance Williams.

With the Crimson Tide looming, the Aggies have plenty of work to do when it comes to shoring up the defense.

"We had our moments," Sumlin said. "You look at about really, four big plays, we can't do that. We'll go back and watch the video and assess where we are. I know one, in particular, was a missed tackle. We had a young guy jump out of a gap and they got out to the edge on us. We've got to continue to keep coaching and I think the addition this week of having [Steven] Jenkins back [will help]."

The Aggies also have health issues to deal with. Safety Floyd Raven sat out the second half because of what Sumlin called a collarbone injury. Obioha didn't play, nor did freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones or sophomore running back Trey Williams. Williams is expected back, Sumlin said after the game, but the status on the others is uncertain at this point.

As for Manziel, it was his first time speaking to the media since SEC media days in July. He touched on his meeting with his teammates last week after the conclusion of an NCAA investigation and noted that it was somewhat emotional.

"I said a lot of good things," Manziel said. "It was kind a little bit of an emotional deal for me getting up [there] and trying to get them fired up and let them know that I'm here and I'm focused on this season and I love each and every one of these guys and that these guys mean the world to me.

"There's so much other stuff that gets played on and is out in the public and we know what's in this building and what's in this room, stays in this room. There's a general love for each and every guy on this team, so that's what we were focusing on and that's the message I was trying to get across."

He said his teammates have provided good support for him during the recent months as he has endured criticism and scrutiny nationally.

"The biggest thing that has helped has been being around these guys here in this building and having my teammates and still being able to be around them," Manziel said. "It was easy to block all the stuff out, get off everything and not read anything and just grow with my teammates and continue to get a better bond with them and just being up here, spending time with them, that was something that was really, really helpful."

Alabama rested with an open date on its schedule this weekend after a season-opening win over Virginia Tech on Aug. 31. The Aggies got to tune up a little more. So who had the advantage? Time will tell, but Manziel feels like the Aggies benefited from playing.

"We had another opponent, another game, a full-speed game to play before they did," Manziel said. "It's hard to simulate a game in practice even though you get to go over more tape and what-not, but we had another game to go out and get some of these young guys up to speed and that's hard to really simulate in practice."

Now, the Aggies turn their attention toward trying to repeat history.

Strong and weak: Texas A&M

July, 8, 2013
7/08/13
9:00
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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.

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