SEC: Zaycoven Henderson

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Mark Snyder has been down this road before, so before Texas A&M took the field on Thursday against South Carolina, he made sure to look into the eyes of his freshmen.

After a nightmarish 2013 defensive campaign, one which included roughly a dozen freshmen in the two-deep -- many of which had their hands full trying to figure out where to line up and what to do -- the Aggies' defensive coordinator knew this group of freshmen was different but surveyed them visually prior to their season opener. He searched for evidence of nerves, jitters, any sign that they'd be overwhelmed playing on the road in the SEC at a venue where the home team possessed an 18-game winning streak.

He found no such thing.

"I was looking pregame, I promise you, at the hotel and pregame on the field," Snyder said. "I really liked the looks in their eyes. These young guys didn't bat an eye. It was really refreshing to see."

[+] EnlargeMyles Garrett and Dylan Thompson
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsTrue freshman Myles Garrett had a sack and two quarterback hurries last week against South Carolina.
Many of the Aggies' true freshmen and members of the 2014 recruiting class played like veterans in Texas A&M's 52-28 destruction of South Carolina last week. And that's a relief for Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies staff.

Nine members of Texas A&M's 2014 class saw the field in the season opener, eight of which were true freshmen (one, Joshua Reynolds, is a junior college transfer and a sophomore). Most of the true freshmen were on defense: defensive linemen Myles Garrett, Zaycoven Henderson, Qualen Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson, safety Armani Watts and cornerback Nick Harvey.

Garrett and Watts separated themselves as playmakers in their respective debuts. Garrett, a five-star defensive end and the No. 4 overall player in the 2014 class, recorded a sack and two quarterback hurries and was active against opposing offensive linemen throughout the night.

"The thing that doesn't show up in the statistics is the number of times he got pressure on the quarterback and forced a bad throw," Snyder said. "Myles has a ways to go; he's got to learn the defense, he left a lot of plays out there. He had the opportunity to have a three or four sack game. He'll learn and grow from that. But the pressure he put on Dylan Thompson with some of those errant throws, that's as good as a sack in my book."

While Garrett's appearance was highly anticipated and almost expected, Watts, an ESPN 300 recruit, was a pleasant surprise at a critical position. The Aggies are sorely seeking upgraded safety play this season and Watts got the start at free safety and performed exceptionally, recording and interception and two pass breakups, including one that saved a touchdown. He, too, didn't seem nervous, according to Sumlin.

"Was the atmosphere, was the stage, was that going to be too big for them?" Sumlin said. "It's pretty good when you have a guy like Armani Watts say, 'This is the best day of my life.' So I don't think he was really worried about playing. I kind of like that. We need more guys like that."

It wasn't all roses. Snyder referenced the fact that a few of his young defensive linemen, Cunningham, Henderson and Johnson specifically, got "baptized" by South Carolina's veteran offensive linemen. And Noil, who played relatively well offensively at receiver, did drop a pass, which offensive coordinator Jake Spavital feels is easily corrected. But there is time and room for improvement. More importantly, the emergence of many of these freshmen is significant for the Aggies, who had several questions to be answered at key positions across the board.

Part of those contributions are a byproduct of recruiting at an elite level, which the Aggies have done since Sumlin arrived. They turned in two consecutive top-10 recruiting classes and they're on track for a third straight in this cycle [the Aggies' class is currently fourth nationally]. Rankings that high means elite players are being signed, several of which are good enough to get on the field immediately rather than having to redshirt.

And the nine 2014 class members who played won't be the only ones. Expect more to see the field Saturday when the Aggies host Lamar.

Players say the added contributions are a significant boost for the team.

"[It's a] very big relief," middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni said. "They've done well in practice and the weight room, all that kind of stuff, but it's very big to see them actually come out and perform in a game. If they keep that up, I think we'll be in great shape."
Texas A&M hauled in the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class in February. You don’t rank that high in the national recruiting rankings unless you’ve brought in some big-time freshmen, ones who are poised to make an early impact. As the Aggies’ season opener on Thursday approaches, let’s look at five true freshmen expected to contribute early and often:

LB Otaro Alaka: The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Alaka, the 12th-ranked outside linebacker nationally in the 2014 class, isn’t listed as the starter at strongside linebacker, but he’ll definitely see the field. Alaka pushed senior starter Donnie Baggs at the position in camp. When defensive coordinator Mark Snyder wants to get additional speed on the field, look for Alaka to be one of the guys out there.

DE Myles Garrett: The No. 4 overall prospect in last year’s ESPN 300, Garrett has been as advertised through summer workouts and preseason training camp. He arrived in Aggieland with a college-ready body (6-5, 255) and will figure into the rotation immediately at the Aggies’ rush end position. This summer, Kevin Sumlin said "I'll just say this: Our players have a lot of respect for Myles Garrett."

DT Zaycoven Henderson: This late steal from Texas appears to be one of the best finds the Aggies stumbled upon in the class. The East Texas product is strong has good quickness for his 6-1, 315-pound frame and will be a key part of the defensive tackle rotation, an area the Aggies need depth. The four-star prospect enrolled in January thus was able to participate in both spring football and August camp.

WR Speedy Noil: After a good spring and strong training camp, Noil landed a starting job at two positions -- receiver and punt returner [last year’s leading punt returner, De’Vante Harris, is injured]. The five-star prospect and No. 7 player in the ESPN 300 is nicknamed "Speedy" for a reason. He will see the ball in his hands plenty, and the Aggies are expecting him to do big things when that happens.

FS Armani Watts: After a rough 2013 at the safety positions, the Aggies could use an upgrade. Watts hopes to provide that, earning a starting job by showing impressive range, good tackling and earning the trust of Snyder in training camp. Strong safety and returning starter Howard Matthews will help Watts get lined up properly so the ESPN 300 recruit can focus on his job at free safety. Watts is a versatile talent.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M begins preseason training camp today. In about four weeks, they'll take the field at South Carolina to open the 2014 season. Here are some things to watch throughout camp:

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesFormer three-star recruit Kenny Hill, a sophomore, played in five games last season. Could he be the successor to Johnny Manziel?
1. The quarterback battle: Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen? That's the question that has been asked and will continue to be until coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital make a decision on who the starting quarterback will be on Aug. 28 at South Carolina. Hill, a sophomore, has slightly more experience after seeing some playing time in a backup role last season. Allen, the true freshman, enrolled early in January to catch up. Allen had a solid spring, as did Hill until an arrest for public intoxication caused him to miss the final two scrimmages and the final week of spring practice. But both players were told they were on even footing entering summer 7-on-7 workouts. How much each has progressed in the past three months will be displayed early on in training camp. Expect a decision midway through August.

2. Defensive line depth: The Aggies lost two starting defensive linemen for off-the-field reasons: defensive end Gavin Stansbury (left team for personal reasons) and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden (dismissed after two arrests). For a team that struggled to stop the run last season, that doesn't help as the unit tries to find the quality depth necessary to succeed in the SEC. Fortunately for the Aggies, they get two players who missed spring football because of injuries back for training camp -- sophomore defensive ends Jay Arnold and Daeshon Hall, both of whom saw playing time last season. There are also several veterans (Julien Obioha, Alonzo Williams, Tyrell Taylor) and youngsters (Hardreck Walker, Justin Manning, Zaycoven Henderson) not to mention a few incoming recruits to help the unit, but the Aggies have to find answers quick to improve on a disastrous 2013.

3. Safety play: Sumlin hasn't been shy about saying it and it's true: the Aggies have to get better play from their safeties. They return three players who started last season -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt. Matthews got positive reviews from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder in the spring. Keep an eye on Devonta Burns, who saw time in the spring at safety and nickel cornerback, as someone who could be in the mix. And an influx of 2014 recruits could help here as well.

4. Fabulous freshmen: The Aggies' 2014 class was a top-five haul for a reason. They brought in some big-time talent, so don't be surprised if some of those freshmen make waves quickly in camp. Receiver Speedy Noil already impressed in the spring and will look to build on that this month. Five-star defensive end Myles Garrett is the highest-ranked player nationally the Aggies have signed since Reggie McNeal in the 2002 class. With depth concerns on the defensive line and Garrett's college-ready physique, it's safe to say he'll find a way on the field in short order. Henderson, who was an early enrollee, likely figures into the rotation at defensive tackle. And of course, all eyes are on Allen at quarterback to see if he can win the starting job.

5. Right side of the O-line: Sophomore Germain Ifedi, who started all of 2013 at right guard, saw much time at right tackle during spring drills and is listed as the starter there heading into camp. If that holds, the battle on the offensive line -- a unit that returns four of five starters -- will likely be at right guard where Joseph Cheek saw first-team action and junior college transfer Jermaine Eluemunor saw second-team work in spring. Veteran guard and starter Jarvis Harrison, who missed spring because of shoulder surgery, should be ready to go at left guard. He has a capable backup behind him in Garrett Gramling, who started two games last season and saw virtually all the first-team work at left guard this spring. Left tackle (Cedric Ogbuehi) and center (Mike Matthews) is set in stone.

A few other notes:

" Redshirt freshman cornerback Victor Davis, who was arrested on a shoplifting charge in his hometown of Rosenberg, Texas, last month, is still serving an indefinite suspension. Sumlin said on Wednesday that Davis still has some things to do internally in order to get back in the team's good graces.

" Sumlin noted that every one of the class of 2014 recruits is qualified academically and on campus. Kealvin "Tank" Davis, the Aggies' offensive tackle recruit from Garland (Texas) Lakeview Centennial, was the last player Texas A&M was waiting on in that regard and he arrived on campus Wednesday and will be ready to go. This is the second consecutive year the Aggies have not lost a signee to qualification issues (the 2013 class only had one player who didn't make it to campus, Kohl Stewart, who was a first-round pick in the MLB draft).

" The Aggies will practice in helmets only Friday and Saturday, have meetings only on Sunday (no practice), helmets and shoulder pads on Monday and Tuesday and they'll have their first full-padded practice on Wednesday. Thursday will be their first two-a-day practice followed by a single practice on Aug. 8, then a scrimmage on Aug. 9.

A defense that struggled mightily in 2013 will go into the 2014 season without two of its top players. That’s not what Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder needs as he tries to rebuild the Aggies' defense, but that’s the hand he is dealt after the news of the dismissal of starters Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Golden
John Korduner/Icon SMIFormer ESPN 300 recruit Isaiah Golden, who played as a true freshman in 2013, is one of two Aggies who were dismissed from the program on Tuesday.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin made the announcement on Tuesday. The Aggies will enter the fall without two players who were All-SEC freshman team selections.

But it’s a decision Sumlin had to make. Both Claiborne and Golden were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery on Tuesday from an incident that occurred on May 23. Both have already had second chances (Claiborne was on his third), so they were already on thin ice. The seriousness of the charges made the decision easy for Sumlin.

Claiborne emerged as perhaps the defense’s best player late last season after he began to find his groove as a middle linebacker, which isn’t his natural position. He finished the season with 89 tackles in his 12 games, nine of which came as starts.

Golden, meanwhile, was forced into the starting lineup after the Aggies lost senior Kirby Ennis to a season-ending knee injury. With the kind of size (6-foot-2, 310) the Aggies were looking for in a defensive tackle, Golden held his own well as a true freshman.

Both would have started this fall, which means the Aggies must come up with new plans to replace them. Claiborne would have likely been the starting weakside linebacker as Jordan Mastrogiovanni has emerged as the team’s new middle linebacker.

The absence of Golden makes a January recruiting coup by the Aggies even bigger. In mid-January, the Aggies were able to flip four-star defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, who was originally committed to Texas. An early enrollee, Henderson was on campus shortly thereafter and participated in spring football with Texas A&M. He showed flashes of potential, enough to get practice time with the first team and give the coaching staff optimism that he can contribute quickly.

Now, Henderson could be a starting candidate at defensive tackle, along with sophomore Hardreck Walker, who played as a true freshman last season. The Aggies also have an incoming recruit in ESPN 300 defensive tackle DeShawn Washington, who will join the team this summer. Their top defensive recruit from the 2013 class, Justin Manning, redshirted last season but saw plenty of repetitions this spring. One of those two might have to get game-ready sooner rather than later.

Losing Claiborne is a significant blow as well, but fortunately, the Aggies are building solid depth at linebacker and should have a myriad of options. Two outside linebackers in particular, A.J. Hilliard and Shaan Washington, turned in good showings during spring practice and are likely to fight for a starting spot in August. Hilliard transferred from TCU and sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, and Washington found himself in a special teams role last season, as well as a reserve linebacker. They have plenty of ability, but neither have much experience, which is the quandary the Aggies found themselves in last season en route to a horrific defensive showing. The Aggies were last or near-last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories in 2013.

Senior Donnie Baggs, who started early last season and played plenty, likely figures into a significant role somewhere as an outside linebacker. He received praise from linebackers coach Mark Hagen this spring. The Aggies also have incoming outside linebacker recruits in ESPN 300 duo Otaro Alaka (who they flipped from Texas) and Josh Walker.

Another linebacker who showed some promise in the spring is one who has been around but hasn’t seen much of the field -- senior Justin Bass. One of these players will have to emerge as the Aggies search for options to replace the once-promising Claiborne.
There are still more than three months until Texas A&M plays its season opener at South Carolina, but it's never too soon to look at which players could be playing an increased role this season. Players who haven't seen much field time -- or newcomers who just arrived on campus -- received a chance to show how much progress they've made during spring football. Here are five players on the Aggies' defense who gained some momentum and could carve out roles for themselves this fall:

DB Devonta Burns: Depth in the secondary -- particularly at safety -- was among the most significant concerns for Texas A&M coming into the spring, but Burns' consistent play and versatility during spring football provided secondary coach Terry Joseph with another option. Burns, a junior, has been seldom used in his time in Aggieland but began to find a role on special teams last fall. Head coach Kevin Sumlin noted multiple times this spring how much Burns has progressed. He's probably not a candidate to earn a starting spot in the fall but after seeing practice time both at safety and as a nickel cornerback in the spring, he is a player who has begun to earn the trust of the coaching staff when needed to contribute and could see a regular role in the defensive backfield in 2014.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Hilliard
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAfter transferring from TCU, A.J. Hilliard should contribute to Texas A&M's linebackers unit this fall.
DT Zaycoven Henderson: It's interesting that Henderson -- someone the Aggies didn't initially offer in the recruiting process -- emerged as someone who could contribute quickly. After taking Texas' top defensive tackle in the 2014 class (DeShawn Washington), the Aggies held off on heavily pursuing Henderson until he decommitted from Texas in January and became available. The Aggies' quick courtship paid off, and Henderson enrolled early and quickly found himself excelling on the defensive line during spring football. The 6-foot-1, 310-pound true freshman will have to work on getting into better shape during the summer, but if he can, he has the kind of quickness and explosiveness to play a contributing role -- perhaps a significant one -- on the Aggies' defensive interior come August.

LB A.J. Hilliard: Someone who Sumlin long pursued (the head coach recruited Hilliard when he was at Houston and also immediately upon landing the Texas A&M job in late 2011 and early 2012, but Hilliard signed with TCU in 2012). He transferred to Aggieland in 2013, and after sitting out a season per NCAA transfer rules, he showed signs this spring that he could be a contributor at linebacker. The Aggies used Hilliard in several linebacker spots in the spring, and he proved versatile enough to handle those responsibilities. At 6-2 and 225 pounds, Hilliard has good speed and showed consistent improvement. Look for him to find his way on the field this season.

LB Jordan Mastrogiovanni: After having a glassy-eyed freshman season, Mastrogiovanni showed significant progress in spring football. Both Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder praised the performance of the 6-3, 235-pound middle linebacker, and Sumlin went as far to say that Mastrogiovanni emerged as the leader of the defense. Considering how important the position is that he plays, that's meaningful for Texas A&M. He's the projected starter at middle linebacker after playing a part-time role last season, and the staff has high hopes for him in 2014.

LB Shaan Washington: Like Mastrogiovanni, Washington received some playing time as a true freshman last fall. He played at both linebacker and on special teams and brings versatility to the table. He was a safety at Alexandria (La.) High School and has the ability to drop into coverage or rush the passer off the edge. He'll be among several outside linebackers battling for a starting spot, and his role figures to increase on the field this season.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Building the proper depth along the offensive and defensive lines has been one of Texas A&M's chief goals since joining the SEC.

In a league often dominated by line-of-scrimmage play, the Aggies know they have to be up to par if they want to be long-term contenders in the conference. On the offensive line, that hasn't been an issue. They've stayed relatively healthy and had high-level players across the front five.

Zaycovian Henderson
William Wilkerson/ESPNEarly enrollee Zaycoven Henderson is making an impact at Texas A&M.
On defense, it's another story.

While the Aggies had the luxury of a mostly veteran line and a highly productive defensive end in Damontre Moore in 2012, their inaugural SEC season, the 2013 season brought something totally different. The Aggies were young, inexperienced and not particularly deep as they continued to recruit in an effort to get better numbers on the defensive line.

After the Aggies' 13th practice of the spring on Wednesday, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder indicated that they're making progress toward that effort.

"Up front for the first time, we're going to be able to roll people," Snyder said. "I told [defensive line coach] Terry [Price] yesterday that when we get to the fall, we're going to have to practice our rotations, which is a great thing."

Snyder and Price could look at opponents such as Alabama, Auburn and LSU last season with envy. Those programs have enough talent on their defensive fronts to freely substitute and not worry about a drop-off in level of play. Texas A&M hasn't had that luxury the last two seasons, but with a heavy focus on defensive line recruiting in recent seasons and a highly regarded group coming in from the 2014 recruiting class, the Aggies are taking steps toward having that ability.

One benefit is that the Aggies return virtually their entire defensive line from 2013. Those same players who were rushed into duty as youngsters, such as defensive tackles Isaiah Golden and Hardreck Walker and defensive ends Daeshon Hall and Jay Arnold, will no longer be freshmen and have a year of SEC experience under their belts.

Add into the mix five-star prospect Myles Garrett, ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham and four-star defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson as part of a five-man defensive line class, and suddenly the pieces begin to come in place.

Garrett, Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson are a trio of defensive ends due in Aggieland in the summer and it has pushed the incumbent defensive ends, such as junior Julien Obioha, to raise their level of play this spring.

"Obioha's fighting for his life because competition makes us all better and he knows what's coming," Snyder said.

Henderson is the only one of the five defensive line recruits to enroll in January and he'll be joined in the summer by Deshawn Washington. Henderson has already made waves in his short time on campus, but he still has progress to make this summer.

"(The new) guys, (they) don't know how to practice. (Henderson is) a little bit out of shape," Snyder said. "He does have a big rear end and he's a plugger in the middle. When he's fresh, he's not bad. ... Right now he's three plays and he's done. He's going to bring some beef up front for us."

Veterans such as Obioha, senior defensive end Gavin Stansbury and junior defensive tackle Alonzo Williams, who have two years of experience, are expected to have significant roles again this season. With those returnees, a redshirt freshman entering the mix [Justin Manning], the returning youngsters and incoming recruits on the way, the future on the defensive front looks a little bit better for the Aggies after a disastrous 2013 on defense.

"We're not there," Snyder said of the defensive depth. "We still need another recruiting class, but we're way, way, way closer."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M’s work toward putting a defensive product on the field that is drastically better than the one that lined up in 2013 is among the most important offseason tasks.

Climbing out of the SEC cellar in major defensive statistical categories is critical if the Aggies wish to succeed in the SEC West. Central to that goal is the performance of the Aggies’ defensive line, a unit that is a work in progress this spring.

[+] Enlarge Julien Obioha
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJulien Obioha is a season contributor on the Aggies' DL. Now he's looking for some help.
There’s a mix of missing bodies due to injury (defensive ends Jay Arnold, Daeshon Hall and Tyrone Taylor) as well as one to a suspension (Isaiah Golden, who recently withdrew from school but is expected back). That has given a chance for new faces to get turns in the rotation and show their worthiness to the coaching staff.

“Zaycoven [Henderson] has continued to impress,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said of the true freshman, who enrolled in January.

Henderson, at 6-foot-1 and 310 pounds, appears to be a possible instant-impact player. The four-star 2014 prospect, who was previously committed to TCU and Texas before eventually landing in Aggieland, brings the size and ability the Aggies need to improve their quality and depth at defensive tackle. That’s significant for a run defense that allowed 222 rushing yards per game and ranked 110th nationally (as well as last in the SEC) in that area.

Another defensive tackle making waves this month is one from the previous recruiting class: 2013 signee Justin Manning.

Ranked as the top defensive tackle in the state of Texas in his class, and the ninth-best nationally, Manning didn’t see a snap of game action last fall while he redshirted. But Golden’s absence has allowed Manning to get some time in the two-deep this spring and show the improvements he has made.

“[He] showed some twitch that he had in high school,” Sumlin said. “He lost a little weight; when he got here he was out of shape. He has come on.”

If Henderson and Manning can contribute, that helps bolster the Aggies up the middle, where they already have veteran Alonzo Williams and sophomore Hardreck Walker, who also contributed as a true freshman. With ESPN 300 defensive tackle DeShawn Washington arriving this summer and Golden expected to return, the Aggies could begin to show the kind of depth Sumlin has been pining for since taking over the program.

At defensive end, there’s a mix of veterans and youth. Julien Obioha, who has been a starter since his true freshman season, is now a junior. Senior Gavin Stansbury is coming off his best season in Aggieland, showing flashes of his potential last fall. Senior Tyrell Taylor is back also and has been getting turns this spring.

The two young players at the position who are sitting out with injuries this spring -- Arnold and Hall -- both saw time as true freshmen last season, suggesting a promising future for each. And in the summer, the Aggies will welcome the services of five-star recruit Myles Garrett as well as ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham and three-star prospect Jarrett Johnson.

Obioha said he is looking forward to the increased depth.

“I’m really excited,” he said. “My first couple of years here I had to play 60-70 plays [per game] and you don’t want to play that much. When you think about a two-deep or a three-deep, you want to play maybe 35 plays and having those 35 plays be where you can come 100 percent every play and you’re not tired.”

Defensive line coach Terry Price’s message to his group this spring has been clear.

“Last year, bottom of the SEC, bottom 25 in the nation, that’s not going to happen this year, that’s been the message,” Obioha said. “We’re going to be completely different this year from the bottom to the top and it all starts with the D-line.”

Opening spring camp: Texas A&M

February, 27, 2014
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Schedule: The Aggies begin spring practice on Friday and will go through the first week of April, while taking off spring break week in between. Because of the redevelopment project of Kyle Field, the Aggies will not have their annual maroon-and-white spring game.

What’s new: The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator (Jake Spavital, previously A&M's quarterbacks coach) and a new secondary coach (Terry Joseph, previously at Nebraska and replacing departed secondary coach Marcel Yates, who is now at Boise State). Aside from that, the coaching staff stayed stable and most of the newness will come on the field, as the Aggies face life post-Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews.

[+] EnlargeCedric Ogbuehi
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherWhoever Texas A&M names at quarterback will have Cedric Ogbuehi protecting him at left tackle.
On the move: Offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi moves from right tackle to left tackle to fill the void left by Jake Matthews. On defense, linebacker Darian Claiborne -- who started nine games at middle linebacker -- moves to his natural position of weakside linebacker.

New faces: Texas A&M had seven recruits who enrolled in January and who will be available for spring football: quarterback Kyle Allen, junior college offensive linemen Jermaine Eluemunor and Avery Gennesy, offensive lineman J.J. Gustafson, defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, receiver Speedy Noil and junior college receiver Joshua Reynolds.

Also, outside linebacker A.J. Hilliard -- a transfer from TCU -- will go through his second spring in Aggieland, but 2014 will be the first year he is eligible to play for A&M after sitting out the 2013 season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Question marks: Some of the biggest question marks going into spring practice are related to off-the-field issues. Head coach Kevin Sumlin hasn't publicly commented on defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and Claiborne, both of whom were arrested over the weekend on separate charges. Athletics department policy calls for them to be suspended immediately and indefinitely while things are sorted out, but how much time will they miss this spring? As for on the field, most of the questions exist on a defense that was last in the SEC in points allowed, yards allowed, rushing and red zone efficiency last season. Will the young defensive line show improvement? Will the secondary play, specifically from the safeties, get better? Can two new faces at linebacker help the cause?

Key battle: The main one everyone will watch is at quarterback, where senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and Allen will square off. At right tackle, expect the junior college transfers, Eluemunor and Gennesy, to compete for the starting job initially. There are receiver positions up for grabs and a host of candidates. There's a spot at strongside linebacker up for grabs as well.

Breaking out: With Mike Evans gone, there are a lot of catches and yards to be had. Only one starter returns at receiver (Malcome Kennedy), but look for one of the young up-and-comers to break out. That guy could be Ricky Seals-Jones, who missed most of last season with a knee injury that he suffered in the season opener against Rice. Seals-Jones is big (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), fast and can be a matchup problem wherever the Aggies put him. Also keep an eye at running back for potential breakout players. The team's two leading rushers the last two seasons -- Manziel and running back Ben Malena -- are gone, so someone has to get those carries. Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams will get the chance to prove their worth, and someone will emerge as the No. 1 back on the depth chart.

Don’t forget about: Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris. For much of last season, you could say Everett was the Aggies' best and most versatile defensive player, flip-flopping from cornerback to safety and vice versa. His versatility gives the Aggies options in the secondary. Harris showed significant improvement last season as a sophomore over his true freshman season in 2012, when he started right out of the gate. If those two remain at corner, their veteran presence will provide some stability in the defensive backfield, and both have shown the ability to be playmakers.

All eyes on: The coordinators. Mark Snyder had a strong first season as the Aggies' defensive coordinator in 2012, but last season's defensive performance had Aggies frustrated. Everyone, including Snyder and his staff, is looking for significant improvement from a group that will be a year older after having a dozen freshmen on the defensive two-deep depth chart at times last season. On offense, Spavital takes over as the play-caller, a duty he assumed before the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. He'll call the plays straight from the sideline and, as the quarterbacks coach, should have a symbiotic relationship with Manziel's successor. It will be interesting to see what wrinkles are added to the offense and what it transforms to under the 28-year-old's watch.

New-school recruiting for Ole Miss, Texas

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Their paths don’t cross much on the recruiting trail, and what they’re selling isn’t all that similar.

Texas offers tradition and the 16-year track record Mack Brown has built, the national titles he’s won and played for, the titles he expects to play for again soon. Ole Miss has traditions, too, but it’s now a younger program led by second-year coach Hugh Freeze that’s trying to rise up in the SEC.

Old School vs. New School? Not quite, but not far off in the eyes of some recruits.

The matchup this Saturday of No. 25 Ole Miss and Texas is no doubt an intriguing one when viewed through the lens of recruiting. Both schools are among the nation’s best on that front.

Texas has had top 10-ranked recruiting classes in seven of the past eight years. Being a power in those rankings is nothing new for the Longhorns. But in Freeze’s first year, Ole Miss stunned the recruiting world by signing the No. 5 class in the country, highlighted by No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche, five-star receiver Laquon Treadwell and several other four-stars who will take the field Saturday night.

“He’s done a great job,” Texas coach Mack Brown said of Freeze. “I can’t remember what they did after our game, but they finished very strong, had the best recruiting year in the country and now they’ve got a great start. It’s great timing for us to bring a really good SEC team in here and challenge us before we get started in conference play. I’m excited about the challenge.”

Ole Miss went 7-6, but Freeze still capitalized on the annual phenomenon of coaches having first-year recruiting success. The relentless efforts he and his assistants make in recruiting are drawing attention.

There was also good fortune. Nkemdiche’s brother played for Ole Miss. Treadwell’s best friend did, too. Freeze proudly said on signing day that those ins were “God’s favor to us,” though the popular (and unproven) assumption among skeptics was that the Rebels had cheated.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
AP Photo/David TulisThe nation's No. 1 overall recruit, Robert Nkemdiche, led Ole Miss' recruiting success.
One thing was certain: Ole Miss sent a message on Feb. 6 when Nkemdiche, No. 1 tackle Laremy Tunsil and No. 2 safety Tony Conner all made signing-day decisions for the Rebels on national TV.

Jamal Adams was watching. The ESPN 300 safety from Lewisville (Texas) Hebron called that Ole Miss class “the best yet” and is convinced the Rebels are on the rise.

“They have the potential to go far in the next few years,” Adams said.

Adams has both Ole Miss and Texas in his top six and will take official visits to Oxford next month and Texas in November. He said most schools recruit him the same, but there is one thing Freeze’s staff does that caught him by surprise.

“They stay on you, giving you Bible verses every morning,” Adams said. “It’s cool at times.”

Ole Miss has offered more than 25 recruits from the state of Texas in this class and signed three Texans last year. Landing a big fish like Adams would do wonders for Freeze’s goal of making his program a national recruiting power.

"Recruiting in Texas has been big to us,” Freeze said Monday. “We've certainly picked up some momentum there. Going over there and doing well would provide dividends.”

Adams is as critical a target as any for Texas right now, a kid Mack Brown and his coaching staff has been recruiting for years. The approach they’ve taken -- not just with Adams, but all targets -- has undergone impressive changes in the past six months.

The hiring of Patrick Suddes in March to lead a new player personnel department has been a boon for the Longhorns’ recruiting efforts. They’re working hard to shed that “old school” label and modernize how Texas evaluates and pursues prospects.

Three-star Longview (Texas) defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson is keeping a close eye on both schools. He recently decommitted from TCU and has Texas and Ole Miss in his new top six. The moment he received an offer from the Rebels was a special one.

“I was like, dang. Nkemdiche, the No. 1 defensive end in the nation, is going to Ole Miss. And then when I got the offer, I was pumped up about it,” Henderson said. “I was like, ‘Man, I can go play with the No. 1 player in the nation.’ Not everybody can say that.”

He was raised by diehard Texas fans with Longhorn emblems on all their cars. Mom and dad love Texas, and his best friend Dorian Leonard has already committed to UT. He’ll visit Austin next weekend and has a feeling both schools can be atop the college football world someday soon.

“Texas is very similar to Ole Miss in their recruiting style,” Henderson said. “Either you want to go to Texas or you don’t. They want to know that from the start, if you have any interest in them. If you do, they want to talk to you.”

Like the Twitter-savvy Freeze, Suddes has helped refresh Texas’ recruiting methods on social media. On the first day they were permitted, he and Mack Brown were up late into the night sending Twitter and Facebook messages to 2015 recruits on Sept. 1.

They’ve held new recruiting events and ramped up their efforts with that 2015 class to the point that they’re in the lead for most of the state’s best. The point isn’t to put together one great class. It’s to stay ahead and work on two or three at a time, advancing your message and brand in as many ways as possible.

Freeze undoubtedly subscribes to that philosophy. He admitted on signing day it takes two or three elite classes to build a title contender. He proved in Year 1 he’ll compete with anyone.

Now that includes Texas. The Rebels and Longhorns will square off Saturday night at DKR, but that won’t be the last time they battle.

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