Texas A&M leaves College Station to visit the one-loss Bulldogs (Dawgs, if you’re from southern Mississippi) of Mississippi State in Starkville on Saturday morning.
Dan Mullen and company are fresh off a momentum-halting loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. They look to stay on pace for a breakthrough season as Texas A&M strives for SEC respect.
Tune in at 11 AM for ESPN’s broadcast of the two schools’ first matchup since the 2000 Snow Bowl. Until then, let’s look at the Aggies team with one month of regular-season play remaining.
By now, everyone knows redshirt freshman Johnny “Football” Manziel. He has taken College Station by storm and is already a local legend.
Manziel is currently boasting the best offensive numbers in the SEC by a country mile.
He has thrown for 2,216 yards with a 64.3% completion rate for 16 touchdowns versus six interceptions. In addition to those excellent passing numbers, he leads all SEC rushers for 793 yards on 117 carries for 13 touchdowns. That leads the league in yards and touchdowns while also ranking first in yards-per-carry at 6.8.
There’s no question that he is the most dynamic quarterback in the league after only eight games of college football action.
Johnny must prove that he can take care of the ball and make good decisions in late-game situations when his instincts tell him to press and make a big play. That kind of poise comes with experience, and with learning how to win.
All Aggie fans will agree that he is a winner and will continue to improve under Kliff Kingsbury and Kevin Sumlin’s tutelage.
Behind Manziel are sophomores Jameill Showers and Matt Joeckel. Both backups have seen multiple drives this season thanks to blowouts and are considered competent signal callers, especially Showers, who many predicted to be the Aggies' starting quarterback going into the season.
The Aggies have succeeded with a trio of talented backs, who all possess different strengths and weaknesses.
Junior Ben Malena has seen the bulk of the snaps, as he is the best at pass protection in a pass-happy offense. In addition to pass protection, he has made his presence felt in the Aggies' rushing attack.
Malena has made a living off of gashing opposing defenses up the middle in the various spread sets. He has accumulated 525 yards on just 79 rushes for an average of 6.6 yards per carry. Malena has also added 12 catches for 68 yards and a touchdown to pair with his five rushing scores.
The power back in the rotation is senior Christine Michael. He has seen his role reduced after two consecutive seasons were cut short with lower-body injuries and fumbling issues.
Michael sees the ball most often in traditional running situations and gets extra carries against the more rugged defensive lines the Aggies have faced. The senior has toted the ball 58 times for 271 yards and leads all running backs with six touchdowns.
Freshman Trey Williams is Texas A&M’s Mr. Do-It-All. He handles the kick-return duties and continues to see his role grow every game.
He has logged 216 yards on 45 carries with three touchdowns, most of which came in last week’s drubbing of Auburn. He established career highs in rushes and yards (19 and 109, respectively) with a score, as well as three catches for 24 more yards.
Williams is the Aggies' most explosive back, as well as the best ball catcher out of the backfield.
Most Aggies expected returning seniors Uzoma Nwachukwu and Ryan Swope to be the go-to guys in Kliff Kingsbury’s explosive offense, but the premier wideout—and Manziel’s favorite target—has been fellow redshirt freshman Mike Evans.
At 6’5”, Evans has been the most reliable receiver for the Aggies. He leads the team with 47 catches and 705 yards, but has only managed two touchdowns.
Swope and Nwachukwu have been end-zone vultures, combining for nine scores—five and four, respectively. Swope is second on the team with both 36 receptions and 520 yards gained.
Freshman Thomas Johnson has quietly put up 23 catches for 278 yards, and is likely to increase production as he refines his route running.
Other receivers that have been in the mix include Kenric McNeal, Malcome Kennedy and Sabian Holmes. All three have seen their share of touches in the passing game and have made big plays at one time or another this season.
Texas A&M has a bevy of options for Manziel for both the short and long term. Keep an eye on the nice set of recruits Coach Sumlin already has committed, as well as Sealy High School recruit Ricky Seals-Jones, as the high school season concludes.
Michael Lamothe and Nehemiah Hicks have split the load of tight end and h-back for the Aggies’ offense. Both are used creatively in the rushing attack and in shotgun formations.
Lamothe, a senior, is mostly reserved to blocking assignments, and has managed just one catch for 14 yards against Arkansas.
Hicks is more versatile and has been a player in the passing game, with plays specific designed for his large 6’4” frame. The junior has seven receptions for 60 yards with a long of 16 yards.
Both Lamothe and Hicks are more valuable than the stats indicate, often helping with linebackers in the outside run game while the offensive line eats up the middle.
All of the Aggies' glamorous statistics are due to the spectacular play of the offensive line.
Everyone knows the junior bookends: Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews are future NFL tackles, and have played that way against the nation’s best talent. Both have proved time and again their ability to keep Manziel upright until he goes into street-ball mode, when opponents are forced to relax their rush and try to contain the gutsy freshman.
The unsung hero of the group is senior center Patrick Lewis. At 6’2” and 312 pounds, Lewis is the key to the Aggies' success with their star freshman. His leadership and experience at the position helps simplify Manziel’s duty once the play is communicated to the rest of the team.
Luckily, Texas A&M has Mike Matthews waiting in the wings and learning from Patrick Lewis—otherwise there would be a serious dropoff in protection, regardless of the (hopeful) return of the star tackles.
Sophomore guards Jarvis Harrison and Cedric Ogbuehi fill out the starting unit, and have the benefit of being surrounded by loads of experience.
The experience ends with the starters, since almost all the reserve lineman are freshman trying to learn the craft. While they don’t post eye-popping numbers, the core of the Aggies' offensive talent and experience lies in the big boys up front.
Texas A&M’s defensive line is led by star defensive end Damontre Moore.
Moore has spent the majority of the year leading the nation in tackles for loss and sacks—his stat line is staggering for a player that plays with his hand in the dirt.
He leads the team in tackles with 65, tackles for loss with 18 and sacks with 10.5, as well as five quarterback hurries. Those numbers have earned him consideration for the honors of defensive player of the year early this season.
Moore has made the transition from All-American Von Miller almost seamless, which many thought to be unreachable expectations put on a sophomore last season.
Freshman Julien Obioha has earned the right to start opposite Moore, and has shown improvement as the season has worn on. He has posted 15 tackles and a sack through his first eight college games.
The interior of the defensive line is a feisty bunch that makes up for their lack of size comparative to other SEC defensive tackles. They start junior Kirby Ennis and senior Spencer Nealy, and are spelled by fellow senior Jonathan Mathis. Sophomore Ivan Robinson has gotten looks in most games, but is also undersized.
Outside of Moore, the defensive line doesn’t look like much on paper, but it has been effective at allowing the linebackers to make plays at or near the line of scrimmage.
The lack of depth at the defensive line is one of the Aggies’ glaring vulnerabilities. Coach Kevin Sumlin has reiterated his team's need for depth along the front line.
The bulk of experience for Mark Snyder’s defense is at the linebacker position.
The linebackers are led by senior Sean Porter, whose stats don’t begin to tell the story of his presence on the field—just ask Hugh Freeze and the Rebels of Ole Miss.
It was Porter who blew up the play and allowed middle linebacker Jonathan Stewart to make the game-saving tackle on fourth down. Sean Porter has logged 43 tackles and 2.5 sacks at strongside linebacker for the Aggies.
Opposite Porter is junior Steven Jenkins, who has had a nice season despite a suspension. Jenkins has compiled 44 tackles and two sacks while only starting five games in 2012.
Jonathan Stewart has become the Aggies' garbage man. He is an imposing 6’4”, 244-pound rock in the center of the defense that sticks his nose into almost every play. Stewart has 51 tackles and 1.5 sacks to this point in the season.
Youngsters Donnie Baggs, Justin Bass, and Michael Richardson could be called upon if an injury occurs. The key to Snyder’s defensive unit is the continued nastiness of the linebackers at the point of attack.
Tackling continues to be a point of emphasis for head coach Kevin Sumlin, and the brunt of the expectations lie on the linebacking core.
Secondary issues have been well noted in Texas A&M’s past as one of the main reasons for a lack of sustainable success.
Dustin Harris has been around for some of those awful days, but he is now a confident cornerback who has seen it all.
He has been the guy left out on an island in situations when the Aggies had to focus on the run against tough matchups like LSU, and has produced a team-high nine pass breakups.
Due to certain matchups, the coaching staff has moved a core of six or seven guys all around to fit the needs of that week.
The Aggies lost senior Steven Campbell earlier in the year to concussions, which has concluded his playing career as a safety precaution.
Newcomers De’Vante Harris and Tremaine Jacobs have had to step up right away and contribute.
Deshazor Everett and Howard Matthews have had to play various roles for the secondary, and have improved with the season.
No one has seen his role increase more than junior Toney Hurd, Jr. He has started just five games but has made 44 tackles, which is tied for third on the team.
The only player to start every game for the Aggies in the defensive backfield has been Steven Terrell. The senior has contributed 34 tackles and has a team-leading two interceptions.
There is no doubt that the defensive backs for the No. 16 Aggies will be crucial in the last month of the season, and will ultimately decide the fate of Texas A&M’s inaugural season in the SEC.
Coach Brian Polian leads an Aggies' special teams unit that has been very average in SEC play.
Most everyone is focused on the struggles of freshman field goal kicker Taylor Bertolet. He has missed a couple of extra points and has missed important field goals in both losses at Kyle Field.
There is no doubt that he has a strong leg, and the staff has already shown their willingness to stick with him. He will be very important down the stretch, so a few confidence-building kicks in the first and second quarters of games will go a long way to calm his nerves.
Punt returner Dustin Harris has a 96-yard punt return for a touchdown, but he also muffed a key punt in Oxford against Ole Miss. He has been held to very minimal yardage in SEC play this year, and may be due for a big play soon.
Trey Williams, the Aggies' freshman kick returner, almost saved the LSU game with a 76-yard return that was one cut away from a Kyle Field eruption in the fourth quarter.
Ryan Epperson has been solid in the punting game, and has been effective at pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line.
The special teams unit has potential but needs to be mistake free as crunch time approaches in SEC play.