Throughout the course of the season, it has been no secret the Texas A&M defense has failed to live up to expectations set by the rest of the league. Fortunately, the offensive unit—led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel—has been able to pick up the slack, guiding A&M to an 8-2 (4-2 SEC) record.
Entering the final two weeks of the season, though, against No. 22 LSU and No. 8 Missouri—each on the road—A&M's offense is likely to need some assistance in order for the Aggies to emerge victorious.
In steps A&M's special teams, which has found its rhythm the past two games and is set to add the needed dimension for the Aggies to edge LSU in Death Valley and Mizzou at Memorial Stadium.
Crafted and schemed by veteran special teams coordinator Jeff Banks, the unit has proceeded to block two punts and a field goal while returning a kickoff for a touchdown (despite it being called back for unsportsmanlike conduct) en masse in wins over UTEP and Mississippi State.
A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said Banks has aided the team tremendously the whole season, adding an aggressive edge to a unit that has underperformed in recent years.
"There is no doubt [Banks] has brought a real solid and aggressive dimension to our football team that has helped us," Sumlin said. "Blocking punts really sets a tone. If you need another reason, it gives you momentum, it keeps them on edge."
The Aggies' consecutive blocked punts marked the first time since 2008 A&M was able to achieve the feat, and the blocked field goal against the Bulldogs was the first since realigning to the Southeastern Conference in July 2012.
Banks joined Sumlin's staff this past offseason and has made immediate changes to the special teams since his arrival. The assistant coach spent 2004-2012 in El Paso, Texas working for UTEP and helped the Miners surge in all special teams categories in Conference USA.
During the 2011 and 2012 season, UTEP led the league statistically in net punting, while blocking four kicks (two punts, two field goals), two of which were returned for scores. At A&M, Banks has implemented many of his same techniques and schemes—just with top-tier athletes—and has his unit bolstering both sides of the ball consistently.
"We have two big games left," Banks said. "We're trying to be the No. 1 special teams group in the Southeastern Conference. Now, I think we're getting there and seeing it happen week in and week out."
At punter, Banks has been blessed with Ray Guy semifinalist Drew Kaser, who currently leads the SEC with a 48.5 average, nearly two yards better than second place. Nationally, A&M ranks fourth in net punting with its 41.3 average behind its stellar coverage unit.
According to Sumlin, a key factor in the group's success has been the influx of veteran starters and team leaders, including seniors Ben Malena and Toney Hurd, Jr.
"We're aggressive by nature, and our kids believe in in," Sumlin said. "We've got a scheme that gives our guys a chance. We're utilizing our front-line players: Ben Malena is out there, and a bunch of our starters."
Following the start of the season, though, Banks noted that many of his top athletes were newly minted freshmen. While a few of the commits found their way into the starting lineup—LB Darian Claiborne, WR Ricky Seals-Jones and DT Isaiah Golden—most have made an impact on special teams.
"Our freshman group is well regarded, obviously, by recruiting editors," Banks said. "After seeing them, they deserve it. There are six to eight defensive players that can run down and cover for us. Tavares Garner, we lost him [to injury], but he did a fantastic job early; Shaan Washington has done a great job for us. Our freshman class has impacted us on every spot. Our block [against Mississippi State], Isaiah Golden was the guy pushing the center back to get the penetration to allow us to get the block."
Assuming the Aggies' insufficient defense remains consistent the final two weeks, A&M's strong special teams presence will provide vital relief for an offense that has carried the load all season.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand