NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
A&M's young guns bringing tremendous impact to program
by Griffin Bronson '16
special to AggieAthletics.com
The Texas A&M football program is no stranger to talented freshmen. Last season alone freshman wide receiver Mike Evans led the team in catches and receiving yards. And who could forget the player who targeted Evans all year? Johnny Manziel was perhaps the greatest freshman football player in history after becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy last year.
But that was last season.
Now it’s 2013, and there are big shoes to fill after half of the team who led the Aggies to an 11-2 finish, with an unforgettable upset at Alabama and a victory in the Cotton Bowl, ended their college careers. Who could replace guys like Ryan Swope, Texas A&M’s all-time leader in receiving yards, or All-American and No. 2 overall NFL Draft pick Luke Joeckel, who anchored the Aggie offensive line? Who could replace playmakers like Damontre Moore and Dustin Harris on the defensive side of the ball?
- Kevin Sumlin
There are also several young returning players on this team that some worry do not have the experience to carry on the momentum from last season; players like Mike Matthews, who will be starting at center as a true sophomore and Julien Obioha, another true sophomore starting again this year after 12 starts in 2012. Experienced players like running back Ben Malena, however, have faith in the Aggies’ fresh talent.
“Playing center in this offense, you have to be extremely smart. [Mike] sets up the protection for the offensive line and sets the tempo for the team. Starting in the spring, Mike has taken steps day-by-day to get better."
The center does have to be smart, acting as the quarterback of the offensive line and second only to the real quarterback in terms of on-field leadership for the offense. The center has to be big, strong, and focused. Mike claims he’s ready after taking a year to gain a little experience and learn from last year’s starting center, Green Bay Packer Patrick Lewis.
"I benefitted a lot [from last season],” Mike Matthews said. “I got to travel and got to learn from Patrick Lewis. I was able to get in some of those games. All in all it was a good deal. I got a taste of what the SEC was going to be like."
Obioha is ready too. As a true freshman last year he racked up 25 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble - an impressive amount of production from a young guy with no college experience. Still, can he replace a guy like Moore or Spencer Nealy? He has three seasons to do it, and Obioha won’t hesitate to show fans and critics that he is ready and willing to step up as a leader on defense.
The depth chart for the season opener included eight unfamiliar faces on offense and 11 on defense, and did not include 5-star wide receiver recruit Ricky Seals-Jones, who is slated to become the answer to losing both Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu.
In the Aggies’ season opener vs. Rice, Texas A&M used a school-record 16 true freshmen, and 10 players earned the first start of their careers. Seals-Jones recorded his first collegiate touchdown on a 71-yard play, and sophomore transfer Tra Carson scored two more. Evans continued to lead the team’s receivers with six catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns.
Sophomore punter Drew Kaser averaged 62.7 yards on three punts against the Owls, including a 76-yard kick that ranks sixth in Texas A&M history. On defense, true freshman linebacker Darian Claiborne led the Aggies with 11 tackles, including 1.5 for loss.
Let’s start with the offense. It seems the receiving corps was hit the hardest, losing both Swope and Nwachukwu. Who replaces these guys?
"I’m not really sure, but a guy like Ricky Seals-Jones we are expecting to play some this year,” said offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney. “LaQuvionte [Gonzales] has the chance to play a bit. I think he is going to be on some special teams as well. The other guys have been coming along. There’s a chance you will see all six of them this year."
The wide receivers will maintain the high expectations of Aggie receivers this year with depth; six guys capable of coming into the game with the ability to make plays alongside experienced receivers Mike Evans, Malcome Kennedy, and Derel Walker.
The offense didn’t take a big hit in the number of players, but major talent was lost when Luke Joeckel, Patrick Lewis, Swope and Nwachkwu finished their Aggie careers. Six freshmen will contribute to the loss of the latter mentioned wide receivers, and the Matthews brothers, along with redshirt freshman Germain Ifedi, will fill the vacant slots left in the offensive line.
Replacing those lost on defense, on the other hand, was daunting indeed. Over half of the starters on defense finished their college careers in 2012: Nealy, Moore, two-out-of-three linebackers (Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter), free safety Steven Terrell and dynamic return man and defensive back Dustin Harris. Aggie fans have been anxious to see if the young defense can hold its own against the high-powered offenses of the SEC. Veterans like Howard Matthews and Deshazor Everett look to fill the gaps left in the secondary, and newcomers will be tasked with rounding out the defense.
Time will tell if these youngsters have what it takes to not only fill these roles, but dominate them like their predecessors. For the time being, though, the defense is whole again and ready to prove their legitimacy as a true SEC defense. Against Rice, newcomers (true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and transfers accounted for 39 of the Aggies’ 96 tackles, or 40.6 percent. Today’s game features three more true freshmen defenders – Jay Arnold, Jonathan Wiggins and Noel Ellis – on the depth chart.
The 2013 season is an open book. The Aggies did lose 22 starters last year but they’ve filled the voids in the depth chart with fresh talent. Can these new players assume their roles and continue the success that A&M saw in the 2012 season? Time will tell. There’s uncertainty in the air, but also a sense of eagerness knowing that Head Coach Kevin Sumlin has brought in 31 newcomers who, if not this year, will continue to develop and train and be able to replace the guys who will be leaving next year, and in the years following.
About developing and inserting his newcomers to the lineup, Sumlin said: “Fans need to buy a program or get a flip card because there are going to be a bunch of new numbers and faces out there on the field. We didn't bring these guys here to stand next to me. We're still trying to find out who we are with some of these young guys in positions. We have a very talented group of young guys."
Depth is key, and the Aggies’ depth chart is growing extensive roots. Young team or not, Texas A&M has the perfect combination of player talent and coaches who can build upon and strengthen that natural ability. The young guns of Texas A&M football are ready to step in and make a big impact.