The Texas Aggie football team is just two days away from starting game prep for the season opener…
Fall Camp Evaluation - Offense
The quarterback position is always the most important spot on the team, but with the uncertainty surrounding Johnny Manziel's eligibility, the battle for the back-up spot has become even more significant in the fall. First, let's start with the returning Heisman Trophy winner. Regardless of what you think of his extracurricular activities, Manziel is the catalyst to everything this offense accomplished last year and he's the focus of every opposing defensive coordinator trying to figure out how to defend him going forward.
For the national pundits that feel Nick Saban and company will figure him out, they assume that everybody changes and evolves in this equation…except Johnny Football himself. Well, based on what I've seen so far, that is a poor assumption to make. Manziel has continued to develop his passing ability. His delivery has been refined and he throws better deep ball with greater strength and velocity. Bottom line, he can make more throws to all areas of the field. Now, we don't get to see him run in practice, but there's no reason to think his running game will change. His ability to scramble and buy time in the pocket has been on display on the grass practice fields.
But other than the added velocity in his passes, the biggest improvement has been in his overall better understanding of the offense. The game appears slower for him and he seems to have a lot more confidence in his decision-making (not that he didn't have confidence last year).
The other storyline this fall is identifying the next in line off the bench, or possibly the starter in game one depending on the results of autograph-gate. At this point, none of the QB's has stepped up to take the job. Veteran Matt Joeckel has had his moments and can complete the pass in front of him, but he hasn't displayed that dynamic playmaking that Aggie fans have become accustomed to in recent years. Joeckel also had several nice sustained drives in Saturday's scrimmage that puts him squarely in the hunt. Matt Davis has a few more natural tools and fits the "dynamic playmaker" mold, but as a redshirt freshman he still seems to be working on his decision-making and defensive reads as he can be a tad slow on the trigger at times. It also appears he's lost some confidence as he had sveral very poor throws early in the scrimmage. In fact, after two three-and-outs and a 1-for-5 for one yard performance, Davis stayed on the sidelines while both Joeckel and Kenny Hill directed the offense the rest of the way. That doesn't bode well for Davis' future.
Then you have what many thought was a longshot at winning the job, true freshman Kenny Hill. But he's been very impressive in his opportunities with the second unit so far. Now, he's also having his freshman moments and making costly decisions at times, but he has the tools and a basic understanding of the offense already. If Hill can learn to minimize those freshman mistakes over the next week of fall training, I wouldn't rule him out of the race. In fact, after an encouraging scrimmage performance on Saturday, the sprint to land the No. 2 job is too close to call for both Joeckel and Hill. The coaches have much to digest, and a decision must come soon with game prep for Rice begins on Thursday.
Overall Fall Performance
Overall, the QB position has met expectations. Johnny has exceeded his previous level of performance while the veteran backups have probably fallen just short of expectations. Hill has greatly exceeded where I thought he would be at this point.
It's hard to give a full evaluation on the running backs based on daily practices where the team is in thud, non-tackling mode for most of the workout. But there are some live sessions, and so far the backs have done a solid job. What can you say about Ben Malena? He gives you 100% effort and he's a hard runner in a very compact, low center of gravity package. Despite his limitations on top-end speed, he does have a nice burst and explosion at the line of scrimmage and he has shown his efficiency between the tackles this fall. He won't win many awards, but he'll move the sticks and do the little things needed to win.
Trey Williams has looked more explosive and faster than he did last season and I'm not so sure that's not more mental than physical. He seems more comfortable on the field and knowing where he needs to be. We know he's a playmaker with the ball in his hands. That was never a question.
Tra Carson seemed to struggle at times early in the fall camp, primarily with running too high and allowing defenders to get under his pads. That definitely wasn't the case in some 11-on-11 action earlier this week when he was the featured back against the No. 2's and he stayed low and drug defenders 10 yards down the field on an impressive 15+ yard run. He's also starting to do some good things in short yardage and goal line situations. In the scrimmage, he again looked impressive and has positioned himself to be a major factor in the backfield, especially with Brandon Williams still on the shelf. Freshman James White has received passing marks from the staff so far, and if one of the veteran running back goes down for a long period he may be asked to contribute. White's future will likely be as a power back. The key could be the health of former 5-star running back and OU transfer Brandon Williams. He's been in a walking boot until yesterday, but Coach Sumlin has publicly stated that Williams will be ready by the season opener.
Overall Fall Performance
The status of Brandon Williams still hangs over this group. While he's supposed to play against Rice, Williams returned to training camp in a limited capacity yesterday. With him healthy, the group has enough horsepower to be a major asset to the offense. Malena has performed as expected and Trey Williams may have exceeded his performance from last season. White will likely redshirt, unless injuries force him into the lineup.
I keep hearing reports of the pass catching exploits and long touchdowns by transfer Cameron Clear. Unfortunately, in the live drills we've had access to observe, the offense has not thrown to the tight end once. But the buzz on Clear is definitely there, and he adds yet another weapon to this offense that seems loaded with playmakers across the board. Nehemiah Hicks certainly looks the part, but again in the limited time we've had access, he hasn't had many opportunities to show his tools.
Overall Fall Performance
This small group of two is a bit of a mystery in terms of pass catching, but Clear is getting rave reviews. Clear is also an accomplished blocker, but the fact remains that the A&M staff likes to run a four-receiver set. It will be interesting to see how much the offensive staff will utilize the tight end in Saturday's scrimmage. To date, Clear has exceed expectations as a JUCO transfer while Hicks still remains a capable yet unspectacular option.
The narrative in the offseason for the receiver position is one searching for replacements for Ryan Swope and the other two seniors. But the reality of the situation is that 4-5 veterans return including No. 1 receiver Mike Evans and slot Malcolme Kennedy. Sabian Holmes has been a big surprise so far this fall as he's become a favorite target for Johnny Manziel in the middle of the field on short stuff. Senior Derel Walker continues to hold down the outside spot opposite of Evans, although I was hoping to see more production in Saturday's scrimmage. I think Evans has looked even more explosive this fall now that he's healthy. That's scary for opposing defenses.
But the big news from fall camp is that the staff seems to have hit a home run with the incoming freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones looks like a grown man, and he plays like one too. He's moving up the depth chart and will definitely see plenty of playing time as a freshman. Sebastian LaRue came in a little bigger and thicker than anticipated, and that landed him on the outside. The staff is fascinated with Quiv Gonzalez's breakaway speed that was on display with a 40-yard reception in the scrimmage. Gonzalez is also a finalist for the kick returning duties. Jeremy Tabuyo has been productive on short routes with the second unit.
Jaquay Williams has shown flashes of his immense potential, but still seems to be struggling with his route running and adjusting to the discipline of the college game. That struggle has found him on the third team for now, but when the light bulb goes off, Williams has the athletic ability to be as good as anybody on the roster.
Overall Fall Performance
The veterans led by Mike Evans and Malcolme Kennedy have led the receiver unit and look more explosive than last year which is saying something for Evans. Sabian Holmes has also improved his skills and has become a favorite target of Johnny Manziel on short patterns. But to be honest, the biggest buzz from fall camp has been the body of work from Ricky Seals-Jones who has caught several touchdown passes in the two formal fall scrimmages and dominated the 11-on-11 live drills yesterday catching three consecutive passes from Manziel with the first unit including a 25-yard TD pass. For those worried about the receiver corps, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Once again, national pundits listed offensive line as a concern for Texas A&M simply because the group lost first round draft pick Luke Joeckel to the NFL. But his spot will be filled by senior all-American and projected Top 10 pick Jake Matthews. Veteran starter Cedric Ogbuehi moves from guard back to his natural position at right tackle and veteran starter Jarvis Harrison remains at left guard. Highly-regarded Mike Matthews takes over at center for senior Pat Lewis, and redshirt freshman Germain Ifedi slides into the vacated right guard spot.
This first group hasn't skipped a beat this fall. In fact, a case can be made that this unit might be even better than the 2012 starting line. Center Mike Matthews continues the long line of the Bruce Matthews bloodlines, and the staff loves what they've seen so far. Matthews is even quicker to the ball than Lewis which means the offense can run even faster when desired. Ogbuehi has performed every bit as expected, and he's been a projected first or second rounder this offseason. I've called Harrison they most underrated player on this team, and he's been money throughout fall camp. In fact, the staff experimented with Harrison at left tackle when Ogbuehi sat out a day with a minor injury, and he looked pretty good there as well.
The one question mark coming into the fall was at right guard where newcomer German Ifedi is working, but those concerns were quickly dismissed. Ifedi showed up in much better shape, trimming 20+ pounds and looking more muscular and quicker.
If there is a red herring, it's the depth at the offensive line especially at tackle. The Aggies are already thin at the position with Joseph Cheek and Jeremiah Stuckey as the only scholarship back-ups, and both have struggled at times in live drills although Stuckey has improved since the spring. But in all fairness, any back-up tackles will pale in comparison to potential first round picks Ogbuehi and Matthews. Still, any injuries at the two tackle spots will be a concern.
Garrett Gramling showed up at Texas A&M several years ago out of shape and slow of foot. Former OL coach Jim Turner used the young Gramling as a punch line during practices and pushed him hard all season. The back-up guard has steadily improved the past couple of years and he's now become an adequate collegiate guard. Ben Compton is practicing at second team center, but he's worked out at all of the interior OL positions in his career and he remains the most accomplished of the second unit. He's the one back-up that could be inserted into the starting lineup without missing a beat. Shep Klinke is a veteran back-up who actually played early in his freshman season when offensive line talent coming off the Franchione era was abysmal. He's a solid back-up, but I was hoping to see him compete with Ifedi for the starting guard spot. That simply didn't happen.
The fall has been smooth for the first OL unit. In fact, an argument can be made that this group could be even better than last year's line. There were not many questions about veterans Jake Matthews, Jarvis Harrison, Cedric Ogbuehi, and Mike Matthews who played as a true freshman. Ifedi was the question mark, and he has prospered this fall with the starting lineup due to his improved conditioning and frame. As I mentioned a couple of years ago when I shook hands with the Houston native as a 17 year-old recruit, he has the biggest, strongest hands of any teenager I've seen (or shook). Barring injury, he's destined to be the next in line to play in the NFL. In fact, it's not out of the question that all five starters will be in the NFL, and it shows in their play this fall. Manziel continues to have plenty of time in the pocket, but what is even more impressive is the push the line is getting when power back Tra Carson bulls behind the point of attack. So performance has been excellent this fall.
But the key here is depth. The second unit has had its periods of success, but clearly their effectiveness is significantly less than the first group. While there's been some nominal improvement from Gramling and Stuckey, overall the second unit didn't live up to expectations and there is some concern if injuries plague the first unit.
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