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Photo by Lindsay Caudle, TexAgs
Texas A&M Football

Spring Roundup: Thoughts on the Aggies entering the break

March 11, 2016

The Aggies wrapped up week two of spring ball with a Thursday evening scrimmage and Kevin Sumlin's squad now enters Spring Break. Texas A&M will return to action after a full week of rest and recovery (and perhaps a little relaxation).

As the team disperses to points all over Texas and to Spring Break destinations from coast to coast, let's take an in-depth look at some of the developing storylines and movers and shakers through the first half of spring practices.

• Tempo. Tempo. Tempo. It's been beaten into the ground already by Gabe and Hop and for good reason. Even standing out there for 20-30 minutes per day at practice, the fact that Noel Mazzone's offense is moving at a much faster pace is undeniable. The Aggies are getting to the line of scrimmage and getting the ball snapped faster than they have at any point since Kliff Kingsbury left College Station for Lubbock.

Another change that is readily apparent is that the Aggies are practicing with a greater sense of urgency and purpose than in recent seasons. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that A&M is a pretty experienced team featuring several proven veterans on both sides of the ball.

The other contributing factor has to do with new coaches Mazzone, Jim Turner and David Turner teaming up with last year's addition (John Chavis) to change the look of Sumlin's staff. It's a group of grizzled vets with a ton of big-time college football experience who know what it takes to get the most out of each and every practice period and day spent on the field.

You'll all see it if you attend Friday Night Lights or the Spring Game — night and day difference.

Lindsay Caudle, TexAgs The quarterback competition will continue, but the positive impact of both players' presence is immediately noticeable. {"Module":"photo","Alignment":"left","Size":"large","Caption":"The quarterback competition will continue, but the positive impact of both players\u0027 presence is immediately noticeable.","MediaItemID":67970}
• The caliber of play that Mazzone and the A&M offense can get out of the quarterback position could very well determine whether the Ags sink or swim in the most important season of the Kevin Sumlin Era.

Both Jake Hubenak (his consistency has been noteworthy thus far) and Trevor Knight have had their moments during the first two weeks of work, but there's really no way of telling this early in the competition if either signal-caller will prove capable of navigating the brutal SEC schedule in 2016.

It has to start somewhere, however, and both players have displayed tremendous maturity, work ethic and leadership this spring.

Knight, in particular, has single-handedly changed the way the Aggies practice and perform. The Oklahoma transfer has brought a whole new level of energy and enthusiasm to the huddle and his approach has been contagious; the Aggie defense has stepped up and matched the offense in what has quickly become an extremely competitive environment on the grass practice fields.

• I talked up Kingsley Keke throughout the spring ball lead-up and he's certainly proven worthy of the lofty praise. As Chavis confirmed last week, the sophomore from George Ranch has been performing at a very high level. That trend continued this week, when he cat-quick and agile 6-3 (plus), 315-pounder enjoyed a terrific first half of spring ball working with the 1s alongside Daylon Mack.

Mack has looked very good so far during his first spring on campus. More than anything else, he has been consistently good and often great. He flashed the great part last fall, but consistency was an (expected) issue for the then-true freshman.

A big part of Mack bringing it every day (he did miss Thursday's scrimmage with a minor injury but will be back at full speed when practices resume after the spring break) has to do with the fact that he's in much better shape than he was last fall.

As most of you remember, Daylon stepped on campus at around 350 pounds and gradually worked his way down to 335ish. I'm going to double-check to find out where The Mack Truck is tipping the scales at today, but I'd guess he's somewhere in the 320-325 range and has also transformed his body in a very short amount of time.

• While he's not flashing as much as someone like Keke, another noticeably improved defender on Chavis' unit would be senior linebacker Claude George. What held George back last fall was 100 percent between the ears, as the junior college transfer struggled with costly mental/fit busts and a lack of experience in the A&M scheme. Fast-forward to today and George looks like a guy capable of making the noticeable Year 1 to Year 2 JUCO jump that we've seen from so many two-year players over the years.

At around 6-3 and close to 250 pounds, George is not only one of Chief's biggest linebackers, he's also one of the fastest on the A&M roster. Now that he's proving he has a better grasp on what he's being asked to do within the parameters of the Aggie defense, we've begun to see a player who is going to make a hard push for one of the starting linebacker spots during fall camp.

Lindsay Caudle, TexAgs The Aggie linebackers, including senior Shaan Washington, have made big strides and some semblance of a depth chart may soon form. {"Module":"photo","Alignment":"right","Size":"large","Caption":"The Aggie linebackers, including senior Shaan Washington, have made big strides and some semblance of a depth chart may soon form.","MediaItemID":67959}
• Fellow senior LB Shaan Washington has been rehabbing a pulled hammy suffered just before spring ball during offseason conditioning work. He'll be back on the field when the Aggies return from Spring Break and Chavis is excited to see what his veteran will look like when lining up at over 240 pounds.

If you're familiar with Washington's career path, a broken collarbone in fall camp cost him much of his sophomore campaign and he's battled shoulder issues throughout his A&M career up until this point, which cost him so much valuable time in the weight room. With a full offseason (finally) under his belt, Shaan has bulked up considerably without losing speed. With size and experience on his side, it will be interesting to chart the senior's progress during the second half of spring ball.

• The four guys on Chavis' defense performing exactly as you'd expect them to are four who could all be preparing for their Pro Days at this time a year from now.

Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall have been outstanding at end through the first half-dozen practices and safeties Justin Evans and Armani Watts look like seasoned veterans on the back end.

One noticeable — and necessary — difference we're seeing in both Garrett and Hall this spring is their focus on doing a better job of playing off of blocks and defending the run rather than consistently getting caught knifing inside or charging up the field. It's been a point of emphasis and both ends have done a nice job of absorbing coaching as they work to become more well-rounded defensive ends. 

As for Watts and Evans, the safeties have excelled against in coverage and are playing an even more physical brand of ball this spring than we saw last fall, if you can believe that. More than anything else, the thing that has really stood out so far this spring is the simple fact that the Aggie safeties are playing with absolute confidence and know exactly where they need to be on every snap. They not only have a firm grasp of Chavis' defense but also have a much better understanding as it pertains to what opposing offenses want to do. 

The confidence and comfort level has allowed both future NFL draft picks to not only make significant strides as players but also as leaders/quarterbacks of the Aggie defense.

All four of these guys have looked the part of All-SEC defenders this spring.

• Speaking of Aggie safeties, junior nickel Donovan Wilson is now up to 215 pounds. If you see him in person, it's outstanding weight. That means he's about five pounds lighter than projected starting linebacker Richard Moore. It also means that Chavis might just have the ability to leave Wilson on the field even more in 2016 than he did last fall.

Alex Parker, TexAgs The immense level of talent now present, along with it being Year 2 in John Chavis' system, places the A&M defense's potential pretty high. {"Module":"photo","Alignment":"left","Size":"large","Caption":"The immense level of talent now present, along with it being Year 2 in John Chavis\u0027 system, places the A\u0026M defense\u0027s potential pretty high.","MediaItemID":68085}
With the exception of perhaps two or three opponents on the twelve-game schedule, having one of the team's most disruptive defenders (and a pure ballhawk, at that) on the field in lieu of a third linebacker is going to be a good thing for the Aggie defense.

• Along those lines, think about the amount of raw talent on the field when Chavis' group looks like this: Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall at DE. Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke at DT. Otaro Alaka and either Claude George or Shaan Washington at LB. Donovan Wilson at the nickel.  Justin Evans and Armani Watts at safety. Nick Harvey and Priest Willis or DeShawn Capers-Smith at CB.

Sure, there are a couple of unproven guys on that list, but even those players (Willis, Alaka, Keke) possess what you'd call prototypical SEC size and elite-level skill sets. At least five of those starters have proven that they have what it takes to play at an all-conference level or close to it, and that doesn't even include guys like Mack, the hard-charging Harvey or Alaka (yet). In addition, there's a lot of experience. 

When you look at that group plus Moore, junior ends Qualen Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson, junior DT Zaycoven Henderson and promising, versatile sophomores Justin Dunning and James Lockhart, it's easy to see why program insiders believe the A&M defense should come together to form a pretty dominant unit this fall.

• Alaka, who stood out during Thursday's scrimmage, has been practicing and looked very good wherever he's lined up in Chavis' varying defensive sets. Because he's so strong against the run and so fluid in coverage, 'OT' is an every-down 'backer for the Aggies. He's also checking in at close to 6-3 and 245 chiseled pounds and is the type of defensive field general who can get everyone in the front seven lined up properly.

In my opinion, we'll be calling Alaka one of the defense's most valuable players by the time conference play rolls around next fall.

• A very intriguing battle is shaping up opposite Harvey (more on the junior cover man in a moment) at cornerback. Both Capers-Smith and Willis have looked good so far this spring — but that also means that neither player has separated. Throw in second-year man Roney Elam, who probably needs one more offseason in the weight room but has also performed well through a half-dozen practices, and Chavis and Terry Joseph probably have a little better situation at corner than most outsiders believe.

Part of the reason things are looking up at one of the biggest question spots heading into fall camp is that Harvey has been so consistent and so good on one side of the field. Harvey saw plenty of action last fall playing behind senior starter Brandon Williams and had a bit of a breakthrough season. He's built on a strong finish to 2015 and has hit the ground running this spring, and appears likely to lock down a starting job on the island by spring's end. 

Harvey's coverage two weeks in has been strong enough to lead some to believe that he should be every bit as good as A&M's two senior starters were last fall.

Lindsay Caudle, TexAgs Ricky Seals-Jones, in particular, seems tailor-made for Noel Mazzone's offense coming off of his breakout season. {"Module":"photo","Alignment":"left","Size":"large","Caption":"Ricky Seals-Jones, in particular, seems tailor-made for Noel Mazzone\u0027s offense coming off of his breakout season.","MediaItemID":67425}
• Here's the best thing I can say about Aaron Moorehead's receiving corps through two weeks of work: they're playing up to their potential as a unit. Consistent across the board and they bring it each and every day.

Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and a healthy Christian Kirk could very well end up being three of the league's top dozen receivers when it's all said and done, with Kirk and Reynolds regularly flashing first-round ability. Seals-Jones fits perfectly into Mazzone's scheme and is being used more as a middle-of-the-field weapon than we've seen in the past.

As far as depth guys are concerned, Frank Iheanacho has had some good moments with the 2s and is beginning to look like a young player capable of contributing this fall and competing for a starting job when Seals-Jones and Reynolds are no longer catching passes in maroon and white. Nacho stood out in Thursday's scrimmage, with a couple of very nice grabs.

Another, slightly more proven veteran who had a very good scrimmage was Ed Pope. Don't count the senior out just yet, as he could potentially have a bounce-back season that more closely resembles similar what he was able to put together as a sophomore than last year's disappointingly quiet campaign.

• To a man, the Aggie offensive linemen are absolutely raving about what they're learning from new position coach Jim Turner.  Most all of you know that the fiery and entertaining Turner is stickler for technique and exceptional teacher. I'm not sure the A&M blockers quite knew what to expect from their new boss, because they've been blown away by how much they've absorbed in just two weeks under Turner's tutelage.

Whereas Dave Christensen was more focused on coaching assignment and scheme, Turner's focus on technique, footwork and leverage has been very well-received by the big guys up front.

Not much has changed up front since the opening of the spring but I've been told that both Koda Martin and Jermaine Eluemunor are making quick strides under Turner and that Erik McCoy's knowledge of the offense has impressed coaches and linemates alike. The Ags' depth did take a hit this week when redshirt freshman Trevor Elbert was sidelined with an injury.

• We won't know the answer until fall camp but, in talking with folks in the know, I'm getting more and more curious as to where sophomore Justin Dunning will line up when he returns to the field in August. As I said at the opening of fall camp, Dunning has probably seen his last reps at safety. The question now is whether or not Justin will line up as a stand-up linebacker or as a 6-4, 235-240 pound edge rushing specialist.

• I mentioned junior Zaycoven Henderson as one of the veterans who needed to step up this spring, and it sounds like the 300-pounder has done just that. While he's been working primarily with the 2s, the up-and-down Henderson has generally been up this spring and has responded well to not only the challenge presented by Keke's emergence but also the no-nonsense style of new position coach David Turner.

Lindsay Caudle, TexAgs Noel Mazzone's emphasis on the run will be accompanied by a suddenly stocked stable of talent, including freshman home run threat Trayveon Williams. {"Module":"photo","Alignment":"right","Size":"large","Caption":"Noel Mazzone\u0027s emphasis on the run will be accompanied by a suddenly stocked stable of talent, including freshman home run threat Trayveon Williams.","MediaItemID":67922}
• Let's talk tailbacks. Keith Ford was held out of Thursday's scrimmage, but the 5-11, 225-pounder would have to be included on the list of top performers as we enter the break. Ford's ability to run though tacklers, hit the hole without any wasted motion and even run away from defenders when he bursts into the second level makes him every bit as good as advertised thus far.

In addition to an unwavering commitment to the run, Mazzone loves to work out of two-back sets and also routinely gets the ball to his tailbacks in the passing game. Two who have impressed in this regard are junior James White and true freshman Trayveon Williams.

Williams has been particular impressive during his first half dozen practices in Aggieland. The former C.E. King standout's explosive ability and game-breaking speed are next-level traits. He's going to be an instant-impact performer next fall and has already proven to be more than a handful when he gets the ball in space on the perimeter.

Both Williams and redshirt freshman Kendall Bussey had strong scrimmages on Thursday evening with Ford sidelined. Bussey is finally all the way back from the knee injury that kept him confined to the practice squad last fall and he's shown a nice combination of explosive burst and power thus far. On Thursday, Kendall ripped off a couple of nice runs, including one that he capped off by running right through (and over) a would-be tackler.

Needless to say, Clarence McKinney has a lot more to work with today than he did at any point last fall.
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