Spring football 25: Texas A&M Aggies

Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t a list of the 25 best teams going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously: Ohio State

What happened in 2012
The 2012 season didn’t feature a national championship or even a league championship, but it still might go down as one of the best in Texas A&M history. The Aggies, who many thought would struggle in their first year of SEC football, took the conference (and the nation) by storm thanks to coach Kevin Sumlin and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel. The Aggies finished the year 11-2 culminating in a thrashing of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. The Aggies only losses came to Florida and LSU in what was otherwise a fantastic and surprising year.

This is a team that came into the season with a new coaching staff, a new system and a new quarterback. Manziel wasn’t even the team’s starter heading into fall camp, but won the job and then won the attention of the nation after a thrilling win against future national champion Alabama. And Manziel will be the frontrunner to repeat for the award this year.

[Also: Former Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson could emerge as NFL draft-day surprise]

What makes them interesting in 2013
After a year of this system and Manziel’s fame, can the Aggies become a yearly power in the SEC? OK< let’s pump the brakes a little bit. One good season does not a contender make, but A&M is certainly knocking on the door mostly because Sumlin’s system is far different than the rest of the SEC and Manziel is as shifty and versatile a quarterback as any in the country. The SEC is a power league, with power runners and nasty trenches and while A&M does have some of those elements, it also has the flair of a high-scoring Big 12 team, which makes them a definite wildcard in 2013.

But there are some holes to fill. The Aggies return 11 players and have several injuries this spring while working early enrollees and redshirts to work into the system. This year will be a lot like the last with a lot of new faces, but the experience the veterans earned a year ago should be invaluable.

What needs to happen this spring
The first and perhaps most important order of business is breaking in the new offensive coordinators. Clarence McKinney and Jake Spavital will share the coordinator duties, but McKinney will call the plays. McKinney did a bang up job against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl when the Aggies rolled up 633 yards of total offense, including 516 from Manziel. There’s no reason A&M should have a drop off in offense, especially with Manziel, who led the team in passing and rushing, still under center. The Aggies might need to scale back Manziel’s rushing a little bit and allow Ben Malena, who had 808 yards and eight touchdown last year, carry more of the rushing load. Also look for transfers Brandon Williams (Oklahoma) and Tra Carson (Oregon) get into the running back mix.

But the play of the offense will hinge on the offensive line. The Aggies lost All-American tackle Luke Joeckel and center Patrick Lewis. But Jake Matthews returns, which is huge, and he’ll slide over to left tackle. Mike Matthews Is the likely starter at center. Watch for battles at the right tackle spot and at guard.

[Related: Gamecocks go as Jadeveon Clowney goes]

Defensively, the Aggies were well behind the SEC curve, but their stellar offense often came to the rescue. The unit that allowed 390.2 yards and 21.8 points per game returns just five players and is depleted on the defensive line and at linebacker. Redshirt freshman Polo Manukainiu will get a long look at nose guard, but has to prove that his undersized frame won’t hamper him at that position. Manukainiu is starting because Kirby Ennis had surgery this spring and depth is sparse. The Aggies also need to find a strong rush end to replace Damontre Moore. Julien Obioha is the name to watch here, but he’s out this spring because of injury. That will give several young players on opportunity to create depth.

At linebacker, the Aggies lost two of their starting three players and Steven Jenkins will miss the spring because of injury. That opens the door for Donnie Baggs (MLB), Brett Wade (Will), and Tommy Sanders (Mike) to get plenty of reps and try to assert themselves as competent replacements. The linebacking corps allowed just 3.7 yards per rush last year and that’s going to be a tall order for this year’s crew.

Game changers

The Aggies running back group has a chance to be something special with a proven commodity in Malena and transfers Williams and Carson. Also add to that mix Trey Williams, who is rehabilitating from injury and will be limited this spring. The best thing about this group is that it will take a lot of the pressure off Manziel to be the leading rusher. While scrambling is definitely an element A&M doesn’t want to lose from Manziel’s game, the coaching staff also doesn’t want to lose its golden boy to injury. If the running game can come along and the Aggies can find a nice rotation, it could be one of the strong suits of the offense.

Receiver Mike Evans becomes the team’s spotlight receiver after a stellar freshman season that saw him catch 82 passes for 1,105 yards and five touchdowns. However, since he’s the only one of the team’s top receivers returning, he’s going to have to get a little creative if he wants to replicate those numbers. The Aggies are going to have to develop some other receiving options to keep the passing offense rolling the way it did a year ago. Evans could be great, but he’ll need help from fellow listed starters Sabian Holmes, Malcome Kennedy and Derrell Walker.

Wild cards
No one ever wants to think of the worst-case scenario, but coaches always have to have a backup plan, especially when the bulk of your offense revolves around your quarterback. With Jamiell Showers gone, the Aggies need to find a competent backup quarterback to bring the same type of energy Manziel does. That tall order will fall to Matt Joeckel and Matt Davis. Joeckel completed an unimpressive 5-of-11 passes for 42 yards a year ago in mop-up time. Teams are going to be gunning for Manziel this year and the backup quarterback might end up being the most important position off the bench.

Key games
Sept. 14 Alabama
Oct. 12 at Ole Miss
Nov. 23 at LSU

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Check out Dr. Saturday's other spring previews: Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Stanford, South Carolina, Baylor.

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