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January 7, 2013

Monday Morning Thoughts

I've still got a few things to wrap up the Cotton Bowl before moving on to anything else so here we go…

- One of the points I made prior to the game that Oklahoma had an advantage on special teams, especially in terms of returns. It seemed to be the one area that the Sooners might be able to exploit to generate big plays in order to generate points or field position and offset A&M's advantages most other places. A fumbled punt by A&M, long return for a touchdown, or missed field goal…those would have been the types of big plays that could have swung the game's momentum back in Oklahoma's favor if A&M was controlling other aspects of the game.

Oklahoma did play well on special teams, mind you. Punter Tress Way averaged 49.4 yards per kick and had three kicks inside the 20. In fact, the Aggies started all but one drive inside their own 29 (which makes their offensive output of 633 yards that much more impressive). Dustin Harris only had one punt return for minus two yards.

Even so, Oklahoma generated no big plays from special teams whatsoever, big plays that it turned out they desperately needed. Not only did they give up 11 plays of 15 yards or more (producing only two of their own) outside of special teams, their were handcuffed by field position woes of their own, starting all but two drives inside their 25 yard line.

Overall, special teams were basically a wash. Credit for that performance has to go to special teams coach Brian Polian and A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin for their emphasis on special teams, their willingness to play starters on special teams, and the efforts of starters like Ben Malena and Sean Porter who never came off the field and sacrificed opportunities to rest for the good of the team.

- Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder is fond of using three man fronts versus spread teams and the Aggies spent most of the Cotton Bowl with three down linemen and three linebackers. From a personnel standpoint, this meant that defensive tackle Kirby Ennis (one of the better A&M defenders over the course of the season) didn't play much and that freshman Alonzo Williams played a lot at defensive end. On the surface, you have to wonder about that kind of a personnel trade, especially since A&M could have slid Spencer Neely outside and played Ennis at nosetackle. That would have given A&M more size and experience across its front, especially if A&M had gone with more four man fronts.

However, Williams was more than up to the task. He didn't register any tackles but held his own and helped free up the rest of A&M's close in defenders to make stops. Also, even though the Aggies started a freshman on the defensive end who was seeing his first extensive action of the year, they held up well versus the run (just 3.6 yards per carry).

- Normally, teams facing off against three defensive linemen that averaged less than 260 pounds a player would seem to indicate that such a defense could get pushed around. That never happened because A&M's defensive linemen (especially in the second half) got penetration and leverage against their taller counterparts and typically won the battle inside with their hands. For example, it was pretty easy to notice all those times when Sooner linemen had their hands on the outside shoulder pads of Aggie defenders and were giving ground (and also not getting called for holding).

The Aggies were simply better coached and in better condition up front. Terry Price and Larry Jackson, go take a bow.

- Also, one of the things that goes unnoticed about Snyder an his coaches is their ability to change up personnel from week to week, maximize the abilities of people that haven't played very much, and yet get those playing reduced minutes to accept their roles. Alonzo Williams had a solid game and Oklahoma was never able to take advantage of him. On the other hand, Kirby Ennis accepted his role and played hard when given the opportunity. It's hard to obtain that type of flexibility when you can't convince people to believe that the team will be more successful without them given the competitive nature of the people who play the game.

- Oklahoma Sooner offensive lineman Ty Darlington had the quote of the night (at least to me) when he talked about how A&M came out in a three man front in the second half and the Sooners could run at them.

News flash Ty: The Aggies opened the game in a three man front too and spent most of the night in it.

- One of the things that jumped out at me before the game was the size of A&M's linebackers versus those of Oklahoma's. The Aggies had SEC type length with the starting threesome of Jonathan Stewart, Sean Porter, and Steven Jenkins. The Sooners offered up Big 12 length with Tom Wort, Corey Nelson, and Franklin Shannon. As a result, the Aggies had much greater flexibility in their defensive packages. They put Porter on the edge like a fourth down lineman at times as a rusher and he eventually got a sack out of that alignment. On Landry Jones' lone interception, Stewart actually lined in the deep middle like a free safety 20 yards off of the ball which allowed A&M to play its corners up on that play and enabled Dustin Harris to be underneath a receiver instead of retreating. As a result, Jones basically threw the ball right to Harris and shifted the momentum back to the Aggies in a close first half. They could take on Oklahoma's offensive linemen on somewhere even terms and shed blocks and make stops.

Also, any consideration about playing a 4-2 front as opposed to a 3-3 front were totally alleviated by Jenkins' play. The junior linebacker was active in coverage and as a blitzer, registering eight tackles (the most of any non-secondary player on a night when Oklahoma threw the ball 49 times
). The Aggies are losing Stewart and Porter but Jenkins should be able to take on a greater role next season.

- Any concerns about A&M's play calling abilities without Kliff Kingsbury disappeared early on. Interim offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney and the rest of the staff didn't change up the offense that much from what we saw during the rest of the season with a couple of important exceptions.

Under Kingsbury, A&M's designed running game consisted primarily of draws (by both the quarterback and running back) and zone running plays opposite the side of the running back to the running back. In particular, defenses knew that A&M would be running to the side opposite the back and align themselves to that side. In the Cotton Bowl, A&M aligned backs Trey Williams and Ben Malena in the pistol and were simultaneously able to threaten both sides. In addition, by running speed option, the Aggies were able to run to the same side as the back was aligned.

Overall, A&M used its running game to attack all gaps along the line of scrimmage rather than just as a change up. Going into 2013, defenses are going to have to make an adjustment on how to defend A&M's running game as it just got less predictable…and you're already having to defend the most unpredictable player in college football history in Manziel.

- Speaking of Manziel, it was comical all week to listen or talk to people that Manziel might be distracted by all of the attention and not be focused on the game or that he was overrated and with appropriate time to prepare that Oklahoma would be able to figure him out.

As usual, nothing fazed him. He simply took over the game and made it his own. Time and time again, he ran through the Sooners' defense and got to the sideline without even being touched…and this happened on several occasions when he's running in the middle of the field when Oklahoma defenders are within an arm's length of him. His vision enables him to see people but also he perceives that those people are going to be moving away from him chasing other people in coverage and he's better at that than any quarterback I've ever seen.

His ability to run the offense…to get A&M in the right play…is unparalleled for a guy his age. He doesn't have the greatest arm but he uses his legs and torso to generate additional power throwing the ball as he was taught during the summer and now he can threaten all parts of the field passing.

Most importantly, he is driven to the best he can be. During one of the media sessions last week, I asked him about coming out of last spring as the number two quarterback and how that affected him.

Prior to the question, he had been upbeat and responded to a questioner by looking right at them. After my question, he looked down and his voice dropped as he discussed how he did and how painful his performance was for him.

Acknowledging your weaknesses, listening to people, and putting in the hard work to get better … he used adversity to further himself as a football player and make A&M a better team.

That alone makes him a special player in my book.

- Despite all of the distractions that occurred coming into the game from award ceremonies to player absences, Kevin Sumlin has his team focused as usual coming out of the tunnel and scoring first (they've done that now in 12 straight games). His hand picked staff made halftime adjustments to pull away in the second half of the game. Despite all of the energy that took and the lack of a voice immediately after the Cotton Bowl, he still was able to make an appearance on ESPN with the crew of College Gameday last night to break down the national championship game tonight. He also stole a prospect from Oklahoma who instantly became A&M's highest rated linebacker commitment…and all of this occurred within a 48 hour period.

In the same way that A&M has been waiting for a transcendent player, the Aggies have been waiting for a transcendent coach.

It now looks that they have one of those too.

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