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September 28, 2013

Malena leads with his words and actions

Texas A&M senior running back Ben Malena has become known nationally as the Aggies' first option in a very talented backfield and one of the players who has popularized the "cashing out" hand gesture.

What most people don't know is the Ben Malena off the field. He carries himself with a combination of intelligence, calm and courtesy -- the word "dignified" comes to mind -- not usually found in a young man in his early twenties. That demeanor helped him earn the respect of his coaches and teammates early on and translated into him being named one of the team's three permanent captains for 2013.

Being respected, however, was not enough for Malena as he entered his last season in Aggieland. He shocked and impressed head coach Kevin Sumlin as fall camp started when he walked into his office and asked a simple question: "What do I need to do to become a better leader?"

"For a guy to come in and sit down in front of you at your desk and say, 'Coach, can I talk to you for a second? I want to talk to you about my role -- not as a player -- but my role as a leader on this team. What do you think about this? What if I do this?' That shows you the type of maturity that the young man has," Sumlin said.

While his willingness to shoulder extra responsibilities has caught people's attention, Malena says the reason for his question is a simple one.

"I'm just trying to win," he said, "So I went up there and asked him. He's been on championship teams, and I'm pretty sure he's had players stepped up in the leadership role, so I asked him about that. I don't know it all, but I want to help this team win."

With three-plus years of playing experience and his ability to relate to virtually all of his teammates, Malena's move to become a team leader has been welcomed.

"I think it's good to have a player on the team that other players listen to, kind of like a coach," he explained. "It means more when a player is talking than when a coach is talking. It's easier to listen to a player, so when you have a player that everyone listens to is a good thing."

After leading A&M's running backs in rushing with 826 yards (5.9 yards per carry) in 2012, the consistent Malena is off to another strong start with 268 yards on 45 carries (5.8 yards per carry). Instead of being content with his unquestioned role as the team's top back, Malena is also taking time on the practice field and the sideline to impart his experiences to his talented teammates, Brandon Williams, Tra Carson and Trey Williams.

"It's just the mental aspect of the game. When it comes to physical talent, they have it," Malena said when asked when he discusses with the three backups. "It's just about different situations in the game, how to be better, smarter players -- clock management, picking up blitzes in protection, things that will help you take it to the next level. When it comes to physical talent, I don't have to tell them anything about that."

Malena spoke glowingly of all three runners when asked how he would describe them.

"Brandon Williams brings an element to this game that you can't coach: speed. That's one of the fastest guys on the team," he said. "When you think about Tra Carson, that's just what you need on a team -- a big, physical guy who can run downhill and get you yardage and short yardage and can also be a productive first, second or third down back. With Trey Williams, he's a running back you don't see every day with his quickness and vision and the things he can do with the ball in his hands."

The Aggie offensive line got off to a bit of a slow start in 2012, but by year's end was one of the nation's best. A&M is already averaging 212 yards on the ground, but Malena said the group hasn't reached their full potential.

"This group is hungry and is working to be the best group in the country," he said.

When asked if this year's offense could be better than the one that scored 578 points and delivered a Heisman Trophy winner, Malena didn't hesitate in saying yes.

"I think so. I think one major contributor is year two of the system. I think there's a better understanding -- our coaches are doing less coaching, if that makes sense," he explained. "The players already know what to do and understand the concepts already."

Malena also noted that the Aggies have the same quarterback, Johnny Manziel, leading the offense. Through the first third of the season, he said, there is no question Manziel is more effective than he was last year.

"His level of play has increased. He still runs the ball very effectively, but his precision with passing is off the charts," he said. "That's what you need."

After complimenting virtually every player on the offense, it was noticed there was one player Malena hadn't talked about: himself. And he's just fine with that, thank you.

"I'm just trying to win. I'm trying to get to Atlanta (and the SEC Championship Game)," he said. "The teams that get to Atlanta and win there have a real chance to get to the national championship game. That's one of our goals, and something I dream about every night."

So I went up there and asked him.

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