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Texas A&M’s regular season recap: Defensive struggles overshadowed an explosive offense

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SDS recaps every team’s 2013 regular season:

Texas A&M Aggies

Final Record: 8-4 overall, 4-4 in SEC

Texas A&M entered 2013 as national championship contenders. After all, they had the best player and biggest weapon in the country in Johnny Manziel and one of the most favorable schedules in the country, but they were losing some key pieces on defense that Kevin Sumlin hoped to replace.

Related: Final regular season SEC standings

However, things didn’t go as expected. The offense was electric and high-octane again, thanks to Manziel and emerging superstar Mike Evans, but the defense was too bad to even think about winning the division, no matter how many points Manziel and company scored.

The offense took a slightly different identity in 2013. Last season, Manziel’s creativity led to more points being scored, and this year he sat more in the pocket in an effort to become a better passer and prove doubters wrong. He had better throwing numbers with less rushing yards. Manziel threw for 3,732 yards, completing 69.1 percent of his passes, for 33 TDs and 13 INTs. He threw for more yards, a higher completion percentage and seven more TDs. But he rushed for 724 less yards and 13 less TDs. Still, those are Heisman-worthy numbers, if the Aggies didn’t lose four games.

Mike Evans blew up this year. We knew he was good in 2012, as he caught 82 passes for 1,105 yards and five TDs, and although the receptions dropped to 65, Evans recorded 1,322 receiving yards and 12 TDs, averaging a nasty 20.3 yards per reception. Malcome Kennedy caught over 50 passes and seven TDs, and Derel Walker caught 45 and four touchdowns. The biggest surprise of the group was Travis Labhart; the walk on became a key receiver for the offense midway through the year. He caught 44 passes for 550 yards and five TDs.

Related: Johnny Manziel talks NFL readiness

Because Manziel ran less, the running game was less potent. Ben Malena, Trey Williams, Tra Carson and Brandon Williams are all quality backs who complement each other well, but Trey Williams is the big-play threat. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry, but he only touched it 54 times. I thought Trey and Brandon Williams both needed more touches. I also thought the offensive line wasn’t as good as 2012. Jake Matthews had to slide back to right tackle some and the line was shuffled several games throughout the season due to injury. This group was good, but they weren’t as good as I expected.

The defense was the biggest reason the Aggies didn’t compete for a championship, and it started the first week against Rice. The Owls scored 31 points and racked up 306 rushing yards. We knew then the defense wouldn’t be championship-caliber unless they improved drastically, unless the suspended players for week one could make them three times as good. But it didn’t happen.

The defense allowed opponents to rush for over 221 yards per game and score over 30 points per game. Teams won’t win many games like that, especially in the SEC.

Gavin Stansbury got progressively better throughout the season, and Julien Obioha was the Aggies’ best defensive lineman. Together, they made just eight tackles for loss and five sacks, but neither was Damontre Moore, nor did anyone come close to replacing his production. Kirby Ennis’ injury really hurt the defensive line, especially against the run. Senior linebacker Steven Jenkins was expected to the difference maker, but it was freshman Darian Claiborne, who recorded 89 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks. Claiborne is going to be a player! The secondary was the best position unit on defense, and Howard Matthews, Deshazor Everett, DeVaunte Harris, Tony Hurd and Floyd Raven are all really strong players. Matthews picked off three passes and recorded nine breakups, and Everett picked off two passes and had seven passes defended.

Here’s a look at the team stats:

Category (SEC rank)
Scoring Offense 43.6 PPG (1st)
Rushing Offense 187.25 YPG (9th)
Passing Offense 350.9 YPG (1st)
Total Offense 538.2 YPG (1st)
Scoring Defense 30.9 PPG (13th)
Rushing Defense 221.33 YPG (14th)
Passing Defense 239 YPG (12th)
Total Defense 460.3 YPG (14th)

One that got away: The biggest game that got away came against Alabama in week three. The Aggies jumped out to an early 14-point lead before Alabama exploded back to take the 35-14 lead. Still, the Aggies came clawing back and cut the lead to 42-35 with eight minutes left in the fourth, but the defense couldn’t get a stop. The entire complexion of the season would have changed if they beat Alabama. Had the defense just gotten one more stop or one more three and out, it’s likely the Aggies would have won the game. The other obvious game that got away came against Auburn. The Aggies had the 41-38 lead with five minutes left and couldn’t stop the Tigers’ running game. In hindsight, nobody could.

Offensive Stud: You could go with either Johnny Manziel or Mike Evans here, but the lifeblood of the offense is Manziel. We’ll probably witness his last college game against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and he’s had an epic two-year career. He finished ninth in the country with 3,732 yards and sixth with 33 TDs. He improved across the board as a quarterback, and he boosted his NFL stock and hype.

Defensive Stud: I really thought freshman LB Darian Claiborne was the difference maker in the front seven for the Aggies. He recorded a team-high 89 tackles for a team-high seven tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He also picked off a pass and forced two fumbles. He’s going to be quite the player, and the Aggies have a linebacker worth building the future of the defense around. He’s going to be special.

What’s next: The Aggies close out the season against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and it’s likely Johnny Manziel’s and Mike Evans’ last game. For the last two years, both have been extremely important to the offense, and what will their identity look like without the duo? The defense is young and will only get better, but that starts this offseason of trying to build upon a young – but talented – foundation. The biggest question heading into the offseason is whether Matt Joeckel or Kenny Hill will win the QB job. Could incoming freshman Kyle Allen win the job?

Photo Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports





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