With the regular season over, the 10-2 Aggies finally have time to sit back and reflect on their impressive season. Going into Championship Weekend, it appears Kevin Sumlin's ball club will likely play in one of two bowl games. The Capital One Bowl on New Years Day against a B1G team or the AT&T Cotton Bowl versus a former Big 12 foe.
Although they are lead by Heisman frontrunner Johnny Manziel, this spectacular season would not have been possible without the seniors buying into Coach Sumlin and his staff. In fact, Sumlin has gone out his way to mention his senior's leadership on and off the field. In his weekly press conference last week, Sumlin stressed how valuable they have been.
" If you look at what has transpired this year, with a new coaching staff coming in, new philosophies on offense and defense, special teams, a new quarterback, the first game cancelled by a hurricane then playing eleven straight weeks... the way they've played has been nothing short of amazing,"
"From my standpoint, you can't do that without senior leadership. You're only with them so much as a coach. It's in the locker room that guys need to be held accountable. They've been critical to our success."
Although the two future first-round bookend tackles get all the publicity, it's Patrick Lewis who leads the best offensive line unit in the country. The four year starter struggled in the off-season and the first part of the year adjusting to the tempo of the offense. As he began to get a grasp on it, the offense took off. Something Sumlin is quick to point out.
"It starts with him every time. From a tempo standpoint, if he's slow to the ball, our tempo is slow. We can't do anything until he gets to the ball. He's done a great job. He is the only senior on that front and he's been a leader for us the whole time."
A guy who has played a large roll down the stretch, is Christine Michael. After starting the season in the head coach's doghouse, and even being suspended for a game, Michael changed his attitude and bought in to his role on this team. The bruising tailback has a dozen touchdowns this season including two tough runs in the first quarter of the Alabama game. Whenever the offense has needed to pound the ball or gain a tough couple of yards, they have leaned on Michael.
Another senior who started this season off slow but returned to form is Ryan Swope. The Aggies all-time leader in receptions has 809 yards on the season and leads the team with seven touchdown receptions. He will be remembered in Aggie lore for the go-ahead score against Ole Miss and a couple of huge receptions in the upset of #1 Alabama.
Second on the touchdown reception list is another senior, Uzoma Nwachukwu with six. Another four-year starter, "EZ" is third on the team with 404 yards receiving, including an 89-yard score against Sam Houston State.
It is no surprise that this high-powered offense, lead by a Heisman finalist, grabbed all the headlines. However, the Aggie defense has made their fair share of big plays all year. Lead by seniors at each level, this defense has allowed an average of only half as many points per game than the Aggie offense scores. More impressively, they have also held opposing offenses to a 30.53% conversion rate on third down.
The defense is lead up front by wild man Spencer Nealy. Spencer spent most of his career as a defensive end in Tim Deruyter's 3-4 scheme and even spent a spring camp as a tight end. When new Aggie defensive coordinator Mark Snyder arrived, Nealy slid down to a defensive tackle. Undersized at 277-pounds, Spencer relied on his quickness and non-stop motor to disrupt offenses. Starting at the 3-technique most of the season, he slid to nose tackle for the match-up versus Alabama. Nealy played the game of his career and whipped Alabama's All-American center Barrett Jones, all night.
The heart of this defense are the two senior linebackers, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart. Stewart, a Shreveport, Louisiana native and middle linebacker is second on the team in total tackles with 72, including 2.5 sacks. At 6'4" 240-pounds, he's been exactly what was needed to man the middle in Snyder's defense. He helped save the season with a crucial fourth-and-one stop against Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott that gave the Ags the ball back for their game winning drive.
Coming into the season, it was a concern that Sean Porter could adapt to the more traditional linebacker role he'd play in the 3-4. He silenced all doubts and blossomed into the Aggies' most well-rounded linebacker. From his outside 'backer position, Porter has 60 tackles on the year and 2.5 sack to go with a forced and recovered fumble. He also picked off AJ MaCarron for the then-Heisman candidate's first INT of the season.
Free safety Steven Terrell has been a main-stay in an often-shuffled defensive backfield. He has 58 tackles this year and leads the Aggie defense in take-aways with two interceptions as well as two forced fumbles. It was Terrell who put the big hit on Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon and forced the ball loose when the Tide were driving to potentially take the lead, late in the second half.
Conerback/punt returner Dustin Harris started the season off with a bang when he set an A&M and SEC record against South Carolina State with eight punt returns for 246 yards, including a 96-yard touchdown. As a cornerback, Harris steadily improved as the season went on, eventually locking down a starting spot. He leads the secondary with ten pass breakups and has 39 tackles on the year. He is also the one who recovered Yeldon's fumble forced by Terrell.
Kevin Sumlin bucked a trend set by his predecessors as a first-year A&M coach to push away the senior class and it has paid dividends for him. A microcosm of this special season can be seen in one of the biggest wins in program history. It was not only a Heisman front-runner quarterback that rolled the Tide. It was this group of seniors playing great football and rising up to make a play when the Ags had to have one. When a coach that they didn't sign up to play for gave them a chance, they repaid him with one of the greatest stories in Aggie history. And it's not over yet.