Editor's note: This is the thirteenth installment of a 14-part in-depth look at spring practices from throughout the Southeastern Conference from the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network. Up today are the Texas A&M Aggies.
COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS - Texas A&M was the first SEC team to get back out on the practice field, starting spring practice less than two months after the Aggies' 52-48 shootout win over Duke in the Chick-fil-a Bowl.
The short turnaround was good in some respects for A&M and coach Kevin Sumlin, as they needed to come to grips with a future that did not include first-round draft picks Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews.
It's almost appropriate that Kyle Field is undergoing a $450 renovation - which eliminated the spring game - as the Aggies, after having won 20 games in their first two SEC seasons, are undergoing major changes as well. With Johnny Football now in Cleveland, their secondary coach in Boise and many of the major role players over the past two seasons gone, A&M is hoping this season of transition shows they're reloading, not rebuilding.
FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT TEXAS A&M
SEC SPRING WRAP-UPS
TEXAS A&M AGGIESS
Who's replacing Manziel?
That's the biggest question, and while it hasn't been answered, the possibilities have been narrowed down. Redshirt senior Matt Joeckel transferred to TCU at the end of the spring, having already been bested by true freshman and early arrival Kyle Allen and sophomore Kenny Hill.
Allen, the consensus top pro-style quarterback in the nation in the class of 2014, was extremely impressive during his first spring practice as he picked up the offense quickly and showed off better-than-expected arm strength. Hill was also solid, showing good accuracy and superior mobility. Allen may go into the fall with a slight advantage, however, after Hill was arrested for public intoxication with a week to go in practice and was suspended for the remainder of the spring. Either way, the Aggies feel like they'll have someone capable of successfully operating the offense - one that will look a lot different from the one the SEC has seen the past two years.
How much of a difference will DB coach Terry Joseph make?
Though the opportunity to see the secondary in action was limited, the approach taken by the safeties and corners was substantially different from that seen under Marcel Yates in 2013 when the Aggies were frequently decimated through the air. Instead of playing a soft zone, Joseph, the former Nebraska secondary coach, had corners playing more aggressively, jamming wideouts at the line and turning and running down with their opponents - a far cry from how they did business last year.
The Aggies appear to be set with their starting corners, with senior Deshazor Everett and junior Devante Harris back this year. Sophomore Noel Ellis is set to replace Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel, and much-maligned senior Howard Matthews had an impressive spring to re-cement his starting job at boundary safety. Senior Floyd Raven started at free safety in the spring, but incoming freshman Nick Harvey is expected to challenge for the job in the fall.
Will the Aggies be able to replace their losses at receiver?
The Aggies enter 2014 without three of their four top receivers from last year in Evans, Derel Walker and Travis Labhart. With such a loss of talent, it would make sense to expect a drop-off, but A&M thinks they'll be in pretty good shape in 2014.
One reason for optimism is the early arrival of 5-star Speedy Noil, who took over a starting job almost immediately as he wowed with his speed and hands. Last year's highly-touted arrival, Ricky Seals-Jones, has recovered from knee surgery and was being used in several different ways in the spring. Top returning receiver Malcome Kennedy holds down one slot receiver job, while JUCO transfer Josh Reynolds was impressive enough to move ahead of the pack for the final starting job. With speedy sophomore Laquvionte Gonzalez, the Aggies already have some talented options to replace last year's production. Even with the post-spring transfer of former 4-star JaQuay Willams, A&M should have plenty of receivers with big-play ability.
Will the defensive line be improved over last year?
Last year, the Aggies didn't do much of anything on defense against the run or the pass, as they were undermanned and couldn't muster a pass rush. To make matters worse, the four starters from the Chick-Fil-A bowl - Gavin Stansbury, Ivan Robinson, Isaiah Golden and Daeshon Hall - were all out this spring for various reasons. On the plus side, A&M got a chance to take a long look at two defensive tackles, true freshman Zaycoven Henderson and redshirt freshman Justin Manning, and liked what they saw. With junior Julien Obioha moving back to his regular defensive end spot after a frustrating season at rush end and Jay Arnold, Golden and Alonzo Williams expected back in the fall, the Aggies should have more depth along the line this fall - but a lot depends on Hall and new arrival Myles Garrett, one of the nation's top players in the 2014 class and who is expected to help provide some of the absent pass rush.
Who are players who need to step it up heading into the summer?
Sophomore middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni, who took over the starting job in the spring, needs to continue to improve; fellow sophomore Darian Claiborne, who was suspended for the spring, needs to get back into the swing of things so he's ready to start at outside linebacker in the fall. Offensive linemen Germain Ifedi and Joseph Cheek, who were solid at right tackle and right guard respectively in the spring, need to continue to up their level of play in order to lock down starting jobs for the fall.