The Port Arthur News
ARLINGTON — A day after Texas A&M obliterated Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, Aggie fans were still celebrating what turned into an almost magical season as they streamed home on I-45. Those same fans chanted “SEC, SEC, SEC,” during the trophy presentation Friday night for the Aggies’ 41-13 victory over the Sooners in the 77th AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic, but they saved plenty of admiration for Mr. Heisman, Johnny “Football” Manziel.
The redshirt freshman had a meteoric rise onto the scene this year, going from an arrest during the summer that saw him charged with three misdemeanors, to winning the starting job two weeks before the season and then earning his Johnny Football nickname by setting half a dozen SEC, FBS and bowl records.
“It's been crazy,” Manziel said. “It's been a rollercoaster to see how things have played out from the first game to where they are now, and what things have played out in my life as well as everybody on this team, how we've progressed as a team, how we've continued to get better every week. I'm really enjoying this. Some of the seniors, the last time they'll get to be in the locker room with all of us. I’m just enjoying the time with all these guys, that's what my main focus is.”
Some of those seniors include one of his favorite receiver in Ryan Swope, who capped his Aggie career with an eight-catch, 104-yard night highlighted by a 33-yard touchdown from Manziel in the third quarter. Swope may not be the most important member of the offense leaving, however. Both of Texas A&M’s giant offensive tackles, Luke Joekel and Jake Matthews, are draft eligible juniors. A&M is also going to miss graduating senior Patrick Lewis at center.
That offensive line was a big reason for Manziel’s success this season, giving him time in the pocket to start dancing and making plays. Matthews also showed how much help the line could be in the running game, lead blocking for Manziel down field on multiple QB counters. The 6-foot-5, 305 pounder looked just as nimble as his QB on those plays, chasing down and sealing off much smaller cornerbacks and safeties to wring extra yardage out of the runs.
Of the two tackles, Outland Trophy winner Joekel seems a lock to leave, since he’s projected in many corners to be a top 5 pick, much like USC’s Ryan Kalil, who went No. 3 to the Minnesota Vikings last season. Matthews may be more on the fence, as he started at right tackle this season and could boost his draft stock by switching to the left side next season.
Either way, the Aggies will be hurt by losing players off what one talent evaluator said was one of the best college lines he’d seen in 10 or 15 years, including Lewis, who stepped up to become a leader for the Aggie offense.
“You know, I think we got to give everything to the seniors,” Joekel said. “They're definitely the leaders of our teams. We might have gotten the accolades and stuff like that this year. Without the seniors, we wouldn't have had the season we had. They brought into Coach Sumlin's and the rest of the coaching staff's system from the get go.
“They could have checked out for their last year, but they bought in for us. Speaking as a junior, the rest of us followed. I followed Patrick Lewis. I think Spencer Nealy gave him the nickname ‘The General,’ and he is the general of our offense. I've enjoyed playing with him for the last three years. It's going to be hard to watch him go. We might have gotten all the accolades, but the seniors are definitely the leaders of our team.”
Plenty of credit for the Aggies turnaround also lies with Sumlin, who now has a record of 46-19 as a head coach between the University of Houston and A&M. The fiery leader not only turned around the program with his coaching ability, he also did it with his attitude, refusing to focus on the past and embracing A&M’s move to the SEC.
“We never doubted ourselves,” Sumlin said. “Everybody acts like I didn't know what we were getting into when I took the job. We were already in the SEC. We weren't coming in the league just trying to play games. Every coach is trying to win. My job is to get these guys ready to play and win. They believed in it. We talked before this game, this is the last game of this year and first game of next year. For our seniors, they're going to set the bar for the rest of everybody. That was their reason to play.
“For everybody next year, this is the first game of the new year. It sets the bar. It's a heck of a lot easier to get in that weight room after that confetti is down on you, than to walk out of it like, ‘What's going on?’ I think with the exposure that we've had, answering some questions about being able to not only compete, but win against the co champion of the Big 12, for us to come out and play the way we did tonight, you got to figure out what kind of statement that makes.”
Sumlin and Manziel also answered some important questions by putting up a Cotton Bowl-record 633 yards of offense without offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who accepted the head coaching job at Texas Tech in December. Running backs coach Clarence McKinney, formerly head coach at Houston Yates, filled in admirably, and demonstrated A&M’s attitude that no one person was responsible for their success this season.
“I think everybody was a little nervous whenever there's a change,” Sumlin said. “I said weeks ago that Clarence has been in this offense for five years. There's a direction that we wanted to go. If we had hired someone, they would have had to learn what we do in two weeks. I think you could see there was a little bit of different change, a little bit more misdirection.
“We had some time to work on some things in a bowl preparation mode. Our players executed. Continuity is important for what we do. Our guys have a lot of confidence in all of our coaches. To me, change wasn't necessary at that point. I think Clarence and our whole offensive staff did a great job.”
One person doesn’t make a team, but what the Cotton Bowl illustrated was that the combination of Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel should make Texas A&M a force to be reckoned with next season in the SEC.