Veteran offensive line a key behind Texas A&M's first-year SEC success
Ask Texas A&M offensive tackles Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel about the Aggies' season-opener against Florida, and you'll likely elicit a few laughs. It was Sept. 8, and A&M was playing its first game in a new conference under a new coach.
Since the Aggies had announced their plans to move to the SEC nearly a year earlier, fans in College Station had been waiting for this moment. A&M was about to get its first taste of "big-boy football." It was about to find out if it could survive in a league drastically different from the Big 12, one in which yards come at a premium and elite defenses are the norm.
Matthews and Joeckel remember that Florida game for an entirely different reason. Looking back, both recall a more pressing concern: Why was redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel holding onto the ball -- and holding onto the ball some more -- before finally looking to act?
"The first game was a little bit of an eye-opener," said Joeckel. "At practice, he was kind of getting rid of it and stuff like that. But at game time, he was looking to make a play no matter what."
Texas A&M has been one of the surprises of the season so far, and Johnny Football has been the face of the program's unlikely resurgence. He's shown a penchant for keeping plays alive, dancing and dipping in the backfield until nothing magically turns into something. His statistics are dazzling even by Chip Kelly-level standards: 2,527 passing yards, 922 rushing yards and 31 total touchdowns.
But make no mistake, heading into this Saturday's much-anticipated showdown with Alabama, A&M wouldn't be 7-2 and in second place in the SEC West without the stellar play of its offensive line. Led by the pair of projected first-round NFL draft picks, the Aggies' front has been a driving force behind the team's success.
Of all the returning talent first-year coach Kevin Sumlin inherited upon taking over, the Aggies' line may have been his most valuable asset. Joeckel is a 6-foot-6, 310-pound junior who started all 26 games his freshman and sophomore seasons, while Matthews is a 6-5, 310-pounder who entered the year with 20 starts to his name. Matthews is also the son of Bruce Matthews, the 14-time Pro Bowler and Hall of Fame lineman who once played with the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans.
The duo, senior center Patrick Lewis (26 starts entering the season) and sophomore guards Cedric Ogbuehi (six starts) and Jarvis Harrison (four starts) form one of the most experienced units in the nation. And after allowing just nine sacks all of last year -- and perhaps more impressively, not getting flagged for a holding penalty over the final 10 games -- the group entered 2012 with lofty expectations.
"We wanna be labeled as one of the best offensive lines in the country," said Joeckel. "I think that's a goal we had at the beginning of the year, and it's definitely something we wanna accomplish by the end of the year."
That goal became more complicated with the school's widespread transition. Sumlin installed a faster-paced offense than the Aggies were accustomed to running, a scheme that required tireless work and conditioning. Then there was the larger issue of A&M's bump in competition. Instead of playing in a league known for high-flying offenses, the Aggies would line up against opponents boasting the biggest and fastest defensive ends and tackles in the nation.
Still, as evidenced in the Florida game, the offensive line's most radical wake-up call came from its own backfield. It needed to adapt to Manziel's scrappy schoolyard mentality. Former starter Ryan Tannehill routinely released the ball just seconds after the snap, finishing the year with more than nine times as many pass attempts as quarterback carries. Manziel, on the other hand, prefers to wait, performing at his best once plays are extended or largely broken down.
"It took a while to get used to," said Matthews. "We had Ryan Tannehill here, and he was one of those pocket-passer guys who could stand in there. The first couple games, I'll admit that we weren't really used to it. But I think it's something that the O-line has started to pride themselves on. It's really finishing blocks and staying in there as long as possible."
That last sentiment has rung true. Nearly three months into the season, A&M's veteran line has learned to adjust to Manziel's tendencies. And it's hard to argue with the results: The Aggies are averaging more than 559 yards per game, the fifth highest total in the FBS. Even more significant, they've outscored SEC opponents 86-57 in the second halves of games, a huge step for a team that had a knack for blowing big leads after the break in 2011.
"We want to finish on the whistle every single play," said Joeckel. "We know if that whistle takes about 16 seconds to blow, we still gotta keep fighting."
This weekend at Alabama, the Aggies will face their toughest test to date. They'll travel on the road to face a Tide front seven that includes future pros Jesse Williams, C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson, among others, and ranks first nationally in rushing, pass efficiency, scoring and total defense. The matchup is being billed as a mini-preview for how the Tide would fare against Oregon. It's Manziel, Ben Malena and Christine Michael against 'Bama's ball-hawking defenders.
But keep an eye on Matthews, Joeckel and company. One other thing resonated from that Florida game and beyond: This unit is talented enough to go toe-to-toe with anyone. Despite playing in a new conference under a new coach, this Aggies team -- and its veteran offensive line, in particular -- has what it takes to compete immediately.
"People were thinking we're not really accustomed to this league or this style of play, but I think we really united and came together," said Matthews. "We've got the guys, we've got the talent, we've got the athletes. As long as we just keep working hard and following the coaching and playing our best, I think that it's gonna keep paying off for us."