COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- It's tough to plan around which practices I'll get to see when I come to campuses during the spring or preseason camp, but it was a pretty ideal situation at Texas A&M on Wednesday. The team was in full pads, practiced for about an hour and a half, and the vast majority of it was 11-on-11 team drills.
Texas A&M's practices are open to the public, something that's increasingly rare in college football, but there were probably 70-80 fans who made it to the afternoon workout on a gorgeous day for spring football. To my knowledge, the only teams in the new Big 12 that open up spring practice to fans are Texas A&M, Missouri and Baylor.
Additionally, it takes a lot for women's hoops to generate buzz, but there was definitely a bit out at practice. The Aggies beat rival Baylor, featuring arguably the game's biggest star, 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, in Dallas earlier this week to reach the first Final Four in school history. I'm sure there will be plenty of maroon in the stands in Indianapolis this weekend. (More on that here from colleague Mechelle Voepel.)
But back to football.
A few thoughts and observations from practice:
Two guys a bit under the radar who had great days: Receiver Kenric McNeal and running back Ben Malena. With all the skill-position talent at Texas A&M, both get a bit overshadowed, but Malena, at least for one day, looked every bit as good a runner as the backs ahead of him on the depth chart, Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray. He has a lot of development to do in things like feeling creases in the line but when he got a chance to get to the second level and let his instincts take over, he was giving the defense fits. He looked solid in the open field.
Additionally, McNeal has a reputation as a shifty slot receiver who works best underneath, but he was stretching the field on Thursday like I hadn't seen from him before. His two longest plays of the year (27 and 32 yards) came late last season, but he had a couple of deep catches in the end zone after slipping past the safeties and bringing it in behind the defense. He got open a few more times, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill missed a couple of deep balls to him, but it has to be encouraging for the offense to see him break a few off like that.
Michael looking confident on healed leg
Michael was one guy I wanted to see, and it was tough to get a read on his mobility -- he didn't get into the open field very much. But one encouraging sign was he didn't look like he was shying away from contact at all. That's exactly what A&M wants to see. Michael brings a mean running style that no other back on the roster can provide. Early in the conference season last year, he was running over plenty of linebackers. He looks like he wants to get back to doing exactly that, and he did it on Thursday, dragging a couple of defenders at times.
I don't think the mental side of returning from the injury will be an issue. He's never been quite as shifty as Cyrus Gray, but he runs with power that you won't find anywhere else in the Big 12, and considering how the rest of the league defended the run during the bowl season -- especially power runners -- the Aggies will once again be glad he's on their team this fall.
Wrecking Crew missing a few members
Diehard A&M fans are surely already aware, but the Aggies' defense is missing quite a few key pieces this spring, especially in the back seven. Defensive backs Terrance Frederick and Coryell Judie are both sidelined after offseason shoulder surgery and linebacker Sean Porter is out with an injury to his left foot from earlier in spring practice.
Lionel Smith is also out for spring ball.
Former Aggies on hand
It's always good to see alums and former coaches on hand for spring practice. Former Aggies linebacker Michael Hodges was milling around the practice field. He's one of just three defensive starters (Von Miller, Lucas Patterson) the Aggies have to replace this spring.
Additionally, former Aggies coach R.C. Slocum was in attendance.