COLLEGE STATION, Texas — After losing a left tackle who was the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft and a center who was a two-year starter at the position and a four-year starter overall, it was easy to believe that there would be a drop-off in performance from the Texas A&M offensive line.
Through six games, the No. 7 Aggies can safely say all is well up front. Even with two newcomers and some shuffling by moving returning starters around, the unit is again performing at a high level and is one of the reasons Texas A&M's offense continues to be one of the best in college football.
While it's difficult to replicate what the Aggies had last season, when all five starters last season played multiple seasons together, it's easy to see how well this year's group is doing. All it takes is watching quarterback Johnny Manziel drop back and sit comfortably in the pocket for five, six and sometimes seven seconds looking for a receiver or deciding to use his scrambling ability to gain yardage.
And in the Aggies' victory over Arkansas on Sept. 28, the line paved the way for two second-half touchdown drives that consisted of all running plays. Texas A&M had more rushing yards than passing yards.
"Offensive line has played really good, with the exception of one game," offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "I think those young guys in one of those six games -- I think it was SMU -- had some struggles. But for the most part, they've played great."
Against SMU, there were some penalties and self-inflicted errors that the Aggies needed to clean up. Their performance against No. 1 Alabama was strong and they've been consistent, for the most part, the rest of the year.
The transition began back in spring, moving Jake Matthews from right tackle to left tackle to replace Luke Joeckel. To fill Matthews' void, right guard Cedric Ogbuehi kicked out to right tackle. Jake's younger brother Mike Matthews stepped in as the starter at center and redshirt freshman Germain Ifedi slid in at right guard. The only player still in the same position last season is left guard Jarvis Harrison.
Behind that quintet, the Aggies are putting up 586.5 yards per game (No. 3 in the country) and have allowed only seven sacks, which puts them in the top 30 statistically in the country. They're 20th in rushing yards (224.6 yards per game) and sixth in passing yards (361.8 per game).
"They're getting better every week," senior running back Ben Malena said. "It's hard to compare this year's group to last year's because they're only six games in, but I can tell you every week they are getting better."
The biggest question marks coming into the season centered around the first-time starters. So far, they've answered the questions.
"I'm really pleased with the young guys," offensive line coach B.J. Anderson said. "I think they've made some strides. They've played in some atmospheres where we had to communicate. Mike's done a really good job. I've changed protections on him a couple games. ... I'm really pleased with where he's at, and the same way with Germain. He's getting better every game and we're fixing some things that need to get fixed and we'll just keep working."
Anderson noted that they're not holding anything back from Mike Matthews, who is just a sophomore, when it comes to game-planning and protections. That's critical considering the vast array of defensive looks Anderson said opponents have thrown at the Aggies.
"If you had told me that I had that flexibility back in August, I'm not sure I would have believed you," Anderson said. "But he's got the kitchen sink right now. I'm not doing anything that I didn't do with Pat Lewis, who was a senior. He's able to make all the adjustments I need and I'm really pleased with the mental work he does during the week, preparation-wise."
The "older guys" -- senior Jake Matthews and juniors Harrison and Ogbuehi -- have also shined. Matthews' adjustment to left tackle has been smooth, as has Ogbuehi's to right tackle. Harrison has impressed Anderson with his effort week to week.
"Jake's Jake and Ced's doing a good job and Jarvis Harrison is playing his tail off -- as well as he's played since I've been here," Anderson said. "He's playing with great effort. It shows on tape and I'm happy with those older guys."
Manziel's progression and mastery of the offense in the second season in the scheme has helped as well. Players say they notice Manziel has tried to stay in the pocket more often.
"I feel more this year that he hasn't scrambled as much and he has been more patient," Ogbuehi said. "He looks to throw more, too. He's always looking to make a big play with his arm, and that's good."
Perhaps the best aspect of this group is it has stayed healthy. The Aggies were fortunate to keep all five starters healthy last season, and that's been the case this year, too. It isn't a perfect group, but it is a smart, talented one that continues to improve every day.
"This year, we're still trying to get there but so far we're getting there," Ogbuehi said. "It's exciting so far what we've done in the little time we've had together."