Athletes come and go, but a program’s legacy never dies.
Before No. 14 Texas A&M football’s 52-3 whollopping of Prairie View A&M, 15 athletes were recognized in the team’s Senior Day ceremony to commemorate their final time playing at Kyle Field. Though emotions were high for many of the older players, dominance showcased by the team’s youngest athletes helped illuminate the path toward A&M’s potential success moving forward.
For A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, the senior class represented more than just another group of athletes: they personified the coach’s fresh start. Fisher’s first football season as an Aggie came in 2018 — the freshman year of now-soon-to-be graduates — after eight years with Florida State. Because the older players have been with Fisher for the entirety of his tenure with the maroon and white, the head coach said he was proud to honor their growth and development before the game.
“What [the seniors] have meant from a cultural standpoint, from a practice standpoint, from influence on the other guys, the things that happened … I can’t be happier for those guys,” Fisher said. “It’s been a tremendous group of guys.”
Referred to as one of the most influential members of the entire football program by various teammates throughout the 2021 season, senior defensive back Leon O’Neal represents one of the most significant upcoming departures from the team. Across his first three seasons at A&M, beginning in fall 2018, O’Neal totaled 70 solo tackles, 36 sacks and seven tackles for loss.
But this season, he truly began to shine. The senior has collected two interceptions, a sack, 35 solo tackles, seven passes defended, a touchdown and one fumble recovery through 11 games — all career-high season numbers. O’Neal said this development is what made playing his final game in Kyle Field so difficult.
“I didn’t want to get too deep in my feels, in my emotions, but I couldn’t hide it, man,” O’Neal said, “This place changed me. Talking about it makes me tear up just a little bit. I love A&M with all my heart.”
Senior place-kicker Seth Small has followed a similar trajectory, finding his role as a significant difference-maker on the team as a freshman. Since then, Small became A&M’s all-time leading scorer, passing Randy Bullock’s record of 365 points set between 2008 and 2011. Small also nailed 70 field goals and 161 extra points.
Because of his wide success seen at A&M — both on and off the field — Small said it doesn’t seem possible for his time at Kyle Field to be finished.
“Has it been 44 games? Oh, my gosh,” Small said. “It goes by way too fast, let me tell you.”
But to Small, there was no better way to end his four-year career wearing maroon and white at home in front of the 12th Man. The Aggies dominated the Panthers, finding 447 yards of total offense while scoring 52 points — A&M’s highest point-total since beating Lamar in 2019.
“I think it was sweet to send the seniors out in the way that we did in stamping fashion,” Small said. “I was fighting back tears all game long. It’s just been incredible.”
Along with O’Neal and Small, the other players recognized for Senior Day were Tyler Bulthuis, Travis Pepin, Daniel Bushland, Tyler Ondrusek, Reinard Britz, Justin Mellenbruch, Reese Mason, Galen Gallagher, Micheal Clemons, Aaron Hansford, Jahmir Johnson, Tyree Johnson and Jayden Peevy.
And though they weren’t a part of Saturday’s ceremonious festivities, other players with NCAA eligibility still left may have played their final game at Kyle Field as well. The 2022 NFL Draft is just over five months away, and many Aggies, including junior running back Isaiah Spiller and junior DeMarvin Leal, have been pegged as likely draftees.
Fisher said he is not worried about this prospect, as it is simply a “way of life” in college athletics.
“Listen, you always hate to lose guys, but that’s what the world is. You step up, move on and other people step in,” Fisher said. “This program is still not done.”
Instead, Fisher said the program will rely on the younger players who have already begun blossoming and finding success in their own rights. Against Prairie View, most starters had been substituted out by the end of the third quarter. This allowed four underclassmen to score, while many others gained crucial playing experience as well.
Sophomore running back Devon Achane, who has presented himself as Spiller’s heir apparent, rushed for 45 yards on 10 carries. But even more impressive, the current NCAA yards-per-carry runner-up scored two touchdowns — his sixth multi-score showing in under two years.
Similarly, freshman wide receiver Moose Muhammad III notched 77 yards on five receptions, scoring twice and tripling his career touchdown total in the process. Freshman running back Amari Daniels, who led the game in total rushing yards with 70, scored his first touchdown, and sophomore place-kicker Caden Davis notched his first extra point.
By not acknowledging age or seniority differences in practice, all Aggies are fully prepared to compete and succeed by the first time they step onto the field, O’Neal said.
“We hold each other to a standard. We don’t care if you’re 18, 17 or 22 [years old],” O’Neal said. “It has to be perfect. We have to do it the right way. And that’s our standard. If we don’t do it the right way, then we’re not satisfied; we’re not happy. Don’t matter what age you are.”
This mindset should not be surprising for new recruits or younger players, Johnson said, as it is emphasized from the moment a player first joins the program.
“When we got here for workouts and things like that, I basically told everybody, ‘You’re not a kid no more. Let’s ball,’” Johnson said. “‘You’re a grown man now. We ain’t wasting no time; we ain’t skipping a beat. Let’s play now.’”
Yes, once most of these young players entered the game, Prairie View did slightly better. Along with their field goal — the visiting team’s lone source of points in the matchup — the Panthers nearly tripled their offensive yardage while finding multiple first downs and snagging an interception from A&M freshman walk-on quarterback Blake Bost.
But this was to be expected, Fisher said, as many of them had not recorded that many minutes of playing time in a single day. Instead, the matchup against the Panthers served as a preview of good to come while highlighting the issues which need to be addressed during the offseason.
“Any time you go on the field and the numbers on the scoreboard are for real, it matters,” Fisher said. “You can do it in practice all day; I don’t care who you play. The numbers on the scoreboard are for real. It affects people.”
The seniors on the current football squad have done it all. They survived one of the longest games in collegiate football history, finished a season with A&M’s highest final AP ranking since 1929, defeated No. 1 Alabama, played through a pandemic, secured an Orange Bowl championship and endured the hardships that come with working under a first-year coach at a new program.
Regardless of the greatness leaving Kyle Field in favor of graduation or the NFL Draft, Small said he has no doubt that the next iteration of the A&M football team will continue developing the seniors’ legacy and pushing the program to new heights.
“Who knows what’s going to happen [after I leave]?” Small asked. “I just know that the culture that’s being built here is going to breed something special.”