A&M’s Mond looks to take step forward against Gamecocks

FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, file photo, Texas A&M wide receiver Christian Kirk (3) celebrates in the end zone after returning a kick off 100 yards for a touchdown in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Arkansas in Arlington, Texas. Through Texas A&M's first three games many wondered if Kirk was frustrated as near-constant double teams kept him from posting the big numbers he had the past two seasons. That all changed on Saturday when he returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown and had 110 yards receiving with two touchdowns in a win over Arkansas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) Kellen Mond has made plenty of progress since he made his debut midway through Texas A&M’s season opener.

The true freshman quarterback will need to continue his rapid development if he and the Aggies (3-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) hope to beat South Carolina (3-1, 1-1) on Saturday before hosting top-ranked Alabama on Oct. 7.

”He’s got a lot of talent,” coach Kevin Sumlin said. ”I think it’s a combination of a couple of things. He’s getting more comfortable and we’re getting more comfortable with him and knowing what he can do.”

Mond couldn’t help the Aggies to the win after taking over when Nick Starkel was injured in their opener against UCLA as Texas A&M squandered a 34-point third quarter lead in the 45-44 loss. But he’s gotten better each week as the Aggies have won three in a row heading into Saturday’s game.

He threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 109 yards in Texas A&M’s 50-43 overtime win against Arkansas on Saturday.

”He was tossed into the fire,” running back Trayveon Williams said. ”As a true freshman he was just pushed into the game and had to go in there in a big-time moment. But now he has a different look in his eyes. He looks at the game from a whole different aspect. He’s becoming way more vocal. He’s just becoming the leader he was born to be.”

While Sumlin was complimentary of Mond, he was quick to point out that there are many factors that have led to his improvement in the last few weeks.

”We’ve got guys making plays for him, too that maybe that didn’t happen early in the year on the perimeter,” he said. ”We made some competitive catches. We didn’t make those plays at UCLA.”

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp knows that dealing with a dual-threat quarterback like Mond will be a challenge as his team tries to get its first win in the series after dropping the first three meetings. But he’s more concerned about his defense limiting running backs Williams and Keith Ford. The pair has combined for 560 yards rushing with nine touchdowns.

”The two backs they’ve got are big-time runners, guys that are going to create space,” Muschamp said. ”They’ll get in one-on-one matchups, and you don’t want to have to tackle in space and get both of these guys on the ground. They can take the ball anywhere.”

Some things to know about the South Carolina-Texas A&M game.

KIRK DOES IT ALL

Texas A&M receiver and returner Christian Kirk had one of the best games of his three-year career last week. After being held in check for the first three games, he returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown and finished with 110 yards receiving and two touchdowns against Arkansas.

”Christian Kirk is as good of a player as there is in college football as far as a returner and receiver,” Muschamp said.

CLOSE CALL

The Gamecocks were held scoreless for three quarters last week before scoring 17 points in the fourth to get a 17-16 win over Louisiana Tech. South Carolina didn’t lead until the final five minutes, but Louisiana Tech went back on top with a field goal with less than a minute to go. South Carolina eked out the win when Parker White made a 31-yard field goal with just four seconds remaining.

RED ZONE WOES

The Gamecocks have struggled in the red zone this season, often settling for field goals instead of touchdowns. When asked about the problem, Muschamp recounted all of the mistakes they’ve made in the area to illustrate that there isn’t just one reason why they haven’t been better.

”It’s multiple things,” he said. ”It’s not one thing you’re putting your finger on. Obviously, we need to coach better in those situations, because if our players aren’t executing, that’s a coaching issue in my opinion. So, we’ve got to do a better job of putting our guys in spots to be successful.”

WATT(S) A PLAYER

Texas A&M defensive back Armani Watts is the only player in the Football Bowl Subdivision with at least five tackles for losses, three interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery this season. He secured A&M’s win against Arkansas last week when he grabbed an interception in the end zone. The senior has 260 tackles, has broken up 16 passes and has six interceptions in his career.

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