Like most seniors on the Texas A&M roster, running back Ben Malena expects an emotional experience before Saturday’s final home game at Kyle Field.
Unlike the rest of those whose names will be called, the Aggies’ team captain and emotional leader is planning a memorable entrance.
“There will be something special for the intro, when they call my name and I run out there,” Malena said during Tuesday’s news conference. “I haven’t really thought of it yet. But I’ve got a couple of ideas.”
At one point, Malena envisioned back-flipping his way on to the field before his final college game. But former teammate Christine Michael, now a rookie with the Seattle Seahawks, put that idea into practice last season by doing three back flips when his name was called on senior day.
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Asked about topping Michael’s total, Malena said: “I think three is the most I can do in a row. I don’t know if I can do four. I don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, man. Ben Malena is on the ground before the game.’”
Neither does coach Kevin Sumlin, who credits Malena with helping make his program hum in ways most fans never realize as No. 15 A&M (7-2, 4-2 SEC) prepares for Saturday’s game against Mississippi State (4-4, 1-3).
Sumlin wants Malena, who is tied with quarterback Johnny Manziel for the team lead in rushing touchdowns (8), to set a tone in practice with his work ethic, admonish younger players who cut corners and serve as a team spokesman at news conferences because Manziel — after his tumultuous off-season — is reticent to do so.
Oh, yeah. Sumlin also asks Malena to play on multiple special teams units despite being the starter and primary producer in A&M’s four-man tailback rotation. Add it up and Malena, a Cedar Hill product, leads the Aggies’ tailback contingent in rushing yards (456), receptions (15), receiving yards (140), carries (89), total touchdowns (9), starts (9) and teammates’ respect.
He’s a plugger who is near and dear to Sumlin’s heart, even if most fans are blinded by the more spectacular statistics posted by Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, and receiver Mike Evans (52 catches, 1,147 yards, 12 TDs), a candidate for the Biletnikoff Award.
“Ben has seen a lot. He’s had some great moments here and has really been an emotional leader for us,” Sumlin said. “Maybe not as much in ways that fans see during a game, but particularly during practice and during the off-season. Things like that. There’s a reason he’s a captain. He’s a leader and he’s a leader by example.”
He’s also one of the few players on the roster given blanket permission by his coach to address the team in a moment’s notice.
“Any time he wants to talk to the team, he gets to talk,” Sumlin said. “That’s not the case with everybody.”
That privilege proved useful during A&M’s 56-24 victory over Vanderbilt on Oct. 26. After the Aggies built a quick 28-0 lead, Vanderbilt scored the final 17 points of the half to carry momentum into the locker room. Sumlin relayed his displeasure with his troops, then began individual sessions with selected players.
As he prepared to address the team before returning to the field, Sumlin realized he was too late.
“The whole team was already circled up and Ben was reading them the riot act,” Sumlin said. “So I just kind of stood there and listened. Then he said, ‘Let’s go’ and I was like, ‘All right. What he said.’”
A&M responded with a 21-0 surge to put the game out of reach, starting with Howard Matthews’ pick-six on the first snap of the third quarter. Sumlin smiled when asked about Malena’s oratory skills.
“Whatever he said was pretty good. It worked,” Sumlin said. “So that was a pretty good moment for him.”
Although Malena has started every game, offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney stresses that no one will monopolize the tailback role at A&M.
“Any one of those guys could be a starter on any team,” McKinney said. “It’s really helpful to have more than one. In our situation, the guys all realize that the next guy up is probably just as good, if not better.”
That creates hunger to excel, which Malena radiates to teammates behind closed doors. To Sumlin, it’s his most endearing trait. It’s one Malena honed while sitting on the bench under predecessor Mike Sherman before Sumlin raised his profile last season.
“Going through my first two years and really not seeing the field, a lot of people could hang their heads low. But I just kept grinding,” Malena said. “I try to have the same consistent mentality every day to stay a workhorse and to show the other guys how to work.”
On game day, Malena said his emotions take over because a football field is “the only venue that you can really express how you’re feeling without anyone caring or without anyone judging you.”
He’ll do that one final time Saturday in Kyle Field. Back flips are optional.