COLLEGE STATION, Texas — No. 10 Texas A&M needed someone to step up following the graduation of several key receivers.
The Aggies found their man in Malcome Kennedy, a former quarterback from a high school in the state's smallest classification. He is flourishing in his third season and has become a favorite target of Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
Coach Kevin Sumlin has been impressed with his improvement and says he has worked to become "a complete player."
Kennedy is second on the team with 19 catches for 218 yards. His four touchdowns lead A&M's receivers as the Aggies prepare for Saturday's game at Arkansas.
He has given Manziel another option when defenses focus on fellow receiver Mike Evans, who is third in the nation with 143.8 yards receiving a game.
Kennedy started coming on late last season and caught the go-ahead touchdown in Texas A&M's win at top-ranked Alabama. He continued that success this season against the Crimson Tide when he had three touchdown receptions in a 49-42 loss.
Not bad for a player who grew up in tiny Cayuga, Texas, a town about 60 miles from Tyler with a population of less than 700 people. It was there that Kennedy led Cayuga to a Class 1A state title by rushing for 2,356 yards and 24 touchdowns and throwing for 1,516 yards and 22 scores. He also played defense and finished with six interceptions.
He knew that many people doubted that he'd be able to succeed at Texas A&M after playing at a school so small. But he never even considered the possibility that he would fail.
"As a player you have to have that confidence that you believe you'll play from the start," he said. "It wasn't really daunting at all. It's something that you have to deal with."
He played sparingly as a freshman before appearing in each game last season with three starts. He spent his first two seasons learning from receiver Ryan Swope, who piled up more than 3,100 yards receiving in his four-year career at A&M. Sumlin said Kennedy sat behind Swope in meetings, hoping to soak up all the knowledge he had to share.
"I modeled myself after him," Kennedy said of Swope. "We've got the same body type and the same style of play. It was good learning from him."
When he left, Kennedy knew that he'd have to play a bigger role in the offense. He dedicated himself to improving in the offseason, and Sumlin said it was immediately evident that the work had paid off when Kennedy arrived at camp.
"Nobody had a better offseason than him," Sumlin said. "Our players saw that. His leadership during the summer was critical for a bunch of young guys. Our guys see that the hard work and everything else he's put into it shows that you can work yourself into being a really good player."
Senior running back Ben Malena has noticed Kennedy's work and he pointed out that the receiver also has excellent blocking skills that have helped A&M's running game.
"I think the last two weeks have really solidified the hard work he put in over the summer," Malena said of Kennedy. "I'm excited for him that he's starting to go out there and show the country what he can do."
Kennedy loves playing on an offense filled with so many playmakers, and even after playing with him for more than a year; he still gets a kick out of watching Manziel make plays.
He reserves his ogling of Johnny Football's spectacular plays for when he's on the sideline though. When he's on the field he's too busy trying to keep up with what Manziel's doing so he'll be open at the end of one of his signature scrambles.
Kennedy is sometimes left shaking his head at what Manziel can do once he takes off out of the pocket.
"It's confusing, so we practice it a lot [but] I can only imagine how it is for defenses," Kennedy said. "We're just taught to burst and separate, and when we do that Johnny sees that we're open and he'll put it up there."