As spring practices peek around the corner, there is a lot of intrigue surrounding the Texas A&M gridiron gang. The Aggies are coming off a 6-7 season and return 16 starters. On the outside, they look poised to make a run at the Big 12 South in 2010. Led by the ultra-athletic Jerrod Johnson and All-American Von Miller, the Aggies could be on their way back to being a Top 25 team. However, four burning questions need to be answered first.
1. Can A&M replace three senior starters on the offensive line?
Last offseason, the OL was the most glaring question that needed to be answered. Michael Shumard, Lee Grimes, and Kevin Matthews answered that question with some authority. They turned in solid performances last year and only got better as they developed into one of the better OLs in the Big 12 conference. They paved the way for an Aggie offense that ranked among the best in the nation.
This year, their services are no longer available. The Aggies must rely on second and third year players to step into those vacancies. The middle of the OL does pass the eyeball test as Matt Allen, Evan Eike, and Patrick Lewis have plenty of starts and experience under their belt to be successful.
Offensive tackle is a little shaky though. The Ags are hoping Danny Baker, Stephen Barrera, and Rhontae Scales can develop enough in the spring and summer to pick up the slack at that position. Also, look for freshman Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews to possibly get a shot to start early in their career.
2. How Quickly Can A&M’s Porous Defense Learn a New Scheme?
Sherman is finally getting what he has always wanted; the 3-4 defense. The Aggies return nine starters on one of the nation’s worst defenses last year. New Defensive Coordinator Tim DeRuyter brings something to the A&M defense that has been missing since the late '90s; discipline.
With arguably a lot less talent at the Air Force Academy, DeRuyter’s defense was among the best in 2009. It was showcased in the AFA’s upset win over Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl. Houston’s offense was among the best in the country. The hope is that with the influx of speed and talent combined with the return of All-American Von Miller, the Aggies can finally win the swing games they have had a tendency to lose in the last decade.
3. What will the A&M’s secondary look like?
Even though the Aggies lost defensive leader Jordan Pugh to graduation, they still return much of their very young secondary. Last year, the Aggies were very thin in the back four. This year, they are hoping sophomore Stephen Campbell can take the reins of the safety position vacated by Pugh. They are also looking to JUCO standout Coryell Judie to add much needed experience to the cornerback position.
Terrance Fredrick has played quite solid for the Aggies and true-freshman Dustin Harris started to come around late in the season after battling nagging injuries. In the bowl game against Georgia, Harris nabbed an interception and held standout receiver A.J. Green to just 57 yards and zero touchdowns. New A&M signee Toney Hurd Jr. also looks to provide much needed depth and talent at the position.
4. Can the Special Teams Improve Enough to Keep From Costing A&M Winnable Games?
New defensive assistant Nick Toth will be charged to overhaul a group that were just brutal all season last year. As evidenced by the 44-20 drubbing by Georgia in the Advocare Independence Bowl, special teams could not stop anyone in that aspect of the game. Special teams probably cost the Aggies three or four games last year.
This year, the Aggies are relying on high school return specialist LeKendrick Williams to make an instant impact. Also, the Aggies are going to try out a walkon, long-legged, 6'7" lefty kicker from Owensboro, Kentucky in Ross Gilliam. Reports say this kid can kick the ball through the end zone more often than not. That would be one sure way for the Aggies to improve on their lack of kickoff coverage.
Texas A&M's season last year can be broken down into just a handful of plays. Conceivably, last year’s team was four plays away from a nine win season. Three of them involved true freshmen. The first was an interception that went through Dustin Harris’ hand into a Cowboy receiver’s arms in the endzone against No. 15 Oklahoma State Cowboys.
The second was a dropped interception by freshman linebacker Jonathan Stewart on 2nd and long at Folsom Field against Colorado that would have ended the game. Instead, the Buffaloes converted on 3rd and long and eventually scored to beat the Aggies 35-34.
The next two plays thwarted A&M’s upset bid against No. 3 Texas. True freshman standout Christine Michael fumbled early in the second half which allowed the Longhorns to build a 14 point lead in a game where both teams’ quarterbacks were playing lights out. The Aggies would later cut that deficit to three points, only to have Texas’ return man Marquise Goodwin return a 95 yard touchdown on the ensuing kickoff.
The Big 12 had eight teams make it to bowl games last year, which included the national championship game. In 2010, expect that to fall off as a few teams lose a resounding number of senior and junior playmakers.
In the South, Texas and OU lose Heisman worthy quarterbacks but always seem to rebuild. Texas Tech will have a new identity under new Head Coach Tommy Tuberville. Baylor loses defensive stars Joe Pawelek, Jordan Lake, and one or two senior offensive linemen. Oklahoma State stands to be hit the hardest. The pokes lose most of their OL and offensive and defensive skill players.
The time is now for A&M to make a move up the pecking order in the Big 12. But A&M has to fill the holes on the OL, execute the 3-4 defensive schemes, and improve their special teams if they hope to do so. That said, I expect the Aggies to go 8-4 with losses coming to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and either Kansas or Nebraska.