July 8, 2010

Top 120 countdown
No. 43 Texas A&M
Coach: Mike Sherman (10-15, third season) | Staff
Last season: 6-7, 3-5 (5th in Big 12 South); lost to Georgia in Independence Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense-7. Defense-9. Specialists-2. | Depth Chart
Final Rivals.com ranking last season: 68th. | Last season's Rivals 120

Texas A&M took baby steps in coach Mike Sherman's second season, finishing 6-7 after an Independence Bowl loss to Georgia.

The Aggies did so while 18 freshmen saw action in at least one game, the second-highest total in the nation. Eleven of those freshmen started at least once, a number that led the nation.

There is cautious optimism heading into Year 3 of the Sherman era. The offense should be highly productive, thanks to ample skill-position talent. But the line remains a work in progress and must cut down on sacks.

The defense also is a work in progress. The Aggies have switched to a 3-4 set, and Sherman hired coordinator Tim DeRuyter away from Air Force to implement the scheme change. Improving the secondary, which too often resembled a sieve last season, is the highest priority.

Here's a closer look at the Aggies.

OFFENSE

THE SCHEME: In their multiple system, the Aggies may use a fullback on one play and go with an empty backfield on the next. They primarily operate out of the shotgun.

STAR POWER: QB Jerrod Johnson's name has shown up on lists of preseason Heisman contenders. Big, strong and mobile, he ranked third in the nation in total offense last season after passing for 3,579 yards and rushing for 506. He's thrown 53 touchdown passes and only 18 interceptions in his career despite having less-than-stellar protection.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman TE Hutson Prioleau has excellent size and good hands. He's also stepping into a position of need. Last season's starting tight end had 35 receptions, but he's gone. No other tight end on the roster had more than one catch in '09.

STRONGEST AREA: In 2007, the Aggies were struggling at wide receiver. That season, no wide receiver had more than 27 catches and only two had more than 20. Now, that's a position of strength. Jeff Fuller, Ryan Tannehill and Uzoma Nwachukwu had more than 40 receptions and averaged more than 13 yards per catch in '09. They also combined for 17 touchdowns. Furthermore, sophomores Ryan Swope, Brandal Jackson and Kenric McNeal are developing into productive alternatives. This is a deep and talented group.

BIGGEST PROBLEM: Even though Johnson is fast and agile, he was still sacked 29 times in '09. It could have been worse, as A&M's line allowed 39 sacks in '08. Clearly, improvement is needed. The Aggies are counting on freshmen T Luke Joeckel, who enrolled early and went through spring ball, to start on the left side. True freshman Jake Matthews, another four-star prospect, could earn playing time with a strong fall camp. Six of the 10 spots on the projected depth chart along the line are held by freshmen or sophomores.

DEFENSE

THE SCHEME: With new coordinator Tim DeRuyter, A&M is switching from a 4-3 base to a 3-4. DeRuyter had been at Air Force.

STAR POWER: Senior LB/E Von Miller is coming off a breakout season in which he led the nation with 17 sacks while playing the hybrid "Jack" position. He was the first Aggie to earn All-American recognition since 1999. Last season, Miller posted 48 tackles, with 21.5 for lost yardage. He was fifth in the nation in tackles for loss.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: A four-star junior college transfer in '09, CB Coryell Judie was expected to provide needed help in the secondary. That was before he was forced to sit out the season with a dislocated shoulder. He's healthy after redshirting and expected to challenge for a starting job.

STRONGEST AREA: A&M once routinely featured some of the best linebacker corps in the nation, but has fallen off in recent seasons. But the Aggies are making progress again. Miller gives the A&M linebackers immediate credibility. But they have more returning starters. Junior Garrick Williams posted 74 tackles last season, while sophomore Kyle Mangan debuted with 70 stops and senior Michael Hodges, a former walk-on, had 67. Sophomore Michael Stewart provides solid depth.

DATEOPPONENT
Sept. 4 Stephen F. Austin
Sept. 11Louisiana Tech
Sept. 18Florida International
Sept. 30@ Oklahoma State
Oct. 9vs. Arkansas (at Arlington, Texas)
Oct. 16Missouri
Oct. 23 @ Kansas
Oct. 30Texas Tech
Nov. 6Oklahoma
Nov. 13@ Baylor
Nov. 20Nebraska
Nov. 25@ Texas

BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Aggies ranked last in the Big 12 and 106th in the nation in pass defense, and that was with a strong pass rush and a safety selected in the NFL draft (Jordan Pugh, sixth round). Dramatic improvement is vital. Judie, rising sophomore safety Steve Campbell and DeRuyter better make a big difference or the Aggies likely will be burned often again.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Backup RB Cyrus Gray averaged nearly 24 yards on kickoff returns in '09. That's the good news. Everything else regarding A&M's kicking game leaves much to be desired. While K Randy Bullock has 50-yard range, he is shaky beyond 40 yards. He had a costly miss in A&M's failed upset bid against Texas. P Ryan Epperson averaged just over 35 yards and had an attempt blocked. Montana transfer Ken Wood could wrest the job from Epperson. JC transfer Jared Jaroszweski also could get into the mix. The Aggies were also one of two teams (South Carolina was the other) to give up three touchdowns on kickoff returns. Poor special teams play was a major factor in A&M's second-half collapse against Georgia in the Independence Bowl.

SCHEDULE

Opening games against Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana Tech and Florida International should mean a 3-0 start. But A&M's true strength won't be revealed until November, when the Aggies face Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas. Five opponents ranked among the nation's top 14 in passing offense last season, and that means the Aggies' shaky secondary will be under the gun. The Aggies won't leave the state of Texas in their last five games (three home games, at Baylor and at Texas).

OVERALL OUTLOOK

Offensively, the Aggies could be among the best in the country, but the play of the defense will determine their level of success. The Aggies can glean some optimism from last season's Armed Forces Bowl, when the DeRuyter-led Air Force defense limited Houston QB Case Keenum, the NCAA passing leader, to 222 passing yards and grabbed six interceptions. If DeRuyter can put some life into A&M's secondary, the Aggies could be a factor in the Big 12 South race. Then again, unless substantial progress is made in pass coverage, the Aggies could have difficulty matching last season's six victories.

OFFENSE
QB Jerrod Johnson (6-5/243, Sr.)
Ryan Tannehill (6-4/216, Jr.)
RB Christine Michael (5-11/206, Soph.)
Cyrus Gray (5-11/206, Soph.)
WR Jeff Fuller (6-4/218, Jr.)
Brandal Jackson (6-1/182, Soph.)
WR Ryan Tannehill (6-4/216, Jr.)
Uzoma Nwachukwu (6-0/189, Soph.)
WR Ryan Swope (6-0/202, Soph.)
Kenric McNeal (6-1/170, Soph.)
TE Hutson Prioleau (6-4/253, R-Fr.)
Kenny Brown (6-3/216, Sr.)
LT Luke Joeckel (6-6/280, Fr.)
Jeffrey Hyde (6-5/307, Soph.)
LG Evan Eike (6-4/305, Jr.)
Brian Thomas (6-3/303, Soph.)
C Matt Allen (6-2/294, Sr.)
Danny Baker (6-5/300, Jr.)
RG Patrick Lewis (6-2/312, Soph.)
Matt Allen (6-2/294, Sr.)
RT Brian Thomas (6-3/303, Soph.)
Rhontae Scales (6-6/318, R-Fr.)
K Randy Bullock (5-9/210, Jr.)
PR Dustin Harris (6-0/168, Soph.)
DEFENSE
E Spencer Nealy (6-5/245, Soph.)
Stephen Barrera (6-5/302, Soph.)
T Tony Jerrod-Eddie (6-5/300, Jr.)
Kirby Evans (6-4/265, Soph.)
T Lucas Patterson (6-4/303, Jr.)
Eddie Brown (6-0/288, Jr.)
ILB Garrick Williams (6-2/230, Jr.)
Aaron Arterburn (6-2/237, Soph.)
ILB Michael Hodges (6-0/226, Sr.)
Kyle Mangan (6-2/231, Soph.)
OLB Von Miller (6-3/240, Sr.)
Jonathan Stewart (6-4/227, Soph.)
OLB Sean Porter (6-2/213, Soph.)
Charlie Thomas (6-1/193, R-Fr.)
CB Terrence Frederick (5-10/180, Jr.)
Coryell Judie (5-11/185, Jr.)
CB Dustin Harris (6-0/168, Soph.)
Lionel Smith (6-0/186, Jr.)
FS Steven Terrell (5-10/188, Soph.)
Steven Campbell (6-0/195, Soph.)
SS Trent Hunter (5-10/187, Jr.)
Colton Valencia (5-10/190, Soph.)
P Ryan Epperson (6-2/193, Soph.)
KR Cyrus Gray (5-11/206, Soph.)

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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