March 20, 2011

Aggies a threat to win Big 12 title

Texas A&M hasn't won a championship since 1998, but the Aggies would like to point out that they tied for the Big 12 South title and beat Oklahoma and Nebraska -- the teams that played for the conference championship -- last season.

Of course, the Aggies no longer must worry about Nebraska, which has left for the Big Ten. And though Oklahoma is being hailed as the probable No. 1 team in preseason polls, the Aggies pose a legitimate threat to the Sooners.

A&M has a cadre of talented receivers and running backs to go with Ryan Tannehill, who emerged as an effective quarterback in the second half of last season. They also have a young, talented offensive line and a solid defense that figures to improve in its second season under coordinator Tim DeRuyter's supervision.

But they lost stud pass rusher Von Miller and leading tackler Michael Hodges, and must find a backup quarterback. If significant strides are made in those areas this spring, it will set up the Aggies as major contenders in the Big 12 championship race this fall.

Here's a look at A&M going into spring drills.

TEXAS A&M AT-A-GLANCE
Ryan Tannehill emerged as an effective quarterback the second half of the season.
THE BASICS
Coach: Mike Sherman
Last season: 9-4 overall, 6-2 in the Big 12 South. Lost 41-24 to LSU in Cotton Bowl.
Spring dates: March 22-April 16.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (8): WR Jeff Fuller, TB Cyrus Gray, TE Nehemiah Hicks, T Luke Joeckel, G Patrick Lewis, T Jake Matthews, WR Ryan Swope, G Brian Thomas.
Defense (8): SS Steve Campbell, CB Terence Frederick, FS Trent Hunter, E Tony Jerod-Eddie, CB Coryell Judie, T Jonathan Mathis, OLB Sean Porter, ILB Garrick Williams.
Special teams (2): K Randy Bullock, P Ryan Epperson.
Positions of strength

The Aggies can match offensive skill-position talent with anybody, although they do need depth at quarterback. TB Cyrus Gray rushed for more than 1,100 yards last season despite spending the first half of the season as a backup. TB Christine Michael appeared headed for a 1,000-yard season before he was lost to a knee leginjury. WRs Jeff Fuller and Ryan Swope each had 72 catches in 2010 and Uzome Nwachukwu had 36, though he needs to be more consistent. QB Ryan Tannehill started the last six games of the season and passed for more than 1,600 yards. The Aggies were 5-1 in games he started. It has taken time, but A&M's offensive line finally has emerged as an area of strength rather than a liability. Five starters return at four positions, but G Patrick Lewis is expected to move to center. The Aggies are sound up front on defense, too. They are deep at end, and NT Jonathan Mathis is a returning starter. Depth behind Mathis will be an issue this spring, but the Aggies expect to get a significant boost in August with the arrival of DT LaMarc Strahan, a touted junior college transfer.

Help is needed

All over the Brazos Valley, prayers will be said for Tannehill's health because the other quarterbacks on the roster -- Matt Joeckle, Jameill Showers and Johnny Manziel -- have no college playing experience. The Aggies run a 3-4 set defensively and there also are concerns about inside linebacker, where Michael Hodges, last season's leading tackler, must be replaced. A&M's defense was holding up against LSU in the Cotton Bowl until Hodges tore his ACL early in the second quarter. From that point, A&M struggled to contain LSU's running game.

3 guys to watch

WR Nate Askew: Although the Aggies are in good shape at receiver, Askew has the physical tools to make them even better there. He's a huge target (6 feet 4/223 pounds) with good speed, but was a non-factor as a freshman last season. If he distinguishes himself this spring, the Aggies could have even more depth.

LB Steven Jenkins: The Aggies need help in the middle and Jenkins, a transfer from Coffeyville (Kan.) JC, may be the guy to provide it. He has bulked up to more than 220 pounds and is an explosive hitter.

QB Johnny Manziel: A true freshman and an early enrollee, Manziel is a terrific athlete who could play another position until an opportunity at quarterback comes. Indeed, that originally was considered. But lack of depth at quarterback is an issue that must be addressed. Manziel threw 45 touchdown passes and just five interceptions as a high school senior. The hope is he can show he's ready to legitimately contribute at the college level.

The pressure is on

LB Jonathan Stewart: Stewart was a four-star prospect when he signed in 2009, but he's yet to live up to expectations. He did start as a freshman and once appeared the eventual replacement for Von Miller at A&M's hybrid "joker" position (end/outside linebacker). But DaMontre Moore beat him out there last season, and Stewart was moved inside but posted just seven tackles. This spring, he'll compete with Jenkins and former starter Kyle Mangan. If he doesn't win the starting job this season, the once-heralded recruit will be in danger of becoming a career backup.

The buzz

After a long wait, there is optimism that the Aggies are primed to rejoin the nation's elite. The Aggies have 16 full-time returning starters from a nine-win team -- and that doesn't include Tannehill, who started six games last season. This spring, they need to develop depth at a few positions, find an effective starter to replace Hodges and hope Moore can ease the departure of Von Miller, who could be among the first five players selected in the NFL draft. But the Aggies have excellent skill-position players, are solid in the lines and good on the corners. There are great expectations in College Station, and this team has the ability to meet them.

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


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