We have added an Aggie section to the Burnt Orange Nation "know thy enemy" repertoire, as the 2010 expectations in College Station are as high as they have been in years. This preview and the continuing season coverage of Little Brother are a combined effort from us and the incomparable Dime Coverage. You can choose to see this step as a way to add even more content to BON during football season, or you could take the view that in some small way, this serves to legitimize that little school that teaches farming. We choose the former, but everyone must make that determination for him or herself. It's a personal decision.
Click past the jump for a breakdown of the Aggies' offense, defense, and special teams as they prepare for their season opener against that perennial powerhouse, Stephen F. Austin. Leave it to the Aggies to make us look brave for starting out with Rice.
Quarterback: Aggie fans are swooning over Jerrod Johnson, and the phrase "dark horse Heisman candidate" is very much in vogue around College Station. He has been the starter for two seasons and returns as a senior in 2010; it’s safe to say that, at least on the offensive side of the football, most of Aggieland’s high expectations for a vastly improved squad rest on Johnson’s shoulders. And for once, people outside of their insulated football community seem to agree on his merits: Johnson is the media’s preseason pick for Big XII Offensive Player of the Year.
The word on Johnson is that he is attempting to revamp his throwing motion in order to come more over the top. As a result, he is apparently still overthrowing the ball from the pocket. As a passer, his biggest strength has therefore become even more magnified: he throws on the run as well as anybody, including a 38-yard touchdown pass across his body in A&M’s first full scrimmage this fall. Arm strength is simply not an issue for the Aggie field general; his only concern is accuracy from the pocket, as he completed only 59.5% of his passes last season. Defenses would be wise to avoid chasing Johnson out of the pocket without support on the other end, and instead contain him in the traditional dropped-back passing position. Aside from his ability to throw in motion, Johnson is also very adept at scrambling for yardage with his feet.
One of the most important attributes for a quarterback is brains, and there’s no denying that Johnson has plenty of those. He reportedly watches game film to the point that coach Mike Sherman actually wants him to scale it back a bit, and his in-game decision-making is consistently solid. He is a smart football player who capitalizes on the opportunities presented to him.
The Aggies are thin behind Johnson and need him to stay healthy. Their number two quarterback is junior Ryan Tannehill, who will actually see time at wide receiver this season as well. It is perhaps indicative of just how important Johnson is that the team’s clear backup QB does not even take all of his practice reps there. Tannehill is known primarily as a dinker and dunker who simply cannot stretch the field the way Johnson can.
Johnson showed how dangerous he can be in 2009. He threw for over 300 yards on six different occasions, and (perhaps more importantly) tossed only six interceptions on the year. In his time as the starter, that has been the most vital statistic: the Aggies are 1-10 when he throws a pick and 9-3 when he doesn’t. The Longhorn defense had a tough time with him on Thanksgiving, when he played Colt McCoy score-for-score and accounted for 439 combined yards on his own. He will once again be a handful for opposing defensive coordinators, and the skill positions around him will now be filled with more veteran experience than he has enjoyed in the past. If his offensive line can keep him upright—a big "if" for the Aggies—Johnson is poised for a strong 2010 campaign.
Running Backs: Sherman is expected once again to lean heavily on the two-man platoon of Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray. The pair is listed as co-starters on the depth chart, and it really doesn’t seem to matter much who actually starts a given game. Michael started getting more carries toward the end of 2009, but they split the load pretty evenly for most of the season.
As with Johnson, much of Gray and Michael’s success will depend on the young Aggie offensive line. If they can open up holes, both backs have proven themselves capable runners and could put up big numbers. Of course, the offense runs through Johnson and the running game will largely be used to open up the field for the quarterback.
Behind the two main men, the Aggies have Ben Malena and Kalvin Guyton. Malena has good instincts as a runner and hits holes quickly, but lacks breakaway speed and has been easily run down in the open field in scrimmages. Guyton is expected to get some limited carries in 2010, particularly in short yardage situations. In addition, Sherman likes Ryan Swope at H-back in certain situations; Swope is solid and versatile, working effectively either running the ball or catching passes.
Receivers/Tight Ends: Backup quarterback Ryan Tannehill will get plenty of snaps whether Johnson stays healthy or not, as Tannehill will see the field early and often in the wide receiver position. Terrence McCoy will start in the slot, with Uzoma Nwachukwu and Jeff Fuller likely getting more playing time than Tannehill at wideout because of Tannehill’s dual role.
Nwachakwu led the Aggies with 708 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman last season and by all accounts had an excellent fall camp. McCoy runs great routes and has dependable hands, which combine with his size to make him one of Johnson’s favorite targets. Redshirt freshman Huston Priouleau figures to start at tight end; according to the Dallas Morning News, he "has all the tools to be a serviceable tight end." If that’s not a ringing endorsement, we don’t know what is.
The Aggies also have two options off the bench in Kenric McNeal and Brandal Jackson, both of whom showed flashes as true freshmen last year. Jackson caught Johnson’s aforementioned cross-body touchdown pass in the scrimmage .
Line: In a word: problem. If the old axiom "linemen make the offense go" is to be believed, then the Ags may not be going anywhere in 2010. Former Texas and, more recently, Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead provides a case study in how quickly a good signal caller with high expectations can see his senior year go down the drain with an underperforming offensive line. The Aggies’ offensive line is showing signs that it may be this team’s downfall.
Von Miller and his crew have been wreaking havoc on the first-team hogs throughout the fall. It appears that sophomore right tackle Brian Thomas is now sophomore backup center Brian Thomas, as he was unable to hang onto the starting spot but will likely still see some action in spurts. That change is not official, but observers seem to think it inevitable as Thomas has struggled to protect the edge.
The most important position on the offensive line, left tackle, will be manned by talented freshman Luke Joeckel—meaning Johnson is always one freshman mistake away from a blind-side disaster. Joeckel will probably be a successful lineman one day, but it’s hard to say whether he can get ready for the speed of the college game in time to be of any use to Johnson. Senior Matt Allen will be starting at center, with guards Evan Eike and Patrick Lewis almost certainly rounding out the starting five. All three have reportedly had solid fall camps, but realistically may not be able to cut it against elite competition—you know, like Texas.
So much for a Wrecking Crew. Last year’s defensive unit played more like a wrecked crew. The Aggies had the worst defense in the Big XII (105th nationally), as well as the worst scoring defense (also 105th nationally). So at least they were consistent. Texas A&M didn’t do well against the run (11th in conference; 90th nationally) or against the pass (12th in conference; 106th nationally).
Mike Sherman had to make a change. Enter former Air Force defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. There is a lot riding on this year’s team (possibly including Mike Sherman’s job security) and the defense is key to the win column.
DeRuyter can’t lead this unit anywhere but up, right?
Defensive Line: The Aggies need a menacing, playmaking defensive line. They don’t have one. Last season this unit was the main reason the team gave up more than 4.5 yards per carry, and they only made nine of the team's 36 sacks.
Nose tackle: Lucas Patterson and Eddie Brown will probably share time at nose tackle. Patterson put in a lot of time at defensive tackle last season and Mike Sherman believes that Brown is a perfect fit for the position.
Ends: One end position will be manned by sophomore Spencer Nealy, while the other goes to junior Tony-Jerrod Eddie. Eddie has the size preferred in a 3-4 defensive end and he has experience in the 3-4. Nealy has good football sense and physicality. He also has experience since he played in all 12 games as a freshman.
Safeties: Junior strong safety Trent Hunter leads a secondary that ranked last in the Big 12 in pass defense. Sophomore Steven Terrell gets the free safety spot. Terrell is known for his ball skills and coverage ability.
Inside: A&M will be going with Garrick Williams as a designated starter at inside linebacker with senior Michael Hodges taking the other spot. Hodges wasn’t anything special last year, but he was consistent and finished the season with 6 tackles. Williams played as an outside linebacker last year and was third on the team with 74 tackles.
Outside: You know the name: Von Miller. The hybrid end/outside linebacker led the nation last year in sacks with 17. (Miller has 22.5 career sacks.) Enough has been written about his abilities that we need not repeat it here, but his progress will certainly be worth following as the season progresses. To the extent that as Miller goes, the defense goes, he is the team's defensive Jerrod Johnson. Sean Porter will man the other outside position. Porter is a versatile player who finished last season with 42 tackles and 4 tackles for loss. It is imperative that these two be a disruptive force in every backfield in order for this defense to succeed.
Kicking: Senior Randy Bullock ranked 81st in the NCAA in 2009 making just 12 of 19 field goal attempts with a long of 50 yards. Bullock was true on all 51 extra point attempts, so that’s good. No other Aggie attempted a field goal. Bullock wasn’t bad handling kickoffs, with nine touchbacks on the season.
Punt: The Aggies were terrible in punting in 2009, ranking 104th in net punting (35.33-yard punt average, 32.98 net). Senior Ken Wood (38.8-yard average) and junior Ryan Epperson (35.2 average) split duties in 2009 and Wood appeared to have the upper hand leaving spring football.
Kick Return & Coverage: Ryan Swope (24.8-yard average) and Cyrus Gray (23.8-yard average) are listed as the primary kick returners although Lionel Smith and Christine Michael saw action in last season's return game and could do the same in 2010. The kick return unit ranked 49th nationally with a 22.25-yard average boosted by a single 99-yard touchdown return by Cyrus Gray against Colorado. The kick coverage unit gave up three touchdown returns and a fairly solid 23.1-yard average return.
Punt Return & Coverage: Sophomore Dustin Harris returns to lead a punt return unit that ranked 98th (6.8-yard average) in 2009. On the plus side, the Aggies only gave up 6.5 yards per return.
The Aggies do look poised to take a step forward this year--the question is, how big a step? Our early assessment is that the best A&M can realistically expect is to take Texas Tech's place as the Big XII South's third wheel. And with Johnson graduating and Tommy Tuberville taking over at Tech, we're frankly not convinced any such displacement would have much staying power. But taking 2010 on its own, A&M could find itself in the hunt for the conference championship game for the first time in years. Texas and Oklahoma are of course still likely to rule the roost, but if the Ags can steal one from either the Sooners or the Longhorns they could throw the division into chaos much as the Red Raiders have been wont to do in recent seasons. Whether or not the Farmers are an actual threat to knock off one of the big boys depends primarily on two keys: first, how quickly can their young offensive tackles mature and adjust to the college game? Second, how well can the offense match points with every opponent's best offensive day of the season, courtesy of the Aggie defense? One thing is for certain: none of those questions will be definitively answered until Sept. 30 in Stillwater. That is, of course, unless Louisiana Tech or Florida International can expose the Ags before that.