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August 9, 2011
OVERVIEW: This could be Texas A&M's most productive offense since TB Darren "Tank" Lewis was plowing through SWC defenses back in 1990. The Aggies have a winning quarterback, explosive backs, good receivers and a solid line that looks to be getting better as its young tackles grow up. The Aggies exceeded 30 points in seven games in 2010. They will do it more often in 2011.
BACKFIELD: Everything changed for the Aggies last season when QB Ryan Tannehill moved into the starting lineup. He started the last six games of the season and the Aggies responded by going 5-1. He has proved himself an effective passer (65 percent completion rate) and he also is a dangerous runner. As for his athleticism, he led the Aggies in receiving two seasons ago. A&M also has two breakaway threats at tailback. Cyrus Gray took over for injured Christine Michael midway through last season and posted seven consecutive 100-yard games to finish with 1,113 yards. Michael, who rushed 844 yards in '09, is back at full speed. It would be difficult to find a better duo of backs anywhere in the country.
RECEIVERS: Jeff Fuller may be the most overlooked player in the country. In the Big 12, he gets overshadowed by Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon and Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles, but he's a physical 6-foot-4 senior who has 163 career receptions and 28 touchdowns. Last season, Fuller averaged 14.8 yards on 72 catches. Sure-handed complementary receiver Ryan Swope also had 72 catches. The Aggies also have another deep threat in junior Uzoma Nwachukwu, while sophomore TE Nehemiah Hicks will get more opportunities this season. He had 11 catches for 141 yards as a freshman in 2010.
LINE: Coach Mike Sherman, who once was the Aggies' line coach under R.C. Slocum, appears to have finally solidified an area that was a headache for years. True, the Aggies allowed 37 sacks last season, but they did start two true freshmen tackles for most of the season. Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews held up, for the most part, and now are seen as symbols of the Aggies' growing strength up front. Four starters are back, but junior Patrick Lewis shifts from guard to center. G Evan Eike, an '09 starter, is coming back from injury, but may have difficulty getting back into the starting lineup. Sophomore Shep Klinke was impressive in spring.
OVERVIEW: Sometimes the impact a new coach makes just cannot be ignored. Two years ago, A&M gave up at least 30 points in nine games and ranked 105th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 33.5 points per game. Then, coordinator Tim DeRuyter was hired away from Air Force. He upgraded what was a woeful secondary and tightened up the run defense. As a result, last season the Aggies allowed an average of 21.9 points and were 34th in scoring defense. A&M must find a replacement for pass-rushing LB Von Miller, who's now in the NFL, and an inside linebacker who can fill a hole. The Aggies need to get tougher in coverage, too.
LINE: E Tony Jerod-Eddie is anticipating a big season. He always has been good against the run, but needs to provide more pressure. Jerod-Eddie may see some action inside in certain sets as the Aggies look to slow opposing running games. Depth at end could be a concern, as Brandon Jackson had to quit football because of a heart condition. The Aggies also got bad news inside when enormous junior college recruit LaMarc Strahan didn't qualify academically. Senior Eddie Brown is a solid starter at nose tackle.
LINEBACKERS: Replacing Miller, who had 27.5 sacks in the past two seasons, may be impossible. Sophomore Damontre Moore had an impressive debut season with 5.5 sacks in a backup role, so he is being counted upon to pick up some of the slack. But he had some off-field issues during the offseason. Walk-on Caleb Russell was a standout in the spring, so that's encouraging. Garrick Williams (inside) and Sean Porter (outside) are returning starters coming off strong 2010 campaigns. When 2010 leading tackler Michael Hodges, who completed his eligibility, was out of the lineup A&M's run defense was noticeably more vulnerable. Kyle Mangan, a starter in '09, is the likely replacement. If he falters, senior Jonathan Stewart, true freshman Donnie Baggs or junior college transfer Steven Jenkins will get the call.
SECONDARY: Seniors Terrence Frederick and Coryell Judie may be A&M's best set of corners since the early '90s, and senior FS Trent Hunter has started since his freshman season. The Aggies feel they've developed excellent depth with Dustin Harris and Toney Hurd. Though A&M was 89th in pass defense last season, it should be noted the Aggies faced five of the top 20 passing quarterbacks in the nation and got better as the season progressed. They held OU's Landry Jones to fewer than 300 passing yards, which is no small accomplishment.
Although K Randy Bullock has endured stretches of inconsistency, he was dependable down the stretch in 2010 and can hit from beyond 50 yards. Judie can make opponents cringe on kickoff returns. The first time he fielded a kickoff, he brought it back for a touchdown against Oklahoma last season. He did it again the next week against Baylor. The coverage teams were good last season, especially on punts. The problem is punting. Ryan Epperson had a net average of just 34 yards last season. Incoming freshman Drew Kaser could win that competition.
Punters aren't sexy. They're usually overlooked and taken for granted - that is, until the shanks start adding up. With a veteran team returning, there isn't much opportunity for newcomers to make an impact, but Kaser certainly could at punter. He averaged 46 yards per kick as a high school senior. Don't be surprised if Kaser takes over that job and immediately gives the Aggies a surge in production. For those feeling disappointed that a punter is listed, Baggs and/or Jenkins and/or freshman FS Howard Matthews could give the Aggies a boost, too.
An imposing three three-game stretch in late September and early October will reveal whether the Aggies are truly championship material. They take on Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Texas Tech. If they get through that stretch, there still is a Nov. 5 trip to Oklahoma. A&M has lost six in a row in Norman and five have come by at least 21 points. The Aggies close the regular season against archrival Texas in College Station.
A&M was unbeaten in Big 12 play after Tannehill took over at quarterback, and the Aggies are looking to keep that momentum going this season. A&M has a potent offense, and the defense figures to make more strides in DeRuyter's second season. The Aggies get Oklahoma State, Baylor, Missouri and Texas at Kyle Field, but have to prove they can win at Oklahoma. They've never beaten a Bob Stoops team in Norman. Still, this season's Aggies are more equipped and will challenge for their first conference championship since upsetting Kansas State in the '98 Big 12 title game. If everything falls just right and they get a few breaks, the Aggies could even win their first national title since 1939.
Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.