It sounds like a broken record, but every offensive unit is team strength in 2011, and wide receiver is no exception. In fact, it's quite an understatement as the position is loaded with no less than four playmaking options. On the surface skepticism is warranted coming off an inconsistent passing game in the first half of 2010, along with several nagging injuries to key receivers that hampered the group's overall effectiveness. However, Texas A&M heads into fall camp with the receiving corps back at full strength and have had their first offseason with Ryan Tannehill to develop chemistry. In addition, their efforts will both compliment and benefit from an effective and experienced offensive line and a ground game that looks to be formidable as well.
The talent of this unit has been here since about 2008, but the depth and experience is finally coming into its own. Tannehill's vast array of weapons includes, big-bodied, superstar Jeff Fuller, playmaking Ryan Swope underneath, a healthy Uzoma Nwachukwu, and junior Kenric McNeal who emerged as a trusted target late last season.
Here we'll look under the hood of the aforementioned group and identify other up and coming faces of an outfit that is very top heavy and will be doing some serious reloading after 2012. We'll also take a hard look at the possible emergence of Coach Sherman's first true tight end, and other contributors there.
Locked in at Starter: Split End
Like Von Miller last off-season, Jeff Fuller didn't just forgo the NFL Draft and return his senior year for kicks. He's taken his elite ability, and has zeroed in on elevating his game to another level. It's nothing new for the standout wide-receiver that has taken every off-season as a mission to be the best. In addition to honing the obvious aspects of his position, he's worked on the little things like his run blocking, and has come a long ways. This summer, he had a special opportunity to work and learn with Larry Fitzgerald, the perfect tutor, given his style. We'll soon see how all of this has paid off, but going off of Fuller's track record, expect him to put together his best season. That is a considerable statement for one of the top receivers in the nation.
After being slowed as a sophomore, having broken his leg early in the year, he bounced back as a junior in 2010, catching 72 passes for 1,066 yards and 12 TD's (14.8 average, emerging as A&M's first 1,000 yard receiver ever and all time receiving-TD leader with 28). Even more notable, due to the fact the offense didn't have consistency until mid-season. Jeff also had a brilliant personal outing, with an impressive 7 catch-83 yard game against LSU's Patrick Peterson, the best corner in the nation and eventual 5th overall draft pick. (That wasn't his best game numbers wise, but it was a considerable outing given the competition, and showed his progress in taking on physical corners).
Look for a monster 2011 for Fuller, and keep in mind that when he's not catching balls, his presence alone is opening things up for everyone else. The last team besides LSU that tried to run man on him (Texas Tech) got lit up for eleven receptions, 171 yards and two touchdowns. Either he draws double teams or he makes plays, but either way he's yet another piece of a dangerous Aggie offense that keeps defenses honest, and provides favorable match-ups for teammates. In addition, while he helps the running game, conversely, A&M's elite tailback duo is often going to set him up in man coverage. What's more, Mike Sherman has added some sets, where his stars are lining up all across the line, be it in the slot or on the opposite side of the field (a new wrinkle to keep defenses honest and on their toes). Make no mistake, Fuller is back for a purpose, serving the interest of his team and himself, and should raise the bar for both.
Locked in at Starter: Flanker
Following an outstanding, breakout, true freshman season in 2009, two-nagging sprained ankles plagued Uzoma Nwachukwu throughout last years campaign. The injuries really hampered his consistency and productivity (36 grabs for 407 yards and four TD's, 11.3 avg.). In fact, other than an outstanding eight catch performance against Baylor, and a great, four catch, two-touchdown outing against LSU, it was a disappointing year. However, building off of that LSU game, a healthy Nwachukwu jumped into the off-season wholeheartedly, determined to get his career back on track. The results were soon evident, as he put in a head turning spring, day in, and day out. With his feet, and ankles, firmly under him again, his route running greatly improved as he showed great explosion in and out of his cuts. Regaining his ability to get consistently open, he not only caught everything, but showed great ability in making yards after the catch, and getting up-field. "EZ" is a very sound run blocker, and also is very adept at going up and getting the jump-ball downfield (two deceptive attributes he possesses given his size).
His performance garnered him most improved team honors following spring ball, and his efforts have continued throughout summer. That said, his real reward, will be in lending his hand to one of the better receiving stables in the conference and the nation. Some may shrug at that assertion, and I saw where someone had A&M 3rd in conference. Yes Justin Blackmon and Ryan Broyles are phenomenal, but so is Jeff Fuller, and there is no way a receiving corps featuring him, Ryan Swope, Kenric McNeal, won't be one of the most feared and productive units out there.
Locked in at Starter: Slot
Last spring, Ryan Swope turned the corner following his freshman year. He went from a young promising talent in 2009, to a consistent go-to target and playmaker in 2010 (72 catches, 825 yards, 4 TD's, 11.6 avg.). His hands are excellent, he is a superb route runner, possesses a great double move, has explosion in and out his breaks, and finds himself consistently open. Once in space, he uses his speed and water-bug moves, often getting the best of would be tacklers. Deadly in the slot, he is instrumental in taking pressure off of the rushing game, getting big chunks of yards after the catch, saving drives, and shows a knack for the clutch grab. Again his performance isn't a sometimes thing, he rarely drops balls, routinely makes plays, and has proven he can do it against all levels of competition (8 catches-136 yards against Oklahoma, 4-49 Nebraska, 5-45 LSU to name a few notable games). His steady efforts continued throughout spring and summer, and it's likely he'll increase his role in this offense as it takes a big collective step forward in 2011.
Many in the national media aren't real familiar with Kenric McNeal, primarily due to depth cutting in on his production (23 catches, 202 yards and 2 TD's in 2010). However, he provides a starting quality back-up for Ryan Swope out of the slot. McNeal has great hands, athleticism, route running ability, and is one of the faster players on the roster that can stretch the field. Building off a great late season contribution, as a sophomore just flipping the switch, he had a stellar spring and summer of development. Look for the junior's production to improve a great deal, as A&M's number four man elbows his way into a bigger share of the spotlight.
Entering his junior year, Brandal Jackson has to hear the clock ticking, as he prepares for his junior year. Going off of the last half of 2010, the young man might be poised to start making some noise. His numbers weren't anything to write home about, but he is well thought of by his coaches, and his hard work and talents could soon see him emerge as a called on target. Brandal provides steady depth and a strong option when that fourth or fifth man is trotted onto the field. It's a crowded bunch, but it will be worth keeping tabs on the Navasota native, who could also position himself in a battle for a starting job following Fuller's departure.
Nate Askew has very good speed and size (6'4, 220) that promise to make him a big downfield weapon. He failed to make significant strides in his first spring, but got better at the end of a quiet camp, and has improved a good deal this summer. In fairness, he's only entering his red-shirt freshman year, and has time to develop, but the Aggies really need him to start putting it together, and give himself a leg up for 2012, as another big-bodied receiver trying to replace Jeff Fuller.
Further Wide Receiver Depth & A Wild Card
Malcome Kennedy's natural abilities turned a lot of heads upon arrival last summer, and he has made noise all off-season as an emerging future face of the receiving corps. His peers have sung his praises in offseason 7-on-7 workouts. LaKendrick Williams is very raw, but has a lot of upside, is very dangerous in the open field, and has come along in his first off-season. Newcomer Michael Evans, arrived early this summer and has received promising reviews with excellent hands, speed and his 6-foot-5 frame. He will likely redshirt given the experienced depth returning, but he's worth noting entering his first fall camp. Johnny Manziel has an outside shot at getting a look here. He would be a playmaker, no doubt, but it's a crowded field. He took very few reps there in spring, and will likely focus on quarterback.
Mike Sherman is still trying to field his prototypical tight end. For anyone familiar with his NFL coaching history, it has always been one of his staples, but he hasn't had a true pro-typical TE in his time at A&M. That could change this year, but it's going to take a great breakout effort by at least one candidate.
Probable Starter: Tight End
His best candidate Nehemiah Hicks, missed most of spring camp due to injury, so the next few weeks will spell a lot for the position. Hicks did pretty well last season, and if he can take the next step with his blocking during fall camp, could very well be the answer A&M is looking for. The development would add yet another component to an offense that can beat teams so many different ways. He is a great pass catching option and showed that he can get it done blocking off the edge, but needs every down consistency with both to be a threat. Nehemiah has added considerable size to his frame and looks the part of an NFL tight end at about 6'4, 250. With a trial by fire behind him (13 games, 9 starts), if Hicks can hit his stride the next few weeks, look for him to have a breakout year and make a name for himself on an offense loaded with talent.
Tight End Depth
Michael Lamothe also serves the position well as a hard nosed, contact seeking former linebacker. He is not only a good shortage blocker, but proved a stealthy and dependable red zone pass catching option last season. He has served as a solid H-Back (FB/TE) and should continue to contribute well in that role. Huston Prioleau is a player that can potentially be the balanced type, but had a golden opportunity to shine in spring, and didn't really show the consistency needed. He can block pretty well, bringing a nastiness to that facet that you like to see, and is fairly effective in the passing game, but isn't a difference maker at either. Huston is a solid contributor, but entering his third fall camp, coaches would like to see him make up some ground the next few weeks. Tommy Dorman rounds out depth at the position.
Overall Position Analysis
Texas A&M finds itself on very strong footing with the talent and depth of its offensive positional areas, and is no different with its pass catchers. From an elite top-5 national target, to no less than three other dynamic playmakers, talented starting quality depth options, and possibly finally having what they need at tight end, the Aggie passing attack is set to both lend it's hand, and benefit from a highly versatile, national-powerhouse offense.
Fall Camp Preview - Receivers/Tight Ends
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