Spring Preview Guide 2012 - Wide Receivers

The Texas Aggie football program will officially kickoff the Kevin Sumlin era on Saturday with the start of spring practice. The Aggie Websider will preview each position leading up to the first workouts. Today, we take a look at the wide receivers and tight ends. Can the units quickly adjust to Sumlin's new offense?

Despite record setting passing numbers in 2011 (3,784 yards and 29 touchdowns), A&M's passing game struggled to get it done with efficiency and consistency when it mattered. The reasons were plentiful. Unhealthy key targets, a lack of speed, and an inexplicable failure to take advantage of the middle of the field, and a season plagued by an unpalatable amount of dropped balls all contributed. In addition, the problem grew worse as opposing defenses picked up on the Aggies' inability to stretch the field, and had them in a box, like they were playing red zone offense no matter where they were on the field.

That said, a lot has changed since then, and the passing game that hits the field in August will have little, if any, resemblance to last season's air attack. First and foremost, his superb, proven air-attack will be the cornerstone, and it will be bolstered and set up by a great offensive line and running game.

Finally the passing game will boast a variety of talented receivers, with a notable injection of speed and playmaking ability. In the coming weeks, they will look to separate themselves from a tight pack, and establish themselves in the eyes of the new staff. They'll also do so, fully aware that several big time playmakers will arrive in August, and despite their lack of experience, will be very much in the hunt for those precious starting jobs in August. From senior veterans, to juco transfers, to incoming freshmen, let's take a look at this key position area for the new Aggie offense.

Locked in at Starter: Slot

Ryan Swope emerged as a big target and playmaker in 2010 (72 catches, 825 yards, 4 TD's, 11.6 avg.), but took it to another level last season. In 2011, he became Ryan Tannehill's go-to guy when it was obvious Jeff Fuller's injuries had forced him off pace. He took full advantage and led the pack with 89 catches and 1,207 yards (both school records) and eleven touchdowns (impressive as he missed several starts due to an early season concussion). 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, shows a knack for the clutch grab, and has proven he can do it against all levels of competition. After flirting with the thought of the NFL, A&M is grateful to have his services for another year, and no doubt the talented young man will take his game up another notch as he always has.

Slot Depth

Unfortunately, after a very productive spring and summer last year, injury limited one of the Ag's most dynamic athletes, Kenric McNeal, from putting his mark on the 2011 squad. The Aggies will surely welcome him back as a high-quality backup in the slot, with great hands, athleticism, route running ability, and as one of the faster players on the roster that can stretch the field. In fact look for him to have a much bigger role as Kevin Sumlin works the deep middle of the field (an edge Kenric has over Ryan Swope with his speed). I'm eyeing this senior as a dark-horse candidate to elbow his way into a bigger share of the spotlight. Keep a close eye on his progress this month.

Malcome Kennedy's natural abilities turned a lot of heads upon arrival, as a talent capable of playing in the secondary or at wide receiver. Last season when Kenric McNeal went down with injury, he stepped up as a solid back-up, racking up a respectable eleven catches for 140 yards. Kennedy is not a pure speed guy, but he is a very good route runner, is likewise dangerous with the ball in space, can make the circus catch, and is great downfield in his knack for pulling down jumpballs. How far he has come remains to be seen, but at worst he's solidified a three deep in the slot and has the talent to make a run in the competition for the number four spot, an alignment that will be common place in this offense.

Battle for Wide Outs

A slightly healthier Uzoma Nwachukwu improved his consistency in 2011, following a sophomore campaign littered with nagging ankle injuries that hindered his route running. However he was unable to provide a definite answer for a 2011 team that desperately needed a solution in stretching the field. Keep in mind, he was a big contributor (50 catches, 639 yards, 2 TD), but he simply wasn't the downfield threat the team needed. At worst Nwachukwu is a significant contributor, capable of the clutch catches he's made throughout his career, but he is yet to take the next step from the splash he made as a freshman (40 grabs, 708 yards, 6 touchdowns). As expected, he's bent on a breakout senior campaign, and being a big time target for 2012, but it needs to start showing in the next few weeks.

Nate Askew has good speed and size (6'4, 220) that could make him a big downfield weapon, but he must improve his hands. He improved a good deal last off-season, and showed the ability to stretch the field, but he failed to make a lot those catches once open. Those drops, especially the ones in the end zone really hurt his production (6 receptions, 85 yards, 1 TD). If he has put in the work with his large and capable mitts, Askew could be a big spring surprise and no doubt lock down one of the outside spots, but as of press time it's an unknown. Another possibility is if Coach Sumlin decides to utilize the big-bodied receiver in the middle as a hybrid slot, flex-TE type, given the lack of dependable options with his body type and skill set. The next few weeks of his development should tell a lot, and he's definitely a guy to key on during camp.

Derel Walker was a late addition to the 2012 class, a true diamond in the rough Coach Sumlin brought in as a player of need. Sumlin offered Walker, telling him, "he had the size and speed to compete in the SEC". As David Sandhop reported "The Trinity Valley product emerged as a big-time playmaker in his redshirt sophomore season when he caught 42 passes for over 800 yards and 10 touchdowns. In his final two regular season games, Walker made 17 receptions for 271 yards and four scores." The late bloomer, had to walk-on at Trinity Valley as his size scared off potential suitors (he was 5"11, 150 pounds), but between tireless work, and a late growth spurt, he greatly improved his size (up to 6-2, 185), strength and technique off the line, earning his first start midway through his red-shirt freshman season. He described his strength as his "ability to go up and catch the ball even in a crowd", and using his 4.45 speed to separate from defenders. With two years to play two, and no time to lose, his work at A&M began in January and he'll have a great opportunity in competing for one of the outside spots the next few weeks throughout the summer. He's an obvious player to follow this spring. He could potentially step right in and earn the job.

Brandal Jackson has to hear the clock ticking, as he prepares for his senior year. His numbers weren't anything to write home about (16 catches for 220 yards in two seasons) behind a talented set of starters who rarely left the field, but his talents could soon see him emerge as a called on target if he decides to put in the work. Jackson isn't a burner but runs good routes, has soft hands, and can go vertical down the field on jump balls. He provides steady depth, and is a strong option off the bench, but whether or not he can surge to battle for starter, or is destined for another season as a primary backup, remains to be seen.

Further Depth

Michael Evans, arrived early last summer with great hands, a big frame, and decent speed for his size, (6'5", 200). Given the incoming talent, I'd like to see him put on some bulk and try his chances developing as a big slot or flex-TE type, as A&M is short on talented, true "big men" targets. As a relative unknown, he really turned some heads last August, and many are curious to see where he is in his first off-season (after a red-shirt year), as a weapon underneath. LaKendrick Williams is very raw, but has a lot of upside, and made strides in his first off-season. While dangerous in the open field, he saw limited time in his red-shirt freshman year. If he hopes to gain some traction on the depth chart, this would be a good time to do so, as the talent and volume at the position is about to jump a good deal under Coach Sumlin.

Summer Arrivals

Texas A&M landed a big fish in signing day surprise Thomas Johnson. A timely get, Johnson is a big-time playmaking talent, and is expected to push the competition early. Seriously lacking from the Aggie's receiving corps for too long, he brings tremendous speed to the table. Getting off the line he is not only fast, but uses his hands well and is extremely quick and efficient in and out of his breaks. A versatile talent with soft hands, he could shine in the slot, and is ridiculously dangerous in space, but will likely line up on the outside where he excels, and his assistance is needed the most.

Former Southlake Carroll Dragon, Sabian Holmes was great on both sides of the ball (could play corner or wideout) but is expected to bring his explosive speed to fill the latter for the Aggies. Like Derel Walker, he was a late offer in this class, as Coach Sumlin liked what he saw in the young man, and knew after evaluating his team in the lead up to Northwestern, that his pass catching quad needed reinforcements with Holmes kind of speed to run his offense. Another versatile late get for A&M was Edward Pope, there is a good chance he'll end up on defense, but as for now it's undecided, and he bears mentioning as a potential playmaker on either side of the ball.

Tight End

Michael Lamothe serves the position well, as a hard-nosed, contact seeking former linebacker. He is not only a good shortage blocker, but has proved a stealthy and dependable red zone pass catching option the last two seasons (14 receptions for 109 yards, and 3 TD's in 2011). Lamothe has served as a solid H-Back and given Coach Sumlin's offense, look for the silent, steady, senior to see an escalation in his production.

Huston Prioleau brings a nastiness to his blocking, one likes to see, and should likewise see an increased role under the new staff. Huston is a solid contributor, and progressed from his 2010 showing (9 grabs, 58 yards, 1 TD) making 14 receptions for 135 yards, and 1 touchdown, in 2011 (with ten of those catches coming midseason onwards). Signs seem to be pointing his way, and the junior could benefit greatly from a developmental jump this month.

Nehemiah Hicks will miss another spring camp, and while he physically has the potential to be the best in this group, missing time is something he can ill afford. When healthy, Hicks clearly stands to benefit from more opportunity, but he needs to make better of it, unlike some memorably painful drops endured last season. Still with a concentrated effort on his catching, he is on the verge of being the complete package, but has work to do, and won't be able to get to it until August.

Receivers Overall

Kevin Sumlin's offense will look to be as efficient as it is productive, but from seasoned veterans, to red-shirt freshmen, to juco transfers, and newcomers, he needs the talented group of receivers to maximize their potential. The next few weeks will spell a lot for how far they've come, in what will be one of the highlight areas to key on this spring.

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