1) Johnny is Johnny
I think this one is a no-brainer. For Texas A&M to have a special season and a run at the SEC title and beyond, Johnny Manziel will not only need to be the playmaker he was last season, but he'll need to display his expanded passing skillsets developed in the offseason. What made Manziel's 2012 performance so remarkable was the significant improvement he made not only from week one against Florida to the Cotton Bowl in week 13, but from spring practice 2012 to the fall camp.
We saw Manziel working with his QB guru George Whitfield and it's reasonable to expect another bump in performance in 2013. However, Manziel is now the most talked-about player in college football and he's been under the spotlight both positive and negative. To his father's own admission, Johnny has struggled with his new fish bowl. Does that pressure spur him to greater heights, or does he try to do too much and force himself into turnovers and mistakes?
The answer to that question will determine whether the Aggies have a special season that could be punctuated with a crystal trophy, or a good but unspectacular regular season of 9-10 wins.
2) DT's Must Grow Up Quickly
So which is better, a group of veteran defensive linemen that is short on talent and long on experience and heart, or a group of inexperienced, young defensive linemen that are extremely talented and explosive? Well, we'll get our answer in September when blue chip freshmen Justin Manning, Isaiah Golden, and Hardreck Walker will be forced into action. And that answer will depend on how quickly at least two of these three prospects can establish themselves as a solid playmaker that can effectively platoon with sophomore Alonzo Williams and senior Kirby Ennis with September 14 in mind.
Top to bottom, I think this DL group is deeper and more talented than last year's unit, and I think they will be better by the end of the season. Unfortunately, the Alabama game is in mid-September.
3) OL Must Stay Healthy
I think most Aggie fans are accurate is thinking the offensive line will be in good shape despite the national pundits claiming otherwise with the loss of Luke Joeckel to the draft. Cedric Ogbuehi is a natural tackle and moving from guard is not an issue whatsoever. Jake Matthews returns and I just saw Mel Kiper project him as the No. 6 overall draft pick next year. Mike Matthews takes over for Pat Lewis at center. Is anybody really concerned about a Matthews brother? Not me. Jarvis Harrison could be the best of the bunch, and in my opinion is the most underrated player on the A&M roster.
So the Aggies will be fine up-front….if they stay healthy. I do think the offensive line has adequate depth in the interior with veterans Ben Compton and Shep Klinke who have proven to be effective in practice. However, there are question marks at the tackle position going into the fall. Joseph Cheek is entering his third year in the program and he shows flashes of good play on the edge, but so far he's also been inconsistent. In addition, JUCO transfer Jermiah Stuckey who was signed to fill a spot at tackle was still trying to get acclimated to the high D-1 level and he'll need to improve in fall camp to add needed quality depth at tackle. Due to injury and inconsistency, neither Garrett Gramling, Nate Gutekunst, or Kimo Tipoti have established themselves yet as quality depth that can be counted on in a pinch. The unit can absorb an injury here or there, but if there are several injuries that pile up throughout the season, the offensive line could become a concern and a limiting factor to the offense's success.
4) Playmaker Must Emerge at Linebacker
Linebacker is another position on the defensive side of the ball that lost quite a few contributors to graduation. Steven Jenkins is the lone returning starter. But, veteran Donnie Baggs is ready to step into the starting lineup and there's a long list of promising veteran athletes (Nate Askew/Tyrell Taylor – hybrid pass rushers), and many newcomers in the form of highly-touted JUCO transfers, mid-term enrollees, and incoming freshmen ready to help out at the position. I saw enough from the mid-term enrollees to believe the linebacker position will be stabilized. What I didn't see in the spring is one or two players separate themselves as playmakers and leaders. Jenkins sat out most of the spring workouts and he has the potential to be that playmaker that every offensive coordinator keeps track of on the field.
Good defenses typically have a playmaker at linebacker, guys that can chase down runners to the sideline, shoot the gap to make a stop between the tackles, or apply outside pocket pressure off the edge that can make life hell for an opposing QB. The Aggies need to find that man in fall camp.
5) Bertolet Matures Into Reliable Kicker
The freshman's mental struggles on extra points and field goals was well documented, and it made life difficult with a couple of games like Alabama and Louisiana Tech. It's not that he's a weak kicker. He has a strong leg and he made some long field goals in SEC play that were overshadowed by the missed extra points. He issue was mental, and history shows a kicker gets better with age and experience.
In Randy Bullock's first full season as the No. 1 kicker, he made only 12-of-19 (63%) of his FG attempts. Bertolet had a very similar first season making 13-of-22 (59%) FG tries. In Bullock's second full season, he improved his performance to 16-of-21(76%). So the hope is that a Taylor Bertolet who's a year older and year wiser will be much improved.
In the end, special seasons turn on big plays, and big plays usually happen on special teams and the kicking game. There will be a couple of games decided on a single field goal kick or extra-point, so A&M needs Bertolet to take that next step and mature into a reliable kicker that has the composure to make the big kick under pressure.
6) Newcomers Solidify Safety Position
Texas A&M football has been plugging in "temporary" solutions at safety for years. It's been a combination of below-average recruiting at the position and untimely injuries that made the position one of the weaker links historically. Typically, A&M plugged in shorter, undersized athletes with average speed at the position which caused issues with over-the-top centerfield pass coverage. Steven Campbell was supposed to be the answer the past 2-3 seasons, but injuries kept him on the sidelines more than he was on the field.
The move of 6-foot-2 Floyd Raven to safety was a logical move, and his ability to make the transition will be seen in September. Early returns from the spring were promising. But getting the position back on-track with the infusion of several young safety prospects and an improving veteran will be key for the rotation.
Very quietly over the past year, former quarterback-turned-safety Clay Honeycutt has improved from scout team performer to possible rotation player. The junior adds depth and can solidify the position in 2013 while the incoming freshmen develop and mature. Those freshmen, Kameron Miles and Jonathan Wiggins, will be given every opportunity in the fall to jump into the mix. Why? Well, 6-foot-2, 210 lbs. and 6-foot-3, 215 lbs. is your answer. A&M hasn't had that type of size and speed at the position in years. If these two can flash the instincts and playmaking ability needed at the position, the Aggies will finally have "SEC caliber" safeties.
Keys to an SEC Championship and Beyond
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