I think it's safe to say that there are some areas of the team that will warrant more concerns going into the 2014 campaign than others. The Aggies are obviously looking for a new starting quarterback with Johnny Manziel's departure to the NFL. The 2013 team also graduated three starting wide receivers, and while the offensive front returns four starters, the open right tackle spot is critical in protecting a young, new starting QB.
On defense, eyes will be on every position as the defense needs a performance overhaul after last year's dismal numbers. But in particular, there are a lot of young, inexperienced linebackers and a big storyline will be who emerges as a playmaker among the many candidates. In the secondary, A&M should be fine at cornerback with Devante Harris, Deshazor Everett, and Noel Ellis battling guys like Alex Sezer and Tavares Garner, but the safety position is both thin and in need of playmakers. IN fact, the safety position may be the weakest on the entire team heading into spring practices. Another big storyline is the development and emergence of a few key redshirt freshmen and the mid-term fish that arrived last month.
With that said, here's my five biggest storylines heading into spring practice:
1) Who Are the Leaders?
I'm not just talking about who are the best players that lead in terms of performance, but also players that will lead this team in the locker room, off the field, and on the field. In 2013, the offense had three guys to lean on both on the field and off…Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans, Ben Malena. Malena was the senior spokesman and the players looked up to him. The offense rose to the occasion many times and performed in crunch time. On defense, there really weren't any strong leaders. Senior Toney Hurd tried to be that guy, but the unit really seemed rudderless last season. Other veterans counted on to lead like Deshazor Everett, Steven Jenkins, and Kirby Ennis just didn't have it in their DNA to be strong, vocal leaders and it didn't help that all three were suspended when the season started against Rice. The lack of leadership showed on the field. In 2012, a much less talented team did a lot more with less, but they also had strong senior leaders in Sean Porter, Jonathan Stewart, and Spencer Nealy.
So with no defensive leaders in 2013 and most of the offensive leaders gone, it is imperative that the team start to develop some strong leaders in the spring. Leadership isn't something you can just flip a switch in August. It needs to emerge in the spring and develop throughout the summer in player-led offseason workouts. Naturally, you first look to the quarterbacks for leadership, and I think it will be almost as important for the young signal callers to show they can command the offense and command respect out on the field as much as they need to show physical skills of throwing the ball. We know Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen can throw the ball, but who can lead and empower their teammates. That's a big component to watch. Others that have to the potential to emerge as leaders on offense include senior Cedric Ogbuehi and sophomore Mike Matthews on the offensive line, and Trey Williams at running back.
On defense, I don't have any clear-cut candidates right now. Can one of the veteran Louisiana DL's that started to flash some ability last season (Ivan Robinson, Gavin Stansbury) step up and be an experienced leader? Veteran TCU transfer A.J. Hilliard waited his turn in 2013 with his transfer year, but there's been some talk of him emerging as a candidate to start and lead this team. Devante Harris is someone that can be the stopper in the secondary and he's a vocal guy that may take a leadership position with this unit. Frankly, the leadership issue concerns me on defense. Who will be the leader on that side of the ball? That's one of the biggest storylines of spring camp. Who emerges?
2) The Quarterbacks
I won't spend much time talking about the quarterback competition. It's pretty evident to everyone what is at stake at the position. Just look at what has happened in Austin the past couple of years and you realize how important good quarterback play is to a team's success. Senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore-to-be Kenny Hill, and mid-term freshman Kyle Allen will be pushing for the job. I'm not too concerned who takes what snaps with the No. 1's, 2's, and 3's this spring. I simply want to see solid QB play. I want to see accurate throws, good decisions in the pocket, and some vocal leadership from the group. I fully expect to see Allen spend most of the spring with the third team learning the offense. I don't have a lot of expectations of Allen early, but I do want to see accuracy and arm strength in drills and slow improvement in live 11-on-11's as spring practices move along. What Allen needs to do is simply set himself up to compete for the job in August. It's unreasonable to think he'll move past the two veterans in the spring. This is a critical spring for Kenny Hill. He has the ability with a great spring to end the competition before it begins. He's in a similar position to Jameil Showers two years ago when he came into spring 2012 as the QB to beat. Unfortunately for him, he didn't wow the staff and he left the door open for a fall competition, and we all know what happened…Johnny Football.
I think Kenny Hill can make it difficult for the other two to get in the picture this fall if he has a great spring and takes control of the situation. For Matt Joeckel to have a shot at the starting job, he'll need to shorten his delivery and be quicker on the shirt throws. With his length, he has a slow delivery on the short passes that require quick releases and a little touch. Regardless, I highly doubt he staff will publicly announce a starter after spring drills, but certainly Hill has the ability to make it a much shorter competition in the fall with a strong spring outing. And let's define strong. Strong doesn't mean living up to Manziel playmaking capabilities. It means running the offense efficiently as designed. Make the right decisions and make accurate throws. The surrounding cast continues to improve so the QB doesn't have to be the playmaker. He needs to be the facilitator.
3) Wide Receivers
Despite losing three starters at receiver, I'm not too concerned about the overall abilities of this group. The Aggies will have a formidable group of pass catchers. However, for this passing offense to work as designed, A&M will need two new outside receivers to step up and attract attention from opposing defensive coordinators. The presence of Mike Evans not only gave A&M an outside weapon, but it also opened up the middle of the field for slot receivers like Malcolme Kennedy and Travis Labhart. It will especially important this season because the Aggies have a potential gamebeaker in Speedy Noil at the slot along with the veteran Kennedy. The most curious storyline at receiver will be Ricky Seals-Jones. First, will he be able to go live this spring coming off knee surgery early in the fall. Second, is he explosive off the line that he could play outside receiver, or has he put on mass that will force him inside as a slot guy or a flex tight end. If he can show productivity on the outside, then the Aggies are in great shape. I have a feeling he'll need to work inside given his size last fall as a true freshman.
The player that needs to have a breakout spring is the talented Jaquay Williams. Frankly, he was a bit of a disappointment last season because he has the natural ability to be an all-SEC caliber receiver. He just didn't put it together in the fall despite a few sparkling moments at times. If he emerges as a go-to threat, this unit will be fine. If not, then redshirt freshman Kyrion Parker will need to be the receiver that develops into a weapon on the outside. JUCO mid-termer Josh Reynolds is another outside option at 6-foot-2. He's very similar to Derel Walker in size and ability. If you recall, it took Walker until November of his first years at A&M before he started to see the field and contribute. It usually takes JUCO's that first season to get acclimated. Maybe Reynolds can break the mold. Ed Pope is another outside receiver in the mix this spring, but we'll see if he's put on any body mass in the offseason.
Between productive veteran Malcolme Kennedy and part-time contributors Jeremy Tabuyo, Sabian Holmes, Quiv Gonzalez, and newcomer Speedy Noil, the slot position should be productive and deep in 2014. The question this spring is whether Speedy Noil is one of those special players that can take this position to another level…somebody that puts fear into every DC on the schedule. Those other guys will be solid and dependable this spring and into the fall, but nobody else has the "It" factor that can be an elite, explosive playmaker at the slot position. Thus, all eyes will be on Speedy this spring to see if he can quickly make that transition to college and be an immediate impact with the offense.
I have a dream…a dream where Texas A&M has a hard-hitting safety that can excel at both run support and pass coverage. I have a dream. OK, maybe the situation isn't that dramatic at safety, but A&M hasn't had many quality dual purpose safeties over the past decade. The Aggies used undersized converted corners like Tent Hunter and Steven Terrell, or they have played bigger, slower safeties like Howard Matthews who can lay the wood in run support, but has been beaten badly many times over the top in critical situations in his three year career. Senior Floyd Raven could be that guy because he's the type of longer, faster athlete you need at the position. However, his issue has been instincts and knowing where to be in his reads and coverages. After suspensions and injuries that marred his junior campaign, can he put it all together this spring? If so, that will give a huge boost to the position.
Kam Miles is a redshirt freshman who could also fill that role. He also has the length and the speed to fill that role, but he was hurt throughout his freshman fall camp and the staff decided to redshirt him. Clay Honeycutt will also be in the mix this spring, and I've heard that Victor Davis will get a shot at safety after practicing last fall at cornerback, while redshirt freshman Jonathan Wiggins will get to show what he can do. A&M is desperate at the position and need 2-3 candidates to emerge and separate from the pack this spring. If not, it could be another long year defensively.
Unlike the safety position, the aggie football program has plenty of young linebackers. Last year alone, A&M brought in five true freshmen, a sophomore transfer from TCU (A J Hilliard), and a JUCO transfer (Tommy Sanders). There are currently 10 scholarship linebackers on the spring roster along with preferred walk-on Justin Bass who saw he field at times last season. The issue isn't quantity, but quality. Who will step-up to be a playmaker at linebacker in 2014? We're hearing promising feedback on the offseason work of Reggie Chevis, Hilliard, Shaan Washington, and Tommy Sanders who has added quality mass. But let's be honest, nobody really separated themselves last season, and that includes veteran senior Donnie Baggs and the Taylor brothers. Darian Claiborne showed signs of being a top-level LB, but his off-the-field issues leave a big question mark on his future.
It will be a scrum out there this spring in terms of competition, and the big storyline will be can anybody raise their game and emerge as an sec caliber linebacker. The athletes are in place, but somebody has to step through the window of opportunity. Keep an eye on Chevis, Hilliard, and Washington.
6) Emerging Freshmen and Newcomers
Of course, for any team to progress and move forward, that first spring for a freshman player is critical. Whether they played as a true freshman or redshirted, this is a time to set the table and show the coaches that they are ready to be major contributors on the field in 2014. Redshirt freshmen to keep a close eye on include Kyrion Parker, Justin Manning, and Kam Miles. If those three make a statement this spring, the Aggies have a good chance to be a salty team next fall. Little-used freshmen Jaquay Williams and Tavares Garner were highly-touted four-star prospects as recruits, and they need to improve over last fall if they want to live up to their potential. Despite coming off off-season shoulder surgery, Daeshon Hall has filled out nicely this offseason and should be up to 250+ lbs. by the fall. The 2013 class was critical to Coach Sumlin's rebuilding process, and this spring is a priority for this class.
In addition, some of the mid-term newcomers need to fill immediate needs. On the OL, A&M is looking to replace Jake Matthews at tackle, and two JC OL's (Jermain Eluemunor, Avery Gennessy) will battle redshirt sophomore veteran Joseph Cheek for the starting right tackle position. I'm particularly hearing promising reports regarding Gennessy in the offseason. We've already talked about Speedy Noil. He's also a significant newcomer that could have an impact on the storyline of this year's spring workouts.
Overall, there will be more talent on the grass practice fields than any other spring in recent memory. However, with three likely first round draft picks having left the team, the staff will have a challenge finding 2-3 special playmakers that can approximate what was lost after the Chick-fil-A Bowl. You don't just replace three top half first round draft picks, but that's the task at hand. Hopefully for Aggie fans, improvements across the board at most positions softens the blow of losing three elite playmakers.
The Aggies will host a handful of players today at the opening spring practice led by four-Star Allen qb Kyler Murray and buda hays offensive lineman conner lanfear who is technically a soft Texas verbal commit. By all accounts, that will change officially this weekend as Lanfear is expected to switch over to the Aggies. This has been in the works for three weeks, but Lanfear's junior day visit to Texas last Saturday apparently did not meet his satisfaction. He will likely become A&M's second elite OL commit in this class joining tackle Trevor Elbert of Rockwall-Heath. Joining Elbert will be teammate and recent A&M offer, safety DeShon Elliott. This is a critical visit as Elliott announced on Twitter this week that he was close to making a decision after visiting Austin last weekend. We'll see how this head-to-head goes, but many observers at the time felt Elliott's message was a positive for the Longhorns. We shall see.
The Aggies' latest offer this week is to newton db Roney Elam who has blown up this week with offers from LSU, Alabama, and a&m among others. We're hearing that A&M offered at a good time and will have a decent shot at landing him.
Oh, and after visiting Auburn and flirting with an Ohio State offer that has A&M recruiting fans nervous, Daylon Mack tweeted this out a couple of hours ago:
"Just talked to Coach Sumlin 100% to the Aggies # GigEm # NoWorries"
Also, A&M signee Donovan Wilson from Shreveport Woodlawn is coming to town this weekend and bringing a couple of his four-star junior teammates in DT T.D. Moton and DB Henry Black. Moton has received national attention, but recently mentioned that Texas A&M was one of his top schools. Charlie Strong and Texas will be holding their second junior day. Out of the 20+ expected, the A&M targets of interest we'll keep an eye on include WR Demarkus Lodge, OL Connor Dyer, WR Jalen Guyton, and I'll throw in DE James Lockhart for now even though he doesn't hold an A&M offer at the moment. Lodge will be the one to watch here, as A&M felt they took the lead away from Texas last weekend with Lodge at A&M's junior day. Now, it's Strong's turn.
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