Five Keys to Success in 2009

With the conclusion of a disappointing 2008 season, the Texas Aggies now look to the nine month offseason hoping to regroup and rebuild the program. Aggie Websider's David Sandhop takes a close look at the five major keys to success in the 2009 season.

The 2008 season was definitely one to forget for most Aggie football fans as the Mike Sherman era began with a huge rebuilding project in store for the program. So what will it take over the next nine months to get Texas A&M football back on track, and what will it take for this team to earn a winning record and garner a post-season bowl berth? Let's look at the top five keys to 2009.

1. Rebuild Offensive Line

With four graduating seniors and a junior with off-field problems, we knew this unit was going to struggle in 2008 and it did. Well, that's an understatement. The team returned just two linemen, Michael Shumard and Travis Schneider, with any significant playing time. With OL coach Jim Turner unable to find an adequate right tackle in August, Shumard was forced from his natural guard position to play on the edge. Schneider was plagued with various injuries all season, and even back-up tackle Robbie Frost was lost for the season forcing a battered and one-armed Lee Grimes to move to the tackle spot as well. Bottom line – it was a mess. This unit not only lacked talent and experience, but the lack of depth in the pipeline was appalling. The results are quite telling. Texas A&M finished #114 out of #119 D-1 programs in rushing averaging 88.4 yards per game. The numbers aren't better in pass protection with the line giving up 3.25 sacks per contest which ranks #115 nationally.

So this unit must improve, and help is on the way with a strong OL class expected to sign in February, a large group of freshmen going through their first offseason, and a promising veteran in LSU transfer Matt Allen. The key to improvement is finding 2-3 adequate tackles. Schneider graduates and the hope is that Shumard can move back to his guard position. The hope is that freshman Josh Ayers will develop in the spring and handle one spot and possibly veteran Robbie Frost winning the other spot. The answers aren't evident on paper which is why you are seeing the staff start to comb the JUCO ranks for another tackle. On the other hand, the interior spots look to be a significant upgrade with Allen, Shumard, and Brian Thomas expected to compete for the job along with 2008 starters Lee Grimes and Evan Eike. Kevin Matthews should be an adequate center.

2. Find Instinctive Linebackers With Speed

Remember when Aggie fans would argue with Miami and Penn State fans about Texas A&M being the real Linebacker U. I know. It was THAT long ago. Who would have ever thought that just 10 years ago Texas A&M had the best linebacker in the nation (Dat). And it wasn't that long ago that an A&M linebacker was the second pick in the NFL draft (Coryatt). Okay, let me wipe the tears away and get back to business. The Aggies MUST find natural linebackers, prospects that played the position in high school and can sniff out a play from anywhere on the field. Too many times in 2008 the linebackers were in the wrong position, missing tackles, and generally playing without confidence and looking slow in reaction time.

So what's the answer? Well, freshmen prospects like Ricky Cavanaugh will get a chance to step up in the spring along with Andrew Woolridge and the other veterans like Garrick Williams. Ultimately, any major improvement to the unit as a whole will come from the incoming class, and all eyes are on the middle linebacker prospect Jonathan Stewart who will be officially visiting December 13-14. The Aggies need to keep Stewart as he could be the key to improvement in 2009. Malcolm Johnson definitely looked to upgrade the unit's speed until he popped his ACL and MCL last month. Keep a close eye on Aaron Arterburn. He has good speed and is an instinctive linebacker, just what the Aggies need.

3. Replace Both Defensive End Spots

Relatively speaking, this group had an average season with three seniors holding down both end spots. Matt Moss is somebody that will be in the rotation, but he's not the dynamic pass rusher that the staff is wanting. This is one area that will be interesting to watch in the spring because there will be veterans moved out of necessity to the position. There's talk that Von Miller will move back to defensive end and I wouldn't be surprised if Billy Chavis is spun down to that position. The most intriguing prospect on the roster that could switch is freshman K.J. Williams. He looks like a prototypical end and he was very good on the defensive side in high school. But that may not be enough. With only Kirby Ennis scheduled to sign in February, the staff is scrambling to add more bodies and at the top of the list is Butler JUCO end Zac Clark and fast-rising Round Rock Stony Point end Tevin Mims. This is one position that the Aggies may actually take a step back in 2009.

4. Figure Out The Best Quarterback

One of the bright spots of the 2008 season was the emergence of the passing game and the potential that Jerrod Johnson, Jeffrey Fuller, and Ryan Tannehill exhibited throughout the season. It's a good nucleus, especially with talent like Brandal Jackson, Uzoma Nwachukwu, and Ryan Swope scheduled to sign in a couple of months. While Johnson had his fine moments, he also struggled with fumbling and eluding the pass rush at times. Complicating the situation is the presence of two other quarterbacks who have been very impressive in practices. Quarterback is such an important position in football in this era of the forward pass that the staff must take advantage of this luxury of talent at the position, open up the competition, and find the absolute best person for what Sherman and the offense wants to accomplish. While there are signs that the defense may show some improvement, ultimately it will be the offense that carries this team in 2009, and they need to take a long, hard look at who will be best at leading this A&M offense.

5. Leadership, Attitude, And Swagger

This one is pretty simple. The team must shed itself of veteran players with baggage and get this team to change its identity and attitude. The young guys like Trent Hunter, Tony Eddie, Jeffrey Fuller, Ryan Tannehill, and Cyrus Gray must step up to be the leaders on this team and establish a new attitude of dedication, winning, and most importantly confidence. These freshmen leaders must grab the reigns of this team and bring in these incoming 2009 freshmen and get a new attitude working for all 85 scholarship players. If you want to win, you have to act like winners.

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