Technically, this is Mike Sherman's second spring practice as the leader of the Texas A&M program. Taking the job in December of 2007, Sherman inherited a full roster of players and their habits and work ethic developed under the previous regime. In addition, without seeing these players and knowing very little about their background, he had to navigate through a spring practice blindly with little information other than hearsay and brief interviews. Now, with a season to see these players on the field and a year to instill new work regimens, new work habits, and a new way of doing things, the expectations of the Texas A&M coaching staff are much greater, just as fans will have higher expectations for the staff next fall coming off a 4-8 disappointing campaign.
The Aggies return a bulk of last year's starters and major contributors which sheds hope for a productive spring. The departure of junior Michael Goodson along with seniors Stephen McGee and Travis Schneider are the only major losses, and with McGee and Schneider hurt for most of the 2008 campaign, the transition this spring will be minimal. On defense, it's a little more complicated with A&M losing its two most effective defensive ends in Michael Bennett and Cyril Obiozor along with multiple graduations in the secondary.
Here's a look at the five most important questions to be addressed in spring practices that begin today:
1) Who Rushes the Quarterback?
Well, we've been asking this question for the better part of a decade. The Achille's Heel of the Texas A&M defense during the recent woes of the unit, finding a consistent pass rush is crucial to any improvement in stopping the opposition. Unfortunately, the options are few and far between. Little-used Cody Williams, Paul Frinney, and Matt Moss are near the top of the depth chart but none of the veterans have a proven track record of pressuring the quarterback. Coach Kines will employ a four-linebacker approach to get faster, quicker athletes like Von Miller and Matt Featherston coming off the edge. Hopefully, it works because the other options are questionable.
2) Any Answers at Linebacker?
See number one above. Once on the verge of passing Penn State as "Linebacker U" in the 1990's, the Texas A&M linebacker corps has been reduced to bit players switched from different positions playing out of position. It is truly amazing how far this position has fallen in just the 10 years since Dat Nguyen was the best linebacker in college football. Again, the storyline will be primarily the development of Miller and Featherston as the "jack" linebacker/rush end. Anthony Lewis still has one more year to prove that he's a four-star athlete in the middle while Garrick Williams and a host of inexperienced back-ups fight through the spring. It would be great if at least one player emerged as a solid option this spring. That will lower the burden of this very deep and talented freshman linebacker corps to contribute when they hit campus in August. Either way, the Aggies must survive 2009 at this position.
3) Who Plays Quarterback?
It was music to my ears to hear that Coach Sherman will be focusing on getting Jerrod Johnson to drop-back quicker and speed-up his release. That was my biggest concern with Johnson's very promising redshirt freshman campaign. Now, the question this spring would have been extremely intriguing had Ryan Tannehill been completely healthy, but his shoulder will limit the competition this spring. That will come in August, and it will be a legitimate competition because Tannehill is a very good quarterback who gets very little credit from the fans due to his big year at receiver. So while the suspense won't be high this spring, it will be important for Johnson to develop a quicker game in the pocket and for freshman Tommy Dorman to improve into a legitimate back-up quarterback. With the numbers down, Dorman is an injury or two away from being the main man.
4) Will the Offensive Line Improve?
Well, it will improve over last year simply because it can't get any worse. However, will it improve to the point where the unit will not be an anchor to this very promising offense. With Matt Allen now eligible and looking like the front-runner to nail down a guard spot, and with Michael Shumard moving back to guard where he's most comfortable, the interior line play should be greatly improved especially with experienced freshmen like Brian Thomas also in the mix.
The big question mark is still the tackle position. With Shumard moving inside and Schneider graduating, there are no returning tackles. That's one reason why Lucas Patterson was moved to offensive tackle, but he'll be very limited after offseason surgery. That leaves some of the freshmen like Josh Ayers and Jeffrey Hyde who will have every opportunity this spring to win a job, and for A&M's sake they need at least one of them to step-up. If that can happen, then hopefully, the other spot an be filled with the return of Lee Grimes and Lucas Patterson. Also, a true freshman like Rhontae Scales or Stephen Barrera will have a shot at contributing from day one as they are better suited in the long-run at the position.
5) Will the Team Buy Into the System?
This is clearly my number one issue this spring. Now that some of the bad seeds and veteran malcontents are gone, how will the team respond to Coach Sherman this spring. I bring this up because from all reports this offseason was brutal on the players. They were pushed harder than last year and many were physically and mentally drained after this offseason. Just ask Billy Gillispie how fragile a team psyche can be. They can respond tougher and stronger than ever, and even with some soft spots in this roster the team will definitely play better in 2009. If some of the sophomores and juniors don't respond to the new work habits, then it could be a long 2009. Just think. The team was practicing at 6:00 am this morning, which means they were awake well before 5:00 am. That either builds character or tears it down.
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