Hop's Storylines of the Spring Game

The Texas A&M football team took to Kyle Field for the Maroon and White Spring Game this past Saturday. Aggie Websider's David Sandhop takes a look back at the game and provides the major storylines of the game and of spring practice as the Aggies make preparations for the 2009 season

While technically the spring game does not end spring practices for the Texas A&M football team (they have two more practice days this week), the spring game does mark a milestone in the offseason workouts and provides an opportunity to gauge the major storylines of the team in this offseason. Aggie Websider's David Sandhop looks at the major accomplishments and concerns that came out of Saturday's spring game.


Improved Linebacker Play.

The biggest storyline of the spring game on Saturday had to be the playmaking ability at linebacker. That's not to say that this unit doesn't have its liabilities or that it's close to being where A&M linebackers need to be from depth, speed, and athletic ability standpoint. However, the linebackers on Saturday made plays, and when is the last time an Aggie fan can say that? .

By my count, the linebackers accounted for three interceptions and thanks to Von Miller registered four sacks. Creating the "jack" position and allowing Miller to be more instinctive and rushing the ball has given him a new lease on life and he's making the most of it this spring. There are three Aggies that have the potential to earn first team All-Big 12 honors. Miller is certainly one of them. As Coach Sherman said after Saturday's game, Miller was in a league of his own. .

But it doesn't stop there. Kyle Mangan had a big day. He delivered a vicious hit on a receiver over the middle that caused the ball to pop out and into the hands of teammate Michael Hodges. Mangan also intercepted a Jerrod Johnson pass near the end zone to thwart a late first half score by the offense. Finally, Anthony Lewis had a nice interception and return early in the game that sparked the defense. .

Improved Secondary Play

This group has been the biggest surprise of the entire spring. Saddled with significant graduation and a few injuries, the secondary has been a piece meal of mainly true freshmen, walk-ons, and a couple of veterans moving positions. On paper, it appeared the unit would struggle and bide its time until the large freshman class showed up for August two-a-days. .

However, credit must be given to defensive back coaches Van Malone and Charles McMillian for developing this group into a functional unit that challenged the A&M receiver corps every practice this spring session. The continued improvement and development of freshmen Trent Hunter and Terrence Frederick was somewhat expected and nice to see, but the emergence of Jordan Pugh back at the safety position and the inspired play of walk-on Justin McQueen has been the surprise storyline of this spring.

On Saturday, Pugh harassed receivers all day until he left in the second half with a minor injury. His confidence is sky high right now and he's playing with a little swagger as well. McQueen's play of the game on Saturday came when he popped Jeff Fuller square in the sternum after a short catch and forced a fumble and turnover. McQueen has not backed down all spring, and he's made several big plays this spring going up against a much bigger and more athletic Fuller. .

I'm not sure McQueen is the ultimate answer at cornerback, but he has established himself as the target to beat for the incoming freshmen this August…and I'm not I'd bet against him at this point. .

Emergence of Jeff Fuller as Offensive Leader .

What can you say about Jeff Fuller? He has the body of an NFL receiver already as a freshman. He's clearly the most talented pass catcher an A&M uniform has seen since Robert Ferguson. Fuller had a nice freshman campaign, but all spring he has taken his game to a new level and is playing with great confidence. He's done it so effortlessly and that's the mark of the great players. His 27-yard over the shoulder touchdown catch was so smooth, and it was a reflection of his spring. He finished with nine catches for 147 yards. He's definitely the man on offense. He'll be the go-to guy on big plays, and he'll be the difference maker that wins ball games next fall. .

Leaner and Faster.

Compared to recent years, this team overall is much leaner and in better shape. Most of the accumulated muscle mass on skill players has been stripped and replaced with more speed, fluidity, and flexibility. Add in the fact that the defense is more comfortable in year two and playing more instinctively, and the result is a faster team with more burst and acceleration. Aggie fans saw that particularly from the defense on Saturday, sacking the quarterback seven times and creating five turnovers. .


Offensive Line Play.

There's no question that the offensive line has been a liability since Coach Sherman arrived 16 months ago. The cupboard was bare, and with projected starters Kevin Matthews, Lee Grimes, and Lucas Patterson sidelined all spring, the cupboard has been certainly empty this spring. So al observations both positive and negative must take this fact into account. The line had no answers for the speed and quickness of Von Miller rushing off the edge. The Aggies must find some suitable tackles in August whether it's the successful return of Lucas Patterson and Lee Grimes, or the emergence of a freshman like Rhontae Scales or Stephen Barrera if the Aggie offense is to be successful at all against the better defenses on its 2009 schedule. The first unit managed only nine yards rushing on 24 carries against the first team defense. That won't cut it in the fall.

Defensive Depth.

For all the praise of the improvement on defense, most of it comes from the first unit. The second team defense gave up several easy touchdown runs to an offense that was completely stymied on the ground by the first unit. With the graduation of several defensive ends and the retirement of Kellen Heard and the switch of Patterson to offense, the defensive line doesn't have much depth at all and the fall off to the second unit is pretty significant at this point. As a result, the team could be susceptible to a huge drop if the injury bug bites.

Wide Receiver That Stretches the Field

Since last year, the coaching staff has developed a nice corps of receivers from a group that was largely unproductive under the previous staff. Guys like Jeff Fuller, Ryan Tannehill, Terrence McCoy, Jamie McCoy, and even Howard Morrow have shown they can make plays in the middle of the field. What they don't have is burner speed, someone who is a threat to beat the coverage deep every play. Somebody that has the safeties back on their heels that will open up the middle of the field. The staff made a late spring move by switching Lionel Smith from cornerback to receiver because he does have good speed. It's still a long way before we'll know if he can be that guy, but he has shown flashes of potential. He made a very nice catch and run toward the end of Saturday's game that set-up a short one-yard touchdown run.

Quarterback Depth

Jerrod Johnson had a solid spring, not a great spring. He had a few days of inconsistency, but for the most part he showed that he's the number one guy to run the offense in the fall and he'll do it well. The key will again come back to the performance of the offensive line. Johnson has been tremendous on his long throws this spring, and Aggie fans should expect a lot of fireworks between Jerrod and Jeff Fuller in the 2009 season.

The question is depth. With Ryan Tannehill recovering from labrum surgery, the Aggies only had two scholarship quarterbacks in camp this spring. Tommy Dorman certainly had his moments where he made plays and looked good, but overall I'd say his consistency was a problem and he didn't really step up to seriously challenge Johnson most of the spring. Granted, he's still only a freshman, but he's a guy that must be ready in the fall with only three scholarship signal callers on the roster.

There's been a lot of speculation about Tannehill either playing quarterback or returning to receiver, but he will be playing quarterback this summer when he's 100% healthy. He could have played some this spring, but the staff was conservative with him. He'll be ready to go by the time voluntary 7-on-7 drills start up in early summer. Still, A&M is thin at quarterback and somebody needs to step up to challenge Johnson and at the very least nail down the back-up spot.

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