Countdown 2009: A&M Needs Playmakers to Win

It's July and you can almost taste it. College football is right around the corner and it's time to talk Aggie football. Aggie Websider's David Sandhop starts off our coverage with a look at a few young playmakers and veterans who will be key to success in 2009.

As the Texas A&M football program continues on its long journey back to respectability, the Aggie faithful are wondering what to expect in terms of wins and success in 2009. Trying to predict what will happen is easier said than done, especially with some many young prospects now in the program and with many veterans either leaving the program or changing positions.

Just how young is this 2009 Aggie team?

Well, head coach Mike Sherman will welcome 25 incoming freshmen for August two-a-days along with 10 redshirt freshmen who sat out last season. That's approximately 44% of the scholarship players that have not taken a snap in a live collegiate football game. Add in the 21 sophomores projected to be on scholarship in 2009, and underclassmen account for over 70% of the team's scholarship players.

On the surface, those numbers don't bode well for the 2009 Aggies. That doesn't come as a surprise to many fans and observers in the know, as most pundits and preseason magazines are picking Texas A&M to finish at the bottom of the Big 12 South. But what Sherman and his staff are hoping for to prove the pundits wrong is a core group of young players that stepped up as freshmen and hopefully will continue to develop into high caliber Big 12 players. Freshmen like Jeff Fuller and Trent Hunter not only found the field and contributed in 2008, but by the end of the season those two were playing like veterans and became corner pieces of the offense and defense. Tony Jerod-Eddie, Terrence Frederick, Cyrus Gray, and Eddie Brown all showed promise late in the season in their initial collegiate seasons as well.

For the Aggies to avoid a losing season and the cellar of the Big 12 South, these freshmen will need to show continued improvement and take that next step. For guys like Hunter and Fuller, they need to become team leaders and challenge for all-Big 12 honors. The Aggies have dearly lacked top line playmakers in the past two seasons and Texas A&M players are rarely seen on the postseason Big 12 teams until you get to the generous honorable mention category where every full-time starter with a pulse gets a mention. For the other freshmen who contributed last season, it's probably too much to ask for them to push for postseason honors, but they do need to establish themselves as good Big 12 players that the opposition must account for on every play. They need to stabilize the performance and level of play at their position. In short, they need to take care of their business and give the staff quality minutes on a consistent basis. For the Aggies to move out of the Big 12 rent district, they need a few young playmakers like Fuller and Hunter to earn those postseason honors, other freshmen to make significant contributions, and also have a few of the established veterans step up and earn some all-conference awards.

While the return of Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford will make it difficult for any other Big 12 quarterback to garner postseason honors, obviously the continued development of veteran Jerrod Johnson as an efficient signal caller and leader of the offense is critical to success in 2009. With an offensive line that still may struggle at times in 2009, Johnson must get quicker with his reads and his release. Big 12 defenses quickly learned that the best way to stop Johnson was to bring pressure from the middle and force the lanky quarterback to scramble outside where he's not as efficient given his long, drawn out throwing motion. He's worked hard in the offseason on compacting that release, and if he can make plays running outside the pocket, Johnson will be a tough passer for opposing defenses to handle, especially with a playmaker like Fuller roaming the field.

Senior Jamie McCoy became a favorite target for Johnson, and his leadership and development as a feared hybrid pass catcher in the middle of the field will free up spaces on the outside and downfield. Then there's the much maligned offensive line, but they will have potentially three multi-year starting seniors along the front with Kevin Matthews, Michael Shumard, and Lee Grimes. If those three can stay healthy and provide stability and leadership to the underclassmen that make up the rest of the unit, then there's a possibility this line can do just enough to allow Johnson and the running backs to do their thing. I don't think anybody is expecting great accomplishments from this group, but there's enough talent at the skill positions that just buying these playmakers a few seconds should pay dividends.

On defense, two veterans are key to providing leadership for a lot of young players that will be forced into action in 2009. Von Miller is clearly the wild card here. One of the most highly regarded defensive prospect signed by Texas A&M in the past four years, Miller has struggled to find his niche' on the field as he's bounced back and forth between a rush defensive end and an outside linebacker. Well, the staff created a hybrid rush position called the Jack position, and Miller flourished in that role this spring. He has also matured this past offseason, taking care of his responsibilities in the class room and becoming a hard working teammate on the football field. If the spring is any indication, Miller could finally have that breakout season, and that's exactly what this A&M defense needs if they hope to finish with a winning record and a bowl game berth. Another soul searching season for Miller will not bode well for the defensive unit as they desperately need a pass rushing playmaker in its midst. Other than Hunter at safety, the rest of this unit is either extremely young or unproven.

Jordan Pugh has been a contributor in the defensive backfield for three seasons, although he's never really stepped out of his shell to be a difference maker on the field. With a return to safety this offseason, Pugh appeared to finally look comfortable at his spot in the spring and brought an attitude to the position that has been lacking in recent years. If he can replicate that intensity this fall in front of 80,000 fans, that will give A&M two playmaking safeties the staff can count on in 2009. If he doesn't step up, then the staff will have to rely on a little-used veteran or a true freshman…neither a suitable option early in the season.

With so many changes to the roster and so many young players expected to take on major roles on this team in 2009, the ability to accurately project where this 2009 Aggie team will finish up at the end of November is extremely difficult. It's not exaggerating to say that anything can happen from another disastrous 4-8 campaign to an 8-4 surprise season where the pieces come together and the young players and veterans flourish. But keep your eye on the early season progress of guys like Fuller, Hunter, Johnson, Miller, Pugh, the three senior OL's, and Jerod-Eddie, and you'll have your answer to the 2009 season much quicker than you think.


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