On the verge of their 2009 campaign and the second year under Head Coach Mike Sherman, the Aggies look to restore some pride and regain some ground lost over the past decade in the Big XII and on the college football scene in general. Expectations are tempered by reality for the most part, but even for them to hit what needs to be at least a six win mark and a bowl appearance, they need a much-improved performance up front. The collective eye of fans and coaches will be fixed on the offensive line, namely both tackle spots, which I'll address shortly. The interior line looks to be in relatively good shape regarding talent and depth. They should be the strength of an overall unit that took their fair share of lumps and criticism in 2008.
Last year's front was able to pull it together here and there, but the group that had about five quality starters to begin with, bore the brunt of a lot of snaps, which translated to poor performance and a lot of injuries as the situation snowballed. In the spring drills we were only able to field about eight scholarship linemen (not even enough to fill both the maroon or white team starting roster). Due to that fact it's impossible, as of this writing, to know where that 2008 crop of red-shirt freshmen stand in the pecking order and in relation to their own development.
Keep in mind as you read this, the fact that positional battles listed are tentative throughout the fall as Coach Sherman and his staff are very adaptable and will put guys in the best position for us as a team. This breakdown simply plots a rough course heading into fall camp and will be updated at the conclusion of camp, when we'll all have a clearer picture of what the depth chart will look like going into the actual season. Until then let's take a look at what we've got heading into camp, who will be battling for staring jobs and solid footing on the depth chart the next few weeks.
While there is a lot of promise and potential at tackle, it is unproven and will rely on a converted defensive tackle, Lucas Patterson, and quite possibly two talented and physically ready freshmen to step into the two deep and perhaps even a starting role at some point. At a glimpse that could easily dishearten fans that realize the dire importance here and want the overall situation turned around quickly, but if it is any consolation Coach Sherman and Aggie insiders have a lot of confidence in those three young men to step up in those roles. Make no mistake, however, it will be the area of concern on offense until proven otherwise.
The left tackle spot is obviously the most important spot on the line and was such a dire need at season's end that Coach Sherman moved JR Lucas Patterson from defensive tackle (a position that is also relatively thin) to the other side of the ball. Patterson actually spent his RS-FR year on the offensive line before being moved to DT in the spring of 2007. Unfortunately, he broke his leg against Baylor (the second to last game of the season) and was "very limited" during spring so his first actual contact at the position will be in fall camp. However, Patterson brings a lot to the table and wouldn't have been moved if not fully expected to start. He will bring his power, athleticism, intensity, well-documented on-field mean streak and toughness, as well as a tenacious-motor to the edge and should be the clear-cut starter at camp's end.
Behind Lucas Patterson keep an eye on incoming freshman Rhontae Scales. With just over a month on campus this summer Scales has already turned the heads of teammates and insiders. At 6'6" and over 300 pounds he came, physically, every bit the part of a college lineman and has already earned praise for his impressive quickness given his size. Given that he's penciled in at LT it is logical that he is considered one of the most athletic linemen and has superb footwork. Like Patterson, Scales is a lineman that brings a desirable nastiness to the field and is a very aggressive blocker. He also plays with very good pad level and brute strength.
Coach Sherman has stated the competitive newcomer (Scales) will play this year and at the least should be the number two guy at left tackle but we'll know with more certainty in a few weeks. Patterson and Scales locking this spot down is also important as it will finally enable the Aggies to keep Michael Shummard at guard which is a win/win for everyone.
Also in the mix will be RS-FR Josh Ayers who brings quickness and athleticism as well as respectable size and strength. Due to injury and through no fault of his own he was limited in spring and missed what would have been a good opportunity to develop and raise his stock in the eyes of his coaches. Though not a highly heralded recruit, he has some good upside and versatility. Ayers is still early in his A&M career but he will be a guy worth watching this August just to see how far along he is at this point.
Heading into the season Lee Grimes will be the starter at right tackle. Grimes is kind of the Aggie equivalent of Monty Python's "Black Night". I don't mean that to put the guy down; on the contrary, Grimes has had about every physical ailment and surgery that a football player can have and still has the heart to keep getting back up and giving his coaches and teammates everything he's got. Here's hoping he can have a healthy senior campaign or at the least make it deep into the season. But given his injury history and the odds, one has to assume that will be unlikely. That said, he will bring his veteran savvy, skill-set and toughness to the table as the odds on favorite to start the season protecting the right edge.
Pushing Grimes, and more than willing to take over the right tackle spot at some point, will be Stephen Barrera, another freshman who came in physically ready to play and compete for immediate playing time. Barrera played defensive tackle in high school, but is a natural on the offensive side of the ball. As can be expected from a former DT, he brings aggressiveness, a motor and great athleticism to the position. A smart player, he also has great agility, power, wingspan and has already grabbed the attention of teammates for his work ethic in the weight room. How quickly he develops on this side of the ball remains to be seen and hopefully Grimes can stay healthy long enough for him to come along. Regardless, the young man has enough going for him that Coach Sherman has stated he expects Stephen to become the starting right tackle this season.
Vince Williams, who covered the position in the spring due to injuries and lack of depth, is currently second, but will most likely follow Barrera and Grimes on the depth chart. Physically, Williams has all the tools a coach could want, but for whatever reason, he just doesn't seem to have the football mentality or physicality needed to be a consistently effective blocker.
Also in the mix will be RS-FR Jeffrey Hyde, who in addition to size, strength, footwork, and wingspan is pretty strong in regards to the mental side of the game. Hyde was another player who's limited status due to injury in spring cost him the opportunity to gain some ground on the depth chart. He is a bit of an unknown now as are most of the offensive lineman from the 2008 signing class, but if he can develop and play his cards right Hyde could very well find himself in the number two spot at some point in the season (if Grimes goes down and he can leap frog Williams).
While the projected two deep at tackle finds the Aggies at three-quarters untested and unproven, A&M finds itself on much stronger footing regarding the interior line. At Guard and Center the Ags have at least 5-6 quality players, which while not ideal, is equal or better than what they had across the entire front in 2008.
Assuming Lucas Patterson and Rhontae Scales hold their own at LT, SR Michael Shummard will be able to stay put at left guard, a luxury the Ags haven't been able to afford very often the past few seasons, and helps further solidify the group. He's filled in admirably at tackle but is much more effective inside than on the edge and will be able to put his diverse, veteran experience and skills to much better use.
Lining up behind Shummard, at least currently, will be Bryan native Evan Eike. Eike, at the minimum, will bring high quality depth to LG as he started the position for all twelve games last season and found himself as a Phil Steele's College Preview -2nd Team Freshmen All American. Eike plays with a nasty disposition and the sound drive blocker with good feet may actually push his way to the top of the depth chart by camp's end or at some point in the season. He and Shummard should push each other pretty hard and neither would surprise or disappoint when named starter.
Following Eike and Shummard will be RS-FR Chris Lathrop. Lathrop is another of that 2008 class who's future in the pecking order is a bit gray at the moment, but at worst he'll benefit from the guys in front of him and for the time being they'll afford him time to develop. Freshman Clint Narron will most likely red-shirt.
Coaches, insiders and fans in the know are anticipating the on-field maroon and white debut of LSU transfer Matt Allen (following his mandated 2008 sit out year). With good feet, athleticism and strength Allen should be in the lead for the starting RG job. He will benefit from what amounted to a red-shirt developmental year and a healthy spring as well as a strong and productive off-season.
Allen will be backed at the RG spot by two up and comers. With excellent size, strength, and smarts Joe Villavisencio was the only one of six 2008 offensive line signees that burned his red shirt, earning his first start in the win against Iowa State. The only thing that may keep him out of the fray is if coaches red-shirt him this time around to get him back on par with his class, a decision that would be made easier by another talented guard from his class Brian Thomas. Last August, as a true freshman, Thomas impressed coaches with his effort, talent and athleticism and not only did he almost practice his way out of a red shirt, he even pushed Evan Eike pretty hard for starter at LG. This will be another interesting aspect of the O-line to keep an eye on as fall camp moves along. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like Leroy Chevalier, the once highly heralded recruit, will be able to continue his football career. He would have added a lot to our efforts, but a serious back injury was too much to overcome and not worth the risk.
Kevin Mathews enters his senior season as the unquestionable starter for what will be the second year in a row after filling in for, and learning from, Cody Wallace in 2006 and 2007. The son of NFL Hall of famer Bruce Mathews is a tough and heady leader that will anchor a line bent on improvement and redemption. (His brother Jake Mathews, one of the top offensive tackle recruits in the country, will join A&M next fall.)
In the battle to back him will be RS-SO Danny Baker and talented true freshman Patrick Lewis. Danny Baker, who was versatile enough to start as blocking tight end against Miami and later at right guard against Texas, will return to his familiar high school position of center. Due to a line riddled with injuries in the spring, Baker got a lot of time and reps as starting center and even filled in at tackle when needed. A strong off-season may aid him in staving off a push from talented freshmen Patrick Lewis. Lewis had been working hard on his own before arriving on campus to make a push for early playing time, and coaches have stated he will play this season.
Offensive Line Overall
It's an obvious statement, but the Aggies will be much stronger up front than last season. Even with three-quarters of their two deep at tackle stepping into the position at the division one level for the first time in 2009 they still bring more talent to the mix than A&M has had in some time. Does that mean it will be pretty and pave the way for an eight-win season? Of course not, but they should give us stronger support on the edge to compliment what should be a very strong presence in the middle and give the Ags very capable skills guys a chance to put points on the board and keep our defense off the field a lot longer than in recent seasons. It's a modest beginning, but the group, though not world beaters, should be capable of paving the way for a six win season and a brighter future that looks to be around the corner for Aggie Football.
Fall Camp Preview 2009: Offensive Line
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