2009 Keys to Success

While the future appears brighter, the 2009 Texas A&M Football team still has some areas of concern and will be susceptible to the mistakes of youth and inexperience. Ultimately, success for 2009 will depend on several key issues. Aggie Websider's Taylor Hamm looks at those key issues that A&M must overcome to move the program forward in 2009.

As with the start of any new season, there is hope and optimism in Aggieland. But in 2009, there are real signs of improved talent across the board and a sense of team unity that has not been seen in the program in several years. Still, the team is very young and inexperienced with as many as 12-15 true freshmen expected to contribute this season, something that head coach Mike Sherman fully understands.

"We are a work in progress. I'd never say we're a finished product," said Sherman in his Monday press conference. "But they are going to play hard and put it all on the line every game. That part I'm pretty confident about."

Thus, while the future appears brighter, the reality of the current situation is that this team still has some areas of concern and will be susceptible to the mistakes of youth and inexperience. Ultimately, success for 2009 will depend on several key issues. Aggie Websider's Taylor Hamm looks at those key issues that A&M must overcome to move the program forward in 2009.

|1) Maturity at the Linebacker Position

The young group of linebackers is a concern for Mike Sherman and his staff. Sherman feels they are still "feeling their way through the season" and most of them are relatively new to the system.

Sherman said this about the linebacker situation, "Defensively, I would have to say the linebackers are feeling their way through the season and are relatively new. We have a redshirt freshman at the middle position, a true freshman over at the ‘Will' position, and Garrick Williams…a returning starter, but really starting from scratch actually this year. He looks a lot better. I guess there's a few areas there that still concern me."

Redshirt freshman Jonathan Stewart has made a significant impact this fall, enough to at least solidify a second team spot if not an eventual starting role. Garrick Williams gained valuable experience last season as a part-time starter and showed more confidence and instinctive ability this fall. Redshirt freshman Kyle Mangan, who has been the most consistent of all the linebackers throughout the spring and fall, has yet to start a game for the Aggies and was playing fullback last season.

While this unit has shown improved play over last year's group, A&M fans should still expect a few hiccups along the way. However, if this unit gels and comes together during the early portion of the schedule, the defense could make some noise in Big 12 Conference play.

2) Eliminate Turnovers and Mistakes

Texas A&M was negative 10 in the turnover ratio last year, turning it over 27 times compared to just 17 takeaways. Ten of the 27 turnovers were interceptions thrown by Jerrod Johnson. Mike Sherman had this to say about Jerrod's ball security:

"Every practice I grade him on ball security…is he tucking? Is the ball out here? And he's definitely improved that. Sometimes when guys get in games they revert back to old behaviors when they're outside the realm of practice and coaches' observations and so forth. So it's something he's constantly being reminded about and we'll remind him again." - Coach Sherman

The Aggies fumbled the ball 30 times last year and 15 of those resulted in turnovers. The running backs must hold onto the ball and make sure they improve their turnover ratio. Bottom line, the biggest indicator of success for any football team at any level is a positive turnover ratio. If a team has a propensity to lose the ball, chances are they'll lose the game.

3) Development of Freshman Receivers

Last season, the Aggies had to rely on a redshirt freshman quarterback and a true freshman to catch the ball. Luckily and improbably, both came through and made a big impact on the passing offense in 2008. While the depth is much better in 2009, the staff will still need to lean on three talented but inexperienced wide receivers. Uzoma Nwachukwu, Kenric McNeal, and Brandal Jackson will definitely play according to Mike Sherman, and Nwachukwu will line up as a starter against New Mexico. The inexperience worries Coach Sherman despite the flashes of ability from all three at times in fall camp:

"Every once in a while I have to remind myself that they are still freshmen. We had an early morning practice today, and we threw a lot at them and they had to respond. They made a couple of mistakes. But I've been very happy with their learning curve. They're going to play and I expect them to make plays. I'm pleased with them but I have to also caution myself when I talk to them that they were in high school less than a year ago. It's a big jump from one to the other."
Sherman went on to say:

"They're probably ahead in the sense that we've had to force feed them. In a different situation they probably would have been relegated to the third or fourth team, and then you wouldn't have a chance to really coach them to the level they're being coached right now. Brandal Jackson has run a lot with the second group, so he's getting a lot of work. And sometimes we throw him in with the ones. EZ's (Nwachukwu) been running with both groups, so he gets a lot of work. They're ahead in the sense that they've been thrust into the limelight and been coached as if they're going to help us win football games. I would say they're ahead from that standpoint. " - Coach Sherman

Uzoma has stood out from the rest of the freshman, getting the most reps with the first team. He is the best downfield blocker and runs the best routes of all the freshman receivers. All three receivers are playmakers and when you throw a guy like Ryan Swope in the picture at the slot position, you have some serious speed and playmaking ability. The concern Coach Sherman has with the fish wide-outs is whether or they will do the right thing in specific situations that can make or break you in a critical point of the game.

4) Protecting the Quarterback

Despite being in the A&M football program for a couple of years, this is the first time Danny Baker has started at the left tackle position on a full-time basis. With opposing defenses placing their best pass rusher on that side of the ball, that is causing some concerns for Coach Sherman as he looks to protect Jerrod Johnson's blind side:

"As a group I feel like we've made some progress. Coach (Jim) Turner has done a great job with them. What we're asking them to do is more in line with what they are capable of. At the left tackle position, Danny Baker has done a nice job for us this offseason and also this fall camp. That's always going to be the position I'm most concerned about because that is the blind side for the quarterback. But I do have confidence that Danny will compete and do a good job for us." - Coach Sherman

Lee Grimes is a big physical offensive lineman and one of the cornerstones of the Aggie O-Line when healthy. Lee battled a variety of injuries last season and missed the spring while rehabbing. Grimes, a senior, only has 12 career starts under his belt. The Lucas Patterson experiment at left tackle did not work out like the coaches would have wanted so Lucas was moved back to DT. The Aggies were sacked 39 times for a total loss of 296yrds on the season. They must contain the outside pass rush in order to successfully move the ball downfield.

Jerrod must help out his offensive line by increasing the speed of his game. Sometimes Jerrod will hang on to a receiver downfield. He likes to throw the ball deep but he needs to take his check down. He tends to lock on to somebody and not dump it off when he needs to.

If (and that's a big if at this time) the team can successfully address these four major issues heading into the season opener against New Mexico this Saturday night, Coach Sherman's second year at the helm of Aggie football will go much smoother and will result in more wins and a potential bowl berth. If the team is unable to work through these weak spots, then expect more struggles in 2009. However, if fall practice is any indication, the team has a good chance to break through once the young contributors get some experience under their belts.

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