I was tempted to gloss over the locker room aspect but it is so night and day from A&M teams over the past decade, that it would be borderline negligent to side step it. Following a dominating defeat to Texas on Thanksgiving night, the team licked their wounds for a few days then quickly regrouped, assumed full ownership of last years brutal 4-8 season, and took the first big steps towards the goal of re-establishing Aggie Football. Due in large part to the leadership of Coach Sherman, as well as a number of true leaders on the team, and throughout their hard work this off-season under an unforgiving and sweltering Texas sun, the team has also boiled away any impurities in the locker room, with regard to players who's work ethic and attitude weren't in alignment with the short and long term goals of this team. High attrition is clearly not what a team wants to happen but at this stage of a program that has been looking to turn a corner for the better part of a decade, it was something that needed to happen. It's not the typical pre-season lip service when I say, this is an extremely close knit group all the way around. Ask any coach, player, casual or professional observer and to a man you'll get a clear picture that this is united a team as the 2006 group that circled their wagons and drew together in response to the abundance of issues that flew around them as they pulled out that 9 win season; the difference being that the current unity and culture that has been built since last December is designed for long term success. No factions, no acceptance of failure, rather accountability, togetherness and leaders helping to teach and pull their teammates along. It's impossible to quantify that means in the wins column, but like that 2006 team, when you have those games where one play late in the game makes the difference (and they had a lot that year), it definitely makes a difference in pushing themselves over the top.
Heading into fall camp I broke down just about the entire roster position by position but given the number of freshmen needed to step into crucial roles, the extremely high number of injured veterans in spring camp and several key position switches a lot was up in the air. Now that camps ended, let's take an updated look at who and how it shook out, as well as where those players will likely find themselves on the depth chart, heading into the early going and beyond, as they gain experience and develop throughout the season. Clearly some answers won't be known until the rubber hits the road but we definitely have a clearer picture now than three weeks ago.
True to his word heading into camp, Coach Sherman said it would be a wide open battle for the quarterback job and Ryan Tannehill gave Jerrod Johnson all he could handle and more, actually appearing to have the lead several times throughout August. In fact Tannehill's efforts actually pushed the decision back a few days from Mike Sherman's anticipated deadline. True to his word Sherman had said, "Ryan Tannehill will have to deliver a knockout blow" to wrest the starting quarterback spot away from Johnson and while he had a great camp the edge had to be given to the experienced starter. Regardless of how it shook out one thing is for certain and that is the fact that coaches and fans alike can rest assured that the Aggies' have two very solid options at quarterback.
While he still has a lot if room for improvement, Jerrod Johnson (#1, 6-5 243, JR) is a gamer. He is smart, wields a cannon-arm and will no doubt raise his stock in 2009. Johnson can throw the deep ball with the best of them and will have the luxury of a talented array of targets this season. Jerrod has also proved to be an elusive athlete with his feet, behind the line and in the open field. In addition to those attributes his game tempo is much better in regards to the mental side, having run this system for over a year and the coaches concerted effort to simplify things, as well as just having that season of starts under his hat. As I mentioned before camp, his delivery is always going to be a work in progress and while it looked improved to some extent, there was no miracle transformation observed the past three weeks. As long-armed as he is, it's really hard to compress his delivery into a quick release. While dangerously precise and strong in slinging his deep routes, his short game was a concern heading into fall drills and while it still needs work and consistency, it got cleaner as camp rolled on. It was actually the main aspect of his game that opened the door early on for Ryan Tannehill. As David Sandhop observed this fall, while Johnson can hit homeruns, Tannehill can get you a single almost every time. Bottom line, though he needs to elevate his game considerably to be mentioned consistently with the elite of this conference, Jerrod Johnson is a very talented and capable quarterback who will benefit from the work he has put in as well as what should be an improved line that not only can protect him better but also provides us with a decent running game to take even more pressure off of him (and themselves for that matter) and a much more talented crop of wide-outs to throw to.
Ryan Tannehill (#17, 6-4 216, SO) started off the competition a few steps behind as he was nursing a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, limiting him a great deal this spring. However, he still gave Johnson a good run and will likely be called on at some point behind center this year. He has a great arm, can easily make all the throws, is obviously very athletic and a great scrambler as well. Sherman has really bragged on Tannehill being so remarkably sharp, quick and adaptable in picking the mental things up. Like Johnson, his leadership is also unquestioned and he will have his the huddles respect when called on to step in this year.
Tommy Dorman (#13, 6-2 231, RS-FR) has a lot of work to do but pleasantly surprised with his showing in camp before a torn abdominal muscle shelved him. He was playing a lot faster mentally, and as Websiders' Taylor Hamm observed early on in fall drills, that he is perhaps the quickest of all three in regards to his footwork and release. What stood out most to me is that his arm looked much stronger than spring. Like Tannehill and Johnson, Dorman is also very capable of using his feet when things breakdown. This summer Coach Sherman offered a vote of confidence for Dorman saying that, he'll end up being a good quarterback but isn't there yet and during camp Sherman singled him out for how far he has come along since spring.
Despite the loss of big names like Michael Goodson and Javorskie Lane, the Aggies' unquestionably have two difference makers at the top of the running back depth chart and the position is one of the strongest on the roster. Couple that with what should be much improved run blocking up front the group is poised to have a big year for themselves and simultaneously taking heat off of the passing game (last year the pass rush was downhill against us because we only average 88.5 yards per game on the ground) and contributing to what should be not just productive but an effective offense.
Cyrus Gray (#32, 5-10 196, SO), the top priority HB A&M landed last year, wrapped up a relatively successful freshman year in the backfield and was the best return man the Ags' have had in a decade. Gray is a back gifted with speed, shiftiness, adequate power and true big play ability. Ultra-talented freshman Christine Michael's presence, as well as his own confidence and comfort in what he is doing proved to big a big boost and a kick in the rear for Cyrus in August. He also added a little beef and was a much more decisive runner during camp, really hitting his holes hard and has pushed his game into another gear. He and Michael will compliment each other well and, as our offensive line and offense in general develops, should really give Big XII defenses headaches for years to come. Though I'd assume both backs to split the load, I'd expect to see Gray get more of the early carries as Michael adjusts to the finer points of the college game and our system.
It's fair to argue that Christine Michael (#33, 5-11 206, FR) is the most talented back we've signed in over a decade and after observing him this August he has the potential to be flat out phenomenal. Squeeze every positive attribute of any style of back and put it into one well put together runner and you've got Christine Michael. I'm not trying to get carried away here and I'm in no way putting him into their prestigious league but the first time I saw him in scrimmage action I was wowed and couldn't help but think of the power and ferocity of Adrian Peterson and the shiftiness and balance of Barry Sanders all rolled into one back who is way ahead of the curve from a physique standpoint. In fall drills not only does he run like a human chainsaw but he brings it every single rep. Coach Sherman stated this summer that the intense young runner has a goal of becoming the best running back ever to play at A&M and if he stays healthy he's got a legitimate shot. Of course living up to that won't be easy, but if anyone has the ability, work ethic and mentality to get it done, it's Christine Michael. It's not the ramblings of a cocky athlete, rather the extreme confidence of a blue chip talent who will put in all the work he can to achieve that end and who has impressed everyone who had the opportunity to see him during fall camp. As with most freshmen, honing his blocking, learning the ins and outs of the system as well as working on his hands will be area of improvement. The only other thing would be dialing it back and not trying to do too much in certain spots. He got away with some things in practice, like trying to make something out of nothing that could result in some big losses in conference play.
Bradley Stephens (#20, 5-10 200, SO) gets lost in the shuffle but he is a very capable back. Unfortunately, he also had some fumble issues that did not put him in good favor early on with Coach Sherman and Co. and while it looked like he had put it behind him in the spring the problem re-emerged a few times in August. For the most part he had a good camp but that one issue will keep him from getting carries until he proves he can put that to bed once and for all. Stephens is a very mature young man, has good vision, and does a great job of finding and breaking through the seam. He has true big play potential and gives us an extremely talented number three back if he can just keep the ball off the ground.
Accompanying Christine Michael as newcomers in the backfield this fall will be Kalvin Guyton (#44, 5-10 201, FR), a squatty, speedy, powerful, finishing, efficient, north/south style back, who had a very productive camp. Ryan Swope (#25, 6-0 202, FR) is a great athlete blessed with good hands and who hits the hole well and has good speed. Swope really looks the part of a college football player as a true freshman and while he's more of an inline speed guy than a shifty back he could really be a dangerous route runner out of the backfield which is where he saw a lot of his time during camp. Sherman has said, both freshmen will play this year with Swope lining up at both RB and in the Slot at WR. The well put-together, non-scholarship Jay Tolliver (#34, 5-10 205, RS-FR) impressed some observers during spring with his hard-nosed running style and to some extent fills the role left by the tough yard, effort-back Keondra Smith who departed last spring. Tolliver actually passed on a few offers to walk on at A&M and will likely be the 5th tailback just behind Guyton.
Wide Receiver Meeting expectations in fall camp and rounding out what amounts to all of A&M's offensive skill positions being both talented and relatively deep, were three of the freshmen wide receivers hitting the ground running and working themselves into not only the two deep but as serious contenders for starting roles, providing the Ags' with at least six solid options in the two deep at Flanker, Split End and the Slot. As it is, the unit is sound but they will gain strength as the season goes on and the new arrivals further develop both the mental side of the game and timing with the signal callers.
It was obvious when he joined the team as an early enrollee, in the spring of 2008, that Jeff Fuller (#8, 6-4 215, SO) was a star in the making. Following a solid first year, the ultra-talented, sophomore pass catcher still has a huge ceiling and approaches his position with the work ethic needed to get there. Coach Sherman said recently at the Big XII Media Day, ". . . He's taken this off-season as a mission to be the very best. . ." More specifically as Taylor Hamm recently reported on summer workouts, he has gotten quicker off the line and has improved his route running. That's following a brilliant spring where he turned in amazing performances in literally every session and a fall camp where he did more of the same. His hands, his ability to shake off defenders after the catch, his leaping ability, his knack for going up over multiple defenders and consistently snatching the ball…he is simply the most talented WR the Ags' have had since Terrance Murphy and perhaps more accurately in recent Aggie lore (considering those attributes) would be Robert Ferguson. Clearly, he will be a key to the Aggies' turning things around for, hopefully, the next three years (two if he turns pro after the 2010 season).
Terrance McCoy (#11, 6-4 211, JR) had a very solid camp; finally showing the consistency which to date had been his biggest holdup. His efforts were just enough to stave off the outstanding freshman Uzoma Nwachukwu push for the starting split end spot, at least for now. While he may lack in some of the upside, the talented crop of freshmen will bring, McCoy started in eight games last year and helped the 2008 group achieve well beyond their expectations. A proven starter, even when he ends up backing Nwachukwu eventually, it further illustrates the depth A&M now has at the position.
Entering his senior season with his last chance of living up to some of the expectations and sporadic flashes he's displayed since his arrival at A&M, Howard Morrow (#5, 6-0 198, SR) has earned his spot as starter in the slot. He's had some issues with drops but for the most part he has good hands and big catch potential. Morrow stepped up to the coaches' challenge, lost over fifteen pounds and followed up what has been a productive spring and off-season with a fairly strong fall camp showing. He will provide a steady target for Jerrod Johnson across the middle and in the intermediate game.
Uzoma Nwachukwu (#7, 6-0 189, FR), just call him "EZ", has been outstanding so far and will likely be the first freshman to win a starting job at some point. Heading into game one, he's listed just behind Terrence McCoy at split end but has been running neck and neck with the veteran. In addition to his great athleticism and receiving skills, he is way ahead of the curve as a freshman receiver given he is not only a willing, but an able and proven blocker as well. Something not often mentioned but equally if not more important than speed and quickness (which rest assured he does have) and that is stopping fast, which EZ also does well in running his routes, going really fast in and out of cuts and breaks. In addition he has consistent steady hands as well as the ability to go up and make the big grabs. I realize it's early but he brings it every day and it is quite apparent that he and Fuller are going to make an awesome combination and keep Big XII defenses honest and gouged for years to come.
Another freshman that burst onto the scene in August was Kenric McNeal (#81, 6-1 170, FR). He has good height, athleticism, great speed and once he has the ball is very elusive in one-on-one situations. McNeal has that Jerry Rice fearlessness across the middle and his hands are amazing. He had a great camp and for now will be a solid number two in the slot behind Morrow, if he doesn't take over as a number one at some point this season. As a minor footnote, his high school position of QB does open the door in the future as a wideout capable of carrying out a high percentage gadget-play (ala Jason Carter or Chad Schroeder).
Backing Jeff Fuller at flanker will be Navasota's ultra-athletic Brandal Jackson (#23, 6-1 182, FR). Jackson was yet another freshman that had a great fall camp. Like McNeal the newcomer has good height and a vertical to match. His leaping is not only good on paper but like Fuller, he has an aggressiveness and knack for going after and coming down with those jump balls. Jackson is a smooth route runner, has great hands and once he makes a catch can be very dangerous in the open field. In addition Jackson impressed this August as another freshman who proved he could be an effective blocker. Nick Trice (#10, 6-2 204, SO), who has good size and speed surprised some observers and had a decent camp getting a lot of reps (while Jeff Fuller nursed a hamstring injury early in camp) and is actually listed as the number two flanker behind Jeff Fuller on the depth chart but I would be mildly surprised if he got the nod over Brandal Jackson.
Ryan Swope (#25, 6-0 202, FR) is another newcomer expected to log playing time and possibly have quite an impact as a freshman out of the backfield and in the slot (currently third there behind Morrow and McNeal). Swope comes in with not only good height like a few of our other candidates but overall size and strength to match. He has good burst, great speed and versatility.
Given the fact that Ryan Tannehill set an A&M freshman record at receiver (after only moving to the position from quarterback last August before the season) in receptions and receiving yards (55 grabs/844 yards/5 TD's) questions abound as to whether the young, versatile athlete will still be getting looks at WR. Sherman has mentioned he would rather have Tannehill in the QB mix and let the talented crop of freshman wide receivers step up over there (which they appear to have done) but also stated that if it's third down and he knows Tannehill can get the first, it will be hard to keep him on the bench. Personally I wouldn't risk it, but I'm conservative when I'm playing Madden so I'm probably the wrong to ask. We'll see how that goes down but one would expect when the season is underway and the option of putting the only other presently viable quarterback option in harm's way arises, the coaches' thinking would edge a little more towards the safe side.
Tight End looks to be slightly stronger in 2009 than last season, when the only players A&M could field at the spot were situational (blockers or pass catchers). While the area still needs improvement this years group will be fielding at least one well balanced TE and possibly two if freshman Huston Prioleau can come along and catch up to the speed of the game at this level. After previous years of bouncing around from QB to WR, Jamie McCoy (#4, 6-3 242, SR) landed at TE and proved he could be a very productive pass catching TE last year. (He reeled in 43 catches for 500 yards including 5 for touchdowns. Also very notable is that 70% of his 43 catches were for first downs.) However, he was one-dimensional in 2008 given his blocking left a lot to be desired. Since that time Jamie has put on some significant weight in the off-season (up to about 245 without noticeably losing a step as a receiver) and just before the end of fall camp Coach Sherman told me he actually considers McCoy as being one of the teams better blockers and as someone who definitely has a future on Sundays. That's great news and a pleasantly mild surprise, as receivers who convert to TE don't often pick up the blocking aspect.
Aside from Jamie McCoy the Aggies' only potential pure TE is true freshman Huston Prioleau (#80, 6-4 253, FR). Physically, Prioleau is very impressive especially considering he is a true freshman. Huston started slow; struggling with catching, but came on strong and had a decent camp. The young man improved as August wore on and is a decent blocker who moves defensive ends off the ball very effectively with good footwork and hand technique but his initial struggles with drops may have opened the door for Kenny Brown (#15, 6-3 216, JR) who had a very productive camp for himself as a quality pass catching tight end and enters the season listed as the number two TE behind Jamie McCoy.
The biggest question marks for the Aggies' will be at both tackle spots. Left Tackle is honestly a mess and the quality starter at Right Tackle, Lee Grimes, is not expected to make it through the season healthy (he's literally a practice to practice battle to stay healthy). Hopefully one of the freshmen tackles (if not both) can step up at some point. Until then the solution will likely be moving Michael Shummard away from his strength on the inside again, to either tackle spot that needs a quality number two guy. If that happens, impressive interior newcomer Patrick Lewis will cover Shummard's left guard spot. The interior line on the other hand is looking really good starter and depth wise with plenty of quality options.
Left Tackle The Lucas Patterson experiment to offensive line didn't shake out as hoped and he is back at defensive tackle where depth is also an issue. (I'll address that later.) After two weeks he was struggling and though athletic, he looked to be more of an in-line blocker than a quick tackle who needs more lateral quickness. The move and decision was influenced also by the emergence and development of Danny Baker (#55, 6-5 300, SO) who will begin the season as starter at LT. In 2008 he was versatile enough to start as blocking tight end against Miami and later at right guard against Texas. 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. Before this move to tackle he was battling for the center job but the decision was also helped by true freshman Patrick Lewis coming strong out of the gates and rounding out the two deep at center without needing Baker. Coaches are talking confidently about Baker at tackle but fans have to be concerned if he was so strong why wasn't he there to begin with. I hope I'm reading too much into that (and I'm usually the optimist) but this is the one true weak spot on the roster and being left tackle, it's a biggie no doubt. Hopefully Danny can pull it off and there are other Band-Aids to help him, like Jamie McCoy bolstering the left side as a TE (or TE/FB in the H-back role) or keeping a back there to pick up anyone who gets through and help cover Johnson and or Tannehill's backside. Behind Danny Baker will be Rhontae Scales (#73, 6-6 318, FR). 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. He is considered one of the most athletic linemen on campus and has superb footwork and is a lineman that brings a desirable nastiness to the field and is a very aggressive blocker. Rhontae also plays with very good pad level and brute strength. However, the learning curve will be the big issue with Scales and by all accounts he's going to have a ways to go but is expected to step into significant time. In addition to that he also needs to get a lot quicker off the snap. It's hard to tell if he's just processing so much info as a newcomer and struggling with reaction time or what, but he's really slow off the snap. For now if Baker goes down it looks like Michael Shummard will have to slide back out which is not a good thing as he is much better on the inside and has struggled on the edge his whole career. Squad player Craig Rashke (#50, 6-5 268, JR) is listed at number two on the official, initial depth chart but it would be an absolute shock if he actually sees time as the number two at LT. (I'd be less surprised if Baron Von Raschke stepped in.)
Right Tackle Heading into the season Lee Grimes (#74, 6-6 309, SR) will be the starter at right tackle. Grimes is 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 (not just in games but in practice where everyday had to be agony for the guy). 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 brings his veteran savvy, skill-set and toughness to the right edge. Pushing Grimes, and more than willing to take over the right tackle spot at some point, will be Stephen Barrera (#64, 6-5 302, FR), 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 grabbed the attention of teammates this summer for his work ethic in the weight room. He had a good camp and of the two freshmen tackles he's more likely to get in there first but just how quickly he develops into a game ready tackle remains to be seen. 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. Until Barrera comes along, Vince Williams (#75, 6-4 302, SR) who covered the position in the spring due to injuries and lack of depth is currently listed as second. 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. As mentioned before, if Baker stays healthy on the other side, I would expect Michael Shummard to assume the role of RT before Williams despite what the depth chart says. Also in the mix will be Jeffrey Hyde (#62, 6-5 307, RS-FR), who in addition to size, strength, footwork, and wingspan is pretty strong in regards to the mental side of the game but has struggled as far to climb the depth chart.
Offensive Guard 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 six if not seven quality players, which even at six, is literally better than what they had across the entire front in 2008. Left Guard Though unlikely, if somehow Danny Baker and Rhontae Scales hold their own at LT and Grimes, Barrera and Williams can hold down RT, Michael Shummard (#76, 6-5 301, SR) 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. Michael has 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. Last August, as a true freshman, Brian Thomas (#71, 6-3 303, RS-FR) 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 guard. This year he will provide depth at left guard. As mentioned before another very possible option for starter at LG if Shummard moves to tackle would be the very impressive and quick study Patrick Lewis (who I detail more in the Center section) taking over starting duties here and Thomas backing him. Right Guard Coaches, insiders and fans are anticipating the on-field maroon and white debut of LSU transfer Matt Allen (#70, 6-2 294, JR), following his mandated 2008 sit out year. With good feet, athleticism and strength Allen will be the starter at RG. He will benefit from what amounted to a red-shirt developmental year and a healthy spring as well as a strong and off-season and a very productive showing in fall camp. Lining up behind Allen, will be Bryan native Evan Eike (#65, 6-4 305, SO). He will bring very high quality depth to RG (he started LG 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 is a sound drive blocker with good feet. Allen and Eike will be backed at the RG spot by an up and comer with excellent size, strength, and smarts Joe Villavisencio (#67, 6-4 300, SO) 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 what is in front of him on the depth chart.