Fall Camp Guide 2010: Receivers/Tight Ends

Texas A&M boasts one of the nations premiere receiving stables in the nation. This year they have the benefit of invaluable on-field experience and a long off-season spent complimenting their physical attributes. They've polished the finer points of their games and are perfecting the timing of their routes. Jeffrey Jennings of Aggie Websider brings you this edition of 2010's fall camp preview.

What a difference a year makes. Last season, the new faces at wide receiver didn't disappoint as they rapidly worked through their growing pains, stepped up, and contributed heavily to A&M's 16th ranked passing offense. However, given their thin veteran ranks heading into fall camp last August, the Aggies were all in on the newcomers and it was by no means a done deal that it would turn out that well. Fast-forward to the present day on the eve of 2010's fall camp. Texas A&M boasts one of the nations premiere receiving stables in the nation. This year they have the benefit of invaluable on-field experience and a long off-season spent complimenting their physical attributes. They've polished the finer points of their games and are perfecting the timing of their routes (as strongly demanded by the staff throughout the spring). Considering the playmakers and future NFL talent starting (and even backing in some cases), versatile role players, and high quality depth (not to mention one of the nations premiere quarterbacks to maximize their efforts) and it's by no means a stretch to see this unit as one of the most dangerous in the conference and the country.

In this piece we'll take a hard look at A&M's elite, deep, crowded and competitive pass catching corps, which boasts six to eight highly productive options (one of which who is good enough to basically make a play and potentially take over a game at will). We'll also take a look at the new arrivals to that group, and preview the Ags' up and coming crop of tight ends, who entered spring camp with a few good candidates and a lot of question marks, but emerged in great standing as they look to replace a very productive Jamie McCoy.

WR-X

One of the few givens at starter in this crowded pack is Jeff Fuller, who enters his junior season at A&M (hopefully not his last as he'll be draft eligible if he so chooses). In 2009 his momentum was slowed by a freak on-field injury in which he fractured his lower leg and missed four games (UAB, Arkansas, OSU, KSU). He was eased back into things before rapidly bursting back onto the scene against the University of Texas, when he hauled in a 70-yard touchdown reception on the opening drive. Fuller continued those efforts with a 100-yard plus game against Georgia in the Independence Bowl. Given the time he was out and his limited role coming back, his numbers weren't stellar but still impressive considering the nature of the injury (41 catches in 9 games for 568 yards, and seven touchdowns). Perhaps more than his considerable talents, the most admirable thing about Jeff is his work ethic and taking every off-season as a personal mission to be the best. He's always been quick off the line, has great hands, the ability to shake off defenders after a reception, leaping over multiple defenders and making the grab. Everyone who followed spring ball heard or witnessed him dominating camp but it was still very surprising to hear Coach Sherman say, "Fuller was the most improved player in camp." He continued, " . . .despite what the fans thought. . .he left too much potential on the field in regard to blocking downfield and running crisp routes, and now knows how to use his body when going for the ball . . ." . In addition to the blue chip talent and blue collar approach, he's proved to be a good leader and mentor as well, taking the young and very promising Nate Askew (who I'll detail later) under his wing (along with Jerrod Johnson) and is doing his part in getting another potential difference maker up to speed as soon as possible.

Backing Jeff Fuller at wideout on the left side are two strong candidates, Brandal Jackson, an ultra-athletic sophomore, and the aforementioned Nate Askew, a new arrival who truly has big time potential, quickly turned heads this summer, and is expected by all to step in and make a significant splash this season despite the caliber and numbers at the position area.

Brandal Jackson is one of the four youngsters that hit the ground running and provided immediate reinforcement and quality depth for the receiving corps in 2009. On the season, he racked up sixteen total grabs for 272 yards (17 ypr average), with a long of 60 yards and a touchdown, and his best game coming in his 4th outing (vs. Arkansas), where he made four grabs for 118 yards and one touchdown. Not earth shattering but solid for a freshman in an offense that sees a fairly equitable ball distribution. The talented pass catcher has good height and a vertical to match. Brandal's 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. He is also an effective blocker, a smooth route runner, has great hands, and once he makes a catch can be very dangerous in the open field. Jackson had a solid and productive spring and also saw some time on the right side (WR-Z) in a temporary move to motivate some wide-outs, give them a taste and feel for the different spots, and to find a way to get guys on the field. The only hitch I've heard in his development are reports that he is a bit out of shape this summer and is simply not where the staff would like him physically. They expect a lot out of Brandal and motivating him to get in better condition shouldn't be much of a problem given the competition here.

Outstanding freshman Nate Askew's arrival has, not so unexpectedly, made things interesting this summer and earned him a lot of attention and respect from teammates. For now he'll be backing Fuller on the left side but the versatile youngster could find himself on either side, the slot and even in tight as enormous as he is for his receiving talents. Knowing this staff and given his speed in learning, I wouldn't be surprised in the least if he ended up not just seeing time but contributing at several spots, despite the depth already in place. Aiding him is an arsenal of physical attributes and abilities. At 6'3"-220 (10% body fat) he originally wanted to get down to about 220 but his speed is great so he may stay there. His height, build and leaping ability make him a great red zone weapon (a nice common trait amongst most of our wide-outs for that matter) but he also has great speed, large-phenomenal hands, and athleticism that allows him to excel downfield. As mentioned Fuller and Johnson have worked hard with him on route running and he's proved a quick study. Once he's learned his routes he'll get a lot of playing time and again, once on the field this young man will make an impact.

WR-Z

With this many options at wide receiver there are going to be some battles, some more surprising and contentious than others. Most corners believed that Uzoma "EZ" Nwachukwu pretty much had a lock on his side of the field after a brilliant freshman campaign but the all around off-season efforts of Terrance McCoy changed that, as he emerged from spring camp as the starter. McCoy provides further evidence of just how deep this unit is, and his spring has set up a great battle in August. (A beneficial one at that, as McCoy pushes the talented youngster to step up his game). Regardless who shakes out as starter, expect significant contributions from both.

"EZ" Nwachukwu burst onto the scene in his second college game, when he racked up 101 yards and three touchdowns on three receptions against Utah State. While he obviously didn't maintain that ridiculous reception/touchdown ratio, Nwachukwu put up 40 receptions for 708 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 54.5 yards per game. He has great athleticism, steady hands, as well as the ability to go up and make the big grabs. Something not often mentioned, but equally if not more important than his speed and quickness, and that is stopping fast, which "EZ" also does remarkably well in running his routes, going really fast in and out of cuts and breaks. In addition, he is not only a willing but an able and proven blocker as well, a rare but highly important trait for a receiver at this stage of his career. He stepped up to the plate in a big way during Jeff Fuller's absence and is an outstanding compliment to him on the opposite side. Again watch for a young playmaker highly motivated in elevating his already impressive game during a healthy positional battle.

Last August Terrance McCoy finally began showing the consistency that had to date been his big holdup and kept him from getting a jump on the impressive 2009 freshman, receiving crop that arrived last summer. He had a quiet season but really took his slipping status in the ranks to heart, came on extremely strong this spring and emerged as a go-to-target and starter by camps end. McCoy also made good use of the weight room and his size should serve him well battling defenders off the line, out of breaks, and in going up for balls downfield. Coach Sherman summed up his current status well in the post spring press conference, "He's fighting for the starting position and at this point, he's ahead. If he wants to keep it, he's going to have to keep working because he's got guys breathing down his neck. . . He got beat out last year and came back with an attitude that he wasn't going to get beat out this year. Actually, he's come back to win the job. . .He's been blocking real well and catching every ball we've thrown him. . .He's just playing different. . .He's just growing up. He's finding his clock is ticking, it's time to make a move and he's making it." Regardless who comes out on top of his battle with "EZ", we've got two great options here and they'll both contribute.

Slot WR-Y

Heading into August as one of the handful of givens at starter is sophomore Ryan Swope. He started slow as a freshman but showed plenty of flashes and steadily increased his production towards the end of the season. While slowed in the off-season with a back injury (suffered during an Independence Bowl game he was performing well in) and not able to really get out there until about a week into drills, he jumped in with both feet and had a brilliant break out spring session, proving himself as a strait up playmaker. He's now set to be the primary target out of the slot and will be a threat to rack up tons of YAC yards as he's deadly in the open field. The former halfback is by no means shy of contact and can run through tackles just as well as he can dart around them. As Websider reported in April, "This spring he routinely made the short catch, broke the tackle and then let his blazing speed take over as he flew down the sideline for long touchdowns." In addition, he has great hands and is very quick and explosive out of his breaks and while he excels at short routes he is also a big threat down the field. A versatile athlete, the staff initially planned to use him out of the backfield but once they saw what they had, moved him to the slot for good. That said, Sherman has stated, "They will try to get Swope the ball as much as they can as he's a real playmaker for this team.". Without reading too much into that, it's not an absolute but I wouldn't be surprised in the least to see him get the ball out of the backfield in special situations. In addition he is also a feature return man for the Aggies on kickoffs and really plays that role the right way. He gets the ball and doesn't start sidestepping. He fields it and aggressively and bursts up field immediately. He'll get a look at punt returner for the Ags' as well this August. The Wes Welker comparisons get overdone in my opinion and placed on every versatile white wide receiver that's dangerous in space. It's been placed on him and he fits the bill I suppose, but Swope also brings a much taller and sturdier frame and strength to the table, arriving last summer as a very well put together athlete for his age.

Backing Swope in the slot, but not far behind and likely to see lots of action will be Kenric McNeal. He has good height and added some good weight recently, really maturing a lot physically heading into his sophomore year. That should serve the fearless young man well across the middle of the field, as well as off the line, and on deep routes. McNeal has great speed and once he has the ball he is very elusive in one-on-one situations (like Ryan he can be a dangerous playmaker). Kenric has amazing hands, great athleticism, and of all our receivers is one of the best at making the acrobatic catch. He's yet another receiver who not only turned heads this spring but also carried the momentum into the summer team workouts. Not a staff to let talent sit idle, they've given him work in lots of places to get him involved. In addition to being a good option at zebra (that fourth WR slot used in 4-5 wide situations-the spot Ryan Tannehill excels in) he also got some interesting (and successful) looks lined up in the backfield and a lot of reps as a punt returner (where he'll continue to audition this August).

I mentioned Ryan Tannehill's unique but well-known WR situation in the QB's piece but I'll review it here as well. He set an A&M freshman record at receiver (after only moving to the position weeks before the 2008 season) in receptions and receiving yards (55 grabs/844 yards/5 TD's) in a move to infuse much needed talent at the time. Given the increased profile at receiver, and the fact he was the only other viable quarterback option, it was uncertain just how Ryan would be utilized heading into the 2009 season, but coaches soon proved he would be used a good deal and it was a worthwhile gamble as he added 46 receptions, 609 yards (47 ypg), and four touchdowns to the Aggie's offensive efforts. This season it's unlikely that he'll see much action at wide receiver other than specialty or third down situations. I made that assertion last year and the coaches just couldn't stand to let his talents waste away on the sideline, but they've indicated a bit more hesitancy this time around. Sherman has directly stated however, that due to the progression of Swope and McNeal in the slot, that Tannehill won't be in any three-receiver sets but he will be out there to some extent in four-wide sets.

Potential Wide Receivers

Athlete Lakendrick Williams (5' 9" 165) has impressive speed and can make defenders look silly in space with his jukes. If he sees time at receiver, he'll need to clean up his technique but until then he's got a good shot to make an immediate impact on special teams, namely on punt returns (Where he's already drawn comparisons to Dante Hall-warranted or not it gives an idea of just how dangerous he is in the open field). He has gotten some looks on defense this summer and reportedly frustrated Ryan Swope in some one on one drills so he could eventually play on that side of the ball as a nickel but given his size and Sherman's aversion to small corners, I think he'll stay on this side of the ball, at least for now. Another freshman Malcome Kennedy is a sound route runner, a very physical receiver and one that has a real knack on going up for the jump ball. Given the challenge of earning playing time over the likes of Swope and McNeal, and the thin numbers safety, he'll be getting his first look on defense. He is excited about the move, as it's a good fit for him and provides the best chance to see early playing time. It would be optimal for A&M if Kennedy takes to safety, but he may well end up back on offense so he garners a mention here. If so, it's safe to say his contribution to the position would be at least a year away.

Tight End

Following lingering injury issues that slowed his progression as a freshman, Huston Prioleau (6'5"-255) had a very productive off-season and his well rounded skill set at the position has placed him atop the depth. Though McCoy improved his blocking significantly, he still wasn't a pure, balanced tight end and for the first time since the departure of Martellus Bennett, A&M has TE that is capable of keeping defenses honest. Prioleau is a sound blocker who moves defensive ends off the ball very effectively with good footwork, hand technique and those efforts are aided by his temperment, as he plays mean and loves contact. He started slow with the receiving side of the game, but has improved significantly, catching everything thrown his way, and running well after making the grab. Huston has not only locked up the starting job here, but played a large part in making TE one of the most improved positions on the team. Those familiar with Coach Sherman's NFL tenure know he loves to utilize the position but he has been limited with one-dimensional guys so far, and has to be thrilled with this development.

Given that praise for Prioleau and balanced tight ends, I must emphasize that A&M can still put quality pass catching tight ends to good use as they have proved the past two seasons, making it a very productive position. Kenny Brown is perfect in line that role. After being moved around several times through the years, Brown had a very productive camp for himself last August (as a quality pass catching TE) and backed Jamie McCoy in 2009. His attitude, work ethic and consistently intense efforts on special teams have really raised his stock in the eyes of his coaches. Couple that with his length, reach, intensity, propensity for contact, and he has the potential for his blocking to improve on a level comparable with Jamie McCoy (still not a pure TE but decently balanced). Likewise Tommy Dorman is also proving to be a great pass catching TE option. The recently moved quarterback has filled out his big frame nicely, and definitely has proven he is a legitimate option with a bright future at the position. Former linebacker Michael Lamothe may be called in some here (and at FB) to use his physicality in run blocking situations. Winston Gamso has also been working out at TE.

Overall WR/TE

A&M's skill positions are chuck full of talent and our pass catchers are obviously no exception. It's not just lip service when I say that I honestly wouldn't trade this receiving corps for any in the nation. They are long on elite talent, depth, and the competition amongst all of them should elevate each of their individual and collective games. At tight end the Ags' have three strong options as short to intermediate pass catchers, with the starter being the first pure, complete TE they have fielded in several years. Add to that, a top level quarterback to distribute the ball to them, an offensive line/running game to take the pressure off and open up the field and it's really exciting to think about what this group is about to do for the team this season.


Aggie Digest Top Stories