Aggie fans are like a kid in a candy store. It's the opening day of the 2010 football season with tonight's first practice kicking off the season's festivities. Aggie Websider's David Sandhop takes a look at the six biggest storylines to follow during August practices. The answers discovered in August to these six questions will set the tone for the 2010 season – a season of big expectations for the team and the Aggie faithful.
1) Can defense adjust and improve under DC Tim DeRuyter?
Coach Sherman handpicked Tim DeRuyter in the offseason to remake his struggling 4-3 base defense into an aggressive, quick 3-4 base defense that puts the focus back on linebacker play. DeRuyter guided the Air Force Academy to a Top 10 finish in 2009 and expectations are high for an improvement over the No. 105 national ranking from last season. As we've discussed in previous articles, a BCS conference team will have a hard time winning 8-9 games with anything worse than a Top 60 defense – even if the program has a Top 10 offense. Thus, DeRuyter and the defense must show significant progress in August and fight through the learning curve if the team hopes to have a breakout 2010 season.
2) Will the highly-rated freshman offensive line class contribute immediately?
Sherman has been battling an empty OL pipeline since he arrived over two years ago. The offensive line is the toughest position to restock and it's uncommon to see many true freshmen crack the starting lineup. However, the Aggies landed a monster OL recruiting class in 2010 that included two high school all-Americans in Jake Matthews (son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews) and Luke Joeckel from Arlington (TX). So far, so good. Joeckel was a mid-term graduate and promptly won the important starting left tackle job in the spring. Matthews has impressed in the offseason and he's expected to battle veteran Brian Thomas for the right tackle spot. The Aggies will also need another freshman like Cedric Ogbuehi or Shep Klinke to win a spot in the two-deep to provide depth for a very thin unit. If the freshmen can deliver as hoped, Jerrod Johnson will have more time to make plays, which is something he had little of in 2009.
3) Will Jerrod Johnson's changes to his throwing motion in the offseason improve his performance or cause inconsistency?
While Johnson had a breakout season and has emerged as one of the top five NFL prospects at the quarterback position, he has received criticism for a side arm throwing motion that took a long time to release the ball. In some cases, the slow release hindered his ability to make plays downfield under duress. Thus, he worked hard in the offseason to change to a more upright motion with a quicker release. In theory, that sounds like a significant improvement, but will the recent changes affect his accuracy and effectiveness? That's the big question in August, especially since Johnson missed a bulk of spring practices while rehabilitating his shoulder.
4) Can either Michael Hodges or Kyle Mangan emerge as a physical presence in the middle of the defense at inside linebacker?
A lot went wrong with the 2009 defense that surrendered well over 400 yards per contest. However, in the spring the defensive secondary took a major step forward and the unit is building some quality depth at cornerback. However, questions still remain with the front seven and there's no bigger question than at one of the inside linebacker spots where walk-on Michael Hodges and sophomore Kyle Mangan will battle this fall. Texas A&M must have a playmaking physical presence in the middle to compliment senior Garrick Williams. Hodges has the instincts and seems to be around the ball constantly, but his lack of physical stature hindered him in finishing off some plays. On the other hand, Mangan has the physical tools, but appeared to struggle picking up the ball in run support. So, new linebacker coach Dat Nguyen will be looking to add more physicality to Hodges' game, while building confidence in Mangan's instincts and nose for the ball. If he can achieve improvement at this spot, the defense has a good chance to make that jump into the Top 60.
5) Can the Aggies find a two-deep rotation at the three defensive line spots?
The defensive line front has been a concern in recent years. The Aggies do have a couple of veterans back in Tony Jerod-Eddie and Lucas Patterson that should man the defensive end and nose guard positions respectively. In particular, Patterson had a very good spring and solidified the starting spot in the middle of the defense. Jerod-Eddie has shown flashes of greatness at times, but the staff will be looking for more consistency and more motor on every play.
The Aggies actually have a deep mix of veterans, JUCO transfers, and high school recruits to fill out the other defensive end spot and provide depth. Jonathan Mathis from Blinn will be counted on to contribute along with the return of Ben Bass who was a promising freshman on the team before becoming an academic casualty last season. The bottom line here is that Texas A&M has plenty of bodies competing for playing time. The key this August is for at least four prospects step up and earn playing time in the two-deep rotation. The biggest question is finding a back-up for Patterson at nose guard, where the staff will experiment with former Killeen offensive lineman Rhontae Scales. If the Scales experiment is a success, the defensive line should be good to go in 2010.
6) Can the Aggies improve kicking and punting?
The special teams struggles in 2009 have been well-documented and too numerous to mention here. However, a good portion of the coverage problems were a result of short, low kicks and punts. Finding a kicker that can boom kicks into the end zone consistently and a punter that can get good distance and hang time won't solve all special teams issues, but it's a good start. Incumbent kicker Randy Bullock looked in much better shape in the spring and the improvement in his kickoffs was clearly noticeable. So there's hope that performance will carry over to the fall.
Unfortunately, an answer for the punting in the spring was not so clear. Returning co-starters Ken Wood and Ryan Epperson are back in 2010. Blinn all-American Jared Jaroszewski graduated early and participated in spring practices but did not appear to separate from the veterans. The staff also invited Butler CC punter/kicker Logan Ortiz to fall camp and will join the battle. So four punters will be competing for the starting job, and the goal is to improve in last year's anemic 35.5 yards/punt and a 33 yard net average. That translated into losing five yards per every punt attempt or the sum of three football fields over the course of a season, something that must change if the Aggies expect a breakout season.
Top Storylines in August Camp
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