Fall Season Guide 2010 - WR/TE

Fall camp is over and game week is here. Aggie Websider takes a post-fall camp look at each position. Jeffrey Jennings analyzes what to expect with the 2010 wide receiver and tight end corps. Who will replace Jamie McCoy and is a receiver other than Jeff Fuller poised to make a big impact?

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 way. Fast-forward to the present day and 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 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 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 camp with a few good candidates and a lot of question marks, but emerged in great standing.


WR-X

Jeff Fuller enters his junior season at A&M, following a 2009 campaign that saw his momentum slowed by a freak on-field injury in which he fractured his lower leg and missed four games (UAB, Arkansas, OSU, KSU), then being 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. Fuller continued that trend in 2010, stacking a great spring and fall camp (even by his standards). He has greatly improved his blocking downfield, and while he's always been quick off the line, he has really worked on his route running and accelerating out of his cuts. He has great hands, the ability to shake off defenders after a reception, and "simply won't be denied in jump ball situations" using his body like a ten year veteran, leaping over multiple defenders and seemingly making the grab at will. 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, doing his part in getting another potential difference maker up to speed as soon as possible.

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. Brandal was putting together a strong fall camp before going down late in August with a hyper-extended knee. The latest word is that he's walking without a noticeable limp. He may be out early in the season but will no doubt remain a significant contributor, even amongst this talented stable of pass catchers.

Expectedly, Nate Askew was one of the most impressive freshmen in camp. Upon arrival, he immediately made things interesting this summer and earned 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), 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, phenomenal hands, and athleticism that allows him to excel downfield. He is extremely quick off the line and using his enormous steady hands consistently for both routine and acrobatic catches. As mentioned Fuller and Johnson have worked hard with him on route running and he's proved a quick study. He went down with injury about a week and half into fall camp but came back a few days later and never missed a beat. Askew is also showing well as a punt returner. Look for the up and coming playmaker to make his mark on the offense this year, despite the crowded position area.


WR-Z

With this many options at wide receiver there are going to be some battles throughout the season, some more surprising and contentious than others. Most believed that Uzoma 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 Terrence 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). With fall camp in the books, it was neck and neck but the nod for now appears to be going to the incumbent McCoy. Regardless who shakes out as starter, expect significant contributions from both exceptional wideouts.

Last August Terrence McCoy finally began showing the consistency that had 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. Possibly the most improved player on the entire roster, McCoy has quite honestly gone from another "body", to a legitimate playmaker capable of consistently getting behind defenders and making the circus catch when needed. (He might have had the catch of fall camp when he made a move on an under-thrown ball by going around the defenders waist, and making the grab). Terrence has made good use of the weight room and his size and experience has served him well battling defenders off the line, out of breaks, and gaining separation downfield, as he proved masterful at though out fall camp. Coach Sherman summed up his status, "He's fighting for the starting position. . . 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."

Uzoma 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 an amazing vertical, and 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, an often overlooked but highly important trait for a receiver. He stepped up to the plate in a big way during Jeff Fuller's absence in 2009 and is an outstanding compliment to him on the opposite side. As expected, Terrence McCoy's aforementioned surge really inspired Nwachukwu and he definitely kicked it up a notch with a great fall camp but to McCoy's credit, he has given no quarter and looks to have maintained a razor slim lead over EZ. He endured a mild sprain toward the end of camp and given the depth and the competition in the first game, he may well sit out the first contest, but the young playmaker will leave his mark on this offense throughout the season.


Slot WR-Y

Despite the talents of Kenric McNeal, sophomore Ryan Swope's abilities and brilliant off-season has him entrenched as the number one man in the slot. Swope started slow as a freshman, but showed plenty of flashes and steadily increased his production towards the end of the season. While hindered in the early 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 spring drills, he jumped in with both feet and had a 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. In spring and fall camp, he was a top performer. Every day he was out there, routinely making the short catch, breaking the tackle and then letting his blazing speed take over as he flew down the sideline for long touchdowns. In addition to his game-breaking ability, he catches everything, 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.". 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 and has expectedly filled out even more. In addition to the prominent role he'll step into on offense in 2010, he is also a feature return man for the Aggies on kickoffs and really plays that role the right way. Swope gets the ball and doesn't start side-stepping, he fields it aggressively and bursts up field immediately. Ryan has also gotten work at punt returner for the Ags' as well this August and will at the least be on the short list for duties there behind Kenric McNeal and Nate Askew.

While Kenric McNeal will back Swope in the slot, he is another ultra-talented pass catcher that finds himself in a crowded stable, but will likely see lots of action. He has good height and added some good weight and strength recently, really maturing a lot physically heading into his sophomore year. After observing him throughout August, it's apparent that it's served the fearless young man well across the middle of the field, as well as off the line, and on deep routes, as he's playing very physical and using his body much better than last season. McNeal has great speed and once he has the ball, is very elusive in one-on-one situations (like Swope he has dangerous playmaker potential). Kenric has amazing hands, great athleticism, and of all of A&M's receivers, is one of the best at making the acrobatic catch. He's yet another wideout who not only turned heads this spring but also carried the momentum throughout the summer. 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 an option at zebra (that fourth WR slot used in 4-5 wide situations-the spot Ryan Tannehill excels in) he also has gotten a lot of reps at punt returner and appears in the lead for the role there.

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, Tannehill won't be in any three-receiver sets but he will be out there to some extent in four-wide sets. He got some light work here this August, looked sharp as always, and will be ready to contribute when needed.


Tight End

Following injury issues that slowed his progression as a freshman, Hutson Prioleau (6'5"-255) had a very productive off-season (amongst the most improved players on the squad) 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 temperament, 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 as Prioleau is literally the first true tight end he's had to work with entering his third season. He progressed further in August, but suffered a high ankle sprain late in fall camp and may be questionable for the first game. Once recovered, he's set to have a solid season and adds a whole new dimension to an already potent offense.

Converted linebacker Michael Lamothe has really come on at tight end and provides a very solid number two guy here until impressive newcomer Nehemiah Hicks gets his feet under him. While he lacks Hicks athleticism, he has proved a steady and dependable target. With Prioleau possibly missing the first game, Lamothe may well be the number one option early in the season and his fall camp performance has this corner confident that he'll get the job done. In addition to what he brings to the pass catching side, I can see him steadily improving the blocking aspect of his game with time as a former linebacker bringing his physicality to run blocking situations.

Newcomer Nehemiah Hicks will be Coach Sherman's second true tight end when he fully comes on line. Hicks has a big frame and good size for his age, and is going to be really impressive when fully filled out, as he looks the part currently. He has impressed early, but with experience and reps, the young man has a great future when he finds consistency with his large capable hands. When he cleans up his route running, he has good speed and considering his size. Of course he'll need to get his blocking on par with this level of play as well, but he certainly has the foundation to round out both aspects of his game and be a really good one for the Aggies for years to come and quite possibly on Sundays later down the line.

Kenny Brown seemed to have very good momentum as a pass catching tight end in the off-season, but was very silent in fall camp and doesn't seem to be on the radar heading into the season given the fact he's more of a situational tight end and the three candidates ahead of him bring a more well rounded game to the table. That said, he has shown enough backing Jamie McCoy last season and through the off-season, as solid,big target for Johnson across the middle. Tommy Dorman is back at tight end after an experiment that saw hi at linebacker for most of fall camp. The former quarterback has filled out his big frame nicely and looked good in spring and even late in August in the role of pass catching tight end, with good athleticism and hands over the middle.


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 would not 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 several strong options as short to intermediate pass catchers, with the starter being the first pure, complete tight end that the Aggies have fielded in several years. Add to that, a top level quarterback to distribute the ball to them, an offensive line and 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.


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