Aggies Hope New Year Will Erase '03 Hangover

It's Year Two A.D. (After Dennis) in Aggieland. No one expected coach Dennis Franchione's first year to be a cakewalk, but few expected the program to stagger to a 4-8 mark that incuded historic losses to Oklahoma and Texas Tech. Coach Fran took time from the annual booster club Fish Fry circuit to speak to sports writers and broadcasters at the Big 12 Media days in Kansas City Wednesday. But will the head Aggie go straight from the frying pan and into the fire in 2004?

Outside of Texas coach Mack Brown, Franchione will be the most scrutinized in the Big 12 coach this season. Aggies, much like their counterparts in Austin and Norman, expect to win -- and win big, and win now. And wins over Baylor and Kansas, A&M's only two in conference play, simply doesn't cut in Aggieland. That's why Franchione is spending his summer vacation swallowing the fish, while swallowing just a little bit of crow, at various Aggie hotspots to reassure the faithful that everything's going to be okay.

"There was obviously great excitment and enthusiasm when I came in," Franchione said, "and certainly we were, too. But somewhere between that becomes reality. Maybe with the reality is hopefully some comfort (among Aggies) that, 'Hey, Coach Fran has done this before and we've seen his track record. We know he can do it, and that he's the guy to do it.' I would hope that that's what they would say."

At least, that is what the Aggie media guide is trying to say. Other than some occasionally outstanding individual performances from a handful of Aggie players, there wasn't much to whoooop about in College Station last season. The A&M spin doctors are touting Franchione's history of reviving programs at places like Alabama and TCU in "before and after" fashion. Translated: last season was "before", even though a good many Aggies continue to experience a morning "after" effect following the program's worst season since 1980.

"You don't ever block it out and forget about it," junior FS Jaxson Appel said. "You have to remember it happened to make sure it never happens again. When it's 115 degrees outside and you're running, you think about how bad you felt when you lost 77-0 (to Oklahoma) and how how bad you feel right now."

By early October, the mounting losses had begun to take their toll on Franchione. Following successive setbacks to Pitt and Virginia Tech, A&M gave up what was then the most points in school history in a 59-28 loss at Texas Tech. Shortly thereafter, Franchione found himself venting to his wife at supper one night.

"I was eating and she was letting me vent some frustrations of Year One," Franchione recalled. "I was talking about how difficult it is to put things in place and the things you go through. She reminded me that, hopefully, this was my last Year One and I won't have to go through it again."

Adding to the winter of A&M's discontent was the distraction of nine Aggies running afoul of the law as well as those whom Franchione ran out of the program.

"We had some guys who didn't necesarily believe in what Coach Fran was trying to do," Appel said. "Coach Fran recognized this and dealt with it in the manner that he felt was best for the team. We didn't play together well as a team last year. I bought into Coach Fran the first day he came. He knows a lot more about football than I do. My position coach just told me to be a good little soldier and do what I'm told. It's his world; I'm just living in it."

The Aggies will be better in 2004, Franchione insists, even though the schedule is doing them few favors. In the season's opening month, the Farmers face three teams ranked in the pre-season Top 25 (Utah, Clemson, Kansas State).

"We'll find out a lot about ourselves in September," Franchione said.

It's still mind-boggling for old schoolers that A&M's most critical area for improvement has become its run defense. Just a few years ago, the Wrecking Crew was formidible enough to win nine or ten games annually on its own. These days, the defensive crew is more wrecked than wrecking. The Farmers finished dead last in the Big 12 (NCAA No. 112) after surrendering 225 yards rushing per outing. You know your defense is in a world of hurt when your sophomore free safety (Appel) not only led the team in tackles but also set the school record for most tackles by a defensive back with 135. All told, the Aggie defense finished 2003 ranked No. 96 nationally after yielding 431.5 ypg.

"Defensively, we can improve in every area," Franchione said, puting it mildly, "and I think we will improve in every area."

Meanwhile, the Aggies produced more turnovers than Betty Crocker last season, including six give-aways on special teams. "Historically, my teams are not like that," Franchione said. "At the end of the year, I thought about putting two people back there to catch punts; one to catch it and one to recover the fumble."

WR Terrence Murphy was the good-hands person on special teams and is a go-the-distance threat every time he touches the ball. The senior earned first-team All-Big 12 honors as a KO returnman after leading the league with a 27.2 average. He also led the team in receptions (44) and receiving yards (762) last year. Murphy is convinced the best is yet to come under Fran's watch.

"Coach Fran came in last spring and we didn't know how to practice," Murphy said. "It's easier now that we've got two years under our belts. Now everyone understands better what they're supposed to do. We're ready to play."

True freshmen and walk-ons played last year, whether they were ready or not. Now, Franchione is counting on an infusion of JC transfers and redshirt freshmen to step up and bolster his squad.

"I don't think our redshirts would have made a big difference last year," Franchione said, "but I think they will make a big difference as we move forward. We never, as coaches, got as close to that (lifting redshirts) as media and fans asked about it."

The good news for Aggies is that the team is now another year older and wiser on both sides of the ball. Still, the "good little soldiers" will need to learn to crawl before they learn to march. The offensive two-deep chart, for example, still consists of 12 freshmen and sophomores. There are 11 freshmen and sophomores listed on the defensive charts as well.

There is also a chance that a freshman will log some snaps at starting QB. True freshman Stephen McGee (Texas WR Jordan Shipley's QB at Burnet) needs to be ready to play, now that former Aggie QB Dustin Long has transferred and QB Reggie McNeal missed all of spring ball following shoulder surgery. Murphy and McNeal started throwing the day after A&M's Spring Game. They continue to meet twice daily in volunteer sessions.

Franchione said he has "no concern whatsoever" about McNeal's full recovery. Still, those who have seen the talented signal-caller can attest that he is as elusive as he is erratic.

"Reggie has matured more," Murphy said. "He watches a lot of film and has gotten better at running the offense. He's making better decisions. I would say decision-making has been his biggest area of improvement."

(Considering McNeal missed the entire spring season, his decision-making probably looks outstanding when he's out there playng pass-and-catch with Murphy.)

Bottom line: the best thing about Year Two at Texas A&M is that it isn't Year One. The Aggies will probably beat a team they shouldn't, but they'll have to grow up in a hurry and over-achieve to win six games this season and become bowl-eligible. (Can you find six wins on their schedule?) Even so, Franchione is convinced last season was the exception rather than the norm for the Aggie faithful -- at least on his watch.

"Year two is much easier than year one," Franchione said. "Having done enough year ones in my life, I knew it would be that way. The second year is easier because the system is in place, we've been through two spring practices, coaches know players and their abilities better, and players know coaches and have a better understanding of our expectations."

This won't be the year for A&M. But it won't be like last year, either.

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