It's the tale of two seasons for the Texas A&M Aggies. One month ago, the Aggies had lost three games in a row, and were sitting at 3-3 on the season. But against Kansas, Mike Sherman experimented by moving Ryan Tannehill back to quarterback from wide receiver, sending preseason all-Big XII quarterback Jerrod Johnson to the bench.
And BOOM went the Aggies offense. Since then, the Aggies have won four straight, punctuated by a 33-19 upset of Oklahoma two weeks ago. All this despite losing running back Christine Michael to a broken leg. Cyrus Gray has picked up the load at running back with four straight 100-yard performances. Last week, he scored four touchdowns in the Aggies 42-30 comeback victory against Baylor. As expected, wide receivers Jeff Fuller and Ryan Swope lead the Aggies receiving corps, each with 61 catches this season and combining for 15 touchdowns (11 for Fuller).
The Aggie defense isn't back to "Wrecking Crew" level just yet, but they're significantly improved from last season. Linebacker Michael Hodges leads the Aggies in tackles with 84 this season. Von Miller is having a quieter season, but still is a playmaker, earning conference player of the week honors for his performance against Baylor last week. Trent Hunter leads the secondary with 45 tackles, but watch out for Dustin Harris and Coryell Judie who each have three interceptions.
Certainly this game looks a lot more challenging for the Huskers to me now than it did one month ago, let alone last summer. The Aggies offense is hitting on all cylinders, and the defense is playing better. This matchup seems to be similar to Oklahoma State, though the Cowboys seem to be stronger across the board than the Aggies. The difference maker might be the health of quarterback Taylor Martinez. If Martinez is closer to full speed than he was last week, this is a game Nebraska should win, provided they play as we expect them to play on the road.
After the jump, a look back at our preseason preview of the Aggies.
Texas A&M is a bit of an enigma to me. Many pundits are expecting big things from the Aggies this sesaon, based on their late sesaon performances. I've even seen several predictions that A&M will defeat Nebraska in this game. But this is still a team that finished sub-.500 last season and got blown out by Kansas State. For all of the offensive success in 2009, the defense was simply awful. Last in the Big XII in yards and points allowed. So enter new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who's switching the defense to a 3-4 alignment to take advantage of the athleticism on the team.
Will that be enough to turn the Aggies into contenders in the Big XII South? With Texas needing a new quarterback plus Oklahoma State and Texas Tech shaking up their coaching staffs, there might be an opening here for the the Aggies to make a push.
On offense, it all starts with senior quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who's picked by many as the preseason all-Big XII quarterback. The similarities between Johnson and former Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman are numerous. Big, strong, and fast, he has all the measurables that coaches dream of, except for the most important metric of all: victories. That didn't stop Freeman from becoming a first round NFL draft pick, and it's likely not going to keep NFL scouts from keeping a close eye on Johnson this season. Johnson finished third in the nation in total offense last season, completing 60% of his passes for 3,579 yards and 39 touchdowns. Add in 506 yards and eight more touchdowns on the ground, and you've got the prototypical dual threat quarterback that defensive coordinators absolutely hate. One concern with Johnson is his shoulder; he isn't 100% recovered from offseason surgery.
The Aggies replaced the tandem of Jovorskie Lane and Michael Goodson with another tandem: Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray. Michael who rushed for 844 yards and ten touchdowns last season as a freshman. Laugh at his name all you want; he's got the game. Gray is a multi-dimensional threat. He rushed for 757 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, and caught 28 passes for 226 yards and two touchowns. He also averaged 24 yards on kickoff returns, including a touchdown against Colorado.
You can't have a prolific passing game without quality receivers, and A&M has a nice corp. Junior Jeff Fuller caught 47 passes last season despite missing nearly half the season due to a broken leg. At 6'4" and 215 pounds, he's got the size to wreak havor in the secondary. Backup quarterback Ryan Tannehill saw the field last season at receiver, catching 46 passes for 609 yards and four touchdowns. As long as Johnson stays healthy (there are concerns about his shoulder), Tannehill and his 6'4" body should stay at receiver. Sophomore Ryan Swope came on strong late in the season used his state champion track speed to burn defenses. Sophomore Uzoma Nwachukwu is no slouch in the speed department either; he caught 40 passes for 708 yards and six touchdowns last year, but it appears that senior Terrence McCoy surged ahead of him with a strong spring to nail the starting position as slot receiver. That hard work also resulted in being named one of the team captains.
The biggest questions on offense are up front, where the Aggies need to replace both tackles. The Aggies are counting on true freshman Luke Joeckel to start immediately after a successful spring practice facing off against all-American defensive end/linebacker Von Miller. Sophomore Brian Thomas played a little last season, but is expected to start at right tackle. Junior left guard Evan Eike is a two year starter, and should be the anchor of the line.
In order for DeRuyter's 3-4 defense to work, the defensive line is going to need to improve significantly. In the middle, look for senior Lucas Patterson and junior Eddie Brown to share the load here. Patterson had a strong spring practice while Brown was recovering from shoulder surgery. On the ends, sophomore Spencer Nealy and junior Tony Jerrod-Eddie should be the starters. Nealy is a little undersized for the line at 6'5" and 245 lbs, but he's got the athletic ability to go wide and possibly burst past an offensive lineman. The 300 lb. Jerrod-Eddie is at the other extreme; big enough to engage the lineman, and hopefully has enough speed to chase down running backs on the edge.
The 3-4 alignment moves all-American defensive end Von Miller up to the hybrid "Joker" position which should free him up to make plays. Miller led the nation in sacks last season with 17, but his production waned late in the season as defenses schemed against him. He'll line up opposite sophomore Sean Porter, who had 42 tackles and four tackles for a loss last season. He's got safety size and speed, but hits like a linebacker, and with a year's experience, should be even better. On the inside, the Aggies will look to junior Garrick Williams and senior Michael Hodges to soak up the middle of the field. If not, sophomore Kyle Mangan could get the nod if he's finally adjusted to the speed of the college game. The 3-4 scheme is going to be dependent on linebackers making plays, and if Miller is the only star that emerges this season, it could be another long season in College Station.
The secondary was porous last season, and will need to replace Jordan Pugh, who was drafted in the sixth round by the Carolina Panthers. Trent Hunter, the Aggies leading tackler last season, returns for his junior season. He's a solid tackler, but like much of the rest of the secondary, leaves a lot to be desired in pass coverage. The Aggies hope that sophomore cornerback Dustin Harris continues to improve; he could be the key to finding some sort of pass defense.
Truth be told, I've never been sold on Mike Sherman at Texas A&M ever since I heard Tim Cassidy claim that Sherman looked towards Bill Callahan as the model of how to move from the NFL back to college. Cassidy, who left A&M for Nebraska during the Callahan Clusterfool, returned to A&M along with several other members of that now disgraced staff. Defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt, who directed Ndamukong Suh to be a speed bump for the USC offensive line in 2007, spent two years at A&M before joining Turner Gill's staff in Kansas this spring. Running backs coach Randy Jordan, who seemed to mishandle Cody Glenn and Brandon Jackson throughout their careers, is now in his third season in College Station. Dave Kennedy, the strength and conditioning coach who supersized Huskers like Phillip Dillard into big, slow players without football speed is now plying his trade in College Station. I also can't forget Zac Taylor, the former Husker quarterback who went from nearly losing his first start against 1-AA Maine as a junior to being Big XII offensive player of the year in 2006.
I'm not the only one. Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald hears Bill Callahan every time Sherman speaks. Dr. Saturday rated Sherman #8 of the list of biggest NFL-back-to-college busts. Pete Fiutak of CollegeFootballNews.com listed Sherman third on the hot-seat list in the Big XII. (Sorry Coach Beergut.) But if the young talent develops at A&M like Aggie fans think, all this will be forgotten.