Monday, August 29, 2011

Debriefing: Texas A&M takes its last, best shot at the Big 12

The least you should know about the 2011 Aggies. Part of Big 12 Week.

? The Aggie Miracle. Depending on who you ask this summer, Ryan Tannehill may be the first senior quarterback off the board in next April's NFL Draft, quite possibly in the first round. And all it took was for the scouts to actually watch him play quarterback: After Tannehill moved from receiver to take the reins from senior Jerrod Johnson at midseason, A&M snapped a three-game slide with six straight wins, including home upsets over Oklahoma and Nebraska and a season-ending triumph at Texas. It was the best run in College Station in more than a decade, and after two losing seasons and a 3-3 start in year three, may have saved Mike Sherman's bacon as the Aggies' head coach.

At the same time, though, the spotlight down the stretch belonged at least as much to tailback Cyrus Gray, another late bloomer who stole the show with seven consecutive 100-yard games on the ground after taking over for injured starter Christine Michael. Without the ground game at his disposal, Tannehill's not going to scare many defenses with his arm, especially the better ones ?�he only connected on one completion last year that covered at least 40 yards, and that was courtesy of a badly blown coverage by Oklahoma. Otherwise, the Aggies' passing game beyond 20 yards downfield relies mostly on NFL-bound receiver Jeff Fuller winning one-on-one match-ups against smaller corners, and will rely heavily on Gray and Michael to remain viable.

? Frontin'. All of the above, of course, depends heavily on the offensive line, which is on the verge of completing its transformation from one of the woebegone fronts in the Big 12 to one of the most dominant thanks to a pair of sophomore tackles, Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Joeckel, a borderline five-star recruit, came in for the full gamut of Freshman All-America honors after starting every game at left tackle, and picked up at least one vote from Big 12 coaches as the league's Offensive Lineman of the Year; Matthews, an equally hyped recruit, joined Joeckel as an honorable mention all-conference pick after starting the last seven.

Granted, the pass protection at times left a lot to be desired. But it clearly improved after the midseason overhaul that moved Tanneyhill, Gray and Matthews into the starting lineup, and with three veteran starters back on the interior line, the Aggies should again be able to pound out a consistent living on the ground.

? DeRuyter delivers. As much attention was lavished on All-American, Butkus Award-winning, first round-bound linebacker Von Miller, the most important name on the defense resided on the sideline: Under first-year coordinator Tim DeRuyter, the Aggie D leapt from 105th nationally in both total and scoring defense in 2009 ?�dead last in the Big 12 on both counts ?�to 55th and 34th, respectively, improving scoring defense by more than 11 points per game. Eight returning starters from that group are on hand again.

Still, the best of the bunch this fall may not even come from those ranks. Even en route to every accolade under the sun, Von Miller wasn't good enough to keep coaches from saving a few reps per game for true freshman Damontre Moore, who defied his middling recruiting marks by racking up 40 tackles and 5.5 sacks without a single start to his name. With Miller now en route to millions from the Denver Broncos, the only roadblock to Moore's taking over the "Joker" position ? a Lawrence Taylor-inspired defensive end/outside linebacker gig that generates most of the heat on opposing quarterbacks ?�on a full-time basis is an early morning marijuana arrest in June that could put him in the doghouse indefinitely. As long as he's on the field, though, the pass rush isn't going anywhere.

? Long way to the top. In addition to the midseason turnaround and the 19 returning starters, the schedule inspires confidence, too, keeping A&M out of any particularly hostile territory until a Nov. 5 trip to Oklahoma. If the Aggies get past early tests against Oklahoma State (in College Station) and Arkansas (in Dallas) on consecutive weekends, they could very well go into Norman at 8-0 with visions of a national championship run dancing in their heads.

That's a long way from the hot seat on which Mike Sherman allegedly resided last year, on the heels of back-to-back losing records in his first two seasons. The Aggies are starting out in top 10 of both the Associated Press and Coaches' polls for the first time since 1999. If they finish there, it will be for the first time since 1994, as kingpins of the old Southwest Conference. If they land a BCS bid, it will be their first since the Series' first year of existence, back in 1998. If the preseason punditry is right, in other words, this shapes up as the best edition of Texas A&M since the SWC folded 15 years ago, and the first edition in that span that even figures to threaten to emerge in the national consciousness. With their pending defection to the SEC promising more hard times ahead, that's an awful lot of goodwill to waste if they can't deliver on the opportunity.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.


Chris Johnson Chris Snee Darnell Dockett Donald Penn

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