It's been a long time since Texas A&M had as many pieces in place to contend for Big 12 Conference title as it appears to have coming into this season.
Led by senior quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who just might be the league's best returning signal caller, and a dynamic duo at running back, the Aggies boast some of the deepest and most talented skill position players in the conference.
So just how high are A&M's expectations this season? To find out, HuskersIllustrated.com sat down with AggieYell.com's Brian Perroni to get his thoughts on the Aggies and where they stand coming out of spring practice.
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What's the overall feel for this team coming out of spring ball?
"Last year I think A&M's offense really stepped up. Jerrod Johnson became the first QB in school history to throw for 3,000 yards in a season, and he's returning. Then you have Christine Michael, the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year returning, along with Cyrus Gray in the backfield and then receivers Jeff Fuller and Uzoma Nwachukwu. So with skill positions, Texas A&M is really set. But the offensive line last year was sort of a liability at times, and they lost several guys there.
"The left tackle this spring was a true freshman, Luke Joeckel. He was a Rivals 100 kid who was supposed to be in high school this spring, but he took over the starting left tackle spot. Jake Matthews, the son of Bruce Matthews, will either jump over to right tackle or start at center when he comes in the fall. So they're going to have at least two true freshmen on the offensive line, which is really unproven. The question is can they give Jerrod Johnson enough time to throw and can they make holes for Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray on offense."
Does the fact that A&M is so loaded at the skill positions maybe make up for its inexperience along the offensive line?
"I think so. It's just so much talent. I mean, at receiver, Jeff Fuller was sort of forgotten about last year because he had broken his leg and was out for about five games before he came back, but he's easily the best receiver on the team. In his absence, Uzoma Nwachukwu, who was a true freshman last year, stepped up and made a lot of plays, and he's coming back as a sophomore.
"Ryan Swope got some time as a return man and a little bit of time as a slot receiver. He's a lot like Rex Burkhead, actually. When A&M was evaluating him in high school, they saw a lot of the same stuff. They're both fast and physical and came from winning programs. So like I said, there's a lot of weapons that they're really excited about, so really the offensive line just has to give them a little bit of time. I don't think they're incredibly worried about it. They have enough faith in their offense and defense like they did last year, but that's going to be the big question mark."
There seems to be more and more hype growing for Jerrod Johnson this season, and some are even tabbing him as arguably the best quarterback in the conference at this point. Has he been able to grow as expected this off-season?
"Two years ago watching him before the first year he started, he had an incredibly strong arm. But you'd watch him and you could tell sometimes when he let the ball go even he didn't know where it would go. He was really struggling. He only played one year of quarterback in high school, and before that he was recruited as a tight end and as a basketball player. So he was real raw, but he's completely changed. Last year during the season, you saw he had two or three games with bad interceptions, but other than that he really didn't throw many interceptions at all.
"He's got some poise in the pocket. He's a big guy. People like to compare him to Vince Young because of the size, but he's not a true dual-threat quarterback. He'll tuck it and run, and he had 400 or 500 yards rushing last year, but he's probably the slowest quarterback on the roster. He had off-season shoulder surgery, so he was out most of the spring. He came back the last week and half or so and ended up playing two series' in the spring game. A&M knows what they have with him, so they didn't want to rush him along, but he's a really competitive guy, so he wanted to get in there and actually compete and he sort of forced his way into the spring game."
How about the defense? It seems like A&M has almost just as much talent to work with defensively as the offense does with guys like Von Miller coming back.
"They lost a draft pick in safety Jordan Pugh, but other than that they have almost everybody coming back, including Von Miller, who was the nation's sack leader last year. Under new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter who came over from Air Force, the defense was really impressive against Houston in the bowl game, and they shut Houston's offense down. He came in and brought the 3-4 defense, so that lets Von Miller play more of a natural outside linebacker spot.
"Garrick Williams, who played outside linebacker last year, has really taken to playing one of the inside linebacker spots well this spring, so you have some guys where it seems the 3-4 is a better fit for a team that really was lacking in defensive linemen last year but has some pretty good depth at linebacker. It was a good switch personnel-wise with the new coaching staff."
How much excitement is building down in College Station for what the Aggies might be capable of this season?
"There's a little bit of that, but I mean, the fan base is a little jaded about having Texas every year seemingly making a run at a national championship. Even with the down year last year, Oklahoma handled A&M, and you look at the last four years, A&M hasn't even been in the game against them. But with all the returning starters - it's something like eight guys coming back on both sides of the ball - there's definitely some reason for optimism."
I've been asking everyone this, but how would you describe A&M's situation in the whole conference expansion issue going on the past few weeks?
"It may be premature, but I think most A&M fans have sort of given the Big 12 up for dead. I guess it really depends on what the Big Ten decides to do, but I think most A&M fans are waiting to see what's going to happen next. If you ask A&M fans, they would love to go to the SEC. That was suppose to be the plan before the Big 12 was born, and Texas was going to go to the Pac-10 until Baylor and Texas Tech and the state government got involved. So A&M fans would love to go to the SEC, but there's really no way that A&M and Texas are going to be separated, and Texas does not want to go to the SEC and the SEC does not want Texas, because that would just be adding another powerhouse along with Alabama and LSU and all those guys, and they don't want another powerhouse like that.
"The SEC may have an interest in Texas A&M but none in Texas, so I think the likely scenario would be A&M and Texas joining a Pac-10/Big 12 merger if it comes down to it. That seems to be what we're hearing from the brass higher up. That's not something that the average A&M fan likes, because the match-ups aren't as sexy, I guess you could say, and the start times would be later, but Bill Byrne the athletic director - I guess you guys are familiar with him there - he has ties with Oregon from when he used to work there and he knows a lot of people on the west coast. With the Big 12/Pac-10 basketball (scheduling alliance), it seems like a natural fit, even though geographically it may not make the most sense. If both of those conferences want to survive, then they're going to have to do what they have to do."
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