Big 12 spring practice preview: Texas A&M

Texas A&M Aggies
2009: 6-7 (3-5)

Texas A&M began spring practice March 23 without star quarterback Jerrod Johnson directing the first team, as the senior is recovering from minor surgery on his throwing shoulder after the team’s Independence Bowl loss to Georgia. Junior Ryan Tannehill will take the snaps with the starting unit while Johnson works with three early enrollee signal-callers — Clay Honeycutt, Matt Joekel and Jamiell Showers — who will be competing for third-string duty. While Johnson will be limited in his throwing early in spring drills, head coach Mike Sherman is hopeful the QB will be able to participate more fully by the Maroon & White game on April 17.

Arguably the Big 12’s top returning quarterback, Johnson directed an offense that ranked fifth nationally in 2009 and returns its core skill players in the fall. The signal-caller set school records in touchdowns, yards, completions and total offense in ’09. And while his play may have leveled off as the conference season progressed — he had averaged over 315 yards in the first five games of ’09 with 14 touchdowns and no interceptions — he managed to throw for 342 yards and four scores against rival Texas, which had the No. 3 defense in the nation. He then closed out the ’09 season with a 362-yard, two-touchdown effort in the bowl game to end the year with 3,579 passing yards and 30 touchdowns. If Johnson can lead A&M to an early road victory at Oklahoma State and play well against Arkansas at Cowboys Stadium in the fall, Johnson could position himself on the Heisman Trophy radar.

At running back, sophomore Christine Michael and junior Cyrus Gray top the Aggies depth chart, which is the primary reason junior Bradley Stephens has temporarily moved to safety. Sherman wants the 5-10, 200-pounder to get on the field more and will decide after a few weeks whether the change will be permanent. Michael carried the ball 166 times in his freshman season, and the heralded recruit ran for 844 yards and 10 scores. Gray, meanwhile, racked up 757 yards on 159 attempts and added five scores. No matter which back carries the rock, both possess big-play ability for this offense.

A&M also returns its top three receivers from last season, and all of them had at least 40 receptions, including Tannehill — Johnson’s backup at quarterback. Uzoma Nwachukwu was one of a school-record 17 true freshmen used by Sherman last season, and he led Aggies receivers with 708 yards, while Jeff Fuller added seven touchdowns. Sophomores Ryan Swope and Kenric McNeal have also shown flashes of development in the first few practices this spring.

While we know the offense is in good hands with Johnson, all eyes will be on the Aggies’ defense this spring. New defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter will be installing the 3-4 after A&M finished outside the top 100 in total defense the last two seasons. In ’09, the team finished last in the Big 12 in both yards and points allowed. Meanwhile, DeRuyter led Air Force’s defense last season, and the Falcons finished 11th nationally in total defense and 10th in scoring defense. Hopes are high in College Station that DeRuyter’s presence will lead to a quick turnaround — or at least provide some semblance of decency defensively. The formerly ferocious “Wrecking Crew” has been anything but intimidating, so DeRuyter will be a busy man this spring as the Aggies learn the new scheme — which will be an attacking one featuring zone blitzes and zone pressures modeled after the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Although they ran some three-man fronts a year ago, it was out of a different structure,” DeRuyter told reporters on the eve of spring practice. “We're going to be a very multiple defense. We just have to teach our guys concepts, instead of memorizing a laundry list of things to do.”

Having stud defensive end/linebacker Von Miller return for his senior season will certainly make DeRuyter’s job much easier. The nation’s sack leader last season with 17 will continue to be a difference-maker despite the scheme shift, as DeRuyter believes he can play multiple roles in the system. Miller will have to step up in big games, however, as he tallied just four tackles and 1

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