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QB Focus: Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M’s man of the hour

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

Assessing 2011's field generals, in no particular order. Today: Texas A&M senior Ryan Tannehill.

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Typecasting. Tannehill was recruited as a quarterback in 2007, and was usually listed as a quarterback throughout his first three seasons on campus. Still, at this time last year, his future at the position sounded like a bad joke: Hey, as a quarterback, he makes a pretty good wide receiver. Unable to supplant starter Jerrod Johnson, Tannehill settled for becoming the Aggies' token "possession" target, leading the team in receptions two years in a row in 2008-09 on attacks that averaged upward of 250 yards per game through the air.

Depending on who you ask this summer, Tannehill may be the first senior quarterback off the board in next April's NFL Draft, possibly in the first round. And all it took was for the scouts to actually watch him play quarterback: After Tannehill took the reins from 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 as the Aggies' head coach.

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With the offense coming back virtually intact, it's also vaulted A&M into its highest expectations at the start of a season since Tannehill and his teammates were biting ankles in elementary school. Whatever the expectations were last October for an experiment with a converted receiver, the curve is much, much steeper this time around.

At his best... A converted receiver obviously brings a certain amount of athleticism to the position, and the Aggies took advantage of Tannehill's wheels with a steady diet of rollouts and bootleg passes; he also flashes a bit of zone-read action from the shotgun and broke a pair of long scrambles against athletic defenses from Oklahoma (48 yards) and LSU (32 yards). Fundamentally, though, Tannehill is a standard issue pocket guy with a strong enough grasp of the offense to recognize what the defense is giving him and enough patience to keep taking it.

Much of A&M's offense is designed to get the ball in its athletes' hands and let them take it from there, and Tannehill was comfortable distributing it to all of them. His body of work against Texas and LSU in the final two games of the season overwhelmingly consists of quick flares, quick outs, quick hitches and (especially against LSU) stop fades that force the receiver to come back to the ball, which as it turns out is a pretty good formula for completing 65 percent of your passes:{YSP:MORE}

In fact, those were Tannehill's least efficient games. Against less demanding competition in October and early November, he started out on fire, coming off the bench to hit 12 of 16 passes with three touchdowns in a 45-10 rout at Kansas, dropping 449 with a school-record four touchdown passes in a 45-27 thumping of Texas Tech in his first start, stunning Oklahoma with 225 yards and a pair of scores in a 33-19 upset and putting up 280 with another touchdown at Baylor in consecutive weeks. At the very least, he's going to keep the defense out of trouble and the stellar running game viable by avoiding mistakes: He was only intercepted three times in 199 passes in the regular season, compared to 11 touchdowns.

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•   JAKE HEAPS, BYU
•   AARON MURRAY, Georgia
•   NATHAN SCHEELHAASE, Illinois
•   CHRIS RELF
•   DAN PERSA, Northwestern
•   BRANDON WEEDEN, Oklahoma State
•   DARRON THOMAS, Oregon
•   TYLER BRAY, Tennessee
•   MATT BARKLEY, USC

At his worst... Tannehill's not going to scare many defenses with his arm, especially the better ones — he only connected on one completion 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 on stop fades and jump balls.

As LSU proved in the bowl game, competent secondaries that don't respect Tannehill's ability to stretch the field can make his life very difficult by sitting on the short stuff, especially if gets to the point where it doesn't have to respect the running game, either.

Fun Fact. Tannehill is recently engaged to a fellow A&M grad who (despite possessing a degree in Communications with a minor in Psychology) is currently employed as a cardiology assistant at a local hospital. With that experience, she and her new fiancée, who graduated with a degree in Biology last month, plan to eventually work together as a doctor/nurse team.

Just one word of advice to the happy couple — make sure there are no tackling dummies around when Ryan's coming down the aisle:

What to expect in the fall. On paper, this is a believe-the-hype kind of offense: Tannehill is surrounded by the best running back in the Big 12, his top eight receivers and a relatively long-in-the-tooth offensive line whose best players, bookend tackles Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel, are just coming into their own after combining for 20 starts as true freshmen. If they keep up the frenetic pace, the Aggies should rank right alongside Oklahoma and Oklahoma State as the most prolific attacks in an unusually prolific conference.

Man for man, there are no glaring question marks, except whether Tannehill can a) Continue to keep defenses from ganging up on the running game on a consistent basis, and b) Keep the offense moving on the handful of occasions that the running game has left the building. On the whole, Tannehill probably needs running backs Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael more than they need him. But if the ground game is the engine, Tannehill is still in the driver's seat, and his ability to keep pace when the Sooners, Cowboys and Longhorns start to hit the gas in inevitable shootouts may be the difference between a Hall-of-Fame season in Aggie history and another missed opportunity.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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