Rising Aggies embracing attention
DALLAS – Texas A&M administrators have spent much of the past week expressing their displeasure over the new Longhorn Network, an ESPN-owned station devoted to 24-hour coverage of its biggest rival, the University of Texas.
The Aggies ’bowed up again Monday in Dallas, when A&M refused to allow coach Mike Sherman to conduct an interview with the network’s reporters, who were in town for Big 12 Media Days at the Westin Galleria.
“I’m not talking about it,” Sherman said when asked about the Longhorn Network earlier in the day. “I’m not talking about it. I have enough on my plate getting my team ready to play.”
Indeed, as much as they’ve clinched their fists and snarled at perceived bullies off the field, the Aggies are determined to play with that same kind of bravado on it, too. Texas A&M is picked to finish second in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma – its highest projection since 1999 – and almost certainly will be ranked in the top 10 when the two major preseason polls are released next month.
“It’s a great time to be on campus right now,” senior free safety Trent Hunter said. “I’ll be walking to class and someone will scream, ‘Hey, Trent! What’s up?’
“I’ll look at them like, ‘Man, I don’t even know you.’ ”
But Texas A&M fans definitely know Hunter and the Aggies, who are on the cusp of returning to glory following a tumultuous period that included four losing records in seven seasons, the latest of which was a 4-8 mark in 2008. Sherman’s squad will enter the 2011 campaign seeking a bowl victory for just the second time since 1995.
“I have a lot less headaches now than I had previously,” said Sherman, who is set to begin his fourth season. “Our kids are really buying into what we’re doing. Being able to win in the second half of the season last year really helped [validate us] and gave us the opportunity to say, ‘OK, I guess we know what we’re doing.’ ”
The Aggies closed the regular season with six consecutive wins following a 3-3 start. Included in that stretch were victories over Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas Tech and Texas. Frustrating as it was, a 41-24 loss to LSU in the Cotton Bowl did nothing to squelch the Aggies’ enthusiasm about the 2011 season.
“As big of a step as we took last year, I think we can take an even bigger one this time,” running back Cyrus Gray said. “How far we go is completely up to us.”
An offensive line specialist, Sherman’s initial focus when he took the job four years ago was to sign quality big guys to play in the trenches. This season, though, A&M’s trademark will be a high-scoring attack led by a group of flashy skill-position players including tailbacks Gray and Christine Michael, wide receiver Jeff Fuller and quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
“It’s the highest expectations that we’ve had in a long time from the outside world,” Fuller said. “It’s exciting. We’re embracing it. At the same time, you’ve got to stay grounded and be ready to go to work every day.”
A&M should have loads of confidence after averaging 31.7 points in its final seven games in 2010. Much of the success was because of Tannehill, who threw for 1,638 yards after taking over for Jerrod Johnson midway through the season.
“The one thing Ryan brings to the table is confidence,” Sherman said. “Even when Stephen McGee, who is playing with the Cowboys now, was starting, he said Ryan was the best one. He was our third quarterback at the time, but [McGee] thought he was our best one.”
Sherman was quick to point out that Tannehill has started just six games at quarterback.
“We’ve still got to work on his decision-making, make it precise,” Sherman said, “because turnovers are going to be what defines us, in a positive or negative way.”
The one concern – at least on paper – would seem to be a defense that lost standouts such as Michael Hodges, Lucas Patterson and Von Miller, the second overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. Sherman, though, surprised reporters Monday when he predicted his defense would be even better than the 2010 unit. Much of the reason is because the players will be in their second season under coordinator Tim DeRuyter.
“Coach DeRuyter is like a mad scientist when it comes to playmaking and schemes,” Hunter said. “We’re definitely going to be adding some new stuff.”
That’ll be good news in College Station, where Aggies athletics are making their mark in the Big 12. In the most recent academic year, A&M won nine conference championships – four more than Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas, all of which tied for second. The football team, though, hasn’t captured a league crown since 1998.
That goal – and plenty of others – certainly seems attainable in 2011.
“I actually wake up and want to go to class,” Hunter said. “When you’re 4-8, you don’t even want to walk across campus. I’d sit down in class and someone would say, “Hey man, what happened? Why’d y’all lose by 50 points?’ I wouldn’t even know what to say.
“Now everyone is excited again. It’s a good story.”
Just don’t expect to hear about on the Longhorn Network.