Last season was supposed to be a memorable one for Texas A&M. It wasn't, so there is a whole lot of "new" with the Aggies this season.
First, of course, is a new conference, as A&M has left the Big 12 for the SEC. The Aggies, who haven't won a conference title since 1998, are joining the SEC West, the toughest division in college football. The SEC is known for strong defenses, something A&M hasn't had for a while.
But the new conference affiliation had nothing to do with the on-field performance last season. The mediocre performance means there is a new coach, with Kevin Sumlin being hired away from Houston to replace Mike Sherman. Sumlin brings with him a new offense and a new defense.
There also will be a new quarterback, an all-new starting secondary and even a new kicker. The old kicker? He won the award as the nation's best last season.
Last season: 7-6 overall, 4-5 in Big 12 (tied for 6th in league)
Coach: Kevin Sumlin (1st season at Texas A&M; 35-17, 5th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (6) – TE Nehemiah Hicks, T Luke Joeckel, C Patrick Lewis, T Jake Matthews, WR Uzoma Nwachukwu, WR Ryan Swope. Defense (4) – E/LB Damontre Moore, E Spencer Nealy, LB Sean Porter, LB Jonathan Stewart. Special teams (1) – P Ryan Epperson.
Fast fact: The Aggies played six games decided by six or fewer points last season; they lost five of them.
A&M lost a quarterback who was a first-round pick, which obviously leaves a hole. Ryan Tannehill's replacement will be sophomore Jameill Showers, who has a strong arm and had a good spring.
Senior TB Christine Michael should be the focal point of the offense. When he has been healthy, he is a top-flight tailback. But he has been bothered by injuries in each of the past two seasons. He suffered a broken leg in Game 8 in 2010 and sustained a torn ACL in Game 9 in 2011; before his injury last season, he had rushed for 899 yards and eight TDs. In both seasons, he shared time with Cyrus Gray. Gray has graduated, so the job is all Michael's now.
Junior Ben Malena is the top veteran backup, but five-star freshman Trey Williams should get some carries, too.
The Aggies return Ryan Swope (89 receptions, 1,207 yards, 11 TDs) and Uzoma Nwachukwu at wide receiver, but someone needs to emerge as effective Nos. 3 and 4 guys. Seniors Kenric McNeal and Brandal Jackson, sophomore Malcolme Kennedy, JC transfer Derel Walker, redshirt freshman Mike Evans and touted true freshman Thomas Johnson are the leading contenders in a crowded field of candidates.
There are no concerns at tackle; the Aggies have the best duo in the nation in juniors Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Both are potential first-round picks. C Patrick Lewis is another standout. Sophomores Cedric Ogbuehi and Jarvis Harrison are the likely starters at guard. Harrison made five starts last season as a true freshman, and is a rising star.
This side of the ball was a disaster area at times last season. A&M was excellent against the run (101.9 ypg, 12th nationally), but it was much too easy to throw against the Aggies (276.3 ypg, 109th nationally). A&M also allowed 28.2 points per game, which was 70th nationally; the Aggies surrendered at least 30 points six times and at least 40 four times.
Sumlin hired Mark Snyder away from USF to be his defensive coordinator. Snyder scrapped the 3-4 defense favored by predecessor Tim DeRuyter (who now is coach at Fresno State) and installed a 4-3 scheme. Snyder has some talent in the front seven, but there will be a rebuilt secondary, with no fulltime starters returning.
There looks to be a nice group of ends, headed by Damontre Moore (8.5 sacks and 72 tackles last season). But a big issue up front is the tackles; are they SEC caliber? Both starters are gone from last season, and a return to health from senior Jonathan Mathis, who played in only three games last season,is vital. Depth is iffy, too.
LB Sean Porter should vie for All-America honors. He is an excellent pass rusher (9.5 sacks last season). MLB Jonathan Stewart led A&M with 98 tackles last season and should be a steady force, and senior Steven Jenkins was a part-time starter last season, who made 61 tackles. But outside of junior Charlie Thomas, depth is a concern.
That brings us to the secondary. Perhaps the only saving grace of having four new starters is that the Aggies no longer are in the Big 12; the SEC is not nearly as pass-happy a league.
Senior CB Dustin Harris and senior FS Steven Campbell do have starting experience, including a combined nine games last season. Campbell is talented but has battled injuries; if he can remain healthy, he will be a big boost to the secondary and even vie for all-league honors.
Sophomores Floyd Raven and Deshazor Everett seem likely to be the starting corners, with Harris and JC transfer Tramain Jacobs also in contention to see time. Everett and Raven are athletic and talented, but haven't proven themselves as playmakers yet.
SS Howard Matthews is a physical presence and could prove to be effective against the run.
A&M loses Randy Bullock, who won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's best kicker last season. Redshirt freshman Taylor Bertelot is the expected replacement.
P Ryan Epperson returns after averaging 41.2 yards per attempt last season. But sophomore Drew Kaser had a better spring and could win the job this fall.
Harris is an excellent punt returner; he led the nation by averaging 18.6 yards on 18 attempts last season. He wasn't as effective as a kickoff returner and could lose that role.
The punt coverage was egregiously bad last season: The Aggies allowed 17.3 yards per return, which was 119th in the nation. The kickoff coverage, on the other hand, was solid (20.3 yards per return).
September will be a tough month for the Aggies. They open against WAC favorite Louisiana Tech in Shreveport, La., less than an hour from Tech's campus in Ruston. Game 2 is against Florida in College Station in the Aggies' first SEC game. Game 3 is at SMU, which should be one of the two or three best teams in Conference USA, and Game 5 is a visit from Arkansas, which seems likely to open the season in the top 10 or 12.
That's a tough first month for a team making so many changes.
Later, there are games against LSU, Auburn, Alabama and Missouri.
Missing, of course, is a game against Texas; this will be the first time since 1914 that the Aggies haven't played the Longhorns.
In 2011, the Aggies had a bad defense in a league not known for defenses. You can't win the SEC, or even contend for division titles, with anything except a solid defense, and this doesn't appear to be a solid defense.
Still, the offense should be able to hold its own in the SEC, and that lends hope that this team could win as many as nine games. More likely is a seven-win season, and a renewed commitment in recruiting to bring in stud defensive linemen.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 19th nationally
The buzz: The Aggies have seen a big upswing in recruiting since it was announced they would be joining the SEC this season. A&M finished No. 15 in the country in the class of 2012 and currently sits at No. 5 for the class of 2013. Several top signees, including five-star RB Trey Williams and four-star QB Matt Davis, cited being able to play in the SEC as a big factor in their decisions. In the 2013 class, the Aggies have commitments from two top Louisiana players in CB Noel Ellis and LB Darian Claiborne because of the SEC affiliation. – Brian Perroni, Rivals.com
QB Jameill Showers. Showers, a redshirt sophomore, is the only quarterback on the roster with any game experience (four games as a backup last season). Considered the likely starter for 2012 headed into the spring, Showers cemented that status during spring drills. Showers has a rocket for an arm and showed good command of the new offense, making the right checks at the line and also the right throws. If he performs at a similar level during the season, the Aggies' offense should run like a highly effective machine. – Mark Passwaters, AggieYell.com
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