COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- What do you do with Ryan Tannehill?
It was one of the biggest questions facing Texas A&M entering last season, and coach Mike Sherman had to make the call. Tannehill led the Aggies in receptions as a freshman and sophomore, but his time on the field as a junior was limited in hopes of making sure Jerrod Johnson's backup wasn't a wide-eyed freshman.
By midseason, Sherman hardly had a choice. Johnson's shoulder didn't regain the strength doctors hoped it would, and he struggled. Texas A&M was 3-3, and what once looked like a chase for a Big 12 title looked more like a chase for a bowl game.
Enter Tannehill. He took over in the second half of a blowout against Kansas and got his first start a week later against Texas Tech. He set a school record with 449 yards passing, and the Aggies didn't lose again the rest of the regular season, knocking off three top-10 opponents on the way to a share of the Big 12 South title.
"He had a huge, huge effect," receiver Jeff Fuller said. "Things were heading downhill, and he stepped in."
This time around, it isn't hard to decide what to do with Tannehill: Start him at quarterback.
"He’s going to play quarterback for a long time, and I want to make sure his last year with us is one of his best years," Sherman said. "It’s one thing to come off the bench and get on a roll and keep that roll going -- but now you’re the starter, you have to carry it through the middle and you have to finish it at the end as far as the season goes."
With that comes a whole new set of challenges. Unlike last year, when he had biology labs to attend to, Tannehill has been at every spring practice. Once that's over, the responsibility falls on him for the first time to organize his teammates for summer workouts, getting them on the field to run routes, out on the field for conditioning and in the weight room for strength training.
"This is my team, my offense, and it’s my job to lead them. The leadership role is definitely different," Tannehill said. "I’m the guy instead of a second-team player. It definitely carries a different leadership role that allows me to step up and get guys going when we start dragging a little bit."
Last year, he had the advantage of facing teams that had limited game tape to scout his tendencies. With a body of work that spans nearly eight games, defenses will be more in tune with what to expect from the senior.
"That's what good teams do," he said.
The answer is to refine his own game, specifically his eyes and feet.
"It doesn’t matter how strong your arm is, if your feet aren’t set, there’s no consistency there," he said. "One of my first priorities is having consistent drops, feeling movement in the pocket but keeping my feet underneath me."
And as for the eyes?
"Different plays call for different speeds of reads, so I want a grasp of that and really understand the offense," he said.
Tannehill has a solid group of receivers to help him build on a stellar second half of the season that turned him into a household name across the conference. This year, he'll try to provide a suitable encore that ends with the Big 12 title that eluded the Aggies in 2010.
"He has the competitive edge that a lot of first-year starters might not have," Fuller said, citing his first two years spent on the field as a receiver.
But now, for the first time, a big chunk of the Aggies' hopes will rest on Tannehill's shoulders through the spring and summer.
"I have high expectations of myself," he said. "The play of our offense depends on me, and I understand that. If the quarterback doesn’t play well, it kind of brings the whole team down, so I understand that I need to play well for this team to win."
Said Sherman: "The future of your season hinges on whether he makes the right decision or he doesn’t make the right decision, and he has to make it in a split second, so it’s always going to start with every quarterback."