NCF Nation: Garrick Williams
Yet Souza has made a relatively smooth transition, avoiding most of the major roadblocks to win a starting job despite his limited experience playing offense.
Souza made his first career start at right guard against Liberty last week, and will be in the starting lineup again against North Carolina on Saturday. What is truly remarkable about his story is the progress he has made in such a short period of time to go from backup defensive lineman to offensive starter.
Souza played in 18 games, with three starts, as a defensive lineman. But coaches thought he could be even better on offense, particularly with depth concerns and a glaring need to replace four starters on the line.
When coaches approached him about moving, spring practice was nearly over. He started out at left tackle. With only a handful of practices under his belt, he played in the spring game without knowing much of anything.
“I basically watched what everyone else was doing,” Souza said in a recent phone interview. “It was tough. I just tried to remember the basic kind of things as to what I was doing and if I had any questions, they told me what to do. Most of the plays were basic. I felt like I handled it well.”
After Souza returned to school for the start of offseason workouts, coaches told him they wanted him to move to right guard.
“Coach walked up to me and said, ‘I figure you don’t know the left tackle spot as it is now,’ so he walked me through everything and told me what to do,” Souza said. “That’s when I started hitting the play book to understand the right guard spot.
“I did a lot of film study, too. It helped coming from a defensive point of view. I already know as a defensive lineman what I have to do to try and beat an offensive lineman so I already have in my head what’s going on. I feel like I know the answers before they’re even there.”
Souza credits offensive line coach Jonathan Himebauch for helping him understand concepts clearly. Center Garrick Williams also has been a huge help, as the lone returning starter on the offensive line and most experienced player up front.
What also has helped is his strength and size. Souza is one of the biggest players on the team at 310 pounds. As a defensive lineman, he often had to worry about his weight. Now, that is the least of his concerns.
Getting better each week -- that is his top priority.
“I feel like everyone’s excited for me,” Souza said. “I feel like I’ve picked up my new position well and my teammates and coaches realize that. I just feel good about everything.”
Undefeated in nonconference play.
A big first half lead against Oklahoma State evaporates, morphing into a heartbreaking loss.
"I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that in my entire coaching career," Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman said. "We didn’t handle it well. We weren’t engaged. They picked the tempo up, went right down the field on us and scored. We didn’t respond well. We didn’t play very well."
It's different than last year.
At least one Aggie doesn't need me to tell them that, either.
"That was a tough loss," said senior quarterback Ryan Tannehill. "I don’t think we’ll have a 3-game losing streak again. We have a different team with a lot of veterans. This won’t affect us the same way it did last year mentally. We’ll be able to fight through it."
He's not pumping sunshine over a dark week in College Station. This team doesn't have two freshmen bookending the offensive line. It isn't coming off a six-win season. It didn't need fourth-quarter magic to erase a double-digit deficit and escape an early-season loss to Florida International. It isn't breaking in a new defense and riding the talents of one freakish athlete with a bum ankle to disrupt defenses. There's no quarterback with a bum shoulder causing awkward suggestions he be benched.
Forget senior quarterback curses. The story in College Station this week, with apologies to the SEC, is senior leadership from a group of players that have contributed for three seasons now.
"We need everybody. Something happened Saturday in the third quarter that really got to us as a whole unit," said linebacker Garrick Williams. "That’s just something that we can’t do. We’re going to be on guys this week in practice and try to get everyone very attentive to detail."
So far, it's worked. The seniors have set a tone.
"Our guys showed up today with resolve. No one was cutting up," said defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. "We realized we had an opportunity and we let it slip. The great thing about this game when you have games left is on Saturday we have another chance to show what we really are all about as a defense."
This is a team that learned how to win over the second half of last season, when it did it six consecutive times in conference play to win a hard-earned share of the Big 12 South before eventually moving to the only division in football that's more difficult: The SEC West.
But for now, they're just in the division-less Big 12.
And they're just a team that, for one quarter, played badly. There's no maturing left to be done. Only playing. And Texas A&M will get that opportunity on Saturday.
I'll be there this morning for a live scrimmage with pads, too.
- Last year, when I visited College Station in the preseason, it was pretty obvious during team work that Jerrod Johnson had a ways to go before he was back to the same player he was in 2009. He obviously never quite got there. This year? Not the case. All the usual suspects looked great. Ryan Tannehill was as good as you'd expect, Jeff Fuller looked great, and Christine Michael showed some nice explosiveness and lateral movement. Cyrus Gray is limited after suffering a minor hamstring injury on the first day of camp, but he's expected to be 100 percent for the season opener against SMU on Sept. 4.
- Every time I've come to a practice at College Station, I've been impressed with what Jameill Showers had to offer as a backup quarterback, and Sunday was no different. It's a limited sample size, sure, but he throws an outstanding ball, and he made good decisions throughout Sunday's workout in team drills.
- An offseason arrest didn't put Damontre Moore in the good graces of the coaching staff, and as a result, the possible star had spent the first week of camp working primarily with the third and fourth groups, according to other A&M reporters who had attended earlier practices. On Sunday, however, he was back working with the first team at the Joker position. A good sign for his future, no doubt. The sophomore may have struggled off the field during the offseason, but remember: Von Miller infamously wasn't the personification of a leader early in his career, and left as one of the program's all-time greats -- on and off the field. There's plenty of time for Moore to shore up his act.
- Inside linebacker is a primary concern for the Aggies this fall camp, especially after they got a preview of a grim future without Michael Hodges this year when Hodges missed the majority of the Cotton Bowl with a knee injury. Garrick Williams is one of the defense's leaders and a returning starter at one of the two spots in the 3-4 scheme, but Donnie Baggs and Jonathan Stewart have been earning lots of time together with the first team -- and without Williams. Coach Mike Sherman's explanation for the approach: "I always like to see guys with the first group, because that's when you get to evaluate them. When you're with the second group, you're going up against the second group of offense. So let's see how they do against the first group guys, so it's really a more accurate evaluation of where they stand. They could be killers in the second group but go to the first group and it's a little bit more challenging, so I want to see them against the better competition."
- Sherman says he's still trying to sort out who his starter will be, but I like the approach to throw them in with the first-team and see who outperforms the other. Stewart is the more experienced player, but Baggs, a true freshman, has obviously impressed enough to even be in this position. Sherman expects the position to be more solidified early next week.
- Sherman played it coy when asked about a "rumor" that Texas A&M's coaches met with university president R. Bowen Loftin about the possibility of a move to the SEC. "Rumors? Really? Are you saying it's a rumor? I don't comment on rumors," he said. "You led with a rumor, so..." A poor choice of words, sure, but a fruitless line of questioning, no doubt, regardless of word choice.
- Safety Trent Hunter did discuss the prospect of the SEC, but only that the team has been told not to discuss it. "Our coaches made a point on the first day. Don't talk about it, don't tweet about it, don't Facebook about it," Hunter said, adding that it hasn't been difficult to focus on the field while rumors swirled. "It's not anything that's going to affect us playing SMU on that first week."
- Today's scrimmage will be live with plenty of hitting, Sherman says. Should be exciting. I'll have some notes and stats up on the blog later.
The Big 12 is really, really strong at linebacker, just as it is at receiver. Running back and defensive line are two of the Big 12's weakest positions, but linebacker might prove to be a true strength by season's end.
If you're curious, here's how I ranked the units by team.
We might even see big, young talents like Corey Nelson, Tom Wort, Arthur Brown, Jordan Hicks and Huldon Tharp fight for spots on this list by season's end, but overall inexperience keeps them off for now.
Here are the top 10.
1. Travis Lewis, Oklahoma: Lewis took home the Big 12's preseason Defensive Player of the Year Award (as much as someone can take home an award with no actual hardware, anyway), but he'll be the easy favorite for the award entering the season. Of my postseason top 25 Big 12 players, Lewis is the only returning defensive player. He's made 100 tackles in each of his first three seasons at Oklahoma, and eschewed the NFL draft to try and win a title at Oklahoma.
2. Jake Knott, Iowa State: Knott doesn't get the national pub of some other guys on this list, but he should. In just his first year as a starter, Knott made 130 tackles, the most of any returning Big 12 starter. Just a junior, Knott should make even more improvement in 2011.
3. Keenan Robinson, Texas: Robinson has all the physical tools, and should be set loose in new coordinator Manny Diaz's aggressive scheme. Robinson made 106 tackles in 2010, but look for his sack totals (two in 2010) to get a big boost from spending more time in offensive backfields.
4. Shaun Lewis, Oklahoma State: Lewis exploded into the Big 12 fan's consciousness as a true freshman in 2010, sharing Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors with Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson after making 58 tackles with eight tackles for loss, despite not officially being a starter until the second half of the season. He's a bit faster than you might expect him to be at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, but he should be due for a big encore.
5. Emmanuel Acho, Texas: Acho joins Robinson in one of the best linebacker groups in the league, and will likely be a team captain alongside his fellow linebacker. Acho made 81 tackles to rank second on the team, and added 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks for an underrated Texas defense in 2010.
6. Zaviar Gooden, Missouri: Gooden is easily the fastest guy out of this group, and should be due for a breakout year on the national stage if Missouri gets the ball rolling with James Franklin at quarterback and becomes a top 25 mainstay. He tied for the team lead in tackles last season (84, 49 solo) during his first year as a starter, and could see that number jump as a junior in 2011.
7. A.J. Klein, Iowa State: As little respect nationally as Klein's teammate, Knott, gets, Klein gets even less. Which is a shame. Klein, like Knott, was a first-year starter but became one of just 11 players in the Big 12 with more than 100 tackles. Was that number (111, 49 solo) aided by a weak defensive line? Sure, but somebody made those stops. And it was Klein. He'll get plenty more chances to further prove himself.
8. Garrick Williams, Texas A&M: Williams returns as one of the leaders of the Wrecking Crew after making 112 tackles in 2011, including five tackles for loss and a forced fumble. The Aggies need him to play well at inside linebacker in Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme, if for no other reason than because of the uncertainty and likely inexperience at the inside linebacker spot.
9. Elliot Coffey, Baylor: Coffey should be one of the lynchpins of a maturing Baylor defense with lots of work to do under new coordinator Phil Bennett. Though there's no formal depth chart just yet, Art Briles admitted that if anyone has solidified a starting spot, it's Coffey. The 6-foot, 230-pounder made 61 tackles (34 solo) and 4.5 tackles for loss as a junior in 2010.
10. Steven Johnson, Kansas: Johnson emerged out of a good group of linebackers last season to lead the team in tackles, with 95 stops (62 solo). He loses fellow linebackers Justin Springer and Drew Dudley, but will get help with the return of Huldon Tharp. Johnson was a former walk-on, but in his first year as a starter in 2010, rewarded the Jayhawks' decision to put him on scholarship.
Just missed: Will Ebner, Missouri; Sean Porter, Texas A&M
There's a lot of turnover in this space, and the bottom half was pretty hard to sort out. We haven't seen a lot of these new faces on the field for extended periods of time, so it's somewhat of a crapshoot. I don't feel like there's a wide gap between teams 7-10, and each of those squads have at least one linebacker who could be due for a huge year and shoot them up this list.
I see Nos. 1-3 possibly being great, with dropoffs before the No. 4 and No. 7 teams.
Also, if you missed them, here are the other position rankings we've done so far.
So, without further ado, here's how I ranked the linebackers. (Nickel backs are included in this list, hybrid DE/LBs will be with defensive lines)
2. Iowa State -- The Cyclones boast two of the Big 12's best in Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, who combined for more tackles than any two teammates in the Big 12 last season. They had 241 stops, and, after healing from a broken leg suffered midseason last year, Matt Tau'fo'ou should join them at middle linebacker.
3. Texas -- Texas' offense may be lacking, but the defense will be strong once again, led by two others likely to earn spots as some of the Big 12's best. Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho were Texas' top two tacklers last year with 187 stops, and return as likely captains come fall camp. Texas' depth chart is wide open, but look for former blue-chip recruit Jordan Hicks to emerge as another star this year, despite being forced to sit out spring camp with a broken foot. Dravannti Johnson played some defensive end last year at the Buck position for the Longhorns, but may find his way back to linebacker. Tevin Jackson was ineligible last year, but he's ready for 2011, and could make an impact.
4. Oklahoma State -- The Cowboys "Star" linebacker is occupied by co-Defensive Freshman of the Year Shaun Lewis, and sophomore Caleb Lavey is charged with replacing Orie Lemon, the leader of last year's defense. Oklahoma State has questions on the weak side, but LeRon Furr and Chris Dinkins will compete next fall. Kris Catlin could be a factor, too.
5. Texas A&M -- The Aggies must replace their leading tackler, Michael Hodges, and don't have a clear replacement heading into fall camp. The good news: They've got two others with lots of experience in the linebacking corps that look like budding stars. Garrick Williams should be one of the defense's leaders and Sean Porter returns after making 74 tackles last year to rank third on the team.
6. Missouri -- The Tigers have lots of experience at middle linebacker, where a pair of seniors (albeit frequently injured seniors) Will Ebner and Luke Lambert will be on the field a lot. One of the Big 12's most exciting players, junior Zaviar Gooden, will hold down the weakside and perhaps become a household name by season's end. Sophomores Andrew Wilson and Donovan Bonner, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, will likely compete for strongside duties in fall camp. Andrew Gachkar, the team's leading tackler, is gone, but here's guessing Gooden emerges as the defense's top playmaker.
7. Kansas -- The Jayhawks linebackers were solid last year, and could be pretty good again, despite losing Drew Dudley and Justin Springer, two of the team's top four tacklers. Steven Johnson, the team's leading tackler in 2010, is back and he'll be joined by possible star Huldon Tharp, who missed all of last season with a leg injury. Fellow sophomore Darius Willis earned a starting role after spring.
8. Kansas State -- K-State's front seven struggled last year, but will get a big boost from Arthur Brown. One man won't be enough to totally fix the Wildcats rush defense problems, though. K-State gave up 26 more yards on the ground per game than any other team in the Big 12 (more than 231 per game) but Brown may be playing in a 4-3 next fall rather than the 4-2-5 the Wildcats have employed since Snyder's return. Alex Hrebec, Emmanuel Lamur, Tre Walker and Blake Slaughter will likely fill the rotation along with Brown.
9. Baylor -- Baylor's defensive depth chart, like Texas', is a bit amorphous after bringing in a new coordinator, but Elliot Coffey figures to be the Bears biggest playmaker at linebacker. Chris McAllister should be solid and Ahmad Dixon is promising at nickelback, too. Brody Trahan is a great story, but him going from third-string quarterback to starting linebacker isn't a ringing endorsement for Baylor's depth at the position.
10. Texas Tech -- Tech will be moving to a 4-2-5 this year under new coordinator Chad Glasgow, and could rise up this list, but the Red Raiders lose a lot of talent from last season's team, which ran the 3-4. Bront Bird and Brian Duncan are both gone, and youth will be a big factor with this group. Cqulin Hubert's outstanding potential is matched by his more outstanding first name, and freshman Blake Dees showed promise after arriving early this spring. They'll likely be the rotation at middle linebacker spot alongside Daniel Cobb and Zach Winbush. Terrance Bullitt could be a playmaker at his new safety spot, listed as a strong safety but with plans to spend lots of time near the line of scrimmage, a la nickelback.
1. North Carolina: Three starters and one part-time starter return from last year’s team, and this line could be the biggest and best since Butch Davis was hired. Guard Jonathan Cooper (22 starts), center Cam Holland (20) and tackle James Hurst (12) have combined for 54 career starts. Travis Bond has four starts and is the leading candidate to take over at the other guard position.
2. Miami: The Canes return nine of their top 10 offensive linemen including four starters from last year, and Joel Figueroa was granted a sixth season of eligibility. Even with the coaching change, the Canes should be strong up front. Center Tyler Horn is a veteran, Brandon Washington is a difference-maker, and there’s enough competition that Seantrel Henderson spent most of the spring as a backup.
3. Clemson: First-year offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell has four returning starters to work with in Landon Walker, Antoine McClain, Dalton Freeman and David Smith. They also have top reserve Mason Cloy, who has 19 career starts and has played in 38 games. There is plenty of depth for a dependable rotation.
4. Virginia Tech: All four returnees started every game last year, and there is enough depth that the Hokies should be able to rotate the most players up front they ever have. It’s a veteran group led by Blake DeChristopher, Andrew Lanier, Jaymes Brooks and Greg Nosal.
5. Florida State: Despite the losses of Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon, there’s experience up front. This fall, the starting lineup will consist of tackle Andrew Datko, left guard Bryan Stork or David Spurlock, center Jacob Fahrenkrug, right guard Spurlock or Stork, right tackle Zebrie Sanders. Just how good they’ll be remains to be seen as the majority of them were out with injuries this past spring.
6. NC State: The Pack lost Jake Vermiglio and will be without injured left guard Andrew Wallace for about half of the season, but Zach Allen, Camden Wentz and R.J. Mattes are returning starters. There’s also a lot of talent waiting to emerge with young players like Duran Christophe, Rob Crisp, Tyson Chandler, Torian Box and Andy Jomantas.
7. Virginia: Four players return with a combined 64 career starts in Anthony Mihota, Austin Pasztor, Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses, who started the final seven games of the season as a true freshman. Pasztor is in his fourth season as a starter and has 32 career starts.
8. Boston College: Despite the losses of Anthony Castonzo, Thomas Claiborne and Rich Lapham, the Eagles are almost settled up front, it’s the experience behind the starters that’s reason for concern. The No. 2 offensive line is comprised entirely of redshirt freshmen. Mark Spinney returns at center, the projected starting guards are Nathan Richman and Ian White, who started three games as a freshman, and the tackles are Emmett Cleary and John Wetzel.
9. Maryland: It’s been an injury-prone group the past two seasons and that didn’t change this past spring. Left tackle Justin Gilbert, one of the top linemen on the team, reinjured the same knee he had ACL surgery on and will be out until October. R.J. Dill was also injured this spring, though he played in the spring game, and Justin Lewis was rehabbing from offseason surgery. Pete White also missed practices, so the group needs to solidify the two-deep roster.
10. Georgia Tech: The Jackets return three starters in guard Omoregie Uzzi, guard Will Jackson and tackle Phil Smith. Sophomore Jay Finch played extensively last season and Ray Beno and Nick McRae were key reserves. Redshirt freshmen Catlin Alford and Morgan Bailey could also work their way into the rotation. Uzzi will be the leader of the line, but they were outplayed by the defense this spring.
11. Wake Forest: Four starters are back, but the Deacs will sorely miss the experience and leadership of former center Russell Nenon. Garrick Williams started the final three games of 2010 -- two at guard and one at center, but he struggled with the snaps towards the end of spring and isn’t where the staff needs him to be yet.
12. Duke: The Blue Devils should take another step forward this season under offensive line coach Matt Luke, and they need to -- Duke’s running game was last in the ACC last year and 104th in the country. Brian Moore replaces a three-year starter at center, but given his experience at right guard the past two seasons, it should be a smooth transition. That will leave a hole, though, at the right guard position, where Laken Tomlinson and John Coleman are the top candidates.
Now it's time to look at the guys that seem to be in on every play: players who will notch 100 tackles next year. A little context: This is a bigger group than the others.
Last year, 11 players topped the 100-tackle mark, and just five return. Across the country, 75 players had at least 100 tackles, by far the largest group we've examined so far this year.
So this time, instead of looking at the players most likely to crack the mark, we'll just run down the players I believe will have at least 100 tackles next year, in order of the likelihood they do so. As usual, this is not a ranking of each linebacker's overall skill, just the probability that they reach the benchmark statistic for their position.
1. Travis Lewis, LB, Oklahoma: Lewis tops the list based on his history. In three years, he has 360 tackles for the Sooners, and has topped 100 in all three seasons. He's got a hungry youngster in Corey Nelson nipping at his heels, but he's one of the defense's leaders. There's no reason to think he won't have another huge year.
3. Garrick Williams, LB, Texas A&M: Williams already had 112 stops in 2010, and without Michael Hodges and Von Miller around, he and Sean Porter (74 tackles in 2010) should rack up even more in 2011.
4. A.J. Klein, LB, Iowa State: Klein gets overshadowed by his teammate, Knott, but he had 111 tackles of his own as a first-year starter last year. The Cyclones defensive line is one of the weakest in the Big 12, but fortunately for ISU, it's got some solid linebackers.
5. Keenan Robinson, LB, Texas: Robinson is the last of the returning 100-tackle linebackers, but he'll have an even bigger role in the Longhorns' defense in 2011 after making 106 stops last year.
6. Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State: I'm officially buying on Arthur Brown. I'm on the fence about Bryce Brown, but the combination of the tales from last year's scout team, plus his 14 tackles in the spring game followed by an endorsement from Bill Snyder after it has me on board. He's the fastest linebacker Snyder's coached since his return, and speed takes you a long way in the Big 12. Big year on the way for Brown.
7. Caleb Lavey, LB, Oklahoma State: Lavey is the likely successor to resident brick wall Orie Lemon at middle linebacker for the Cowboys. He may not reach Lemon's 133 tackles in 2010, second-most in the Big 12, but I like what I saw from Lavey as a freshman last year and I like his chances to hit the triple digits.
8. Zaviar Gooden, LB, Missouri: Like Brown, Gooden has crazy speed for a linebacker, and at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, his body type is more like that of a hulking safety. Missouri, in part because of injury, didn't have a player with 100 tackles last year, but Gooden tied for the team lead with 84. If Will Ebner stays healthy, he could crash this list, too.
9. Prince Kent, S, Baylor: Two defensive backs hit the mark last year, but I've got just one on my list for 2011. Kent played sparingly as a freshman last year, but still led the team with two interceptions. The Bears' cornerbacks aren't great, and here's betting that means Kent leads the team in tackles this year.
10. Huldon Tharp, LB, Kansas: Tharp will be coming back from a knee injury, and he's not full strength just yet, but he's got the most raw talent of any defender on the Jayhawks' roster. I'll tack him on the end of this list for a nice comeback year.
Just missed: Sean Porter, LB, Texas A&M; Emmanuel Acho, LB, Texas, Cody Davis, S, Texas Tech
Now, that was more like it. The Big 12 Blog got back on track with picks last week, missing only Colorado's surprise win over Iowa State. Now, we'll see about this week, which contains an upset special.
Last week: 5-1 (.833)
Overall: 66-17 (.795)
No. 10 Oklahoma State 51, Kansas 17: There's no reason to think the Cowboys won't post a big number in this one, and Oklahoma State's terrifying trio of Justin Blackmon, Kendall Hunter and Brandon Weeden get it done to head to Bedlam with the Big 12 South on the line.
Kansas State 31, Colorado 27: Kansas State is a better team than Iowa State, who Colorado beat in Boulder last week. Dan Hawkins making an appearance to support his son, Cody Hawkins, is overrated as an "awkward" sideplot, but only mistakes will keep Kansas State from getting the win. The biggest mistake they could make? Not putting Collin Klein on the field as much as possible. He and Daniel Thomas carry the Wildcats to the win with a strong second half on the ground.
Texas Tech 35, Weber State 24: Texas Tech is searching for motivation, but they should be be able to handle the Wildcats in the first of two yawn-worthy nonconference games to close the season.
Texas 27, Florida Atlantic 17: I've said it all week, and I'll say it again: there's no guarantee that Texas wins this game. They should. I think they will. But Texas hasn't shown they can beat very many teams this year, and they'll have to play well to do it. Rack up a handful of turnovers, give up a big play or two and try to force your way back into the game and this game is UCLA all over again. That said, I'll take the Longhorns with a comfortable, but hardly convincing win.
No. 15 Missouri 38, Iowa State 20: Iowa State hasn't been able to defend the spread all season, and a renewed Missouri offense takes advantage. The Cyclones have played well at home, but they won't be able to score enough to keep up with the Tigers, who'll likely key in on Alexander Robinson and force Jerome Tiller to make difficult throws to Iowa State's underwhelming receiving corps.
No. 14 Oklahoma 35, Baylor 30: This is my pick of the week. Come back later today for a video of me explaining my pick.
No. 19 Texas A&M 27, No. 8 Nebraska 24: I'll call my shot here in an upset special. I barely missed when I picked the Aggies to beat Oklahoma State. I missed by, let's say, a wide margin, when I picked Missouri to beat the Huskers. The third time's the charm, right? Let me explain:
1) Texas A&M got a lot of practice defending the zone read against Baylor last week, with Robert Griffin III and Jay Finley. They gave up a few big plays in the first half, but played a lot better in the second half. That'll continue this week.
2) Conservative, average, punchless, whatever. Call it what you want. Mediocre has many names. That's what Nebraska's offense has been without a full-strength Taylor Martinez. I have my doubts about how healthy Martinez's ankle is, and in this game, where Nebraska will have to put points on the board, that's a big deal. Their running offense won't be as effective, and the Aggies have athletes on the edge and in the middle at linebacker in Garrick Williams, Von Miller and Michael Hodges who can make the stops necessary to keep the Huskers at bay.
3) Oklahoma State couldn't stop Nebraska's offense. Missouri couldn't move the ball against Nebraska's defense. Texas A&M, however, has a better pass rush and a better secondary than Oklahoma State, and can run downhill with power, versus Missouri's slow-developing, east-west running attack that got swallowed up by the Huskers speed on defense. Taylor Martinez isn't throwing for 300 yards against Tim DeRuyter's defense, and as long as Cyrus Gray gets 20-plus touches, the Aggies should be able to run the ball where Nebraska has been vulnerable: right in the middle of the defense. The Aggies offensive line is getting better fast, and those two freshman tackles have turned from a liability into a strength, coach Mike Sherman said this week.
4) Missouri doesn't have the talent at receiver to get open, but Texas A&M does. Jeff Fuller probably won't have a big day against Prince Amukamara, but Uzoma Nwachukwu will occupy Alfonzo Dennard, and opportunities over the middle should be there for slot men Ryan Swope and Kenric McNeal, as well as tight end Nehemiah Hicks and Gray out of the backfield. Ryan Tannehill will find them enough to help the Aggies spring the upset and finish the season strong.
With a defense giving up more than 33 points a game, five more points per game than any team in the Big 12, even Texas A&M's balanced, high-powered offense couldn't push the Aggies further than a 6-7 season.
Washington State was the only BCS conference team with a worse scoring defense, and the Cougars won one game.
They've also kept opponents out of the red zone on all but eight drives this season, the best in the Big 12, allowing them to score just five times, also the Big 12's best and fourth best nationally.
"I’ve always known we were capable of doing great things, I guess it was just more of a maturity factor than anything," said linebacker Von Miller. "Like situations where we’ve had to keep teams from scoring, we’ve handled it pretty well."
Experience helps breed that maturity. And that maturity has bred results. But so has new coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who installed his 3-4 scheme this spring after coordinating one of college football's best defenses at Air Force last season.
"Some of our players have grown up a little bit and they're playing without a whole lot of hesitation," said coach Mike Sherman. "The scheme itself just fits our personnel."
Specifically, linebackers like Garrick Williams, Sean Porter and hybrid linebacker/defensive ends like Miller and freshman Damontre Moore, who's had an opportunity to play with Miller slowed by an ankle injury.
It also helps to play three teams without facing an offense ranked inside the top 96 nationally.
Texas A&M won't have that luxury on Thursday. It'll find Oklahoma State's offense in Stillwater, with the nation's No. 1 offense, averaging just under 600 yards a game under its own new coordinator, Dana Holgorsen.
"The thing they're doing real well is they're running the football. Kendall Hunter has over 470 yards and six touchdowns. He's fit very well into that scheme," Sherman said. "You think of it when Coach Holgorsen was at Houston as more of a passing offense, and they still pass the ball quite a bit, but I think they're running game is what separates them."
Said Miller: "To keep them with no points on the scoreboard is going to be an extremely hard task. We just want to go in and win, whatever it takes."
Thursday is the Aggies' first big test. Last year's 36-31 loss to the Cowboys in College Station has stuck with Miller since, and he'll get his chance to earn a little respect and revenge this time around.
"We’ve been waiting for this game," Miller said. "We’ve been working and sweating and really it’ll come down to Thursday, a play here or a play there. Hopefully we can win and the football gods will be in our favor."
|John Albright/Icon SMI|
|Mike Sherman returned to Texas A&M after spending time in the NFL.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Sherman returned to Texas A&M where he had served as an assistant coach on R.C. Slocum's power-packed teams of the early 1990s. Whether he can return the Aggies to that lofty position remains to be seen. It might be a challenge for Sherman to crack the expected Oklahoma/Texas Tech/Texas logjam at the top of the South Division.
With eight days before the Aggies' Aug. 30 opener against Arkansas State, here are five major questions that have to be settled for the Aggies to have a successful season:
1. Can the offensive line develop?
Only one starter returns and the Aggies will be green in the trenches. Whether this group can open enough holes to accentuate the talents of Mike Goodson and Co. remains to be seen. It will be A&M's biggest question this season.
2. Are there any playmaking linebackers on the roster?
Losing Misi Tupe and Mark Dodge will hurt. But A&M coaches look for some of the young talent to surprise people. Keep an eye on converted DE Von Miller, converted DB Garrick Williams and Matt Featherston.
3. Will Jerrod Johnson see much action this season?
The Aggies' backup has been compared to Vince Young and Randall Cunningham because of his athleticism. Interestingly, he showed more at the Aggies' recent scrimmage as a tight end. But don't be surprised if he gets some playing time during the season at quarterback, particularly if Stephen McGee struggles against some opponents. But it wouldn't also surprise me if he got a chance to work at tight end as well.
4. Can Sherman find any consistency at wide receiver?
Don't be surprised if freshman Jeff Fuller becomes an immediate playmaker after arriving at school for the spring semester. The Aggies also need some consistency from players like E.J. Shankle, Howard Morrow and Pierre Brown. All have received extensive previous playing time but need to show more in order to be featured. Somebody has to step up.
5. How will Jorvorskie Lane handle the move to fullback?
Lane has been battling his weight throughout his college career and has missed several recent practices with a neck injury. But don't look for him to get many carries with a deep tailback rotation that includes Goodson, Cyrus Gray and Bradley Stephens. Lane will be more of a receiver and short-yardage threat. And if he pouts about his role, he won't play.