With less than 100 days until Aggie Football kicks off, it's time to start thinking more specifically what this year's group is going to look like Year four of Sumlin's tenure really should tell us (rankings aside) how good of a job he's done of putting a team together based on his vision.
1. DE. Not only is there high-end talent with Myles Garrett, there is quality depth on both sides, moreso than any other position. Between Julian Obiaha, Daeshon Hall, Qualen Cunningham, and my personal pick to surprise people this year, Darrell Jackson, the Aggies will have the ability to go three-deep on the edges. Garrett has already proven to be a fearsome pass rusher with 11.5 sacks (only four players in America averaged more sacks per game than Garrett). The rest all have great size and length. Note: I wrote this BEFORE hearing A&M Defensive Coordinator John Chavis make a comment about possibly having the best defensive ends in the nation.
2. QB. This is the position with the most upside on the offense. Two quarterbacks, sophomore Kyle Allen and freshman Kyler Murray, will battle it out this summer (along with incoming transfer Jake Hubenak). Both were highly rated, well-developed passers out of high school. Kyle Allen had some ups and downs as a true freshman in the SEC, but he beat a top 5 team on the road (a 41-38 victory at Auburn) and played almost flawlessly in the 45-37 Liberty Bowl victory over West Virginia. That game showed what Allen can do, and I expect him- if he holds on to the job- to build on that and have a very strong season under the tutelage of quarterback whisperer Kevin Sumlin. And if he doesn't, Kyler Murray, while only a true freshman, has the tools to succeed in the SEC, even as a true freshman. I have been on his bandwagon for a long time, and I honestly believe he is good enough to win games in the SEC West right away.
3. WR. This is another position that's cause for optimism. In 2014, A&M essentially had first-year players on the field at three of the wide receiver spots. Speedy Noil, Ricky Seals-Jones, and Josh Reynolds were all talented but inexperienced. Reynolds had a great season, setting an A&M record for touchdown catches with 13. Noil had 46 catches for 583 yards, while Seals-Jones had 49 for 465. All of them return, and while the Aggie lost the experience (and big plays in big moments over his career) of Malcome Kennedy, they replace him with incoming freshman Christian Kirk, who was a five star recruit and is more athletically gifted. This group could easily be as high as #2 on the list, but I felt like they still have to improve on getting open, catching the ball, and blocking.
4. RB. On paper they aren't in super position, but for me, the running back position is in great shape. Senior Tra Carson proved in the bowl game that he can succeed if called upon, sophomore James White showed flashes in limited action in 2014 and was widely considered a breakout performer in the spring, and I believe incoming freshman Kendall Bussey will be a contributor for A&M from day one. The Aggies can also continue to use senior Brandon Williams in spot duty if necessary. The position lacks star power, but I believe it has very quietly become a very solid position on the offense. Other positions may have a higher ceiling, but I believe the running back position has the least uncertainty.
5. OL. It almost feels wrong to put this group so low, especially with studs like senior center Mike Matthews and junior tackle Germain Ifedi. But the line struggled at times last year and until they prove that they can execute what is expected to be a more physical run scheme this year, I can't put them any higher. It's a talented group, and the ceiling is high, but they have much to prove.
6. DT. A&M has really struggled at this position in the last few years. Injuries and other attrition have kept the Aggies from ever having the luxury of using experienced, healthy upperclassmen. But recruiting has improved, and now the Aggies will have a senior and a couple of juniors, along with some talented and highly-touted underclassmen. Freshman Daylon Mack provides potential star power and already looks like an upperclassman.
7. Safety. Sophomore Armani Watts returns after getting a lot of valuable playing time as a freshman, and incoming sophomore Justin Evans was the star of the spring on the defensive side of the ball. Still, if those two are starting, that's less than 10 combined starts between them, and there are no proven backups. It's a position that could surprise, but it's very much a "wait and see" situation.
8. CB. Senior Devante Harris is, in my opinion, a better than average cover corner, and he should be solid. As for the other corner and the nickel/dime spots, umm... who knows? There are a handful of young guys that were highly recruited but no one has emerged.
9. LB. I think junior A.J. Hilliard is a guy with all-conference potential, and the Aggies got a lot of playing time for their young guys last year, but depth is a major concern, as is proven production. I think A&M will still be relying on only a few legitimate contributors, and if anyone goes down, it will be a long season for the Aggies at that position.
10. TE. I put them at the bottom almost by default, considering A&M's sparse use of the position, but even looking at the depth chart, they belong at 10th. Cam Clear is gone and despite making waves every offseason was unable to live up to lofty expectations in 2014. Senior Brandon Alexander has zero career catches and freshman Jordan Davis will be the de facto starter. Davis is a guy the Aggie coaches are excited about, and it is a legitimate possibility that A&M will feature more tight end sets than in the past, but until we see it happen and see some actual use of the tight end, it's fair to be skeptical.
1) DE. This is obvious. It's fair to argue that A&M has the best 1-2 punch at DE in the country in Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. Garrett is a gamechanger, and should be a household name by the end of the year...and the best part is he's still learning how to play the position. Daeshon Hall showed signs of finally figuring out what his role is and how to use his rangy frame to get where he needs to be. Last but not least, I'm big on Qualen Cunningham. I wonder sometimes whether he'd be better at linebacker, but the guy showed potential last year of being able to make good things happen. Toss in James Lockhart and I think we've got a solid group here.
2) OL. The talent is there across the board...Ifedi is a first round talent. Cheek has a ton of starts. Matthews is a Matthews. Then you toss in guys like Eluemunor, Gennesy (who I think is likely going to be our next first round pick after Ifedi), Martin etc. and you have an incredibly deep pool of players to pick a starting 5 from. Dave Christensen is exactly what this group needs...the added toughness and increased emphasis on hands in the dirt, man on man blocking seems to suit this group's ability. I look for big things out of them.
3) WR. Like I said with OL...the talent is there. Noil, RSJ, and Reynolds alone should be enough to put fear into the hearts of DCs. But we're also talking about a group of folks who are still learning the position. This is only RSJ's 3rd year to play the WR spot full time. Year 2 for Speedy and Ed Pope. Last year that inexperience translated to inconsistent and sometimes sloppy route running...but you have to think that Aaron Moorehead will get that cleaned up. Tons of potential...let's hope we can translate that to equal production
4) RB. Someday I'm going to get "TRA CARSON IS AN EVERY DOWN BACK" tattooed on my back. Because it's true. Tra Carson has the ability to carry this offense and do exactly what new run game coordinator Dave Christensen wants him to do. Then you toss in a guy like James White who's potential is through the roof and you have a dynamic 1-2 punch full capable of pounding on a defense. Combine all that power with the speed of Brandon Williams. I like this group a lot, and am hopeful that we get them the ball consistently.
5) QB. Forget Kyler Murray (for now), Kyle Allen is going to have a great year. The arm strength/talent is there. The intangibles are there. The overall ability to lead this team and do what needs to be done is there. I feel fully confident that we will see a significant increase in his overall production from year one to year two. And then you toss in Kyler Murray who (in my opinion) might not be ready to start yet, but should push Allen hard in the pre-season. Eventually this will be Kyler's team but it won't be this year. Finish that group out with Jake Hubenak and Lightening McQueen and I think A&M is in the best shape at QB it's been since 2012 (Showers, Manziel, Joeckel).
6) DT. Odd group really. On paper this group should be one of the teams ranking at the top...Veteran Alonzo Williams, combined with Hardreck Walker, DeShawn Washington, Zaycoven Henderson, Kingsley Keke, and last but not least my boy Daylon Mack. But the truth is that we just haven't seen this group produce at a consistently high level despite being riddled with outstanding players. Maybe Mark Hagen moving back to his natural DT coaching spot will be able to take them to a new level...because the talent is most definitely there.
7a) Safety. My prediction is that one out of Watts or Wilson will move to corner this year leaving us with a group consisting of Watts/Wilson, Evans, Dunning, and Pryor. Evans is a star in the making. In fact I'd be surprised if he didn't make his impact known from day one on the field. I think he represents an upgrade at the spot over much maligned wheel route coverer Howard Matthews.
7b) LB. Despite the low rankings, I don't feel too bad about LB. I think Chavis can make a productive unit out of Hilliard, Washington, Alaka, and Walker...not to mention the new guys. I really really like Alaka...I think he's going to be a star for us. The big questions I have are 1) can they stay healthy...all of these guys being out for the spring certainly doesn't make me feel better, and one of them going down puts us in a bad position and 2) what's our depth chart look like at MLB? Walker is solid there...but after him does it go to Claude George? Is Riley Garner ready to be in a 2 deep? There's some talent here, but Chavis has his work cut out for him a little bit to make this group as good as it possibly can be.
8) CB. I stay up late fretting about our CBs. I stay up late bemoaning our CB recruiting last year...we needed at least 3, ideally 4 and we landed 2. I'm the president of the Devante Harris fan club (I might also be its only member). I think he's got the ability play the role as Chavis intended for it to be played. The question is who plays alongside him? Victor Davis struggled last year, Noel Ellis is coming off of an illness, Garner is a totally unknown quantity, Harvey was a hair away from transferring and are DCS and Elam ready to go? Just typing this made my palms sweat a little bit.
Incomplete: TE)...Yeah...hard to really say what we're going to do here given that we've got journey man Brandon Alexander and incoming fish Jordan Davis. Maybe Ohio State provided us with a blueprint on how to use the TE as an H-Back to create power running out of the spread...but I have no idea what/how we're going to use the TE this year.
So that's what we've got. Are we right? Are we totally off? Share your thoughts in the comments!