Aggies ready to bring focus to football
Texas A&M has a top-10 preseason ranking for the first time in more than a decade and returns 18 starters from last year's 9-4 team.
Too bad that's been overshadowed for weeks by the Aggies' plans to leave the Big 12. Now that Texas A&M has officially announced its intention to leave, the eighth-ranked Aggies are ready to bring the focus back to football on Sunday when they open the season against SMU.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill said this offseason felt longer than past ones and he can't wait to get back on the field.
''We're definitely excited for it,'' he said. ''The raised expectations do bring a higher excitement. We do realize the talent we have, and now it's our job to prove that.''
Tannehill, who led the team to a 6-1 finish after taking over at midseason, leads a powerful offense that includes a 1,000-yard rusher in Cyrus Gray and 1,000-yard receiver in Jeff Fuller. Teammates rave about the how Tannehill has grown since becoming the starter last year.
''He's come a long way,'' receiver Ryan Swope said. ''This summer he had all of us up here. He's a great leader. He was texting everyone to go up and throw with him, lift with him, run with him. He's the guy staying on top of everyone and showing senior leadership. He's done a great job. He's always working on trying to get our tempo going.''
His development certainly hasn't been hurt by having Fuller as his top target. Fuller flirted with declaring for the NFL draft before returning for his senior year after grabbing 72 receptions for 1,066 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.
''Jeff's an all-around guy,'' Tannehill said. ''He can get open underneath, run a quick slant, or beat a guy deep. He has strong hands and can go up and get the ball ... (he) can really do anything you ask him to. I think his best asset is his hands. He can catch the ball away from his body in tough positions.''
Fuller has been bothered by a hamstring injury in camp, but Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman hopes he'll be healthy enough to play against the Mustangs.
SMU coach June Jones knows his secondary will have its hands full against Fuller.
''He's got great catching range and he's fast,'' Jones said. ''And, he's a bigger kid than the fast kids we have been playing like the kid at TCU or the kid at Tulsa or other undersized guys. This guy is a legitimate NFL wide receiver.''
Texas A&M will face an SMU team coming off two straight bowl appearances and anxious to showcase its continued improvement.
Jones isn't worried about his team handling the challenge of playing in front of a sold-out crowd on Sunday.
''Well, I'd say this is a big arena, and the mindset has been really positive,'' Jones said. ''Our kids have really reported in shape; the best condition that any team I've coached has had coming into the fall. I'd say their mindset is where it needs to be.''
The Aggies know better than to underestimate SMU and are impressed with the progress the Mustangs have made since Jones took over.
Texas A&M senior assistant and quarterbacks coach Tom Rossley knows better than most how impressive SMU's recent success has been. He became coach at SMU just two years after the Mustangs didn't field a team for two years because of the NCAA's ''death penalty'' and coached there until 1996.
''They've gone through many, many years, the student body and the alums, of not having many celebrations,'' Rossley said. ''That's what football is all about, being able to celebrate after a win. They haven't been able to, at least during my era. Now June is giving them that, and he's doing a great job. That's good for the state of Texas.''
The Mustangs also have a strong trio of players returning on offense with quarterback Kyle Padron, running back Zach Line and receiver Cole Beasley. Padron set school records in yards passing (3,828), total yards (4,072), touchdowns (31), completions (302) and attempts (508) last season.
''Padron has had phenomenal success in the offense,'' Sherman said. ''You think about his numbers last year, I think he was over a 2-for-1 touchdown to interception ratio, I think he had 31 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, almost 4,000 yards passing ... they are very similar (to A&M) in the sense that they didn't lose very many players from last year. They are very effective ... they are like us, they have some pretty good receivers, a good run game and a very experienced offensive line.''