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March 23, 2010

A&M looks to shore up defense in spring

They scored 52 points against Texas Tech. They scored 39 against Texas. They put up more than 30 on seven other teams.

No doubt, the Texas A&M Aggies can score. Imagine the numbers they could register if they could face their own defense, which allowed a Big 12-high 436 points last season.

Bolstering the defense is without question the top priority this spring, and A&M has brought in coordinator Tim DeRuyter from Air Force to do it. Last season, the Falcons ranked 11th in the nation in total defense and allowed fewer than half the points that A&M did (204).

That at least provides hope that the Aggies can resurface as a contender in the Big 12 South race. Any defensive improvement would be significant because there is no doubt the Aggies' offense can score.

Here's a look at A&M as it prepares to open spring drills.

TEXAS A&m AT-A-GLANCE
QB Jerrod Johnson leads a strong offense, but the Aggies need help on defense.
THE BASICS
Coach: Mike Sherman
Last season: 6-7 overall, 3-5 in the Big 12. Lost 44-20 to Georgia in the Independence Bowl.
Spring dates: March 23-April 17.
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (7): G Evan Eike, WR Jeff Fuller, RB Cyrus Gray, WR Brandal Jackson, QB Jerrod Johnson, T Patrick Lewis, WR Uzoma Nwachukwu.
Defense (9): T Eddie Brown, CB Terrence Frederick, CB Dustin Harris, LB Michael Hodges, SS Trent Hunter, LB Kyle Mangan, E/LB Von Miller, T Lucas Patterson, LB Garrick Williams.
Special teams (2): K Randy Bullock, P Ryan Epperson.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

The Aggies are as good as any team in the Big 12 at quarterback, running back and receiver. Heck, they may be as good as any team in the country at those spots. Johnson earned All-Big 12 mention last season after passing for 3,579 yards and 30 touchdowns. Gray and Christine Michael each exceeded 750 rushing yards, and both have big-play ability. The top three receivers in '09 had more than 40 catches, and all of them return. That includes Ryan Tannehill, who doubles as Johnson's backup.

HELP IS NEEDED

The offensive line has been a problem area for a while, and the defense has had issues even longer. Even though A&M has to replace three starters along the offensive line, the Aggies don't figure to decline much - if at all - in pass protection. The Aggies allowed 29 sacks in '09 and that was with the extremely mobile Johnson at quarterback. Defensively, A&M needs help in the line and the secondary. The Aggies were poor against the run and even worse in pass defense. As a result, they gave up those 436 points. Only seven teams in the nation allowed more. And as anyone who saw the Independence Bowl can attest, the special teams must be upgraded, too.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

OT Stephen Barrera: He made three starts as a true freshman last season. With a year's experience and growth, Barrera figures to step into the starting lineup and hopefully help reinforce the spotty pass protection.

CB Coryell Judie: Help is needed in the secondary, and Judie could provide it. The only junior college transfer in the 2009 recruiting class, Judie was expected to make a major contribution last season but ended up sitting out with a dislocated shoulder. He could upgrade the secondary immediately if he has recovered.

TE Hutson Prioleau: The loss of Jamie McCoy leaves a gaping hole at tight end. No other tight end on the roster had more than one catch last season. At 6 feet 4 and 253 pounds, Prioleau, a redshirt freshman, has the bulk to provide blocking help and the hands and athletic ability to be an effective receiver.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

S Bradley Stephens: He was lauded for the potential he flashed as a freshman running back in 2008. But he managed just 132 rushing yards last season in a backup role to Gray and Michael. This spring, Stephens is moving to safety. If he doesn't distinguish himself, you have to wonder what his future holds.

THE BUZZ

Right now the most popular man in College Station is DeRuyter, the latest in a line of men hoping to restore A&M's defense to something resembling the old "Wrecking Crew" units of days (long) gone by. Any progress the Aggies make trying to upgrade a defense that ranked last in the Big 12 will be of keen interest in the Brazos Valley. A&M is going back to a 3-4, the base set they used in the "Wrecking Crew" years. The Aggies have endured several years of mediocre offensive line play, too, so fingers are crossed that young linemen can make major strides in their development.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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