With August training camp just a week away we continue on with our Texas A&M position previews in the Countdown to 2009 with wide receivers. The Aggies had a breakthrough in the passing game in 2008, and in 2009 everyone is back along with a host of impact newcomers that will challenge the Aggie veterans in camp.
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A&M might be in the best shape its ever been when it comes to wide receivers, which couldn't be more different than a year ago at this time. Entering camp in 2008, the Aggies had what basically amounted to a bunch of underachievers. But by the end of the 2008 season, new receivers emerged and took hold.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Tannehill broke freshman record for receiving yards and receptions after moving to receiver from quarterback. Tannehill also broke the freshman record for touchdowns, but was outdone by true freshman Jeff Fuller who also broke the school record for receiving touchdowns in a season with nine.
Heading into August camp, the Aggies have Fuller back who in the spring appeared to be ready to take the next step into a dominating Big 12 receiver. Size surrounds Fuller with Terrence McCoy and Nick Trice while speed is in the slot with Howard Morrow and former cornerback Lionel Smith.
And then there is the host of incoming freshmen that all could make an immediate impact. For the first time in a long time, the Aggies have a dominating go-to guy at the position and have the potential to be flat out stacked for the foreseeable future at receiver.
THE STUD: Jeff Fuller
At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Fuller is a football playing specimen. Add in his route running ability, hands, jumping ability and speed and you have a prototypical NFL wide receiver in an Aggie uniform. Only a sophomore, Fuller has completely taken over as A&M's best offensive playmaker on the field.
In the spring, Fuller's combination with junior quarterback Jerrod Johnson as almost perfect. In the spring game, whenever Johnson would get in trouble he would just throw it up in the air in Fuller's direction since he was in single coverage. Fuller finished the game with 147 yards on nine receptions with a touchdown.
Fuller is far cry from where he was just a year ago. He enrolled early at A&M to take part in spring drills, and to say he was lost would be an understatement. In August camp, however, it all clicked for Fuller and he quickly began to showcase his immense potential. By the end of the season, everyone knew how good he could be. And after this past spring, it's evident that he is ready to fulfill that potential.
THE VETERAN: Howard Morrow
Morrow is entering his fifth season in College Station after redshirting two seasons ago due to a wrist injury. Morrow, however, hasn't lived up to the billing after coming out of Keller Fossil Ridge as a four-star prospect. He gained a lot of weight during his tenure at A&M, which decreased his speed and effectiveness on the field.
But this spring Morrow proved that he could cut the weight and fit in as a slot receiver in head coach Mike Sherman's offense. If he can get back to the play that made him such a highly sought after prospect, then Morrow may finish his career on a high note.
As a veteran, no one in A&M's receiving corps has gained as much experience in college football as Morrow. He is easily the elder statesman of a very young group of receivers.
KEEP A CLOSE EYE ON: Lionel Smith
Two weeks into spring drills A&M coaches decided to make the ranks at cornerback even thinner by moving Smith to wide receiver. In his two weeks at the position, the sophomore made mistakes but also made spectacular plays. He brings a lot of speed to the slot and should push Morrow from the outset in August.
With an entire summer under his belt at the position, it'll be interesting to see how much he has improved since the spring. If it's enough, then Smith could be in the discussion as the starting slot receiver.
THE GHOST: Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill doesn't have blazing speed. He doesn't have freakish athletic ability. He wasn't a monster recruit coming out of Big Spring High School. So why was he as effective as he was in 2008?
He does all the little things right, he has great hands, he's consistent and he thinks like a quarterback. The last point is exactly why Tannehill's status as a receiver is up in the air heading into August camp. After a spring in which no one stepped up behind Johnson as a backup quarterback, the job fell to Tannehill who didn't even throw in live drills after surgery on his throwing shoulder.
Now, Sherman is fearful of losing his backup quarterback to injury if Tannehill were to play every down as a receiver. It's especially frightening considering that the Aggies lost starting quarterback Stephen McGee so early in the season last year behind a patchwork offensive line, and there is no guarantee yet that the offensive line is going to be that much better in 2009.
Expect to still see Tannehill in obvious passing situations, but not on every down. Not unless another quarterback proved worthy of backing up Johnson and makes believers of the coaching staff that he can successfully lead the A&M offense should he be called upon.
All four freshmen at receiver will have a chance to make an immediate impact in 2009, and all four have earned great accolades from veterans in summer 7-on-7 workouts. Jackson is said to be the best freshman receiver in the air, out-jumping anyone for a ball. After having burners at receiver over the years that didn't always have the hands, the Aggies seem to have found a pair of speedsters in Nwachukwu and Swope. With those three, there are no surprised here.
But McNeal, however, has been the surprise in the summer. After playing quarterback at Spring High School, McNeal is making the move to receiver and he has constantly been talked about as the most complete receiver among the freshmen. How he does in pads this August, however, will go a long way in understanding what type of an impact he can make in 2009.
With a headliner like Fuller, a supporting cast such as McCoy, Trice, Smith and Cody Beyer, and a freshmen class with McNeal, Jackson, Nwachukwu and Swope the Aggies could quickly put together one of the best groups of receivers in the Big 12. That statement should be shocking considering where A&M was at the position just a year ago. Credit the A&M staff with finding the players and coaching them up.
But everyone except Fuller is unproven, unless of course Tannehill jumps back into the mix. The talent is undeniable, but the experience is lacking. Still, with an improved offensive line, an improved running game forcing defenses to stay honest and Johnson slinging the ball around at quarterback this group of receivers could have a record-breaking type season.
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