Reggie McNeal leads one of the most talented backfields in the country alongside Courtney Lewis. Last season, McNeal needed 68 more yards rushing to become the third quarterback in NCAA history to pass for 2,000 and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. McNeal had a 14 to 4 touchdown to interception ratio in 2004. Teams will try and force McNeal to beat them in the pocket. McNeal is capable of beating you from within the pocket, but if you are unable to contain him, he is near unstoppable. McNeal only had one turnover in the first seven games of last season. McNeal was hurt last season against Oklahoma, and his back up Ty Branyon nearly pulled off the upset. Branyon proved he is a dependable backup, if McNeal goes down.
It is hard to believe Lewis was not healthy against Clemson last season. Lewis rushed for 167 yards to lead the Aggies 324 yard rushing effort that night. When healthy, Lewis is day one pick in the NFL draft. He has 4.4 speed and he can change direction very well at full speed. Lewis finished last season with 814 yards and 9 touchdowns. The Aggies really do not use Lewis as a receiving target out of the backfield. There is a stable of untested, talented running backs behind Lewis. Redshirt freshman Samson Taylor and junior Brandon Leone will be ready to challenge Lewis, if he falters. Head Coach Dennis Franchione is very high on incoming freshman Jorvorskie Lane.
The Aggies must replace their top receiving target in Terrence Murphy. Murphy had 56 catches for 721 yards last season. Murphy will be difficult to replace, but the Aggies return three receivers, who caught 20 or more passes in 2004. Senior Jason Carter will become McNeal's top target this season. Carter had 36 receptions for 468 yards in '04, but did not catch a touchdown pass. There is also still some concerns concerning Carter's eligibilty. A&M expects to utilize a shorter passing game this season allowing the talented open field runners to work. Sophomore Earvin Taylor may emerge as the #2 target as the sophomore showed flashes of brilliance his freshman season. The Aggies do expect a big contribution from highly touted incoming freshman tight end Martellus Bennett. Bennett was considered the nation's top high school tight end by many, and Aggie fans rejoiced when he withdrew from the NBA draft.
On the offensive line, A&M returns 9 of 10 on the two-deep. The line was very good early in the season. They only gave up five sacks in the first seven games. Starting with a loss to Baylor, the line began to struggle giving up 19 sacks in the last five games. The Aggies average over 300 pounds across the offensive front. Jami Hightower anchors the big offensive front that paves the way for the Aggie rushing attack.
Those in the Aggie camp are touting the Aggies' defensive front as the most talented in the Big 12 for 2005. There is no shortage of beef up the middle as Johnny Jolly (6-4, 309) and Red Bryant (6-4, 312) make running lanes few and far between for opposing offenses. Super soph Jason Jack will make things difficult on opposing quarterbacks. Jack is a talented edge rusher, who picked up two sacks during his freshman season. Sophomore Chris Harrington completes the defensive front.
Franchione inherited a pitiful excuse for linebackers in his first season at A&M. He is returning the linebackers to the form expected from the old Wrecking crew days. Justin Warren, Archie McDaniel, and Renuel Greene are listed as the starters heading into the fall, but Lee Foliaki may push Warren for his starting role. Foliaki is a trash talking linebacker, who can back it up. He was the top tackling linebacker for the Aggies last season in his first year out of JUCO. The A&M linebackers have good range and last season against Clemson, they were able to get in really good drops in coverage making it very difficult for Clemson to throw across the middle.
The secondary has to replace both corners as Jonte Buhl and Byron Jones depart. Talented sophomore Erik Mayes will anchor one corner. Mayes is slightly undersized at 5-9, but his 4.3 speed makes him a very good cover corner. Redshirt freshman Danny Gorrer is slated to start at the other corner spot. The Aggies are in very good shape at the safety positions. Jaxson Appel and Japhus Brown return to anchor the secondary. Appel was the Aggies' leading tackler in '04. Coach Franchione would like to see Appel's interceptions increase as he did not intercept a pass in '04. Brown had 62 tackles and 3 interceptions in his freshman campaign.
Todd Pegram returns to handle placekicking duties for the Aggies. Pegram was 12-13 with a long of 44 yards in '04. The only concern with Pegram is that he missed five extra points in '04. Incoming freshman Justin Brantly is expected to takeover the punting duties. Brantly was one the top rated high school kickers last season. Jason Carter and Erik Mayes return to handle kickoff and punt return duties respectively. Carter averaged 18.3 yards on kickoff returns and Mayes averaged 6.1 yards on punt returns.
The Aggies could be considered a sleeper in the Big XII as Oklahoma and Texas receive all of the headlines. The Aggies are talented enough to keep in fourth quarter with both Oklahoma and Texas. A&M will likely win 8 or 9 games in 2005. McNeal and Lewis are extremely dangerous in the backfield together. The loss of Murphy will be a factor, but McNeal still has 5 of his top 6 targets receiving. The front seven should generate enough of a pass rush to help the new starters at cornerback make the transition. Franchione's teams generally show improvement each season, and in his third season at the helm his Aggies may very well be the most difficult opponent on Clemson's slate for 2005.