Okay, so I’m not going to sit here and claim that I have any formal knowledge of the game of football; I’d be foolish if I began to claim anything otherwise . . .
I can, however, say I think I’ve both watched (all my life) and written (formally, for five years) enough on the subject of college football to know rarely can I remember feeling quite as dumbfounded about a position battle heading into the upcoming season as I do about the one taking place right now down in College Station with Mike Sherman’s Texas A&M Aggies.
For those unfamiliar with the story, let me try and do a little backfilling in order to bring you up to speed . . .
Seems that Sherman recently got the inkling to mix things up on an Aggies’ offense that last year sputtered greatly for most of the season, finishing 67th in the nation in terms of total offense, scoring 25 points and averaging an accumulated 340.9 yards per contest; subsequently, Sherman told members of the media last week that he has agreed to let soon-to-be sophomore standout at wide receiver, Ryan Tannehill, to openly challenge incumbent veteran quarterback for Texas A&M, Jerrod Johnson, during fall practice for the right to play at the staring position under center in 2009.
In theory, the idea might not be such a strange one, especially considering that Tannehill played at the quarterback position as a junior at Big Spring High School (Texas), where he threw for 1410 yards and rushed for 822. The following season, Tannehill repeated as a starter under center, where, as a senior, he led his team to the playoffs, with his numbers decreasing only slightly over the previous season – 1258 yards passing, 617 yards on the ground. He was good enough to be ranked the No. 21 dual-threat quarterback in the country, and was quite vocal about the fact that he strongly desired the opportunity to attend Texas Tech, where his father had played football from 1985-87.
Tannehill, of course, did not get recruited by the Red Raiders; offers from programs like Houston, Tulsa, UTEP, and Texas A&M rolled in instead, and confronted with having to select from a program he likely felt "second-best," Tannehill chose to go with the Aggies in order to have the best opportunity to make an immediate impact on a program with a long tradition of winning – and at a school that was looking for new ground-breaking talent at the quarterback position.
Tannehill redshirted his first season with Texas A&M in a system that strongly favored an option quarterback like former Aggies’ quarterback Stephen McGee, but saw the opportunity to win the job outright in 2008, with Mike Sherman taking over the head coaching position with the departure of Dennis Franchione. The youngster went up against both McGee and a redshirt sophomore in Johnson in off-season camps, and though going six-of-10 passing for 50 yards in last year’s spring game, still fell to third on the depth chart by the time fall rolled around once more.
Determined to take advantage of the young man’s size and athleticism, Sherman was not about to let Tannehill ride the bench for a second-straight year, however. Instead, he asked the redshirt freshman if he would move to receiver, which he did – and with stunning results; by the time the 2008 season had come to a close, Tannehill had recorded 844 receiving yards, a number a mere 11 yards shy of breaking the record set in 2000 by Robert Ferguson.
In the meanwhile, Johnson struggled at times to get a grasp of Sherman’s new offensive scheme, and was literally thrown into the fire mid-season when McGee ended up getting hurt for an extended period of time. Still, Johnson persevered and began settling in games against Texas Tech and Iowa State, in which he threw for a combined 664 yards and four touchdowns, while also scrambling for 16 yards and an additional score against the Cyclones. He’d hit a rough spot in games against Oklahoma and Baylor – the sophomore tossed six of his 12 total interceptions on the year in those two games alone – but would, all said and done, look fairly impressive following the last game of the season against Texas, finishing the year having thrown for 2435 yards and 21 touchdowns and run for 114 yards on 94 attempts.
Those numbers certainly could have been worse – and, in fact, were good enough statistically to make him a more productive quarterback than rising star Robert Griffin at Baylor and Cody Hawkins of Colorado in terms of a comparison of Big 12 passers for 2008.
So why the sudden rush to see Johnson challenged by Tannehill – now two years removed from playing the position – for the starting role at quarterback?
No doubt that Tannehill has – and likely always will – see himself as a quarterback; he’s said so much, telling the Houston Chronicle as late as October of last year, "I still think of myself as a quarterback . . . . [and] still want to be a quarterback here at A&M. Hopefully, that’s the way it turns out."
Little question either that Sherman believes Tannehill is talented enough for the role. He expressed to the media last week, "Ryan’s a fast picker-upper, so to speak. He wastes no time. He’s a very intelligent young man, very athletic young man. I think he will compete and give this challenge every [thing] he has." And he didn’t stop there. "I think we’ll see his very best," Sherman continues, speaking on Tannehill.
"He understands that it’s somewhat of a challenge in regard to Jerrod Johnson having gone through last season as well as the spring under his belt," Texas A&M’s head coach admits. And Sherman notes that Tannehill "really has to throw a knockout punch to be the guy."
Yet, still there’s that almost hopeful optimism – like, if anyone is capable of throwing such a punch, then, at least according to Sherman, Tannehill’s the guy to do it.
But take some simple numbers into consideration: Tannehill accounted for a clean one-third of Texas A&M’s receiving yards last year – the majority of which were thrown by the same quarterback the receiver now is looking to overtake in 2009.
That, it would seem, would be a valuable pairing in terms of advancing an offense no longer capable of drawing on the talent, leadership, and experience of McGee under center.
So why attempt to break it up?
It seems only logical to say that with Tannehill competing for the quarterback job in fall camp, he won’t be working on syncing up with Johnson’s timing, learning to run crisper routes, or coupling with wide receiver Jeff Fulller in a manner that could very well make Texas A&M’s wide receiving corps one of the best in the Big 12 this year – particularly given the level of talent that departed to the NFL at the end of last season from powerhouse squads like Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Missouri.
And, yes, I get it – it is common practice to allow players to try different positions in the off-season. But that, as I understand it, is normally provided for in 7-on-7 drills conducted in the summer and rarely influences a team’s depth chart heading into fall scrimmages.
That all being said, I can’t help but wonder if the move by Sherman – and more importantly, Tannehill – represents a scenario in which individual desires begin to outrank the holistic well-being of the team he is a member of.
Fortunately, it sounds as if Johnson is more than prepared to show Tannehill what he’s got. "Ryan had a great year as a receiver, would be a great receiver for us this year, but he’s also a really good quarterback," Johnson tells Sports Illustrated. "But from my case, I’m confident what I can do."
For the sake of the Aggies’ offense in 2009, I hope so too, Jarrod. I hope so too.
Jason Roberts is founder and lead contributor for PRISM Press Group, an independent sports media group headquartered in Sarasota, Florida and run by he and his wife, Elle Principe-Roberts.