COLLEGE STATION, Texas – For a program steeped in as much tradition as Texas A&M, the last several years have been tough.
The once-feared Aggies haven't found much success since the glory days of the Wrecking Crew defenses of the late 1980s and early 1990s. From 1985-1998, Texas A&M won seven conference championships. Since then, the Aggies haven't finished atop their conference and haven't even had a winning record in Big 12 play since 2006.
A year ago, a 6-7 record and a 44-20 loss to Georgia in the Independence Bowl left fans wondering whether the team will ever be a power again. Third-year coach Mike Sherman believes Texas A&M is making progress.
"When I took the job, I really felt that we had enough of a recruiting base in the state of Texas and that we had enough to sell, that we would be able to recruit players to come to make Texas A&M that type of team," he said. "I think we're getting closer to that point, that vision that I had when I took the job. This season for us is about taking that next step, and the next step for us it to be in games in the fourth quarter with two minutes left where you're in position to win the football game."
The Aggies do have one of the best returning quarterbacks in the nation in Jerrod Johnson.
Johnson, who was picked by the media as the preseason Big 12 offensive player of the year, led the league in total offense a year ago with more than 314 yards a game. He threw for 3,579 yards and 30 touchdowns with eight interceptions and ran for 506 yards and eight more scores.
Johnson is happy about his preseason accolades, but knows none of that will matter if his team doesn't win.
"On the offensive side of the ball it is all about 11 guys executing properly," he said. "We've got some talented guys on offense and we did pretty well last year, but we need to be more consistent this year."
Sherman loves the leader that Johnson has become and said he began embracing that role more this spring. The quarterback holds his teammates accountable and expects the same thing from himself.
Johnson was 296-of-497 last season for a completion percentage near 60 percent. Sherman would like to see that number improve to somewhere in the 70s. The challenge for Johnson and the coaching staff this season is making sure they don't "clutter his mind" with too much stuff.
"He's so dang smart (so) there's a tendency to put a lot on him," Sherman said. "And eventually it becomes stagnant, and he becomes unable to do the things that he's been gifted to do."
The Aggies will not have much experience in front of Johnson. Sherman expects at least three freshman to be playing and possibly starting this year on the offensive line. The Aggies are excited about the progress of freshman Luke Joeckel, who did well at left tackle in spring practice after enrolling in January.
"In order for us to be successful on offense, the offensive line has to click," Sherman said. "If we can't protect the quarterback, we can't get the ball into our receivers' hands. If we can't create running space, our talented running backs won't be able to run. So everything rests in that offensive line."
Texas A&M's defense had a difficult time last season, allowing a whopping 426 yards a game and finishing ranked 105th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Aggies are hoping a return to the 3-4 defense and the return of FBS sack leader Von Miller will help turn the unit around this year. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Miller had 17 sacks, 21.5 tackles for losses and 48 total tackles last season.
Sherman isn't worried about whether Miller will lead the nation in sacks this season. He said that isn't necessarily the best indicator of how much he's doing for the defense.
"My whole objective with him is that he distracts an offense, that he causes concern for a quarterback, he takes him out of his rhythm," Sherman said. "If he does that, he does his job. I'm not a big stat guy to begin with, but his presence should change how an offense is planning to play the game."
Miller, who flirted with leaving early for the NFL, is excited about the team in his last season.
"I think we're a lot more confident," he said. "We know each other a lot better and I think the overall sense of confidence with the team has just improved a lot more."
The Aggies open the season with three straight home games, starting with Stephen F. Austin on Sept. 4. Sherman is as antsy as anyone to see the Aggies return to where they once were and he believes Texas A&M will be better now that his young team has a bit more experience.
"I think the Big 12 needs A&M to step up to the plate ... and be that type of team," he said. "We're ready to accept that challenge."