(Part 5 of a 14-part SEC preview series)
Texas A&M is hoping to take a step forward after three consecutive 8-5 campaigns.
Sixth-year coach Kevin Sumlin goes into preseason camp with 14 returning starters (5 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists) as the Aggies seek to improve upon a 4-4 Southeastern Conference finish.
Offensively, the Aggies ranked third in the league with 34.8 points per game, sixth in rushing (211.8 yards per game), fourth in passing (255.2 ypg) and second in total offense (467 ypg).
The Aggies have a crowd at quarterback.
Senior Jake Hubenak appeared in seven games last season, drawing two starts in place of the injured Trevor Knight. Hubenak completed 61-of-104 passes for 884 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
A trio of freshmen are also in the fray. Nick Starkel appears to be the early favorite after being redshirted last fall. Kellen Mond and Connor Blumrick both enrolled early and went through spring practice.
Sophomore Trayveon Williams (156 carries, 1,057 yards, 8 TDs) and senior Keith Ford (126-669-6) form a solid tailback tandem.
TAMU lost four of its top five receivers, but returns a gem in Christian Kirk, who hauled in an SEC-leading 83 receptions for 928 yards and 9 TDs. In the process, he became the first player in school history to post consecutive 80-catch seasons. Besides earning first-team All-SEC acclaim at three different positions (all-purpose, wide receiver, return specialist), Kirk collected All-America honors for his return exploits. He ran back 13 punts for a 21.7-yard average and a national best 3 TDs, and six kickoffs at a 28-yard clip.
Four starters return to the offensive line. Colton Prater moves to center after starting 12 games (10 at guard, 2 at tackle) as a true freshman out of Bossier City Airline. Sophomore Erik McCoy remains at left guard, with junior Connor Lanfear at right guard and junior Keaton Sutherland at right tackle. Junior Koda Martin joins the first group at left tackle.
Defensively, the Aggies ranked seventh in the SEC in scoring (24.5 points per game), eighth in rushing (191.8 ypg), 13th in passing (250 ypg) and 10th in total defense (441.8 ypg).
A&M must replace end Myles Garrett (15 tackles for loss, 8 sacks), the No. 1 pick of the NFL draft, along with its top two tacklers in linebacker Shaan Washington (104 tackles, TFL, 2 sacks) and strong safety Justin Evans (87 tackles, 4 INTs).
Senior Zaycoven Henderson (40 tackles, 10 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) and juniors Kingsley Keke (37 tackles, 7 TFL, 4 sacks) and Daylon Mack (25 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) give the Aggies a trio of seasoned tackles.
Senior Jarrett Johnson (19 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks), junior Qualen Cunningham (17 tackles) and Cisco (Texas) Junior College transfer Michael Clemons are the ends.
Aside from junior Otaro Alaka (74 tackles, 9 TFL, 2 sacks), the top returning tackler, experience is scarce at linebacker. Sophomore Tyrel Dodson (27 tackles, 1.5 TFL), junior Cullen Gillaspia (9 tackles, 1 forced fumble) and true freshman Anthony Hines III will also factor into the equation.
Four seniors return in the secondary in nickel back Donovan Wilson (59 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT), cornerbacks Priest Willis (33 tackles, 1 INT in 8 games) and Nick Harvey (66 tackles, 1 INT) and strong safety Armani Watts (56 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 INT). Sophomore Larry Pryor (34 tackles, 1 INT) is the free safety.
Junior Daniel LaCamera and senior Shane Tripucka return to handle the kicking and punting, respectively. LaCamera was 17-of-24 on field goals with a long of 49, flawless on 54 extra points and drove 55 of 76 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. Tripucka was called upon 69 times for a 42.9-yard average with 27 punts downed inside the 20.
2017 TEXAS A&M SCHEDULE
(All Times Central)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 3 (Sun.) at UCLA 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 9 Nicholls State 6:00
Sept. 16 Louisiana-Lafayette TBA
Sept. 23 at Arkansas* TBA
Sept. 30 South Carolina* TBA
Oct. 7 Alabama* TBA
Oct. 14 at Florida* TBA
Oct. 28 Mississippi State* TBA
Nov. 4 Auburn* TBA
Nov. 11 New Mexico TBA
Nov. 18 at Ole Miss* TBA
Nov. 25 at LSU* TBA