COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Numerous questions surround Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M going into the 2017 season. That list includes replacing No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Myles Garrett, finding a quarterback to replace veteran Trevor Knight and finding out how to avoid the November swoon that has plagued the Aggies since the departure of Johnny Manziel.
Still, the Aggies return a do-it-all playmaker in wide receiver Christian Kirk, one of the better safety duos in the nation with Armani Watts and Donovan Wilson and a schedule conducive to another 5-0 start.
If the Aggies can survive the meat of the SEC schedule that sees them play Alabama and Florida in back-to-back weeks, that will go a long way toward determining how the season goes — and whether Texas A&M will be looking for a new coach after the season.
Here are three areas that the Aggies need to address in preseason camp, which opens Friday.
1. Find a starting quarterback for the opening weekend at UCLA
The skinny: For the fourth year in a row, the Aggies will have a new quarterback under center for the opener. Although the starter will be new, Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone are not short of options at the position.
Fifth-year senior Jake Hubenak brings the most experience to the competition. He also has the best knowledge of Mazzone’s system and has proven capable of winning games. Still, the odds-on favorite is one of the two freshmen, Nick Starkel or Kellen Mond.
Starkel, a redshirt freshman, brings a cannon of an arm. Mond, a true freshman, adds a dual-threat capability that makes him dangerous extending the play when things break down. The main goal for the quarterback should boil down to one simple point; Who can best get the ball to Kirk?
2. Find a pass rush
The skinny: It’s been well-documented that the Aggies struggled to get to the quarterback in 2016 – and that was with two draft picks coming off the edge in Garrett and Daeshon Hall.
Most of the passing-rushing responsibilities likely will fall to two seniors, Qualen Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson, who have combined for eight sacks in their careers. Another player expected to factor into the pass rush equation is JC transfer defensive end Micheal Clemons. He already has garnered the nickname “Cyclops” from Sumlin. Hopefully, “Cyclops” can find his way to the quarterback.
Another possibility could be sophomore Justin Dunning, a former safety now playing linebacker. Dunning (6 feet 4, 235 pounds) is extremely athletic and has excellent speed for a guy his size, but he first must show he has the ability to play a whole season. Each of his first two seasons was cut short by a knee injury.
3. Make some noticeable defensive improvement
The skinny: This season will be the third for defensive coordinator John Chavis, and his A&M defenses have yet to meet expectations.
The Aggies’ finished 90th in total defense last season and that was with Garrett, Justin Evans and Hall, though Garrett was not playing at 100 percent for the season’s entirety.
With players such as Watts, Wilson and DT Kingsley Keke returning, identifying other playmakers and finding depth will be a huge priority for the man they call “Chief.”
Chavis will have to turn to inexperienced players at key positions if he wants to get better, specifically at linebacker. Touted true freshman Anthony Hines will be expected to contribute from day one; the same goes for sophomore Tyrel Dodson, who made 27 tackles in a back-up role in 2016.
Improved linebacker play is a must as the Aggies try to improve a run defense that surrendered 191.8 yards per game last season.
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