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We'll be as good as our offensive line," says Texas A&M Offensive Coordinator Pat Ruel. If true, that's unsettling news around College Station, where hopes are extremely high—unrealistically so—following the hiring of Pitt genius Jackie Sherrill as the new head coach. Of course, writing out a couple of checks for a total of $1.62 million to entice a football coach to come and blow his whistle on your field tends to make one fervently believe that it's going to pay off. Big. And quickly.
If Ruel is correct, however, the Aggies may be in for a disappointment. As he concedes glumly, "The offensive line isn't our strength. My job is to turn them around." To this end, he sent all his offensive linemen a 16-line memo in May, in which he outlined his summer orders for them. One message was repeated 14 times: "Lift weights." Then he added a postscript: "There was a central theme to this letter. Those of you who can demonstrate this theme without verbal exchange are destined for greatness."
Ruel's hopes—indeed, Sherrill's hopes—rest primarily on 6'4" Right Tackle Tommy Robison, not only the line's best player but also, at 275 pounds, the heaviest. Other starters who have been pumping iron include Tackle Bryan Dausin, 6'4", 274 pounds; guards Greg Porter, 6'4", 240, and Tim Ward, 6'5", 275; and Center Matt Darwin, 6'4", 248. Unfortunately, pass blocking doesn't seem to be their strength, and if that doesn't change quickly, it's going to cause at least a one-season hold in Sherrill's plans for improving the Aggies' fortunes.
To make matters still worse, one of last year's starting guards, Aubrey Raiford, couldn't handle his books and has left school, as has backup Guard Ken Choyce.
The good news is the Aggies' early schedule. Sherrill plays four straight games at home—against Boston College, Texas- Arlington, Louisiana Tech, and Texas Tech. So A&M should be a heady 4-0 when it hits the big guys and the bright lights starting on Oct. 9 in Houston.
The Aggies also play SMU, Arkansas and Texas on the road, a very long and tough road, pardner. An 8-3 year would be wildly cheered in College Station and probably get the Aggies to a bowl of some sort. And as Associate Athletic Director Charley Thornton says, "I've never met a bowl I didn't like." Thornton speaks from experience. Until this year he held the same position at Alabama, which has gone to 23 straight postseason games. Of course, the bowl everyone around College Station really wants to visit is the Cotton, in which A&M has played only once over the past 41 New Year's Days.
Sherrill likes to dream that maybe the Aggies can win them all, but he is more prudent in public, saying, "We're a long way from having a real good football team."
Maybe not quite that far. Quarterback Gary Kubiak seems to have grasped the new Sherrill offensive system well ("At first," he says, "I didn't know if I would ever get it"), and while he doesn't have a go-deep arm, he is brainy and anticipates well. Last season, for example, he picked apart the Arkansas secondary, completing 19 of 21 passes for 233 yards in a 10-7 loss to the heavily favored Razorbacks. Kubiak also loves the fact that " Coach Sherrill likes to throw on first down," and the quarterback is further enthused that he'll have four or five receivers blazing downfield instead of only two or, in moments of wild abandon, three, as was the case during Tom Wilson's more conservative regime at A&M.
Sherrill employs a pro set, and the thinking is that while Kubiak called audibles some 35% of the time last year, he'll be changing signals in reaction to defensive alignments as often as 70% under the Sherrill take-whatever-they-give philosophy of offense. Quarterback Coach Greg Davis says, "We're going out to win this year, rather than trying not to lose. Last year we didn't rely on Gary being great. This season we expect him to be great—and he expects to be." A plus for Kubiak is the receiving ability that Fullback Earnest Jackson has shown in practice. Jackson has already proved he is a strong inside runner, having gained 887 yards last season, but he must improve his blocking techniques.
Jackson complements the sometimes dazzling open-field running of Tailback Johnny Hector, whose principal shortcoming is the inconsistency of his desire. Says Ruel, "The question is, 'Will Hector be hungry this fall?' If he is, he may be the best running back in the nation."