SCOUTING REPORT The departures of two-time All-America linebacker Von Miller, tackle Lucas Patterson and big-hitting linebacker Michael Hodges were certainly huge blows to the A&M defense. But it could have been a lot worse: The Aggies could have also lost coordinator Tim DeRuyter. A year after Texas A&M pried him from the same position at Air Force (his alma mater), the 48-year-old was again a coveted commodity after directing a defensive revival in College Station.He was a leading candidate for the Tulsa head-coaching vacancy, but he ultimately stayed put in favor of coaxing even more from the Aggies' D, which on his watch went from being a Big 12 pushover to, as he effusively describes it, "championship level." Texas A&M deserves at least a place in the Big 12 title conversation given that the team went 9-4, finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Big 12 South and has 17 starters returning. Whether the Aggies will be in the hunt come November depends on how quickly they rebuild the middle of the defense -- starting with the huge void left at the hybrid end-linebacker Joker position by the departure of Miller, who accounted for a 27½ of A&M's 65 sacks over the past two seasons. "We're going to have to have somebody else step up to be that type of player that Von was," says DeRuyter, "the kind who takes teams out of what they like to do."That player could be Caleb Russell, a 6-2, 231-pound junior who played end in some third-down packages and who "probably is better at the point of attack in the run game than Von," DeRuyter says. Or it could be Damontre Moore, a 6-4, 248-pound sophomore who had 5½ sacks last year. Or maybe it'll be Sean Porter, a 6-2, 220-pound junior who finished third on the team in tackles (74).More than likely the coaches will play a combination of the three, who won't be granted as large a margin for error as in 2010, when the Aggies were still feeling their way through DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme. "They have to play better [and] faster," says DeRuyter, who plans to be even more aggressive in his play-calling this year. "We're so much farther advanced with how quickly we can install things and make adjustments. Our defense as a whole will be much better." The revival continues.
THE BIG IF After the Aggies lost the heart of their defense, will the unit's remaining veterans be able to pick up the slack?
TELLING NUMBER 28 -- Career receiving TDs for jeff fuller, tied for second most in the nation among returnees, behind OU's Ryan Broyles (33).
KEY RETURNEES Jeff Fuller, WR, Sr. -- The 6-4, 215-pound McKinney, Texas, product flirted with going pro at the end of last season after hauling in an A&M-record 72 passes for 1,066 yards and a team-leading 12 receiving touchdowns.
Trent Hunter, S, Sr. -- The 5-10, 190-pound safety led the Aggies' secondary in tackles (62); he also had two interceptions and forced a fumble. Hunter figures to be even better with a year of experience in Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme.
Coryell Judie, CB, Sr. -- Judie was a juco All-America at Fort Scott C.C. in 2008, when he had 38 tackles and averaged 26.9 yards per kick return. After a medical redshirt in '09 he was even more prolific at A&M last season, finishing with 57 tackles, four picks and 30.2 yards per kick return.
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Sr. -- He started the final six games of 2010 after taking over for a struggling Jerrod Johnson, then proceeded to complete a school-record 65 percent of his passes for 1,638 yards and 13 TDs while tossing only six interceptions. Tannehill is now the undisputed starter.
Cyrus Gray, RB, Sr. -- Gray led the team in rushing (1,133) and rushing touchdowns (12) and was one of the lone bright spots in the team's bowl loss to LSU, gaining 100 yards on 20 carries.
BREAKOUT PLAYER Caleb Russell, JOKER, Jr. -- Although he had only four tackles and a sack in eight games last season, the 6-2, 231-pounder had an impressive spring and is the front-runner to replace All-America linebacker Von Miller, who went second, to the Broncos, in the NFL draft, at the hybrid Joker position. Coordinator Tim DeRuyter even gave him the edge over Miller against the run.
TOP RECRUIT Taylor Bertolet, K, Fr. -- It's not a matter of if this 5-9, 165-pound Pennsylvania native -- who booms 80-yard kickoffs and 60-yard field goals with regularity -- will eventually supplant solid senior placekicker Randy Bullock (16 of 21 field goals last year). It's a matter of when.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big 12 Preview.
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