McGee developing confidence in aerial attack

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- It wasn't the kind of play that would make many fans at Kyle Field stop and take notice.

But Texas A&M quarterback Stephen McGee's 21-yard swing pass to running back Mike Goodson that started the spring game almost made coach Dennis Franchione turn cartwheels on the field.

"We had four verticals [deep passes] called and all of them were covered," Franchione said. "Stephen checked back down and made a nice gain. Those aren't the kind of plays that catch people's eyes or break things, but they do ours."

Such maturity might be the biggest key in boosting the Aggies into Big 12 title contention for the first time since Franchione took over. A&M still is a work in progress, but as McGee improves, his team should get better with him.

"When he pulls the ball down and moves around the pocket, last year he pretty much would have made his mind to go out and take the play," Franchione said. "But he's made some growth and as he's grown, we've all grown."

That spring development has been important as A&M attempts to build on last season's 9-4 record. The Aggies closed the 2006 regular season with a flourish, notching a 12-7 victory at Texas that knocked the Longhorns out of the Big 12 title game. The upset snapped a devastating six-game losing streak to their archrivals and was A&M's first victory in Austin since 1992.

A resounding 45-10 loss to California in the Holiday Bowl didn't diminish all of the good will produced by that victory -- even after a season that had earlier been marred by three conference losses by a combined margin of six points.

"I think we can play with anybody," Goodson said. "With the talent we've got, we don't think anybody can hang with us right now."

McGee's toughness and resiliency helped mark his team last season. Teammates remember his gutty leadership during a dramatic game-winning drive against Texas. Despite throwing up in the huddle because of unseasonably hot conditions, McGee directed a 16-play, 88-yard drive against what was then the nation's top statistical rush defense. The Aggies converted five third-down plays on the drive, including three on option runs by McGee.

As impressive as that drive was, McGee realizes that his passing skills will make or break the Aggies this season. That's why he accentuated developing confidence in the aerial game during the spring.

"My biggest emphasis this spring was just to trust my protection a little longer," McGee said. "I'm trying to get to the second progression and then the third and the fourth if I need it. I need to learn to shuffle up in the pocket and throw it rather than try to make something happen with just my legs."

To get to that point, the Aggies have worked extensively on development of a deep passing game this spring. The development of speedy receivers like Jamie McCoy, Earvin Taylor, Kerry Franks and Pierre Brown and big-play tight end Martellus Bennett will be critical in that progression.

"I thought we had a great spring," McGee said. "Our biggest emphasis was trying to work on the vertical game, and I thought we had a very productive spring trying to gear to that."

The Aggies again will depend heavily on a running game that ranked eighth nationally with an average of 206.9 yards per game and returns its top three rushers. Goodson emerged with team-leading totals of 847 rushing yards and a 6.7 yards-per-carry average as a freshman. Bullish 274-pound tailback Jorvorskie Lane chipped with 725 yards and a conference-leading 19 rushing touchdowns. And McGee ranked fifth nationally among all quarterbacks with 666 rushing yards.

Goodson's recovery from a sprained knee suffered in the Holiday Bowl is an especially welcome bit of news this spring. Despite initial fears his knee might have been hurt much worse, Goodson said he is primed for a big comeback.

"It was really scary when the trainers started talking about a torn ACL or a PCL," Goodson said. "It did scare me a little bit. But when I got back home, they told me it was just a sprain. And when I started working out, I feel like I can still do what I had done before."

That injury capped a tempestuous freshman season for Goodson, who struggled with fumbling woes before a dramatic improvement as the season progressed. After averaging 5.7 yards per carry and 46.8 yards per game rushing in his first seven games last season, Goodson's averages skyrocketed to 86.8 rushing yards and 7.4 yards per carry over his final six games.

"Mike's September was bumpy last year and it wasn't until October when he came into his own," Franchione said. "He's going to be a much bigger cog of everything."

But the biggest question for the Aggies will be continued growth in a defense that made huge steps last season. New defensive coordinator Gary Darnell orchestrated a transformation that enabled the Aggies to improve from 107th nationally in total defense in 2005 to 46th last season. A&M also went from 117th to 44th in pass defense, 104th to 39th in pass efficiency defense and 94th to 44th in scoring defense.

Franchione has seen continued improvement in the Aggies' second season with Darnell's 4-2-5 defensive alignment.

"We're certainly much farther along," Franchione said. "One really outstanding thing that Coach Darnell did is that he would only let his game plan be a big as his players were confident in what they were doing. As a result, we didn't have big defensive game plans some weeks. Probably, there were some days when he would have liked to have a little bit more at his fingertips."

As more of the defense has been installed this spring, there have been some growing pains along the way. The two A&M defenses combined to allow 380 rushing yards at the spring game.

"It's a lot more complicated," A&M linebacker Mark Dodge said. "There's a lot more blitzes and a lot more zone stuff going in -- we're in and out of new stuff every other day. It's kind of hard to keep up, but it's based on the same packages we worked with last year."

The Aggies' gravitated to Darnell's new tweaks as spring practices progressed, Dodge said.

"You can see it a lot in our defensive backs," Dodge said. "They are jumping balls in practice. Last year, we might have tipped maybe one ball in practice. This year, we're tipping five or six in one practice and intercepting them. We've got so much confidence back there."

A rigorous schedule will test that growing trust in Darnell's scheme. A&M's road schedule is dotted with games against Miami, Texas Tech, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri -- all 2006 bowl teams. The season will be capped by a rematch with the Longhorns at Kyle Field.

Last season's development has stressed to McGee how much will still is necessary to boost the Aggies back into contention for their first Big 12 title since 1998.

"We've got something going, but we remember that in the Cal game we were humiliated and we didn't play very good." McGee said. "We're not forgetting that and using it as some motivation going into the fall. We're close, but we're not there yet.

"We need to keep getting better. It's great to have momentum and a great win here and there for confidence, but we still have a long way to go to where we want to be."

Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.