McNeal's turnaround sparks A&M

Texas A&M quarterback Reggie McNeal had lost his confidence. Stuck in a two-quarterback system last season and suffering through one loss after another, McNeal rarely spoke to first-year coach Dennis Franchione.

McNeal wondered if there would be a happy ending.

"I struggled with my confidence, but I tried to keep people from seeing it," McNeal said. "My teammates were looking for leadership. So I just tried to give the appearance of confidence."

These days, McNeal doesn't have to fake the appearance of anything. The numbers speak for themselves. McNeal, now a junior, is ranked No. 15 nationally in pass efficiency with seven touchdown passes and no interceptions. He's seventh nationally in total offense (296.5 yards per game). He's the only player in the country averaging 70 yards rushing and 200 yards passing per game. And he's leading the only offense in the country that has yet to throw an interception.

In a 36-20 victory at previously unbeaten Oklahoma State last Saturday, McNeal totaled a career-high 386 all-purpose yards (288 passing on 19-of-25 accuracy and 98 yards rushing) and four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing).

Thanks in large part to McNeal, Texas A&M, which finished 4-8 last season, has won five straight games (5-1) after a blowout loss at Utah in one of the most notable turnarounds in college football this season.

"Coach (Franchione) always told me to trust in him and that he would trust in me," McNeal said. "He never lied to me, and I kept working."

McNeal was one of the top quarterback recruits in the state of Texas coming out of Lufkin in 2002. His freshman season at A&M included a dazzling performance in a 30-26 victory over Oklahoma in which McNeal threw four touchdown passes and won national offensive player of the week.

Everything was going just as planned -- until R.C. Slocum was fired as coach after going 6-6 that season. Franchione was hired. Les Koenning became McNeal's second offensive coordinator in two seasons. McNeal struggled, completing only 51 percent of his passes as critics began to say he couldn't throw and should be switched to receiver.

He has tried to forget the low points of last season: alternating with quarterback Dustin Long and losing by 30-plus points to Nebraska, Texas Tech and Texas and, of course, the now infamous 77-point shellacking at Oklahoma.

Coaches rotated McNeal and Long last season by feel. McNeal said that left him focused more on not making mistakes rather than relaxing and having fun. He finished the season with eight TD passes and seven interceptions.

Everything started to change when Long decided to transfer to Sam Houston State after the season, one of several players who grew disenfranchised with Franchione.

At that point, Franchione started to build the offense around McNeal, installing an option play out of the shotgun called the zone read that has been used with huge success by teams like Texas and West Virginia. The play allows McNeal (6-2, 198) to use his 4.38 speed in the running game, and it helps an inexperienced offensive line by pulling the defense in two different directions as defenders must worry about McNeal going one way or tailback Courtney Lewis going another.

"I think the biggest reason Reggie is playing better is that he's a junior," Franchione said. "He's been in the same offense for his second year in a row. He has worked extremely hard. He came back in January with a much more mature, positive outlook on things. If I had to say one thing, it would be the maturity."

McNeal said his relationship with Franchione is much better this season.

"He's more relaxed," McNeal said of his coach. "He's letting us play more and have fun this year. Last year, we really didn't talk. Now, I talk to him after practice, before games, after meetings, we talk a whole lot more."

McNeal said the entire team made a commitment to become a tighter group and work together during the offseason.

"Last year, we had too many people playing for himself," said McNeal, who changed his number from 16 to 1 this season because he was ready to take on a more prominent role and have a special season.

Franchione also stressed team by taking the names of players off the backs of their jerseys -- emphasizing the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the one on the back. Franchione says he'll put the names back on the jerseys when he feels like his players have earned them.

Thanks in large part to the attitude and play of McNeal, A&M players are close to earning them.

Chip Brown covers the Big 12 for The Dallas Morning News.