Mike Sherman slowly is rebuilding Texas A&M's program, and Saturday night at Kyle Field, Oklahoma State will be visiting in one of the school's biggest games in recent history.
It's a long way from where Sherman and the Aggies were at this time last season.
Sherman, 56, entered 2010 with a sense of urgency. His first two years produced a 4-8 mark in 2008 and a 6-7 record in 2009. Doubt continued last season with a 3-3 start. That's when Sherman made the bold move to bench senior quarterback Jerrod Johnson and insert junior Ryan Tannehill, who was playing wide receiver at the time. Sherman also started to rely heavily on Cyrus Gray in relief of an injured Christine Michael at tailback.
Both moves proved to be genius, as the Aggies rode Tannehill and Gray to six consecutive wins before A&M concluded the season with a loss to LSU in the Cotton Bowl.
Another big key to 2010's success was Sherman's hiring of Tim DeRuyter from Air Force to coordinate the defense. In 2009, A&M allowed at least 30 points in nine games and ranked 105th in the nation in scoring defense (33.5 points per game). Last season, DeRuyter upgraded what had been a woeful secondary and tightened the run defense. The result: The Aggies allowed an average of 21.9 points and ranked 34th in scoring defense.
Now, with a roster fortified with the return of eight starters on both sides of the ball, hopes are high in College Station.
Sherman, A&M's offensive line coach from 1995-96, has the Aggies off to a 3-0 start and ranked in the top 10. Saturday's visit from Oklahoma State will go a long way toward determining if the Aggies have what it takes to battle No. 1 Oklahoma for the Big 12 championship.
The schedule helps, as A&M has Baylor, Missouri and Texas at Kyle Field. The season could come down to a Nov. 5 trip to Oklahoma, and the Aggies never have beaten a Bob Stoops-coached team in Norman.
Sherman, who went 57-39 as coach of the Green Bay Packers from 2000-05 and guided the Packers to four playoff appearances, spoke to Rivals.com about a variety of subjects.
What do you like about your team early in the season?
"We have a good work ethic. I always tell the team that you have to have some 'x factor' that separates you from everyone else. We play a lot of teams with great athletes and coaches and everyone is working hard to win games, so you have to have something that separates us. I hope it's our work ethic. These kids, we work the dog out of them and they keep going. I am pleased with their work ethic and how they go about their business. They come to practice ready to practice."
Why did the offense jell after Ryan Tannehill took over last year?
"I think Ryan is a special player. We gave up a bunch of sacks early last season. We had some young players on that offensive line who were just getting their feet wet. Our run game wasn't working, our pass game wasn't working, we couldn't protect. God bless Jerrod Johnson. He kind of took a licking. Ryan coming off the bench vs. Kansas and doing what he did, and having a career day against Texas Tech, certainly helped us. Along the same lines, I think we started to mature as an offense and our defense started to get better as well. We got better collectively as a team, and Ryan was a part of that."
Are you and your team able to stay focused amid all the talk about Texas A&M apparently moving to the SEC?
"It absolutely, positively is not even part of our conversation in the locker room or on the practice field. I asked some of the players, and they said they aren't even thinking about it. They have so much on their plates with academics, football, playing the season. All the stuff these kids have to focus on, that's the farthest thing from their mind. We have a bunch of seniors on this team who will never play in the SEC. They have absolutely no concern about it. It's something that's talked about in the media, and our fans may be distracted by it. But no one in the program is distracted by it. We have a challenge ahead of us this year. We have a lot of respect for our Big 12 opponents, a lot of respect for the coaches, the teams in the Big 12, so we want to give our best each game and focus on this season."
Can A&M fans be happy if they don't play Texas every year?
"It's such a great game in the past for us, no question about it. Phenomenal history, tremendous rivalry. It'll be unique not to play that game and it'll be something people wish we could have played at one time. But when these decisions are made, there is a strong possibility it doesn't happen."
Is the program where you thought it would be at this point in your tenure?
"We still have a lot of work to do. I take it a day at a time. I'm never quite satisfied and don't think I ever will be. I think we have a lot of work to do and a lot of football to play before we ever can say we are where we should be. We are where we are right now. We just want to continue to get better every day."
Are more NFL strategies being used in college?
"I think there are college strategies used in the NFL. I saw the Bengals score on a hurry-up, tempo play recently for a touchdown. There are college elements when you talk about the 'Wildcat,' some of the spread concepts you see in the NFL. A lot of college teams up-tempo plays and I see a lot of NFL teams doing the same.
"So, I think it goes the other way. Certainly there are some concepts that come down. But when you look at tape, there are 32 NFL teams and there are over 100 college teams. And you have all those coaches thinking and being creative. You have a lot of creativity in college football. You watch one offense and another offense, what they are doing. ... What college coaches and high school coaches are teaching, it's amazing how they get all that stuff taught. They get a lot more reps with these kids in high school in a shorter period of time. In the NFL, you don't get quite as many reps as you do in college. I think a lot of the college ideas filter up into the NFL ranks."
Do you think spread offenses are dying?
"I don't think so. I think they are alive and well. It has more elements even maybe than the run-and-shoot. It's a byproduct of the run-and-shoot. But people in the spread are more committed to running the football. That's why I don't think it will die out. I think the run game in the spread offense is a big component of it. As long as that continues, the spread will stay."
Do you think there will be a time when the 3-4 defensive scheme is the one that is the most-used set in college?
"I think sometimes it's a conference thing based on the type of offenses you play against. In our conference, there are a lot of spread offenses, people throwing the football, and I think your matchups are better with a 3-4. I still think you can match up with the run-dictate defenses, like the SEC, but you have to change some things about your concepts and some of your personnel may have to change. I do think it's something you are going to see more teams running. When you think about it, both Super Bowl teams last year, the Steelers and Packers, both ran a 3-4. Right here in Texas, you have the Texans and Cowboys running 3-4s. I think it's something you'll see more of as we continue on and success is dictated by those defenses."
What's the toughest position to recruit?
"I think you can go to any program in the country and find good skill players. You can find skill kids all across the country. But it's hard to find those linemen on both sides of the ball. And in order to be really good, I think you have to be good in the middle up front on both sides of the ball. When you find a great offensive or defensive lineman, it certainly makes a difference for your program. And if you have a good nucleus up front, I think you can find the skill guys to surround them with.
"I don't care how good you are in skill. If you can't protect, you can't throw. If you can't run block, you can't run. I don't care how good the backs are. On the other side of the ball, if you can't rush the quarterback, it doesn't matter if you have a great corner because he can't cover forever. If you can't protect the linebackers, they can't run and make tackles. You have to have good people up front to make this thing work."
How poor were the lines when you got to Texas A&M in 2008?
"I love those kids and I don't want to get into all of that. We have moved on and we are pleased with the guys we have. The guys who were here when we got here gave everything they had. But I think we have made some progress in those positions."
Do you think you'll end your career at A&M?
"I'm not getting any younger. My wife reminds me of that. I have a daughter who will be 12 soon, so I'm not that old. I'm where I want to be, no question about that. A&M stands for all the things I believe in. I love the kids we are able to recruit here and we get real close to them. It's a neat environment for us. So, yes, I see myself, God willing, still here with a lot of wins."