COLLEGE STATION -- A cynic has surfaced among the legion of Texas A&M fans who credit last year's midseason turnaround, along with this season's raised expectations, to the emergence of quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The person willing to downplay the importance of Tannehill's 5-1 record as a starter, including November victories over Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas? Tannehill himself.
"Most people could have stepped into that situation and done well. When you have that type of talent around you, it really makes playing quarterback easy," Tannehill said, reflecting on the Aggies' deep collection of offensive playmakers who assisted him during last year's 9-4 season and return, basically intact, for a run at loftier goals in 2011. "It's an extreme luxury to have the guys that I have around me."
Without question, Tannehill -- who supplanted dead-armed starter Jerrod Johnson as the focal point of the Aggies' offense in October -- is being modest about the contributions he made while completing 65 percent of his passes with more than twice as many touchdowns (13) as interceptions (6) in 2010. But his point is clear: A&M, the No. 9 team in the coaches' preseason poll, is uncommonly well-insulated to shift the burden of proof to other positions on offense if Tannehill, the only quarterback on the roster who has taken a snap at the college level, finds himself on the sideline with a short-term ailment this season.
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Notice the phrase short-term. No one is saying the Aggies' title hopes -- Big 12 or national -- have much shelf life if Tannehill leaves the lineup for an extended period, forcing coach Mike Sherman to hand over the offense to one of three freshmen vying in fall drills to become his backup: Jameill Showers, Johnny Manziell or Matt Joeckel, an Arlington High School graduate.
But if A&M has to nurse a second-half lead in some game while Tannehill, a senior, nurses a hip pointer for a few possessions, the Aggies can turn to a tailback tandem (Cyrus Gray, Christine Michael) that is the Big 12's best and will operate behind an offensive line with four returning starters. If the backup quarterback has to put the ball in the air, he can find one of three receivers (Jeff Fuller, Ryan Swope, Uzoma Nwachukwu) with at least 76 career catches.
That depth helped A&M weather last year's midseason quarterback switch to Tannehill and a season-ending leg injury to Michael, the team's leading rusher at the time. All those veteran playmakers are now a year older.
That is why pollsters put the Aggies in the preseason Top 10 for the first time since 1999. And envision them staying there.
It is not unrealistic to think A&M could end the season with a pair of 2,000-yard career rushers and four receivers with more than 100 career catches.
"Not too many teams have a senior quarterback, two good running backs and... all those other guys," linebacker Garrick Williams said. "Our offense is a handful."
But it needs Tannehill to remain healthy to operate at that standard on a weekly basis. If that happens, Gray envisions blowing away last year's scoring average of 31.2 points per game.
"The sky is the limit for this offense," said Gray, who rushed for 1,133 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. "We've got a lot of playmakers. A lot of ability to spread the ball around and have mismatches. I'm really excited for this offense and I'm excited for this team in general."
So is Tannehill, even if he believes he gets too much credit for making the Aggies' offense hum.
"Everyone wanted to give me praise and significance last year whenever I came in," Tannehill said. "But my teammates around me really stepped up. They'll do the same thing again this year. We have depth and our starters are exceptional. That's one thing that sets us apart from other teams."
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Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760