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September 28, 2010

Q-and-A: Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman

The most important period of Mike Sherman's three-year tenure at Texas A&M is about to begin.

Thursday, Sherman's Aggies play at Oklahoma State. Then come games against Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Texas Tech. The Aggies probably need to win four of these next five to position themselves for the type of season many feel Sherman needs to secure his status.

When Sherman, 55, took over for Dennis Franchione in 2008, many felt he would push the Aggies toward the top of the Big 12 South. Sherman arrived with an extensive NFL background, having gone 59-43 as coach of the Green Bay Packers from 2000-05.

Sherman arrived at A&M with knowledge of the program, as he was the Aggies' offensive line coach from 1989-93 and 1995-96 under R.C. Slocum. But Sherman's Aggies hasn't been able to turn the corner. He entered this fall with a 10-15 record (5-11 in the Big 12), two fifth-place Big 12 South finishes and an Independence Bowl appearance.

Rivals.com talked to Sherman as he prepped his 3-0 Aggies for Thursday's trip to Stillwater.

This program has a great defensive legacy, but that side of the ball has come under fire after ranking last in the Big 12 in 2009 and 11th in 2008. Have you been happy with that unit's play?

"When you have a big transition on defense with a staff, you always are concerned if the kids can respond to that immediately. It's a work in progress, but I think we have made a lot of progress and we are still making progress. I think our talent level is better. I think we are putting more speed on the field. And I think they have adjusted well to the scheme and the coaches. I am very pleased with that. I think we have had our moments and have done some good things. And at other times, we have had our struggles."

After Joe Kines retired as defensive coordinator following last season, what made you decide to hire Tim DeRuyter from Air Force?

"It started with a 3-4 defense. I wanted to be a 3-4 front when I initially got here and I lost my defensive coordinator [Reggie Herring] to the Cowboys as the linebackers coach and I hired the best coach that I could when I hired Joe Kines. He's a great coach and a great man. We just didn't have the talent level to respond to what he wanted to do. I think we have better talent now.

"When I made the change, I wanted to go back to a 3-4 defense. Tim DeRuyter had been running it everywhere. I wanted to hire a guy who had a history of running it and didn't go in and out of schemes. And every place that Tim went, they elevated the defense, and I wanted to have a guy who had the confidence in what he was doing, knew the strengths and weaknesses. And when someone hits you with something to take advantage of your weakness, he knows how to counteract that. Tim has been good and helpful in getting our defense to the point where we are getting better. We certainly aren't to the point of the days of the 'Wrecking Crew,' but we are making progress and our kids have bought into it. He has done a great job."

Why were you intent on switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme?

"I just thought it matched up better with the people in the Big 12 and the teams that we play. You have four linebackers. I was here back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and we were a 3-4 defense. I think you can recruit to it better in the state of Texas. I think you can go out and get some safeties and make them linebackers and make linebackers into ends and get faster people on the field. There are a lot of bubble screens and jailbreak screens and quarterback runs that they have here in the Big 12. I think you need more speed on the field to counteract that.

"If you look at the NFL, more and more teams are leaning to going to the 3-4 defense. It's a lot more anxiety on quarterbacks from a pressure standpoint. Even though it's an odd defense, it's a fairly balanced defense in its structure. You can come strong, you can come weak without tipping your hand. There's a lot more disguise involved. I thought it was a nice way to be able to confuse the quarterbacks that we were going to play against."

Is there an area on your offense that concerns you?

"We lost three seniors on that offensive line, and it's a work in progress. I think our receivers, backs and quarterbacks are fine, but we have to solidify our offensive line. They work extremely hard; it's just a matter of them getting reps and working together."

Is Jerrod Johnson the best quarterback in the Big 12?

"I think that will be determined at the end of the season. I have a lot of confidence in him. He is a tremendous leader, and he has the ability to make just about every throw on the field. I honestly haven't studied where everybody is at the position at this point."

Before taking this job in 2008, you hadn't been in the college ranks since 1996. What had changed about the game since you last were in it?

"I will say this about the college game -- I guess because there are so many teams and they all look at each other's tape and take ideas, the college game is very creative, as is high school. There is a lot of creativity and a lot of different things you can do that maybe you couldn't do in the NFL. A lot of that has to do with the speed coming off the edge and hitting your quarterback. You don't normally face great passers in college but maybe twice a year. In the NFL, you face one every single week. It changes how you play the game and the things you are able to do, so you can be a little more creative in college. In the NFL, you are so concerned with protecting your quarterback that you can't stray too far outside the box.

"The other thing I have come to realize is it's harder to be a college football player than an NFL player. Not talent-wise, but a college football player is in class all day, has study hall at night, he gets rehab done if he's injured, there is weight-lifting. There is absolutely, positively no time. We have a 20-hour rule in the NCAA that I think is a great rule because if you take more than 20 hours, they can't get their education. The time that they aren't doing football is so different there than in the NFL. They really have very little free time. They are on the go from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed. And that doesn't even take into account the social life that they try to have. There isn't a whole lot of extra time between studying and tutors. These guys are really challenged in college. In the NFL, you go to work from 8-5, you go home, have dinner with your family at a decent hour and get up and do it the next day."

What do you miss the most about the NFL?

"There is a different level of camaraderie in the NFL. Here you are a father figure that constantly is addressing issues from an academic or personal standpoint and you have a different relationship. These kids are open to you about everything in their lives; you are included in family and issues that they have. As a head coach and general manager [in the NFL], you aren't privy to that because you are the person who signs their paycheck and writes their contract, or offers one or doesn't offer one, or cuts them. They are a little bit more private about what they are doing outside of the football realm. In college, I know every kid's family, I know what they are doing, I know the issues they may have in every aspect. And I enjoy the relationship I have with the player and the position that I am in."

What was going through your mind when there was talk this summer about the Big 12 perhaps breaking up?

"We have a great leadership on campus, the president, athletic director, board of regents. They asked my opinion, and I was honored that they did, but I was more worried about this season and taking care of business. It was their job to worry about that part of it. Initially, they said from the beginning that they wanted to stay in the Big 12 if at all possible -- 'we want to keep our natural rivalries, we don't want our players traveling too far from home and school.' I think that was their initial plan, and when that ended up being the way that it was, we ended up staying with that plan."

At the time, there was some talk that A&M may join the SEC. A&M athletic director, Bill Byrne said he 'was concerned with changing conferences, that we may not be ready for the level of competition if we decided to leave.' What did you think of those comments?

"I think Bill was trying to protect me and the program in some ways. He was just making a comment that, hey, we were a growing football team, we have work to do, which we do, and we are getting better. He has been nothing but positive. I don't question anything he says because he always has been very supportive."

The Big 12 South is tough. What will it take to catch up with Oklahoma and Texas?

"We just have to keep getting better. When kids look around the locker room, they see other players who can make plays. And I think it's a talent level that we have to get to. And I think we are getting there. I think we are closing the gap. How much we have closed, it remains to be seen. But I think we are getting closer."

You have yet to have a winning season. Do you think you're under pressure this season?

"I felt pressure the first year and last year. I always feel pressure. We have had two recruiting classes. We have a third one coming in this next year. We are signing the right kids that fit A&M. But I don't feel any more or any less pressure than I did my first year."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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