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Scouting the Aggies: Week 7 brief notes

Texas A&M tried a lot of new things against Ole Miss. Turns out a lot of new things don't work against Ole Miss.

Scott Halleran

Before I jump into the scouting, let me just do some soul-cleansing ranting. These last two games have really beaten me down. I was able to justify the sub-par offense against Arkansas by thinking it was a hangover from playing three easy teams prior to the game and that it took a while to get back into real competition. Then against Mississippi State, things really started looking bad but I was able to at least somewhat convince myself that all of the problems that were staring us in the face would look much smaller if/when our receivers just started catching the ball.

Then... the Ole Miss debacle happened. It's kind of hard to ignore the real issues after that. I've been in a football funk all week. A funk that was only finally broken last night by @stringsays who has been working on me all week. We finally agreed to a deal where I would return to my usual upbeat, optimistic self and attempt to start a new "good luck to the Aggies" tradition this week wherein I wear special Aggie boxers ever game day. Embarking on such a quest when the opponent is a pissed-off Alabama team on the road is risky, but I figure if we win, it will be obvious that my underwear is special and it will be nice to have unlocked the secret so quickly. My heart says we can beat them again. My head sees major problems and a lot of reasons to believe we will be soundly beaten, but I'm doing my best to ignore such logical nonsense and embrace the illogical, underwear-has-power superstition that was totally my idea if it works and should be blamed on @stringsays if it doesn't.

With that out of the way, I apologize for getting this done so late in the week. It was a crazy week for me and technological problems have still prevented me from getting details charted on 100% of the plays, but I have it 90% done, and it's enough of a clear picture to know just how bad we did.

So here's the thing. After the Mississippi State loss, message board and media chatter focused on a few things that needed to happen. We need to move Speedy Noil around and get him the ball. We need to use Cam Clear more and throw him the ball. We need to throw check down passes when the first reads are covered. We need to commit to the run more.

Good news: we did all that. Bad news: none of it worked. Good news: there are still things, I believe, that we can do that will work. Bad news: Alabama's defense is just as good as Ole MIss's is, although their players look different.

First I'll talk about Speedy Noil. As proof that Jake Spavital does read message boards, Speedy spent about half the game at the H position, and the other half at the X position. Prior to this game, he had been 99% an X guy. And while the vast majority of his targets and catches still came from the X position, the fact that we moved him to H allowed us to do a couple other things. It allowed us to have Speedy and Ed Pope (also an X) on the field at the same time. It allowed, along with the other notable fact that we moved Ricky Seals-Jones from H to Y this week, to keep Speedy and RSJ in the game in the slot positions. (Also, moving Seals-Jones to Y then allowed him to stay on the field when we brought Cam Clear in the game, which was another nice benefit.)

So the point to all that is that it allowed the Aggies to keep the more-talented players on the field. Nothing against Boone Niederhofer, but he isn't as physically gifted as Noil or Seals-Jones. These personnel moves allowed us to still deal with the absence of Malcome Kennedy without putting Niederhofer on the field for 80 snaps while studs like Noil or RSJ sit on the bench. It also allowed us to, again, use more packages with Cam Clear on the field without losing a more-talented slot receiver.

So that was all good. I expect that to continue this week, and then after the bye week, I expect the cross-training and extra time spent doing so to really pay off and make us more versatile and harder to defend in our last four games.

So the next issue was using Cam Clear. His role greatly increased this week. It was obvious from the first drive of the game when he was on the field for all three plays. Three different formations, three different types of plays. Unfortunately the 3rd down play was blown up. Also unfortunately, with Clear in the game, we just didn't have much success. We averaged around 3 yards per play on the 20 or so snaps with him. We averaged about double that when he wasn't on the field. That said, we threw a couple passes to him that were simple yet effective designs, and I honestly think those are there for the taking. I'd like more. All told, he played some 20-25 snaps this week after only playing something like five the week before. It will be very interesting to see if the role increases or not, seeing as how we were actually less effective with him in the game.

What about committing to the run? We definitely did. No success though. The fact that our longest run- our LONGEST- by a running back was only six yards is one of the stats that sent me into a week long depression. I just don't know how that's possible. Watching the game over again, we had people get physically beat with strength and/or quickness and we had people just miss blocks altogether. I actually think our running backs ran well. They run hard, they make people miss, they break tackles to some extent. But our line (and, dare I say... our scheme?) made it impossible for them.

Finally, throwing to the running backs on check downs. That became all the rage for fan discussion last week, and we did it a few times. Who knows... As I said, we did most of the things the fans were clamoring for. They just didn't work.

Some quick numbers from the game. Our overall success rate was a lot higher than I expected. It was around 54%. It's a deceiving number though. For one, a large chunk of our success came in the fourth quarter when it was honestly garbage time. Our last 21 plays, we had a 71% success rate. Take that out, and on our first 65 plays now we're under 50%. Furthermore, in our first 17 plays, we were successful on 65% of them, even though we only averaged 3.9 yards per play with a long of 10. We were just barely getting credit for some successful plays on 1st and 2nd down but were having to work so hard for every yard that it wasn't like the "success" we are used to.

In our first 23 plays, we had one play of 10 yards, one of 8 yards, and the rest were 6 or less. We only averaged 3.25 yards per play, and guess what, we were down 21 points. We never had a 20 yard play until the 4th quarter.

We started moving the ball late, averaging 10 yards per play on our final 19 plays, but that's just fool's gold, to be honest. At that point, the game was over.

We targeted Speedy 13 times. And it was generally successful. More targets for Speedy, please. He's a legitimate game-breaker. We targeted our running backs seven times. Moderately successful (4/7). We targeted Clear three times. While the run game didn't work with him in (or with him out, to be fair), throwing to him was successful 3/3 times. We targeted Reynolds and Pope 16 times total, and it was rough this time. Couldn't get anything down the field for them other than the late touchdown to Reynolds.

Running the ball, Trey Williams was the most successful by percentage. He was 4/7, Brandon Williams was 3/8, and Tra Carson was 4/10.

As far as formations are concerned, the spread formation was the big winner. We were successful 64% of the time using our standard 2x2 look. Compare that with 40% for both of our 11 personnel formations and 40% from our trips formation. Does that mean anything? I'm not sure, to be honest. But it's interesting to me. That's a big difference. Yards per play number similarly reflect that for this game.

So what can we do to help Kenny against Alabama? What can we do to help our running backs find room to run? Well, I suppose one thing the coaches are constantly debating among themselves is whether to be more diverse and hope that leads to success or to be less diverse and do the things that you know you are best at. I don't know the answer, and so many things can change from week to week (like the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent) that no two games are the same.

That said, I think it's fair to say that there is some predictability in our offense that is allowing the defense to attack our running game. I think we need to use Kenny Hill on some designed runs. I think we need to break some tendencies and use play action. Play action is something that is almost non-existent in our offense and I don't understand why. I think we need to use some misdirection. And I think we need to throw the ball down the field. I realize that that isn't even necessarily a strength of Hill's game, but with tall, athletic receivers who have made tough catches (dropped passes notwithstanding), it is something we can still do. Let the receivers go get it. Reynolds, Speedy, and Pope are all capable of that.

One of the things that is supposed to make a spread offense difficult to defend is the fact that you are SPREAD-ing the field, but it needs to be both vertically and horizontally. We spread it horizontally just fine. When I re-watched the game, my opinion was that while our offensive line didn't succeed in the run game, they were just fine at creating a pocket in the passing game. Not dominant or anything (I marked down 15 pressures in 60 drop-backs), but good enough to trust them to call some deeper routes.

Of course the other big development that will help us is the return of Malcome Kennedy. With the other moves we've already made, this now gives us the following depth chart at each position, assuming no new changes:

  • X: Pope/Noil/Jeffrey
  • Z: Reynolds/Parker/Nacho
  • H: Noil/Clear/Niederhofer/Holmes
  • Y: Kennedy/Seals-Jones/Tabuyo
One other note with my thoughts on it. For the third straight week, our SEC opponent has basically not blitzed us. Arkansas never blitzed, Mississippi State did a few times but the vast majority of snaps they were rushing four, and now Ole Miss did the same thing. They only brought five rushers three times, I believe. Then they rushed four all game with the exception of a few times bringing three.

To me, that tells me that defenses are content covering. No need to blitz. Blitzing sometimes makes the life of a quarterback easier simply by clearing up the read. If they blitz, I know I need to get rid of the ball right here, right now. And with the athletes we have at receiver, fewer defenders in coverage could mean a big play if we are blitzed and Hill gets rid of the ball. But if you don't blitz, you force the quarterback to read the defense. My theory at this point is that our opponents believe that they are better off forcing Hill to read coverages and, in essence, fail at that. They can fly to the ball on our short passes and take their chances with seven defenders in coverage and try to just confuse the quarterback that way.

To combat that, without knowing enough to know exactly what our coaches are seeing, I would say we must continue to run double moves and pump fakes off of our most basic quick passes, use the middle of the field (like we did a couple times when we ran some people deep and then hit Clear and B. Williams over the middle for easy gains, diversify our run game, and run play action to force these defenders to pause and think. Those are all things that we can do without even doing the harder work of attacking a defense's weak points even if it's something Hill is uncomfortable doing.

Can we do that against Alabama?