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The Jake Spavital Debate: is the Texas A&M offense underperforming?

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Nothing stirs up the passions of football fans like arguing about the merits of a coach. Here we tackle Jake Spavital. Has he done a good job so far?

Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

If there has been one overriding topic of criticism  and debate among hardcore Texas A&M football fans this year, it has undoubtedly been offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. Spavital earned the job at a very young age and was given the keys to the offense in 2014 after Johnny Manziel and company blitzed the SEC in 2012 and 2013, scoring literally a billion points and never punting a single time.

These are the facts of the matter as presented by many Aggie fans. The standard criticism of Spavital often goes like this: Spavital is too predictable, he only throws bubble screens and short passes to the edges, he never uses the middle of the field, he needs to learn from Kliff Kingsbury, he hasn't developed Kyle Allen,  and he is too young and inexperienced for this job.

There are more, too many to address in a single analysis, but a case can be built in defense of his 1.33 seasons as the A&M play caller. Here are a couple caveats. No one is saying that Spavital is perfect, or better than Kingsbury, or the best coordinator he could possibly be, etc. However, if the question is "has he done a good enough job so far?", the answer is yes.

What has Spav had to work with?

Let's do this on a position by position basis.

At running back, in 2014 the Aggies had three running backs: Tra Carson, Trey Williams, and Brandon Williams. A bruiser, a shifty guy, and a speed guy. All had different skills but none were complete backs. Criticisms of Spav included the fact that he used a running back by committee approach, never letting one guy be "the man," and often times used them in ways that appeared to be counter to their strengths.

There is some validity to those criticisms, and I would have liked to have seen a different mix of how they were used, and really would have liked to see some two-back sets that took advantage of the fact that our players had such different skill sets and would have kept the defense from being able to diagnose play tendencies as easily.

For 2015, thanks to unfortunate injuries to both of the true freshmen running backs A&M signed and then another injury to sophomore James White, the Aggies have essentially played the first four games with just one running back (Carson). He has played well and is relatively dependable. He can catch and block and can usually average five yards per carry. But he is the only option the Aggies have until White returns. That is a major point that bears keeping in mind when evaluating the 2015 offense thus far. It's no one's fault, but it has become a big hole on the roster.

At wide receiver in 2014, the Aggies boasted a lot of talent on paper. Highly recruited guys like Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones, along with dependable senior Malcome Kennedy. Unheralded junior college transfer Josh Reynolds rounded out the starting group, with serviceable backups at best.

Noil and Seals-Jones, the highest rated players of the bunch, were both playing in their first real season as wide receivers as neither played the position in high school. Both had flashes of talent but also had trouble getting open and catching the ball at times. Kennedy was a seasoned veteran and played well. Reynolds was the surprise of the bunch, setting a school record with 13 touchdown catches and providing big play capability at Mike Evans' old spot.

reynolds

Matthew Emmons, USA Today Sports

In 2015, Noil was poised to have a breakout season but has been hampered by injury and has barely seen the field yet. Seals-Jones returns and looks to be in great form but hasn't yet seen big production (I think he will have some big games along the way). Reynolds returns and is picking up where he left off in 2014, proving to be a viable big-play threat again and making clutch plays to beat Arkansas. And of course, replacing Kennedy A&M now has one of the best slot receivers in America with Christian Kirk, who is off to as dominant a start as any freshman in recent memory.

The offensive line in 2014 featured a couple big names, like Cedric Ogbuehi and Germain Ifedi, along with junior (at the time) center Mike Matthews. Jarvis Harrison and Joseph Cheek rounded out the group. The line struggled at times and battled injuries, forcing a lot of shuffling.

The 2015 line still has Matthews, Cheek and Ifedi on the right, but the unit has had difficulty finding its way. The interior has struggled, and many believe Ifedi is more of a natural guard but is now facing a challenge on the outside. The left guard position, manned mostly by Jeremiah Stuckey and Keaton Sutherland, has struggled. The Aggies also hired a new offensive line coach, Dave Christenson, and big things are hoped for regarding the run game production.

At tight end, A&M seemed to have grand plans for Cam Clear in 2014. He was featured early in the first game, then got hurt, missed some games, and when he finally came back, was ineffective as both a blocker and a receiver.

As for 2015, Clear is gone, leaving just true freshman Jordan Davis, who has barely seen the field against the two power conference opponents A&M has played. He has shown flashes and will likely be a good player in the future, but he's not ready yet.

Finally, at quarterback, in 2014, Spav had true sophomore Kenny Hill, who started hot and then got gradually worse, and was eventually replaced by true freshman Kyle Allen, who was probably not really ready, but played admirably.

kyleallen

Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, Allen returned as a true sophomore, beat out true freshman Kyler Murray, and again, has played well.

So that is what Spav has been working with. Lots of talent at certain spots, multiple five star players, but a couple huge holes in the roster, an offensive line that is not on par with what Johnny Manziel played behind, and youth at almost every spot, especially quarterback and receiver.

What has the A&M offense accomplished under Spavital?

Here are some quick numbers, both good and bad:


In narrative form, I think the following paragraph would be agreeable to all objective fans: Since Jake Spavital took over, Texas A&M's offense has been mostly pretty good, great at times, and really ineffective at others. The cumulative numbers say it has been a top 25 offense, but consistency has been a challenge.

What are reasonable expectations?

This is an area that is surely up for debate. That said, it must be mentioned that Johnny Manziel absolutely destroyed the Aggie fan's ability to think straight about what is and is not reasonable to expect out of an offense.

The 2012 A&M offense was the best offense in SEC history, and that's not really debatable. Most points, most yards, most excitement. It was the most efficient offense in the nation, and the 2013 was 5th in that category. The 2013 offense was the second best offense in SEC history. That's right. That's what people are comparing Spavital's offenses to. The two best offenses not only in A&M history, but also in conference history.

So let's just drop the idea that it's reasonable to expect our subsequent offenses to approach what the 2012-13 offenses did.

With that out of the way, what IS a reasonable goal? Everyone can agree that being shut out is not acceptable - Not even Spavital's fiercest defender would attempt to explain that away. It was a complete disaster. There were other larger problems going on with the team at that time, but still, it's reasonable to expect the offense to score.

Let's look at some other high powered offensive teams for relevant comparisons. Outside of a couple Heisman-winning phenoms, generally speaking, offenses do well when they have experience at quarterback. As the old saying goes, "it's not about the X's and the O's, it's about the Jimmy's and the Joe's." What does that mean? It means that great players are more important than great scheme.

Last year, 13 of the top 15 leaders in pass efficiency were upperclassmen. In 2013, it was 11/15. In 2012, 11/15 again. In 2011, it was 11/15, and in 2010, 13/15. It is a historical fact that it is rare for an underclassmen to be a national leader in pass efficiency. It's reasonable to hope that Kyle Allen could be there, but as for expecting it, maybe top 25 or so is a more fair expectation.

Furthermore, as detailed above, A&M hasn't exactly been playing with a full complement of offensive skill position players. Last year it was inexperience at the receiver positions, this year it's lack of depth at running back and tight end while playing without the expected starter at the X position.

As for other factors in the great expectations debate, how many "bad" games are allowed in a year? TCU, who led the nation in total offense last year and has a senior quarterback who will likely be a Heisman finalist, only scored 23 points against Minnesota. Ohio State, coming off a national championship and returning both quarterbacks that led them there, only scored 20 points against Northern Illinois. Texas Tech, who people love to compare A&M to because of Kliff Kingsbury, was held to 13 points twice last year. Missouri, who won the SEC East last year, was shut out by Georgia last year and has only scored 9 and 13 points in their last two games, against powerhouses UConn and Kentucky. I could go on and on with examples.

And let's get back to Kingsbury, shall we? While I am part of the KK fan club myself, his offense in 2012 was held under 20 points at home, not once but twice, despite having Johnny Manziel on the team and being in the midst of the greatest offensive season in SEC history.

The point? Bad games happen. To everyone. Even with great players. So is it reasonable to expect a good game every time out? No. It is not. Not when you are still playing with a true sophomore at quarterback, one scholarship running back, and no tight end.

Let's have realistic expectations when evaluating the A&M offense.

The verdict

So now that we've covered all that, let's hit a few things that are most important.

First of all, how has Kyle Allen played? After all, Spavital is not only the offensive coordinator, he is also the quarterbacks coach. Some fans have complained that Kyle Allen "isn't being developed" and isn't as far along as he should be. Is that true?

Kyle Allen has started nine games. In those nine games, his passer rating is 157. If you just look at his last eight games (taking out his first start against Louisiana-Monroe, in which A&M ran a completely stripped down offense and literally only ran a handful of different plays in the midst of a mid-season culture change), his rating is 166. Johnny Manziel's career passer rating? 164. And in Manziel's first 9 starts? 150. So as a passer, Kyle Allen is ahead of Johnny Manziel at this point.

In Manziel's second season, in which he had more command of the offense and focused more on passing, his passer rating was a stellar 173. By comparison, Kyle Allen's passer rating so far this year is 180. Kyle Allen is not only doing well, he's far ahead of where you would expect a true sophomore to be. The notion that A&M is under-performing in the passing game is just not true. Even last year, Allen performed better than a true freshman should.

Texas A&M had a lot of other challenges last year that don't show up in a box score but affected the team. There were internal problems and it's clear that the entire team's effort and focus bottomed out in the middle of the season. There's no way to know how much blame lies at Spavital's feet there, but it's reasonable to give the man some leeway there.

Other criticisms of Spav include accusations that his offense is too predictable, too focused on bubble screens and shot perimeter passes. During the middle part of last year there was some truth to that, and while I could write another essay on why I think that happened schematically (short version: with Hill at QB, knowing that true freshman Kyle Allen wasn't ready, A&M was protecting Hill physically by not ever running him and not calling many long-developing passes so things were quick and we weren't keeping linebackers honest with either the run or the pass), but the fact is that was remedied and A&M beat a top 10 team on the road, was one play from beating both Mizzou and LSU, and won their bowl game behind a strong offensive performance. Fast forward to this year, and A&M has been anything but predictable, as A&M has done everything from power run game with two tight ends to play action bootleg passing to empty sets with both quick and deep passes, and every bit of it has had success.

A&M's offense so far this year has been good, and while there have been lulls, the Aggies are one of the few teams that haven't had a stinker of a performance yet.

Another job of the offensive coordinator is to get the ball into the hands of its best players. The best players on this A&M team are Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds, and in certain aspects, Kyler Murray. And credit Spavital with doing a great job of getting the ball to Kirk, first and foremost. He is using formations and motions and player alignments that A&M did not use last year, and he is succeeding with it. He is getting the ball to Reynolds when necessary. And he is finding ways to keep Kyler Murray involved. Many fans, myself included, would understandably like to see more with Murray, but Spav deserves credit for using Murray against Arizona State (his presence really changed the game) and there will be more big moments for Kyler in the coming weeks.

Another job of the OC is recruiting. Put shortly, Jake Spavital has absolutely dominated the recruiting trail. No one will argue that.

So where does all that leave us? I've made a case that Spavital has not done a bad job here. I would argue he's done a good job. Not great, but really good. His offenses have had challenges to overcome (and I haven't even mentioned the fact that he had no defensive support last year and played in literally the toughest division in the history of college football in 2014), and while there have been bumps, they have performed better than a reasonable person could expect. This year could easily end up in the "great" category, and next year A&M will finally have an upperclassman at quarterback (do you realize that every meaningful snap so far in the SEC has been taken by an underclassman?), options at running back, a tight end who isn't a true freshman, and experienced stud players at all four wide receiver positions. The Jimmy's and the Joe's will be even better next year.

johnny2013

Dale Zanine, USA TODAY Sports

A lot of this debate will still be changed and debated over the coming two months. The toughest part is yet to come in 2015, obviously. Message board fans have been disproportionately critical of the A&M offense during the Arkansas game, when the reality was that A&M had an elite offensive performance against the Razorbacks. The Aggies averaged 8.8 yards per play, which is the highest number Arkansas has allowed to anyone other than the 2012 A&M team going back to at least 2008. It was the highest yards per play A&M has achieved in a conference game since the 2013 Alabama game, which was considered possibly the greatest offensive day in A&M history. It was the most efficient passing day against a conference opponent going back to at least 2008, which was as far back as I was able to research.

Yet Aggie fans were complaining about Spavital.

Criticizing coaches is a tradition as old as football itself, but take the emotion out of it for a second, look at the facts, look at the real circumstances, and have realistic expectations and evaluations. There is no perfect offense, and all offenses fail at times. The defense has coaches too. They expect to stop the offense just as much as the offense expects to score. Sometimes scoring 24 points is a good day. There will be good and even great days in the coming months for the A&M offense. There will also possibly be average or bad days. So far, when you add all those up, Spavital has been a positive for this team, and I believe will prove to be an even greater positive in the coming months and (hopefully) years.