As I wrote the other day, I am optimist (and you should be too). And as I mentioned, we are talking about realistic optimism, a mindset of looking at what will happen if and when things go right as opposed to preemptively bemoaning what will probably go wrong.
So to put it in Aggie football terms, I’m here to show you why I believe this team can be really good. And to put that in other terms that appeal to various demographics, this team will be Justin Timberlake’s post-*NSYNC career, not Joey Fatone’s. This team will be a Southwest Airlines flight, all nice and friendly and on time, not a United Airlines flight where they kick you and throw you in a Turkish prison for showing up late. This team is a burrito and by golly it will be Freebirds and not Chipotle and yes I hope Freebirds sends me some free burrito coupons for saying that. So buckle up, put on your special best case scenario goggles and come with me as we talk about the
Obvious reasons for optimism include wide receiver Christian Kirk and running back Trayveon Williams. Two of the most dangerous players in the country with the ball in their hands, one would expect about 20-25 touches per game between them. Kirk has already proven what he is, and Williams will only be better in his second season after running for over 1,000 yards as a sophomore.
At running back, Williams is paired with Keith Ford who was a really dependable player, gaining 669 yards and scoring six times. The duo forms one of the best tandems in the conference and will be a strength.
At wide receiver, Kirk is admittedly the only proven option. That said, incoming freshman Jhamon Ausbon is expected to start from day one and be an instant-impact player. While many have said he could be as good as a freshman as Kirk was, let’s not even pencil him in for that level of impact. Let’s just assume he has a similar season to what Speedy Noil did as a freshman. That gives the Aggies two very solid options.
The other wide receiver spot is likely going to be senior Damion Ratley. He’s been plagued by drops in his time at A&M but at the same time, he’s a senior, he’s a guy who has a lot of experience, and he’s a guy who seems able to get open. He also has good size, at 6’3”. He will have opportunities this year and there’s no reason to think he won’t be decent. Backing up those spots, A&M has a host of freshmen, all of whom will be battling to become mainstays in the rotation. It will be survival of the fittest and there are enough bodies and enough talent to be just fine at the position(s).
Going with a three wide receiver set means we are now, this time, for real though, like we aren’t kidding this time, going to spend more time with an H-back/tight end type player on the field. Getting excited about finally using a tight end is becoming as much an Aggie tradition as complaining about the concessions at Kyle Field, but it appears that the rumors might be coming true (about using a tight end, not about better concessions at Kyle).
The Aggies finally have multiple options at the position, and the spring game even showed that the football will go there sometimes. I do believe offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone wants to incorporate that position into the passing game and after dabbling with it some last year will now be able to make it more viable, even if it is just a few times per game.
That leads us to the offensive line. It’s a young group, but I think it will be much better than expected. For one thing, up the middle they are good, led by sophomore Erick McCoy, and they are all a year older. Question marks remain at tackle, but count me in the group that believes that the second year under offensive line coach Jim Turner will pay dividends. The group may not be dominant, but it can be pretty good.
And I guess that’s it... Oh wait! Quarterback. Haven’t mentioned that yet. Ok we all know the drill. We won’t know who is starting until Sunday. (Note: reports now floating around that Nick Starkel is penciled in to start.) To me, quarterback is not a concern regardless of who starts. Simply put, if it’s a freshman, there is no reason he can’t be very good right away. Now days, it’s easier than ever for freshmen to not just to survive but play at a high level from day one.
Noel Mazzone and Kevin Sumlin have been at this a long time. They know how to prepare a quarterback for a season opener. They know how to install a system. I don’t know who will play quarterback for A&M this year, but whoever does, expect him to be well-prepared and very competent.
Everyone knows it will be hard to replace Myles Garrett, Daeshon Hall, and Justin Evans. That said, I believe A&M will be as good or better than last year at nine of the eleven positions this year, defensive ends being the only step back.
The defensive line is stacked with talent on the inside, some of whom are capable of playing inside or outside. When the Aggies want an odd front, Daylon Mack is an ideal nose tackle and a couple of the others can be very good defensive ends. In an even front, again the Aggies can have a two deep full of dominant tackles.
The ends then can be moved around, sometimes playing as traditional ends on a four man line but sometimes standing up as outside linebackers. Further flexibility is provided by a player like Justin Dunning who will move around a bit. The parts don’t all fit into a perfect two-deep of four linemen across the board, but with A&M’s situation at linebacker, it works just fine.
Behind them, I would say A&M has a bit of a worry with how few proven options there are at linebacker, but what they do have is a few players that should be noticeably better than what we’ve seen in the past. Depth is absolutely a question, but if healthy, linebacker play should be ok.
Putting the front seven (or six) together on paper, there are weaknesses if you look at it traditionally, but with the depth and flexibility of A&M’s inside linemen, suddenly it becomes a very fluid, flexible group on the edges, which will allow A&M to mix and match things and still play good defense.
Behind them, the Aggies will be, in my opinion, good at corner and great at safety. Corner is a question since Nick Harvey was injured in the spring, but everyone seems high on the young corners that have had a year or two to grow up now. Priest Willis is also a proven commodity, and players like Charles Oliver have shown well so far.
Armani Watts and Donovan Wilson are as good as any players you will find anywhere and I think they’ll make big plays all season long. Wilson adds even more flexibility as a player that can drop down into the nickel spot when needed.
When I think about a classic John Chavis defense, I think of the 2012 LSU team that beat A&M and Johnny Manziel at Kyle Field. The Aggies were moving the ball quite well that day until LSU switched from a four to a three man front, and from there they slowed A&M down enough to win. It was an impressive display of flexibility and adjustment. While I am not crazy enough to say that losing Garrett and Hall is in any way a benefit, I actually can see a scenario where, with the talent more evenly spread around the defense, Chavis will be more comfortable switching things around and scheming against the opposing offense rather than scheming ways to get Garrett free or use Garrett to create mismatches. Don’t hear me wrong, I’m not saying Chavis did anything wrong last year, I’m just saying that the whole beast that is the A&M defense might just work better as a group of interchangeable, flexible parts than it did as a group of satellites being controlled by the overwhelming gravity of Myles Garrett. Especially when so many of the other parts will be better this year.
Here is an area where A&M should, again, be really good. The Aggies have the best punt returner in America in Christian Kirk, a good punter in Shane Tripucka, and a kicker that made 17 field goals last year in Daniel LaCamera.
Kirk might be the best punt returner in college football history, actually. He already has five touchdowns (the all-time record is eight) on just 27 attempts and his career average of 23.1 yards per return is just off of the all time record of 23.6. If you want perspective on how amazing it is to have five touchdowns in 27 returns, consider this stat. Only 24 players in history have returned five or more punts for touchdowns, and among them, Kirk’s touchdown rate, one touchdown for every 5.4 returns, is the best ever. A sampling of punt returns per touchdown from the best of all time:
- Wes Welker: 19
- Ted Ginn, Jr. : 10.7
- Santana Moss: 12.8
- Tim Dwight: 13.4
- Desean Jackson: 6.3
- Christian Kirk: 5.4
Beyond that, A&M is solid in kickoff returns (ranked 18th nationally in 2016) and also in punt and kick coverage (28th and 49th in ‘16). Under Jeff Banks, the Aggies have been strong in every facet of special teams, ranking 8th nationally in overall special teams efficiency last year. With all the major players returning, there’s no reason to expect otherwise in 2017.
I considered having one more section labeled “coaching,” but it’s hard to argue various points. Briefly, Aggie fans all know Sumlin pretty well by now. Mazzone and Chavis, whether you love or hate them, are both old, experienced, successful coaches who are well-respected and near the top of their profession (yes, Mazzone is, for those of you who are already firing up your comments about how awful he is). I do believe the x-factor will be new strength coach Mark Hocke. It’s impossible for me to look at the last three seasons and ignore the strength and conditioning aspect. And therefore I think it’s reasonable that a new system from a man with deep SEC experience will pay immediate dividends, especially later in the year.
All that said, I think this team can be an 8 or 9 win team this year within normal expectations. If turnovers go A&M’s way and the quarterback plays at a higher than expected level, 10 wins is possible. Gun to my head, I’d probably say the UCLA game is a tossup and then three losses the rest of the way. So either 8-4 or 9-3, depending on the first game.