The Aggies in 2017 are now 25% of the way through the season, have played three quarterbacks, 136 offensive linemen, have shown stretches of dominance in the run game, a complete inability to run the ball, an inability to pass, and also a decent passing attack.
The Aggies have suffered multiple injuries on offense, have no seniors on the offensive line, a true freshman quarterback, and only had one receiver this year who had more than four receptions last year. Good luck, Noel Mazzone!
Ok so it’s been and up and down season already, but here’s the fun part where we put aside our fan hats and put on our analyst fedoras. It’s been interesting already, as A&M has had to consider a lot of things when putting together their game plans. You can only do so much with a true freshman quarterback and a young, struggling offensive line.
To kick off the season, A&M ran the ball so well in the first half of the UCLA game that it almost didn’t make sense. But when you go back and look at it, it did make sense. For three quarters, Kevin Sumlin and Noel Mazzone simply outcoached UCLA with basic football principles.
Without going back and showing examples, it was pretty simple stuff. When UCLA would have two safeties, it left advantageous numbers in the box for A&M, allowing the Aggies to have every defender accounted for with a blocker. When A&M executed, successful runs followed. Occasionally UCLA brought the safety into the box, and A&M would leave one defender unblocked on the back side of the run and still have hat on hat blocking on the front side. When the Aggie line executed, successful runs happened.
Then A&M started using the two back set. If UCLA brought an extra defender into the box, motioning the one running back out would force the UCLA defender to follow him out, and when that happened, the same numbers game was in A&M’s favor still.
In the second half, UCLA adjusted. One almost every standard down and distance play, UCLA brought an extra man into the box. Either pre-snap or post, UCLA made that adjustment. And actually, in the third quarter, A&M still was just fine. They handled the UCLA adjustment and STILL ran the ball successfully when numbers were there and did the appropriate thing- pass the ball- when numbers weren’t. Unfortunately, A&M dropped three passes in the third quarter. It’s really hard to find fault with a single play call in the first three quarters.
Then the fourth quarter happened and I’m not here to talk about that. We all know the ending. But as we start to look at how this game affected the schemes in the next two, interesting things emerge.
A&M proved (based on all evidence available at the time, at least) that they could run on you if you didn’t bring an extra defender into the box. They also proved (again based on the only evidence available) that they could not use the passing game to make a defense pay for selling out to stop the run.
So what did Nicholls State do? From the first snap, they brought an extra defender down into the box. A&M scored on the first drive thanks to some dynamic play calling (swing pass to Trayveon Williams on the first play, which hadn’t been shown yet, reverse to Christian Kirk for a big play, and then the big touchdown pass on play action against a defense overly excited to stop the run).
Nicholls dabbled with two high safeties, and on those plays, A&M ran successfully and made them pay. One big run by Williams was called back due to a hold. The TD run by Williams on the third drive was against a light box.
After that, A&M appeared to be working on the passing game rather than just taking what was available. Nicholls brought the extra man into the box and stuffed the run some, but they also kept a light box several times, and rather than run, A&M passed. I can only assume the Aggies figured Kellen Mond needed the work and that it was worth doing that, but once that game was in danger of being lost, they put Jake Hubenak in and had him go win the game.
Finally then in week three, it was Kellen Mond from start to finish, and some really good things emerged. First, let me say that it is very concerning indeed to see just how badly some of the A&M linemen are getting beat. Even when A&M does have the advantage in the numbers game, too many plays are being blown up because of one lineman (it varies from play to play) completely whiffing.
That said, the encouraging thing is that Mond did take a huge step forward in his passing game Saturday. The Aggies also added some nice wrinkles and even though it took a while, ended up really doing good things. Mond still missed some passes you’d like to see him hit, but he looked far better.
All that said, let’s just look at a few random plays from the first few weeks.
Bunch formation, shallow cross
This first one was in the second drive against UCLA. A&M started with a 2x2 formation, tight bunch on each side but motioned one receiver over making a 3x1 bunch tight look.
Roshauud Paul runs a shallow cross from the right side. A lot of times people will say “shallow cross” as the name of the whole play but really it’s just one route and of course it can be combined with just about anything.
What I like about this combination is that with the route combination on the other side, it gives the quarterback a high/low read with the shallow cross and the hitch route.
On this one, the defender Nick Starkel is reading drops back to cover the deeper route, which he probably feels like he has to because all three receivers in front of him are running upfield. Had he recognized the crossing route and come down to play it, the deep hitch behind him would have been open. Very good play design from the Ags here.
2 back set with one back motioning out
A&M has done this in every game, and here I just want to show the different ways teams defend it. UCLA got gashed early on because they were already playing a cover 2 (two deep safeties) with a six man box:
And then when A&M motioned one running back out, a linebacker would follow but they kept both safeties deep, leaving a five man box:
The fact that UCLA left two high safeties up tells you they were more worried about the A&M pass attack than the running attack. And A&M left the backside defensive end unblocked, so they had five blockers for four defenders, allowing the extra blocker to block the safety, springing Trayveon Williams for a touchdown.
So after seeing that on film, Nicholls State defended it a different way. They still start out in Cover 2 on this example but adjust differently. Again we see two deep safeties and a six man box:
While UCLA chose to keep their safeties high and have a linebacker leave the box, Nicholls had their linebackers stay put and had the safety run down to account for the running back motion:
The toss play
One new wrinkle A&M started using in the running game was a toss play that uses a little deception and gets the ball out in open space. A&M has used this formation a lot this year:
And prior to this game, every time they’ve used it, the running back has taken the handoff and cross the face of the quarterback. A&M has used a few different blocking schemes out of this formation. Here are two examples:
Those are just two, but there have been even more blocking schemes. But before talking about blocking, a quick explanation of what A&M was looking for when deciding to run this play.
Going back to the video above, look at the defense’s alignment here:
The player I highlighted, you can see he is lined up outside the offensive tackle, even outside of the H-back. When a defender is lined up in that outside area, it’s called an “overhang defender.” Overhang defenders are important, as they serve as a force defender against outside runs to that side.
Against ULL, A&M lined up in their strong wingback formation, and upon seeing the defense, the coaches called an audible and signaled in a new run. And when you see ULL’s defense, now you can understand why: no overhang defender.
So now A&M knows there is room to the outside there. The play is a tendency-breaker, since every other run has seen the running back cross the quarterback’s face, but this time, a quick fake inside by both the running back and the H-back, and then the toss to the outside gets the ball to a playmaker in space in a very efficient way. Note that just like a run to the other side, the Aggies leave the defensive end unblocked. It’s a cheap way to get an extra blocker out in front and have one defender run himself out of the play. The other note is that the line blocks as if it’s a run to the left. Ideally, linebackers that are keying on the line will then be a step slow to react to a run going the opposite direction.
And here are the other two times A&M ran the play. On this first one, there was an overhang defender. You can still run this play if that defender is present, it just changes the blocking assignments and gives you one more defender to block, but it’s a great play regardless.
And below, the long touchdown on the same play. Again there is no overhang defender.
Kellen Mond did a lot of good things Saturday but still missed out on some big plays. Here, A&M runs their “slot fade” (also known as their 91 concept, which I wrote about last year). No safety help over the top, Christian Kirk has his man beat, but Mond overthrows him.
Another “missed opportunity” that I’m going to pick on is a play that went for a first down. This is just the classic air raid play “Y cross.” A&M ran it successfully in the first quarter against man coverage, and this was one of the most decisive, accurate throws of the day for Mond:
Later on, A&M runs the same concept, though flipped this time, and on this one, it’s against a zone defense. And Mond completes this pass, but I consider this a missed opportunity. If the pass is more accurate, Christian Kirk makes a huge play, maybe even a touchdown. Instead, it’s just a first down.
To me, it looked like Mond realized Kirk was wide open and didn’t want to risk missing the completion, so he sort of guided that pass rather than confidently firing it in there. Yes, it’s picky of me, but if he hits Kirk in stride, there’s a good chance Kirk turns up field and beats the defender that was chasing him.
Speaking of a true freshman quarterback who may not always trust his arm, one thing A&M needs to continue to do is give him easy completions. The Aggies did a much better job of this against ULL. Plays like this are both effective and easy.
At one point A&M threw a swing pass out to the left to Keith Ford. It went for no gain but it was an easy completion, and then it no doubt helped set next one up, as A&M fakes the swing pass and throws to Christian Kirk behind it.
All in all, A&M has seen a lot of good already. Mond has shown an impressive ability to improve in the span of a couple weeks. The biggest concern is missed blocks up front. But if (big if) the Aggies can find a way to avoid the huge whiffs up front, this offense can do a lot things. There will be big play opportunities if the line can give Mond some time and he can be a bit more accurate.
A&M plays Arkansas this Saturday at 11 a.m.