You may want to sit down for this, but as shocking as it may be, your Texas A&M Aggies are already halfway through the 2018 football season.
[pauses until the weeping stops]
That said, this is as good a time as any to look at the various position groups and assess how they’re faring six games into the Jimbo Fisher era. The Aggies sit at 4-2, with wins over Northwestern State, Louisiana Monroe, Arkansas and Kentucky, and losses to Clemson and Alabama. There have been highs and lows already in this season, let’s see which groups are making the grade.
What seemed like a dead heat quarterback battle throughout fall camp has been nothing but a one-horse race since the season started, with Kellen Mond starting every game over Nick Starkel. He is currently fourth in the SEC with 1,447 passing yards as well as 230 yards on the ground. Mond has shown a much greater command of the offense, better accuracy and more poise than he did as a true freshman, and much like Trevor Knight in 2016, his ability to run the ball is quickly becoming an essential part of this offense’s identity, one that may be necessary due to questionable pass protection. Mond was particularly masterful against Clemson, often extending plays with his feet before threading a throw into a tight window downfield. However, he’s also become turnover-prone, with two each in every SEC game so far. While his improvement from 2017 is significant, he needs to continue to make quicker decisions and eliminate costly turnovers in order to maximize this offense’s potential.
As expected, junior Trayveon Williams has been a workhorse for this A&M squad, leading the SEC with 720 rushing yards and averaging six yards per carry. While he has speed to burn, Williams’ best attribute is his ability to make people miss and gain yards after contact. In addition, Williams is a vocal team leader. Early in the season he was backed up by senior Kwame Etwi, but he has recently given way to true freshman Jayshaun Corbin. While not massive, Corbin brings a slightly more bruising running style to complement Williams. We’ll also throw fullback (and 12th Man) Cullen Gillaspia into this mix. While he is still coming into his own as a blocker, he’s taken advantage of the opportunities he’s had as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
Following the departures of Christian Kirk and Damion Ratley to the NFL, the Aggies returned a talented but inexperienced group of wideouts, and that M.O. has more or less played itself out so far this year. While we’ve seen flashes of greatness from players like Kendrick Rogers, but we’ve also seen some critical drops and balls tipped up for interceptions. They have by no means been terrible, but also few high points.
As A&M fans we were going to be pleased with literally any production from the tight end position, but Jace Sternberger is on track to have maybe the best season for anyone at his position in school history. His 351 receiving yards leads all SEC tight ends, and his five touchdown catches are tops in the country at his position. We also keep hearing about Trevor Wood, who is on the field quite a bit in two-tight-end sets.
Many assumed this would be a weak spot going into the season, and unfortunately that seems to be the case. While the unit’s run blocking has been better than expected, pass protection continues to be a real issue, one that likely played a big factor in Kellen Mond winning the starting quarterback job over Nick Starkel. Experts say that Jimbo’s blocking schemes are much different than what the unit ran under Kevin Sumlin, so maybe they are still working out the kinks. The good news is that looking at the two-deep on the line, the Aggies will return 8 of 10 players in 2019, so the room for growth and improvement is there.
OVERALL GRADE: B
The A&M offense has proven they can move the ball, especially on the ground. But the past two games against Arkansas and Kentucky showed an offense that, despite it’s potency, struggled to put up point totals to match their yardage. This is evidenced by the fact that they are third in the SEC in total offense, but only sixth in scoring offense. But the yardage is an indication that if they can cut down on turnovers and not shoot themselves in the foot, they can score on anybody.
The Aggies are fourth in the country in run defense. Say it again. The Aggies are fourth in the country in run defense. That’s because this is the stoutest group of defensive lineman A&M has had in decades. Kingsley Keke, Landis Durham, Daylon Mack, Justin Madubuike, the list goes on. They’re big, they’re physical, and they can rotate in players without losing much effectiveness. They don’t tend to get a lot of pressure on the QB without blitzing, but it seems like a big part of that is Mike Elko’s scheme, which often drops defensive ends into coverage where they almost play like a linebacker at times. After years of porous run defenses, watching this unit every Saturday is a delight.
Otaro Alaka and Tyrel Dodson have been playing lights out all season, and Buddy Johnson joins them to form perhaps the best group of linebackers at A&M since the R.C. Slocum era. The one knock on this position group is depth. They’ve already lost Anthony Hines for the season, and if another player goes down, it will start getting dicey really fast. Pray for health.
By far the weakness of the Aggie defense, this unit will make any game in which the opponent has a potent passing attack kinda scary. Recruiting the cornerback position was a well-documented deficiency under Kevin Sumlin, and the current play in A&M’s secondary bears that out. Safety Donovan Wilson is still a playmaker, and the group does have young players that may develop in the coming years, but for 2018, it’s likely a weakness that opposing coaches will continue to try and exploit.
OVERALL GRADE: A
While they may not be perfect, this defense has looked anywhere from good to dominant in every game this season outside of the meat grinder that is Alabama. Essentially shutting down the other team’s run game is a massive weapon, and one that will likely keep A&M in every game they play for the rest of the year.
Daniel Lacamera came into the year as the clear cut field goal kicker, but after getting injured early in the second game of the season, he gave way to freshman Seth Small. While he started off well going 3-for-3 including a 50+ yarder against Alabama. But Small has made only one of his four kicks in the past two games. Field goals often mean the difference in close conference games, and the Aggies need him to return to his early form of making kicks consistently.
Braden Mann may be the MVP of this team, and that his not hyperbole. He leads the nation in punting with 54.9 yards per boot, set the NCAA record for punting average in a game (with at least five punts) with a 60.8 yard average against Alabama, and had an 82-YARD KICK last week against Kentucky. All this guy does is eat, sleep, and kick the snot out of footballs. He’s also A&M’s kickoff specialist, putting the ball through the back of the endzone with regularity.
Yet another area where we knew Christian Kirk will be sorely missed. But the return game has done well despite the absence of Kirk and the departure of Special Teams Coach Jeff Banks. They had a kick return for a touchdown to start the Arkansas game, and a punt return to midfield that set up the Aggies’ second touchdown in the fourth quarter against Kentucky. More importantly, they’ve avoided catastrophic mistakes (turnovers).
OVERALL GRADE: A-
While the field goal kicking needs to improve, this is a group that has acquitted itself well despite the loss of a highly regarded position coach in the offseason.
OVERALL GRADE: A
Jimbo and his group came in with sky high expectations, at least in the long term. For most fans, what they wanted to see immediately was a team that played hard, with fundamental improvement on both sides of the ball. I think you can say you’ve seen that. Defensive Coordinator Mike Elko in particular seems to have done a masterful job turning a maligned defensive unit into one of the conference’s best. Maybe it was true that Jimbo’s message had gone stale at Florida State, but at least so far, it appears to be resonating in College Station.
Let’s hope that continues when final exams come around in November.