Here we are, basically done with Jimbo Fisher’s first season as the A&M head coach. We know who this team is, we know the strengths (hello there, run defense!), we know the weaknesses (hello there, pass defense!), and we know that most of the time, A&M will win a lot of statistical categories but the game will be close in the fourth quarter.
Some may say this season has been a success, some may say it has underwhelmed. There are cases to made for each. For me, the first 11 games have had just enough good and just enough bad that I feel comfortable saying this: beat LSU, and this was a good season; lose to LSU, and this was a disappointment of a year.
Look, I just can’t get too fired up at the overall season thus far. To be honest, I think the Aggies are one game worse than they should be. I predicted A&M would go 9-3, and I still believe that was a reasonable prediction. Losing that Auburn game was inexcusable. Not unforgivable, as those are two different things, but definitely inexcusable. A&M should be 8-3 right now, at a minimum.
Instead, the Aggies are 7-4. They have played four teams ranked in the top 20 in the Sagarin ratings, and lost to all four of them. They have played seven teams ranked 35th or lower, and have beaten all seven, though a few of those were too close for comfort.
A&M hasn’t had a signature moment in 2018, unless you count “we only lost by two to Clemson!” as that moment, and I’m here to say, no. But beating LSU would qualify.
Having a moment in year one isn’t a necessity, but it is something that most great coaches manage.
Mack Brown took over a Longhorn team that had gone 4-7 in 1997. In 1998, they went 9-3 and beat two top-10 teams, before winning the Big 12 South the next year and having a decade of excellence.
Bob Stoops took over an Oklahoma team that was in the dumps and hadn’t had a winning season in years, but then went 7-5 in year one and had a “we’re here” moment when they beat #13 Texas A&M 51-6. They won the national championship the very next year.
Nick Saban took over an Alabama team that gone 6-7 (2-6 SEC) in 2006, and in year one, while they only went 7-6, they beat two ranked teams, one of which was a 41-17 victory over Tennessee, who finished ranked #12 in the country. And of course, from the next year on, Alabama has been dominant.
I could keep going with examples like that. Time and again, hindsight shows that if a coach has built a dominant program, there were at least hints of something special in that very first year.
This year, A&M has not yet shown that, in my opinion. If LSU beats the Aggies, it’s another 7-5 regular season, and a year in which the Aggies went 2-4 in the SEC West. Yes, there are encouraging signs on the field, but no, that’s not a good year. Not that I need to remind you, but Kevin Sumlin won 7.5 games per year (regular season only) in the four years after Johnny Manziel left. So no, I won’t be thumping my chest about anything if Jimbo goes 7-5 in his first year, especially considering that the guy A&M just fired pulled off that same record a year ago despite playing with a version of Kellen Mond that was half as good as the 2018 version.
BUT... beat LSU, and this was a good first year. A positive, message-sending season that puts the SEC on notice that things truly aren’t like they used to be. Beat LSU, and I forgive the Auburn loss. Beat LSU, and A&M has the chance to finish ranked in the final polls (if they win their bowl game) for the first time since Johnny Football was running around. Beat LSU, and you have done something that Sumlin couldn’t do. Beat LSU, and perhaps the A&M-LSU rivalry finally becomes a thing. Beat LSU, and there is tangible proof (as opposed to just pointing to his FSU record) that Fisher IS taking A&M somewhere new.
Now, for some film.
The Corner Route
We haven’t been in the film room as much this year, for a few reasons, but with eleven games down and just one regular season game left, I want to show a couple things that kind of bookend the first eleven games.
First, I want to remind you of Jace Sternberger’s first official touchdown as an Aggie, which came on a concept I have written about more than any other pass concept, a three man pattern that A&M has run every single season in the SEC, regardless of offensive coordinator. Jon Gruden calls it “Dusty,” Kliff Kingsbury called it his “8” concept, and who knows what Jimbo Fisher calls it.
To refresh, when in trips formation, the #1 and #2 receivers (outermost receivers) run short in routes, and the #3 receiver runs a corner route. Like so.
It can be run from anywhere on the field, and down in the red zone, that corner route squeezed into more of a 90 degree cut, but it works the same. Here is Sternberger’s touchdown against Northwestern State.
As my daughter says, easy peasy mac and cheesy.
In fact, UAB scored on the exact same play against A&M Saturday.
As logic would dictate, this play is typically run to the wide side of the field. But against UAB, A&M did something I haven’t seen very often, and ran the concept into the short side of the field. Putting three receivers into the boundary squeezes everything into a very small area, and it changes the angle of the corner route by quite a bit.
However, it also forces the defense to play with inside leverage on Sternberger, which makes the corner route an easier route to run. Because they don’t want to give a free release to the middle/open side of the field, the linebacker walls him off from the inside, which creates a natural leverage advantage for Sternberger.
Running this route into the short side of the field makes the throw a more difficult throw though. When running to the wide side, a quarterback can throw the ball away from the defender, towards open grass, allowing the receiver to find the ball. On the short side, the quarterback must make a perfect throw because the window will be very small. And Kellen Mond does a fantastic job both times A&M ran this, first for a big play, and later for a touchdown. Perfect passes, on time and accurate.
A&M also scored an a different type of corner route. This is essentially the same play as the famous Spider 2 Y Banana that Jon Gruden loves.
The image above, the play is run from under center with a strong I formation. A&M runs it from a split back shotgun set, but the bones of the formation are the same, with a tight end and no other receivers to the play side, and two running backs.
The fullback, who would be the lead blocker on the run that is being faked, runs a flat route, tight ends runs a corner, and backside slot receiver runs an over route.
This throw is all about timing and accuracy. Mond does fantastic job of throwing to a spot, on time and on rhythm.
Now, let’s go back to the spring game. The very first time Sternberger crossed the goal line in front of A&M fans was on the exact same play.
I also want to show you a time we ran that same play in the very first game of the year, without success, and consider how much better it looked in week 11 than it did in week 1.
Ok real quick, since we’re talking about corner routes, let’s see one more variation. This is just a classic smash concept (outside receiver runs a hitch or, in this case, a pivot route, and inside receiver runs a corner), which A&M scored on against Ole Miss. A&M mirrors the two-man routes on each side, and Mond picked the correct side and made a perfect, timely.
Mond’s accuracy and timing on these corner routes has become a deadly weapon for this offense. From 2x2 formations, trips formations, and from pro formations with a lone tight end on one side, A&M has found ways to get Mond into throws that he excels at.