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Previewing the 2018 Texas Aggies

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Texas A&M hired a coach with a national championship on his resume AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT (click to begin slideshow)

NCAA Football: New Mexico at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone who’s reading this likely knows what has happened in Aggieland recently, but just in case one of you was mostly dead and just managed to recently revive thanks to a miracle pill from Miracle Max,

Sumlin kept fading late in the year but had one more chance to right the ship but in the first game of 2017 the game itself was a microcosm of what Sumin’s seasons tended to look like and sure enough his team faded late again so the Aggies swung for the fences and hired Jimbo Fisher and with that they switched from the spread offense, swaggery style of program building to a more physical and demanding culture led by a no-nonsense coach who rides horses and talks really fast and uses a traditional tight end and I kid you not he goes by the name “Jimbo” which is perfect for a school who had yell leaders named Bubba and Boo Boo in consecutive years back when I was a student and anyway he brought in new coaches and a new attitude and a new playbook so that leaves us about a week to pick a starting quarterback, figure out how to piece together a serviceable offensive line, replace a couple starting defenders that already appear to be injured in fall camp, and find a way to compete with Clemson and Alabama and the rest of the SEC, after we kill Count Rugen.

What will the offense look like and how will new offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey work with Fisher?

The spring game already gave a first glimpse of what the offense will look like, and certainly looking back at Florida State’s offenses will give clues as well.

The Aggies will be in shotgun formation almost all the time, but will go under center on short yardage and even on some standard downs. A tight end will be on the field most of the time, as Fisher’s offense is most often in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers).

The Aggies will still look like a spread team an awful lot. There’s been a lot of talk about moving to a pro-style offense, but many of the assumptions there have been incorrect. It won’t be a lot of I-formation, 21 personnel the way people have grown to think of pro-style. The Aggies will still run bubble screens, RPOs, and tons of traditional pass concepts that, to be honest, everybody runs. Football is a spread game now.

The difference will come in a few ways. The biggest way is what I would call an inside-out focus rather than an outside-in focus.

With the offenses under Kevin Sumlin, the focus was on the wide receivers. The idea was to spread the field, get the ball outside, force the defense to run laterally and defend space. It was an outside-in focus. It was all about the receivers. If we expect defensive pressure, we aren’t going to keep seven blockers in, rather we assume that our receivers can get open and have space to run, and hopefully the quarterback can get the ball to them before the pressure arrives.

Fisher’s offense is more inside-out focused. The first thing he worries about is blocking. If the quarterback is expecting pressure, he’ll keep the running back and/or tight end in to block. You will see much more six and seven man protection under Fisher than we ever saw with Sumlin.

“The biggest thing is,” Fisher explained when asked about what his quarterbacks will need to do, “playing in our system, a lot more multiple protections, a lot more you’re responsible for in the blitz pickup game, what you have to do whether you got a hot, you got a sight, or how you can protect it, because to me, that’s they key. What separates quarterbacks in college ball and pro ball is they don’t understand protection. And if you don’t, you can’t survive. So that’s one of the reasons I do what I do. It’s harder, it is much harder, and I understand, it’s more volume of things for them to do.”

That difference in philosophy can already been seen in how Sumlin recruited versus how Fisher is already recruiting, before even coaching a single game. Sumlin prioritized wide receivers and signed many. Fisher has four recruits committed for 2020, and all four are offensive linemen. Night and day difference in priority.

Having a tight end (or two) on the field almost all the time will not only provide more options in protecting the quarterback, it will add more diversity to the run blocking, but the biggest advantage to that will be what it then adds to the play action passing game. Having a tight end that is a true blocking and receiving threat is as pro-style as it gets. It puts linebackers and safeties in conflict and allows a play caller to be more like a baseball pitcher, keeping the opposition off balance by having throwing three or four different pitches that have varying speeds and movements, i.e., power runs, play actions, bootlegs, draw plays, screens, etc.

If Sumlin’s offenses were about using the field and executing a smaller number of plays at high efficiency with fast tempo to force defenses to simplify and defend space and get tired (which, for the record, is a fine philosophy that many incredibly successful coaches use), Fisher’s are more about being physical, fundamentally sound, and using everything possible to keep a defense guessing, with misdirection, play action, and a much thicker and complex playbook, both running and passing.

That said, Fisher, like all offensive coaches, prides himself on being willing to so something simple over and over again if it works.

“Against Clemson [in 2012] we ran the same pass play nine times,” Fisher said. “We completed all nine of the passes, to five different receivers. I did not need a new play.”

You may recall almost an almost identical quote from Noel Mazzone.

Fisher does have a thick playbook, to be sure. I spoke with one football writer who has a copy of Florida State’s 2014 playbook and he marveled at the number of passing concepts it included.

Helping Fisher out will be new offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey. A one-time Texas A&M graduate assistant under Jackie Sherrill, Dickey comes from Memphis where he ran their offense for the last six years. He took over a program that had averaged 16 and 14 points per game in the two years prior to his arrival and left behind a team that averaged over 45 points per game and was #4 in the nation in S&P+, scoring, and total offense in 2017.

Dickey brings a wealth of experience and knowledge, but he won’t be installing “his” system. Dickey flat-out said that the Aggies will be running Jimbo’s offense. Jimbo will call the plays, and it’s Jimbo’s playbook.

“We’re gonna run Coach Fisher’s offense,” Dickey said. “It’s a great offense. We’re meshing some things that we did [at Memphis] but he was familiar with all of these things... So our offense is taking what he’s been doing his whole life which is each year tweaking it a little bit based on his personnel, based on what defenses are doing to people at the time... You’re constantly, on offense, seeing what the other team is doing and trying to figure out what’s the best way to attack it.”

What about the defense?

Defensively, Jimbo Fisher hired Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko to take over the Wrecking Crew. Elko was well known for turning the Fighting Irish defense around in just one year and will be expected to do the same at A&M

Stylistically, Elko’s defense is quite different than what John Chavis ran the last few years. Chavis’ defense was aggressive, and defensive ends and corners were crucial. Often blitzing and leaving the secondary in man coverage, it relied on penetrating and creating negative plays and turnovers. And A&M actually did those things well under Chavis, ranking near the top of the NCAA each year in sacks and tackles for loss. But it came at the expense of giving up an inordinate amount of big plays.

Whether it was corners getting beat in man coverage, missed tackles in space, or coverage busts, A&M was far too susceptible to the big play. It was feast or famine, and with an offense that was struggling to score points for a variety of reasons, that was not a winning recipe.

Enter Mike Elko. Employing a defense with much more zone coverage, more of a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy, Notre Dame was #2 nationally with just four plays of 40+ yards allowed all season. 10 of their 13 opponents scored just 20 points or less. One of the three to score 21+ was Wake Forest, the same team that scored 55 on A&M in the Belk Bowl (they scored 37 against ND).

While the defensive ends and corners were key under Chavis, the inverse is true for Elko, who said at the recent media day that the two positions in this defense that are scheme-heavy are safety and linebacker.

The defensive ends for A&M probably won’t get as many sacks as they did under Chavis. Returning SEC sack leader Landis Durham, who had 10.5 in 2017, will sometimes drop into coverage rather than chase the quarterback on every play. Defensive tackle Daylon Mack, whose role under Chavis was to control his gap, will now be freed up to be more of a slashing, penetrating tackle which suits his skills.

Notre Dame had just 24 sacks last year (A&M had 43) yet finished well ahead of A&M in basically every other pass category, and I’d look for a similar shift this year: fewer big plays made in behind the line of scrimmage but far fewer game-changing big plays allowed.

Notre Dame also used that defensive style to clamp down in the red zone, which happens to be the single area A&M was worst at defending last year. The Aggies were 122nd in the nation in red zone stops. Notre Dame was 29th. A lot of that, I’d argue, is due to the scheme that, again, is focused on keeping everything in front of the defense and forcing offenses to throw into small zone windows.

Mattywatty01’s positional breakdowns

A quick look at each group, with a 1-5 rating, 1 being a major question mark, 5 being a definite strength, and the other numbers being, you know, 2, 3, and 4.

Quarterback: 4

We have seen both quarterbacks play, and my opinion is that even if there was no quarterback battle, Nick Starkel is good enough to warrant a 4 already. If this battle for QB1 is really as close as insiders report it to be, that means Kellen Mond has made a huge improvement and the Aggies now have not one but two quality quarterbacks. Either way, my season projection doesn’t change at all regardless of who wins the job. Jimbo Fisher turns college quarterbacks into NFL quarterbacks like Bruno Mars turns retro sounding beats into modern sounding hits. The Aggies will be good at quarterback.

Running back: 3

I am in love with Trayveon Williams just like you are, but I can only give us a 3 here until I see if any of the his backups are capable of gaining yards and until I see Williams stay healthy and fresh for the whole season. I love his big play ability, and I think he’s one of the better starters in the SEC, but I’m in wait and see mode for the running back unit as a whole.

Tight end: 4

The spring game and the words of Jimbo Fisher about his tight ends are enough to have me convinced: the Aggies will not only use the tight ends extensively this year, they will be the most effective part of the offense. Jace Sternberger dominated the spring, and Trevor Wood has drawn rave reviews, with Fisher going so far as to say he thinks Wood has an NFL future. I’m all in on the tight ends.

Wide receiver: 2

I consider this a concern. The Aggies have just one receiver who I would consider to be a proven commodity, sophomore Jhamon Ausbon. Aside from him, a handful of freshmen and sophomores are trying to earn their way onto the field, but until someone proves themselves on the field, it’s a question mark. The most amazing note about this is the fact that for all the receivers Kevin Sumlin recruited, the Aggies don’t have a single upperclassman wide receiver on the entire roster. Not one! Not even a walk-on. How is that possible??

Offensive line: 2

Another area of concern. I would rate last year’s performance as a 1 out of 5, so a 2 would be an improvement. But this is one area where I could see the group over-performing by a wide margin. The new scheme, along with another year under the same offensive line coach, will help the line. Having tight ends attached will provide help when needed, as will more misdirection and play action. The Aggies can scheme around their line deficiencies a little more this year, in my opinion. I’d like to think at the end of the year this will be one where the 2 I gave them was proven to be too low. But until they show it on the field...

Defensive end: 3

Landis Durham’s breakout year keeps this from dropping too low, but a lack of depth keeps me from rating it any higher. Kingsley Keke moving over from defensive tackle will ultimately help the group, but for now I will still consider Keke an interior lineman. Much like receiver, A&M really needs a freshman or two to step up and take hold of some playing time.

Defensive tackle: 5

This is where A&M looks like a true SEC power at the moment, with multiple big-bodied linemen that look to have NFL futures. The group has size, athleticism, versatility, and depth. If good defenses are built from the inside out, then A&M has everything in place to be a very good defense.

Linebacker: 4

This is the best looking group of linebackers A&M has had since 2012. Granted, there is a potential depth problem, but the top handful of players, Anthony Hines, Otaro Alaka, Tyrel Dodson, and Buddy Johnson, are a talented, tough, athletic group. They tackle well, they have great instincts, and I expect a good year from the group.

Cornerback: 4

Some may say I’m ranking them too high, but I have very high hopes for a group that is long, rangy, and athletic. A lot of the youngsters got a valuable experience last year, and Mike Elko has about five guys to choose from that could all end up being pretty good. That said, this is the one position that I would be least surprised to see under-perform relative to how I have them ranked.

Safety: 5

Donovan Wilson returns, and few people have proven to have instincts as good as his. The Aggies have depth and talent at the position, but Wilson’s play-making ability is what excites me the most. I’d go so far as to say he’s the one Aggie I’m most excited to watch this year.

Special teams: 4

A&M is in great position at kicker and punter and should be as good as last year, which was good. Kick/punt returner is a question mark still but at worst, the Aggies can be average back there, and before long kickoff returns won’t even exist so I just don’t put too much stock in the return game (which I realize sounds ridiculous after watching three years of Christian Kirk singlehandedly save the day over and over).

Add it all up, and the Aggies will go...

9-3.

How? The old school way: play good defense, good special teams, and have good quarterback play with ball-control offense. This isn’t the Aggie team that will average 44 points per game (looking forward to that in 2020 though...) but I believe it is the Aggie team that keeps most teams from scoring more than about 24 points and finds ways to score 27-35 against the South Carolinas, Mississippi States and Auburns of the world and finishes 7-1 after a 2-2 start.