Like a lot of other English words, we can trace it back to Latin where we find the origins in the word “stare” which means “to stand”. This makes sense, as an adjective it means something firmly fixed, unchanging, amongst other uses to describe medical patients and emotional states. As a noun, it’s a building set apart for animals (typically horses) to stay (or stand) in.
Football fans hear and see the word regularly, it gets thrown around a lot when talking about a team’s backfield. It seems like any team who’s feature back doesn’t get 90% of the team’s carries gets an article written about how they have “The best stable of running backs in the conference/league/universe.”
If you hate that kind of hyperbolic talking-head jargon, you may end up throwing something at your TV this season, because there’s a chance it will be said at least once every game that Texas A&M is on the field.
I get it too. For one, it’s a useless statement. There are no trophies or championships at the end of the season for a team that happens to have two or three guys who can “run real good”. People may speak fondly of loaded backfields we’ve seen over the years (the Pony Express, 2007 Arkansas, etc.), but nobody is hanging banners for those teams when they finish 3rd or 4th in their division . Not only is it pointless, it’s relatively difficult to prove, even in the day and age of success rates and opponent adjusted stats.
So sure. I get it. But still, it may be true for the ‘21 Aggies for three reasons. Their names are Isaiah Spiller, Devon Achane, and Ainias Smith.
Most people weren’t paying attention to the kid from Klein Collins High School when he decommitted from Oklahoma and followed in his father’s footsteps to College Station instead. A lot failed to take notice of the baby-faced Freshman when he put up just under 1000 yards in 2019 (filling the shoes of Trayveon Williams, one of the top backs in school history). And that makes sense. He’s not the fastest guy on the field, he’s not some Derrick Henrey-esque sized tailback who looks like he should be playing on the defensive line instead.
But around 1:15 pm on October 10th, 2020, a large section of the population became very aware of Isaiah Spiller. Here’s the Google Interest in that name starting in September of 2020 and ending on October 11th.
Now let’s watch that spike in real time.
In the moment before the following play, the Aggies are losing at home to a Top 5 team. This is not uncommon territory for Aggie fans like myself. The formation and the play selection itself, are ultimately not out of the ordinary. What follows though, feels uncommon.
The Aggies line up in a heavy formation, with 2 TEs on the right side, a fullback, and Isaiah Spiller behind Mond in a pistol formation.
It’s 4th and 2, and everything about this setup screams “We are running the ball.” Florida gets this and responds appropriately, stacking the box with 10 defenders. Let’s break down what happens.
The ball is snapped, and Spiller hesitates just a moment to freeze the defenders and give the RG and TE time to pull to the left side.
Spiller follows these two guys to the left, where they are looking to block the LBs on the edge, following the FB who takes on the Safety.
They do a decent job. Not perfect by any means, two different defenders get hands on Spiller at one point or another, but that’s not enough. You do not stop Isaiah Spiller with arm tackles in the same way you do not expect to stop a hurricane with sand bags. You’re just trying to limit damage.
This is the moment where the play elevates though. Everyone has mostly done their job, blocks have been made, and Spiller is left in a one on one situation with the linebacker. At this point, Spiller is getting a 1st Down. The goal has been met. The hurricane has made landfall.
For Isaiah Spiller, this is insufficient. In a one-on-one situation, #28 elects to run through a starting SEC LB on his way to a touchdown to give the Aggies their first lead of the game. This is a short lesson in how to deal with forces of nature, and how sometimes it’s best to just let them run their course. This is a hard lesson to learn, but Isaiah Spiller is willing to teach it to you, anytime you want.
Isaiah would have more moments like this in 2020, in fact he was 3rd in the SEC in broken tackles and averaged nearly 3 yards after contact (according to SEC Stat Cat) . Still, it’s one thing to just be a bruiser, but Spiller is so much more, and his stock has risen as an NFL prospect because of his well rounded skill-set. His vision is excellent, coupled with a patience that borders on Zen-like and pass blocking abilities that make him invaluable to a pro-style offense like Jimbo Fisher’s.
Watch him take that hit again, and realize he never even seems to falter, he’s poised, balanced, stable. 2020 lacked stability in every way possible, and football is a game where your opponent tries to steal it from you at every turn, but Isaiah Spiller brought stability to an offense that thrived on it. In a year filled with problems and stumbling blocks, Isaiah told us, “I will run through them. They will not stop me, they will barely slow me down. I am not the waves breaking on the shore, I am the flood waters running until there is nowhere left to go.”
Devon Achane has speed. This isn’t an uncommon trait for football players. Anyone at the D1 level would almost certainly dust you in a race of any length given the opportunity. So when you see someone like Devon put 10-15 yards in between himself and defenders who are giving it their all to catch him, it’s shocking because it’s anything but common.
This is not a red Corvette on an open interstate speed. This is Indy 500 speed that you can never fully comprehend without seeing in person, as the cars fight gravity and chaos and death and do it all in the blink of an eye.
This isn’t “Boeing-747, Greyhound-with-wings meant to carry families from Houston to Destin in under two hours” type of speed. This is “millions of taxpayer dollars, government built, fly in, kill something, and get out before you even show up on radar” type of speed.
This is not the stepped on shit you get from a corner dealer that makes your heart race for 10 minutes before you pass out on a couch. This is the lab grown speed you get from a European guy at an Eyes Wide Shut party that keeps you up for a week at a time.
To get back to football terms, Achane has the type of speed Aggie fans are used to watching race down the sideline with maroon jerseys giving chase, and never catching. All while we sit and wonder “How the hell can someone move that fast without creating a black hole in the earth every time their foot hits the ground? And where do you even find a guy that fast?”
Apparently you find them at Fort Bend Marshall High School in Missouri City, probably winning state and national honors on track relay teams. Because when you’re fast, it’s not enough to be fast on one field, people want to see you do it everywhere.
So in 2020 and 2021, Devon did it everywhere.
Starting with a 6 yard carry in the Arkansas game and ending with an Orange Bowl MVP performance against North Carolina, Devon Achane brought track speed to the gridiron as a true fish and did more than fine. He turned in a 58% Success Rate running the ball, and few backs with 30+ carries were even close to being as explosive as Achane was.
Then, he took his gridiron speed over to the track, to prove to the world he didn’t lose it somewhere on Kyle Field. He qualified for the National Track & Field Championships in three different events (100m, 200m, and 4x100m) and received All American Honors. As a true freshman. Who spent his Fall preparing for an entirely different sport.
Watch him on this run against North Carolina.
Right out of the box, he stumbles a bit over Wydermyer’s block, and the play is nearly over there. A couple of yards gained on a first down. But he corrects it, gathers his feet, and finds stability. And then he’s gone.
2020 might have thrown everything it had at us, but Devon proved that you can put enough distance between you and them and everything will be just fine. In a year that was filled with problems that ranged from minor inconvenience to “Oh God the world is on fire.”, Devon Achane simply said “I will outrun them. I will deal with them if they catch me, but I know they will not catch me. I am pure, uncut speed and everyone else is racing for second place.”
The workhorse, the race horse, and then maybe something else in the stable that’s an entirely different animal all together? It’s hard to put a label on Ainias Smith, because he refuses to fit in a box. The closest anyone has gotten is the recruitment services listing him as an “Athlete”, and his High School HUDL film seems to agree with that. In the first 90 seconds, he throws, catches, runs, and intercepts a pass, all for touchdowns. But even the recruiting “experts” seemed to have a hard time really figuring him out, with 24/7 listing him as a 3 Star recruit, the 48th best “Athlete” in the country.
Those aren’t usually the type of guys you expect to make an instant impact at a program, but maybe that’s on you for low expectations, for expecting Ainias to fit within your misconceptions. By the Arkansas game of his freshman year, where he caught 5 passes for 80 yards and a touchdown, it was pretty clear that Ainias provided the combination of shiftiness and speed at receiver that the Aggies had been lacking since Christian Kirk left for the NFL.
As the end of the 2019 season arrived, the A&M running back room was anything but stable, with Isaiah Spiller being the lone ball carrier on the depth chart for the Texas Bowl. So during bowl prep, Ainias practiced as a running back. He’d end up getting 7 carries for 54 yards, helping get the Ags to their second bowl win under Jimbo Fisher. That’s not something everyone would do, moving one of your more electric playmakers to a position they haven’t spent much time learning, but again… maybe that’s just you putting Ainias in a box.
And then again in 2020, with Spiller being the only known quantity in the backfield, Ainias split time at WR and RB. He’d finish the season with just under 300 rushing yards, 564 receiving yards, and totaled 10 TDs. He had a 58% Success Rate running the ball and a 44% Success Rate when targeted through the air. After two seasons with the team, it’s pretty clear that Ainias is not a horse in a stable, he’s a weapon that remains loaded at all times.
In 2021, Ainias may get the least amount of carries of these three players, if he even spends any time in the backfield at all. The emergence of Achane, plus an influx of talented recruits may mean #0 won’t be in the stable, and that’s okay with Ainias. He’s about as unselfish as they come, and besides, a stable is just a big box meant to keep things penned up.
Watch him score the first touchdown of the 2020 season here against Vanderbilt.
It’s a simple option play, Kellen lets the defender get pretty close before pitching the ball to Smith. At that point, it’s an all out sprint to the outside, where he’s got good blocking from the WRs and plenty of green grass.
Now he’s surrounded by blockers and would be tacklers, he’s boxed in. We’ve talked about that already though, so you should have known what happens next. It doesn’t make you psychic, it just means you’re starting to understand who Ainias is. Smith splits the defenders and runs through the space that shouldn’t exist, space that you or I could not see in real time, drags a would-be tackler a couple of yards, and the Aggies go up 10-0.
2020 tried to hem us in, it tried to lock us away, and put us in a box. But Ainias says not to worry about what the world says about you. You can adapt, you can shift gears, change directions at any point and leave everyone around you stunned. Being able to change and adapt isn’t what you think of when you hear the word “stable”, but maybe that’s just you boxing yourself in, and maybe you don’t belong in a box either.
At this point, you may be asking yourself what this even is. And I think you’re probably right to do so. It jumps between film breakdown and stats and attempts at inspiration and whatever else, and does most of it pretty poorly. But really I just wanted to take a moment to celebrate the three guys that played a major role in producing a top offensive unit in 2020, and maybe highlight some of the things I saw from them in a year that tried to prevent me from seeing them play at all. With the 2021 football season coming up quickly, it felt appropriate to write about the three players who will provide stability to an offense that lost several key pieces in the offseason.
There will be new faces on the offensive line, someone not named Kellen Mond starting under center for the first time in four seasons, and who knows what new young talents will emerge as this team navigates the schedule. There will be growing pains, especially for this stable of backs who may not find as many running lanes as they did in 2020. Road blocks like “inexperience” and “every team in the SEC West” lay in the path that leads to a satisfying follow up season to one of the most successful finishes in Aggie football history. Optimism is high, which usually means pain and ruin lay just on the horizon.
This is not true just of A&M either, college football as a whole is a chaotic element we try to bottle up and contain for half the year. It’s a haphazard cocktail invented by bored college students who’s main ingredients are rugby, violence, and Newtonian physics, and we throw more and more money into it as if that will eventually make it taste better. And if you thought last offseason was a bit crazy, I’m sure you’ve enjoyed the recent insanity of conference realignment, further driving home the idea that very few things in this sport are permanent or reliable.
So sure, there’s just as many problems in the future as there are things to be hopeful for. But if this group of A&M backs has taught us anything, there’s nothing they can’t run through, or away from, or maybe even around. There IS something reliable here, something steady and fixed. There’s some order to the chaos, something stable to lean on. I was appreciative of it in 2020, and I refuse to take it for granted in 2021.