A bye week can be one of the most important weeks of the year for any team, but the way this team approaches this bye week can ultimately set the foundation for success (or failure) for the rest of the season and beyond. I personally think this bye week came at the perfect time for Texas A&M. This season has been a roller coaster so far for Aggie fans everywhere, so you can only imagine how it has felt for the players. We know the emotional toll that these past 5 games have had, but even go back to Sam Houston with the long weather delay. That’s a lot to handle for any team, especially a young one. Looking at the 3 in the win column brings up some memories of the good and looking at the 3 in the loss column definitely makes you think about the bad. The reality is that this is an inconsistent football team right now that has everything they need to finish the year 6-0 and potentially get a 10th win in a bowl game, but could also drop another 2-4 games and have more questions than answers entering the off-season. This bye week came at a perfect time because it offers a reset and a refocus after one of our best games of the season, but one that didn’t go our way. I think this team can finish this year 6-0 and it starts outside of the practice or game field.
What a demoralizing year it has been for injuries. It’s impossible not to think “what if” we had Ainias these past two weeks. The same could be said for so many other guys that we’ve been missing this year. Whether it has been one game or multiple, we’ve felt the effects of those injuries at every level on our defense. On the other side of the ball, we’ve had key injuries at the two most important positions with our quarterback and offensive line being banged up and our most versatile player out for the season. This isn’t an excuse and never will be. You have to have the depth to continue to march on and the good news is we’re building that with other guys getting the opportunity to play. Our coaching staff should be putting a major emphasis on players getting treatment this week and making sure we are as close to full strength as possible when we hit the ground running for preparation to play South Carolina. Between guys returning from long injuries and healing some nagging pains, I expect to see a team flying around on both sides of the ball for the rest of the year.
Bye weeks provide a unique opportunity to take a deeper dive into some areas that you can’t really focus on when you have an opponent to prepare for and a full week of practice. The extra time provides guys the chance to hang out a little more and to get to know each other more on and off the field. It’s typically a week where the younger/inexperienced guys get some more reps and also one that the starters can slow the game down and talk through exactly what they’re seeing and experiencing out on the field. The quarterbacks have a chance to get some quality reps in with the receivers to work on timing and learn things about each individual receiver and how they might do things a little differently. I bet we can all guess what route they might focus on this week.
I think chemistry off the field is one of the most overlooked traits of a good team. You always here the stories of guys being “best friends” or “roommates” and having a good connection. There’s something to be said for enjoying the guys that you spend the majority of your time with and wanting to fight for the guy next to you when you go into a game or just simply trying to execute because it’s what you’re told to do. Bye weeks allow these guys to get together away from the field and grow closer than they were before. This team is in an interesting position because they have some strong upper-class leadership mixed with a super talented Freshman/Sophomore class. Sometimes it’s hard for those two groups to mesh and gel because there is jealousy or simply just because they haven’t had enough time to really get to know each other. That sticks out to me when something good happens on the field. If the defense makes a big stop or forces a turnover, they should all celebrate together. When the offense scores a touchdown, you should see every player in the end zone congratulating the guy that scored and encouraging one another. I’ve seen this get better every week and I hope that after this bye week you’ll see a group that loves to play with one another because of the chemistry they’ve built off the field.
Watching the film back of all of these games, very rarely do you see physical mistakes. I could point out some missed throws, dropped passes/interceptions, missed blocks and tackles, but everyone has those and we aren’t doing it at a much higher rate than anyone else in the country. Where we’re struggling is the mental mistakes, that can be fixed in the film room. An example would be Haynes running for his life against Alabama. Obviously, their defensive line won some one on one matchups, but most times we had enough guys to protect and we were missing assignments. The book is out on beating our offensive line. If you play enough games and run twists up front, we can’t block you. It’s going to take those guys watching film of those mistakes and communicating with each other and correcting it on the practice field to keep the quarterback clean. Another area for improvement on the offensive side of the ball is coverage recognition. You can tell by the way our receivers run their routes that they often have some sort of read, whether to stay on the move or potentially shut the route down. Pretty often, our quarterback and receivers are on a different page on what they see and it’s been about a 50/50 split on who is wrong. There’s no substitute for watching film together and going through your thought process on what you’re seeing and why you made the decision that you did. You will also prep for future opponents and discuss what adjustments you might have to make for them.
On the defensive side of the ball, there is one glaring issue. I was in the end zone for the Alabama game and knew they would have a field day running the ball because of our run fits. DJ Durkin has gotten plenty of blame for game plans throughout the year, but I thought he had a good one against Alabama. We had the right guys for all of the gaps, we just always had one guy that wasn’t getting there. That should definitely be a point of emphasis moving forward and making sure that we’re forcing teams to throw the ball to beat us. Speaking of throwing the ball on us, our defensive backs have to improve their ball skills and route recognition. This is definitely something that is practiced and needs repetition, but you can gain an advantage through film study. How often have we seen our guys miss an interception by a step or barely miss on a pass break up this year? I promise it’s not just an Aggie curse that our guys can’t pick off the ball. Jardin Gilbert was a perfect example this past week. He read the wheel/seam concept from Alabama and baited the quarterback into throwing the seam and jumped it for an interception. I can almost guarantee he saw that on film and was prepared when the play came. Mark my words, we will see a big increase in turnovers from our secondary in the second half of the season because of preparation and film study.
There were a lot of comparisons going into the Alabama this year to last year. 2 losses coming in, just had a poor performance against Mississippi State, and everyone was holding out hope we would catch lightning in a bottle again. Am I happy that we lost? Of course not. Do I think it was the best thing for this team? Yes. Looking back to last year, it was almost like we just ignored what we had done to win that game and just went back to what we were doing before and got complacent. When you lose, you have to look a little closer and dig a little deeper. I think this coaching staff and team will grow and be better because of the way that game ended and having a great bye week this week is the first step in finishing the season strong.