Late last fall, as the 2022 season was winding down, I made a statement on The Ineligibles Podcast that there were three things that Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M needed to accomplish in order to generate any sense of optimism heading into 2023:
- Keep your most important players from transferring
- Add key players from the portal
- Make significant changes on offense
With the dust settled on transfer activity and fall camp on the horizon, let’s take a look at how A&M has addressed each of these key points.
Keep your best players: B+
Texas A&M lost a total of 27 scholarship players to the transfer portal, with seven coming from the No. 1 ranked recruiting class of 2022. However, they held onto 19/22 starters from last season, with all three losses being early entrants into the NFL Draft. Most importantly, they held on to key players such as QB Conner Weigman, WR Evan Stewart, and OT Reuben Fatheree. They were also able to convince talented veterans like Ainias Smith, Demani Richardson, and McKinnley Jackson to forgo the NFL and return to Aggieland for one more season.
Of the 27 players who transferred out of the program, the vast majority were veterans who had been passed up on the depth chart and wanted to seek playing time elsewhere. As for the talented freshmen that left, it’s no secret that a few of those that left were dealing with some discipline issues. There were a couple that A&M would have liked to have kept, but the nucleus of the 2022 class remains intact. Players like Weigman, Stewart, Donovan Green, Kam Dewberry and Bryce Anderson are bought in and will be the leaders of the team over the next couple of seasons.
Even the advanced stats agree that A&M kept most of its impactful players from last season. According to Bill Connelly’s returning production metrics (which dig much deeper than just counting returning starters) the Aggies rank 7th out of 133 FBS teams. For context, A&M ranked 84th heading into 2022.
If the Aggies had lost any of their young cornerstone players, such as Weigman or Stewart, this would likely have been graded a D or even an F. But with retaining those players, keeping 19/22 starters, and even hanging on to a few key veterans, they did a really nice job here. However, it would have been nice to have held on to a few more of the talented youngsters, particularly at CB. The grade here is a solid B+.
Add key players from the portal: B-
The free one-time transfer rule has completely changed how rosters are managed in college football. Teams are now able to upgrade and replenish their rosters with experienced players from other teams, instead of having to rely on true freshmen or unproven players. Even the teams that perennially sign the very best recruiting classes (Alabama, Georgia) have taken advantage. How would the Crimson Tide have fared the past few seasons without Jameson Williams or Jahmyr Gibbs?
After signing only one player out of the transfer portal in 2022 (Max Johnson), A&M brought in 10 players via transfer this offseason. Headlining that group are a trio of talented defensive backs in former 5-star Tony Grimes (UNC), All-ACC Josh DeBerry (BC), and a former top-50 recruit in the 2022 class in Sam McCall (FSU). Staying on defense, the Ags added Jackson State transfer Jurriente Davis at linebacker who should factor into the rotation.
On offense, A&M added QB depth in Jaylen Henderson (Fresno State), a true fullback in Jeremy Johnson (Rice), a true “big back” in 6’0 240lb David Bailey (Colorado State), and depth on the interior OL in Finn Dirstine, who used to play for current A&M OL coach Steve Addazzio at Boston College. The Aggies also added a couple of unique skill sets at receiver in Jordan Anthony and Jahdae Walker. Anthony is a 5’9 slot receiver from Kentucky and is likely the fastest player on the team (he ran a 10.12 100m in high school). Walker is a transfer from Grand Valley State and, at 6’4, provides length and a catch radius that A&M lacks (aside from Noah Thomas).
Overall, A&M did a really nice job in the transfer portal this cycle. They landed a likely starter (Tony Grimes) and several older and more experienced players that should provide great depth. However, they did miss on a couple of talented targets that could have been real impact players, and a few of those kids ended up signing with conference rivals. I like that A&M is using the portal, they just need to close a tad better next round. B- here.
Make significant changes on offense: INC.
While the result here won’t truly be known until Sept. 2, I am starting to think this worked out as well as it could have for A&M. Former Offensive Coordinator Darrell Dickey was let go at the conclusion of the 2022 season, but Dickey was really OC in name only. Jimbo Fisher has been the one installing the offense and calling the plays since he arrived in 2018.
Fisher’s 2013 offense at Florida State is still one of the most explosive offenses in college football history, and he fielded a decent offense here at A&M in 2020. But I don’t need to pull any stats to convince anyone how dysfunctional the A&M offense was last season, anyone that watched the games could tell you that. While Fisher’s offense may be incredible in theory, it has become obvious that getting college players to execute the offense consistently just isn’t feasible.
Petrino’s name carries a certain stigma with it, but that’s primarily due to past issues off the field, as well as his shortcomings as a head coach. But A&M hasn’t hired Petrino as their head coach, they hired him to run the offense. And while Petrino may be a controversial figure, there’s no controversy that the dude can coach offense.
When he was at Arkansas, he had the Razorback offense in the top 16 in yards per play every season. He had Louisville at 6th and 5th in yards per play in the two seasons with Lamar Jackson. And while Jackson was a superstar, Petrino has never had the amount of overall offensive talent to work with that he will have at A&M this season. Even more encouraging, he has shown the ability to modify his offense and orchestrate explosive units in different ways, with statue quarterbacks or dual-threat quarterbacks.
While the thought of Petrino at the helm of the Aggie offense is exciting, it only works if he is allowed to do things his way. Giving up control of the offense has to be tough for Fisher, who has always called his own plays. Fisher stirred up the entirety of the college football media when he said “We’ll go through that as we go” when asked if Petrino would be calling plays.
Fisher’s answer could have been better, but to quote one of his own lines “Your actions speak so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying”. And by looking at his actions, it is clear that he has allowed Petrino to take over the offense. We saw clips of spring practice where Jimbo was hands-off and it was Petrino handling the quarterbacks, and even the players themselves have been saying in interviews that the offense is different and Petrino is calling the shots. And while the offense in the spring game looked similar to what we’ve seen, Petrino’s influence was obvious. The scheme in the run game was different (featuring more gap concepts), we saw deep shots off of play-action from under center, and there were a few “easy-button” plays sprinkled throughout the game (something we just didn’t see much of from Jimbo).
The Aggies solidly passed the first two bullet points, but the third may be the most important. Unfortunately, we can’t really know how it will work out until we see it with our own eyes on Sept. 2, so the grade here is Incomplete. It could end up a resounding success and an A+ or go down as a catastrophic failure and an F-. I tend to lean towards the former.
Overall, A&M did a nice job of steadying the ship after a turbulent 2022 season, but that’s no guarantee that 2023 will be a success. They restored a sense of stability and avoided a total meltdown, but there is still work to be done. Will the offensive line be improved? Are they going to be able to stop the run? Is a new offensive coordinator the key ingredient to success, or are there deeper issues? A&M may be the most intriguing team in the country in 2023, but we won’t know how it will play out until the lights come on. That’s why you play the games.