There is a lot to talk about, so let's jump right into it.
Brandon Williams' Touchdown Run
I wanted to start off with something positive, so let's look at the first touchdown of the game -- Brandon Williams' touchdown run.
One of the things I am continuing to follow throughout the course of this season is the different looks we continue to show in the running game. A couple of weeks ago, we highlighted a play in which Ben Compton, then starting at center, pulled to lead block for Brandon Williams. On this touchdown, it was the right guard Joseph Cheek leading the way (incorrectly identified as Garrett Gramling during the game by Gary Danielson, shocker).
The first thing you may notice about this play is that Cam Clear is actually in the game and will be a big key to the play's development. He is located right next to Germain Ifedi towards the bottom right of the line. Cam Clear will down block on the defensive end (actually shaded to his outside shoulder making this a difficult block), allowing the pulling guard Joseph Cheek to get around the end of the line. Ifedi will block the defensive tackle, Mike Matthews and Gramling will double team the other defensive tackle with Mike working up to the second level linebackers, and Cedric Ogbuehi will be one-on-one with the other defensive end at the opposite end of this play.
Here is the play in it's early stages. I've highlighted Cam Clear's block for you. Cam Clear went one-on-one with Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers here, who is Arkansas' best defensive player and a future NFLer. Flowers would go on and give Germain Ifedi fits for the entire game. Clear handles him well here, as he makes his initial block to allow Cheek to get around, and then when Flowers wants to flow to the running back, Clear will use Flower's momentum against him and push him towards the sideline, opening a great cut-back lane for Brandon Williams.
As Brandon Williams makes his cut-back off excellent vision and works through the Arkansas defense, I quickly wanted to point out Mike Matthews blocking down the field. These are some of the effort things we can lose track of. This block down the field allows Williams to score.
A lot of people have been asking "Where is Cam Clear?" Well, here is how our coaching staff has adapted to including him in our offensive personnel. This is the second game we have used Cam as a traditional end-of-the-line tight end. Without this sixth blocker, we wouldn't be able to run schemes like this touchdown here. Cam is excellent at sealing the edge of a defense, and we utilize this strength often, especially in short yardage situations.
Another quick point I wanted to make: I believe coming into the game, the offense's game plan was to attack the Arkansas defense on the edge, primarily with Brandon Williams. We ran a similar play with both guards pulling to open the game to get Brandon on the edge. When Williams was ruled out for the rest of the game due to injury after this touchdown, I think some of our gameplan went out the window. There are a lot of Trey Williams and Tra Carson fans out there, but I believe Brandon Williams is our best running back out of the group. There are three things a running back has to do: 1) have good vision running and finish those runs, 2) be able to catch the ball out of the backfield, and 3) be able to pick up blitzes in pass protection. Brandon is our only running back who can do all three things, much like Ben Malena last year. Trey isn't great in pass protection and Carson isn't much of a threat in our passing game. That's why Brandon Williams is our starter. So how do you utilize all three guys? I've thought that maybe the best strategy for our coaching staff would be to design game-specific plans around each runner. Designing offenses week-by-week by utilization of different personnel on your roster is a new NFL trend, and it's something Texas A&M can do because of our diverse offensive personnel. For instance, maybe the coaching staff would design an offense against Arkansas that featured Brandon Williams. Next week against Mississippi State, maybe we try to take advantage of Trey Williams in space against a slower Bulldog defense. Instead, the coaching staff has tended just to rotate guys in and out every 5-6 plays. It keeps our three-headed ground game with equal snaps (they each were in for 33 plays against South Carolina), but it doesn't take advantage of each's unique skill set. You end up getting Tra Carson running pitches to the outside and Trey running between the tackles. Maybe we'll see the change as we continue conference play, but as of right now it's pretty uncreative.
Poor Linebacker Play
Time for some of the bad. Coming into the game, I was most concerned with our linebacker play. Every position on our defense has gained solid depth between last year and this year, except for one: linebacker. Right now we only have 4 reliable guys we can play, and that is only because of Justin Bass, not some of the other linebackers we brought in on scholarship. I do have to point out that the A.J. Hilliard injury has really hurt the group, but that just shows how thin the position was to begin with. Shaan Washington is our best linebacker, hands down. And we started Shaan off on the bench with a group of Bass, Jordan Mastrogiovanni, and Donnie Baggs instead. Good things just happen when Shaan Washington is on the field. The first series he was out there, he collected a fumble off a bad snap. That's mostly luck, but Shaan is always around the football and making critical plays. He needs to become a full-time starter in all of our defensive formations.
Now let's talk about our other linebackers. Our gameplan on defense for Arkansas was fairly straight-forward. Stack the box by bringing Howard Matthews close to the line of scrimmage, and keep containment to the outside with the defensive ends, strongside linebacker, and at times the corners to force all of Arkansas' outside runs back into the middle of the field. This approach worked well for us. However, we did allow some busted plays like this one here.
What makes this play so frustrating is that #84 for Arkansas, Hunter Henry, will end up blocking both Justin Bass and Jordan Mastrogiovanni on this play by himself. Two linebackers for the price of one tight end. If an offense like Arkansas gets those numbers, it surely is a big play. Now our defensive end on this play (not sure who it is) goes hard to the inside after the snap. I think this was by design, to allow the linebackers to scrape over the top and fill the other gap the defensive end leaves open. However, this is exactly what Arkansas' run scheme wants. Just like Cam Clear above, Arkansas' offensive line wants our defensive lineman to over-pursue and run up the field instead of staying at the line of scrimmage. They will use their momentum against our defensive line to try and block them out of the play and create holes. That's what happens to our defensive end here. His move inside is taken advantage of, and a huge hole is opened for Arkansas' lead blockers and running back.
Now for our linebackers, they are supposed to scrape to fill the gap that our defensive end has vacated. They do just that, but I believe Justin Bass probably gets too wide in his gap fit on this play, allowing an easy block for the tight end, causing him to not only block Bass, but also Jordan Mastrogiovanni.
Once the running back gets past our linebackers, this play is over since Armani Watts is the only guy that is more than 7 yards off the ball.
This wasn't the only bad play from our linebackers -- they had several. They also were bad defending against the pass, looking un-athletic in the middle of the field. I will want to point out that it is possible Jordan Mastrogiovanni was playing through injury and is not 100% healthy. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But our linebackers have to play better. They're the least impressive group among the defense. Their play may result in a loss for us in the near future. It almost did on Saturday. They'll get a big test this weekend against Mississippi State who will try to spread us out defensively, then try to run right up the middle of the field.
Secondary Eyes in the Backfield
Finally I wanted to hit on the De'Vante Harris debate. Did De'Vante have as terrible of a game as many thought he did? The answer is that Harris played very well against the run, and he had one problem in pass coverage that led to him getting burned -- his eyes in the backfield. I will admit coming into the game I was very skeptical on how much De'Vante should play. This was only his second game of the season, against a run-heavy team. De'Vante's weakness has been being physical and making key tackles in the past. Let me just say that Harris was one of our better tacklers on the day and proved me wrong. In fact, our two corners in Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris were better tackles than our linebackers sans Shaan Washington.
Here is where De'Vante got in trouble on several occasions. This is a 3rd and 2 play, and Arkansas has aligned in a run heavy formation. Everybody in the stadium is expecting a run, but Arkansas will go play-action and catch the Aggie defense sleeping.
I want you to pay attention to De'Vante's eyes throughout this play. De'Vante touts himself as a shut-down corner. He lets everyone in the stadium know when he makes or seems to make a play. But if you are really going to be a lockdown corner, then pay attention to the receiver you are covering and not what is happening in the backfield.
As the Arkansas TE A.J. Derby releases from the press by Harris, De'Vante is still concentrating on what the Arkansas backfield is doing. This causes Harris to be caught off guard by Derby's release up the field and allows him to get clean separation, resulting in Arkansas' final touchdown of the day. This happened to Harris throughout the day, causing him to play catch-up with his receivers which then resulted in open receivers or penalties because he had to commit defensive pass interference to prevent a reception.
Now Harris wasn't the only one in the secondary guilty of this on Saturday. Armani Watts was caught on a Hunter Henry touchdown from play-action that was called back thanks to a holding on Daeshon Hall. It is clear that we were coached to stop the run at all costs. That sounds great for this specific game, but our secondary has had this problem of looking into the backfield for some time. It is a big reason why Howard Matthews has given up some big plays in the past. New secondary coach Terry Joseph has even commented that our secondary has their eyes in the backfield too often, and it is something he has to correct for them to get better. So far, I'm not seeing that correction being made. This is concerning because Mississippi State will show play-action looks this coming weekend, and Alabama after that with us sure to play the same type of defensive scheme to stop the Crimson Tide rushing attack at all costs. SEC West offenses will certainly notice (if they don't know already) that our secondary is liable against the play-action because they don't pay attention to the receiver they are supposed to be covering. We will just see it more often as the season goes on. Here is the chance to identify the problem and correct it. Play your man and let the other 10 defenders do their job.