Is that the Big 12 Texas A&M that everyone in the SEC was expecting three years ago, or was that just a blip?
By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak
The Aggies spent years among the land of the pretty good in their old conference, but after the shocking Big 12 championship of 1998, there was always another star in the old South division. Texas and Oklahoma were the players, and A&M was just the eye candy that occasionally had a lot of fun, but didn’t satisfy.
Forget that Johnny Manziel made the program the life of the party in the new SEC. Forget that all the yards and all the bells and all the whistles that went along with the high-powered attack were enough to come up with 20 wins over a two-year span before last season.
Being the hot program only lasts so long.
Texas A&M is still fashionable. The recruiting classes continue to be loaded with stars who used to be locks for other top schools both in the Big 12 and SEC, and this year’s team is full of tremendous young talents. But Ole Miss is pretty hot, too. Arkansas is likely going to be the it team going into the season. Mississippi State got its share of headlines last season, and Alabama was Alabama on its way to the playoff.
Throw in Auburn and LSU in the SEC West mix, and Texas A&M is just part of the crowd with a lot of good players and a very good head coach.
Is there any substance to all of this? It always seems like A&M is tweaking, or changing, and messing around with parts of the puzzle in an attempt to be more consistent on both sides of the ball, and after the last two seasons, better on defense.
It’s a little hard to come up with the same performance week-in-and-week-out when most of the best players are underclassmen. This was and is a very, very young team in several key spots, and last year there wasn’t a Mr. Football to save the day. However, for all the problems and all the issue, A&M only won one fewer game than it did in 2013.
The recruiting classes have to pay off at some point. This is only Kevin Sumlin’s fourth year at the helm, and now his great hauls are starting to kick in creating stronger position battles and plenty of depth.
The quarterback situation might be the most interesting in the SEC. There’s firepower across the skill position board, and the line looks ready to reload behind three good veterans and plenty of NFL prospects.
The defense that was so suspect throughout the second half of last season should be devastating on the front seven. This year’s bunch might not be a Wrecking Crew, but it has an interesting mix of speed, youth, and future Sunday players that might all blend together to make a night-and-day difference.
Now A&M has to show more of the 2012 magic when its two losses came by a total of eight points and the offense was a weekly must see. But at the same time, it has to show it has the upside to actually win the West.
It’s next level time. There are too many terrific parts in play to be anything else.
What You Need To Know About The Offense: It was a weird year for the offense that blew up with the passing game early on against all the teams with no secondaries, and then everything ground down to a halt over the second half. The goal is to get more of the running game involved, and the rotation of backs should be able to do that. Kyle Allen showed this spring that he’s ready to take his game to the next level, but super-recruit Kyler Murray will be right in the mix for the starting quarterback job, just like Allen was last season. The line needs some reshuffling and work, but there’s too much talent not to be fine. The real key, though, is a receiving corps that’s in the team photo for the nation’s best. Six of the top seven are back, and it’s an even better group with freshman Christian Kirk one of the new stars.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: Veteran defensive coordinator John Chavis is stepping in to change up the tempo and ramp up the aggression after the Aggie D allowed 451 yards per game. His defenses fly around and get after the ball and the quarterback, and he has the tools to do just that with the potentially devastating end tandem of Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall leading the way. The linebacking corps is young and skilled, but it’s banged up and needs to be far tighter against the run. The real problem is a secondary that loses three starters, but the improved pass rush should help that out.
What to watch for on offense: How quickly can the line reload? A&M has become a factory for top-shelf tackles, and the hope is for Germain Ifedi to be the next one in the succession. But Cedric Obguehi and Jarvis Harrison are gone off the left side, and even with them the running game didn’t really work as well as it was supposed to once the schedule got tough. The Aggies ran for 20 touchdowns on the season, and 13 of them came in the first four games, two more came against ULM, and two more in the win over West Virginia. Against Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn, Missouri and LSU, A&M ran for a total of two scores. There’s plenty of talent up front, but can it blast away? Offensive line coach Dave Christensen has to make this group salty.
What to watch for on defense: Welcome to the John Chavis world. Really, really soft against the run over the last few seasons, A&M needed to be much stronger after allowing 216 yards per game last year, and it needed to figure out what to do with all the young pass rushing star power. Enter Chavis, the veteran defensive coordinator who has been around the SEC world for seemingly forever. Now it’s his job to crank up the attack mode into the backfield. There’s no read-and-react with him – his defenses release the hounds with an aggressive style that works great with athletic defenders with next-level upside. With superior young ends in Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall, and athleticism inside, the line is about to take things up a few notches. A&M forced just 13 takeaways last season – expect that to double.
The team will be far better if … the quarterback play is stronger and sharper. Remember when Kenny Hill was all but handed the Heisman after his brilliant opening day performance against South Carolina? The Trill is gone, transferring to TCU, but Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray are bigger talents with the potential to put up Manziel-like numbers – at least through the air. The Aggies didn’t hit the 300-yard mark over the final six games of the year after going over it in each of the first seven. If A&M is going to be the team with the offense, it needs that offense to be special every week.
The schedule: A&M plays one true road game – at Ole Miss on October 24th – until going to Vanderbilt on November 21st.
– The Aggies don’t start the SEC season until late, starting out with three straight non-conference games before going to Arkansas.
– A&M is only on the road once in six games from October 3rd until late November, closing out at Vanderbilt and LSU.
– The non-conference games against Ball State and Western Carolina are excusable with an opener against Arizona State and a tougher-than-might-be-expected game against Nevada.
– WATCH OUT FOR … The four game stretch after the open week starting with Alabama, going to Ole Miss, and getting South Carolina and Auburn at home. Go 3-1 in that stretch, and the Aggies might go into the finale against LSU with a chance to win the West.
Best offensive player: Junior WR Josh Reynolds. The former JUCO transfer might have blown up last season as the key new man for the passing game, but he’s just a part of what could be college football’s most dangerous receiving corps. Speedy Noil, Ricky Seals-Jones, and true freshman Christian Kirk are all No. 1-caliber targets. The 6-4 Reynolds just happens to be the best returning receiver of the bunch.
Best defensive player: Sophomore DE Myles Garrett. The more aggressive defensive style should suit him perfectly. Keyed on throughout the second half of last year, now teams aren’t going to be able to double team him as often and won’t be able to focus just on him so much – the pressure is going to come from all sides. Too good as a true freshman to expect blow-up numbers as a sophomore, he’s still the best of an athletic lot of linemen.
Key player to a successful season: Senior DE/DT Julien Obioha. What is he? Is he a big end, or is he a smallish quick tackle? The Aggies are going to need him to be a key part of the inside rotation as a pass rusher in the John Chavis defensive style, even if he’s just 265 pounds. There’s plenty of beef ready to fill in and hold up against the power teams, but it’s Obioha who has to be the dangerous force for the run defense to improve.
The season will be a success if … the Aggies win ten games. The SEC West is still the SEC West, even if most of the tough battles are at home. There’s a world of skill and potential, but there will likely be nine bowl-bound teams on the slate, maybe ten if Ball State catches fire in the MAC. Even so, it’s rare to get a schedule this favorable, and A&M has to take advantage.
Key game: Sept. 26 vs. Arkansas. It’s a neutral site game, but A&M’s SEC opener is in Arlington. The Aggies were able to scratch and claw their way to a win over the Hogs last season, but this is a different team they’re dealing with this time around. The schedule is half full: five of the next six games at home, so there’s a chance to do some major damage if they don’t trip up in Jerry World. The schedule is half empty: with Mississippi State, Alabama and at Ole Miss to follow, a loss could be devastating.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Fourth Down Conversions: Opponents 12-of-20 (60%) – Texas A&M 11-of-19 (58%)
– Rushing Yards Per Game: Opponents 216 – Texas A&M 149.9
– Time of Possession: Opponents 33:45 – Texas A&M 26:14
Players You Need To Know
1. DE Myles Garrett, Soph.
Everyone knew Garrett was going to be a good all-around defensive end, but right out of the box? The star recruit had it all coming out of high school with good size, great quickness, and the NFL look from the moment he stepped foot on campus. Fast off the ball and all over the field, he came up with 53 tackles with 14 tackles for loss, ten quarterback hurries, and an SEC freshman record 11.5 sacks. However, eight of those sacks came against Lamar, Rice and ULM and was neutralized way too often in SEC play. He was terrific against Mississippi State with ten tackles, and he was active against the run and into the backfield on a consistent basis, but now he has to shine brighter when the lights are on. He has the talent, skills and makeup to be even better.
2. WR Josh Reynolds, Jr.
Just an okay recruit by A&M’s ridiculously high standards for wide receiver prospects, Reynolds came in from Tyler JC and turned into the team’s top target in a crowded group. At 6-4 and 190 pounds he has excellent size to go along with the right deep speed and fluid route running ability. A pure scorer – if there is such a thing as a wide receiver – he knows how to make things happen to get into the end zone, coming up with 13 touchdowns on 52 catches for a team-high 842 yards in his first year in the system. While he was consistent and steady, he came up with 125 yards – his only 100-yard game of the year – on five catches with two scores against Missouri. There might be other Aggie receivers with a bit more raw talent, but Reynolds will still be the top option.
3. QB Kyle Allen, Soph.
The nation’s No. 1 quarterback recruit lost out on the starting job early on, but he eventually took over and progressed well as the season went on. The skills are there with 6-3, 205-pound size – beefed up a bit over the last year – with good athleticism and a strong, accurate arm. While he’s mobile, and he’s considered a dual-threat prospect if needed, his running ability will be used more to make big plays for the passing game on the move rather than take off like Johnny Manziel and tear off down the field rushing with just 44 yards and a score. He has next-level tools and upside, but the interceptions have to slow down after having a problem with them in high school and spreading around seven in his nine games last year. It took a little while to warm up after taking over the starting gig, but he closed out the season with 294 yards and four scores in the win over West Virginia. He’ll have to keep battling to be the main man, but he’s too good not to keep developing.
4. P Drew Kaser, Sr.
It’s not like the Aggie offense stalls on a regular basis to need a fantastic punting game, but Kaser has turned into a major factor averaging 47.4 yards per kick in 2013 and averaging 44.1 yards per boot with 22 put inside the 20. A few too many of his kicks end up in the end zone with 15 touchbacks over the last two seasons, but he blasted a 76-yarder in 2013 and crushed 22 kicks of more than 50 yards last year. A great recruit four years ago, the Ohio native is coming through in a big way and now should compete for All-America and Ray Guy consideration.
5. OT Germain Ifedi, Jr.
The right tackle has the talent and NFL ability to move over to the left side and take over Cedric Ogbuehi’s spot. A possible first round NFL pick whenever he comes out, he has the prototype 6-5, 325-pound size to go along with two years of experience with 23 starts in his first two seasons. He’ll be a guard or a right tackle at the next level, but he’s good enough to be a fine pass protector for the Aggies on either side. A mauler of a run blocker with his size, he’ll blast away and be one of the keys for the ground game.
6. WR Speedy Noil, Soph.
It takes a special sort of player to wear No. 2 at Texas A&M right now, and Noil is that good. The 5-11, 185-pound superstar former recruit was a special prospect considering he’s from New Orleans and LSU, along with the rest of the SEC, was all over him. Very, very fast and very, very athletic, he was considered more than just a receiver, averaging 12 yards per punt return and close to 24 yards per kickoff return. He needs to be more of a runner – getting just one carry – but he was terrific doing his day job catching 46 passes for 583 yards and five scores, roaring for 11 catches for 105 yards against Ole Miss and scoring twice against Mississippi State. He’s a threat from anywhere on the field.
7. DE Daeshon Hall, Jr.
A part of the rotation for most of last season, he was still one of the team’s top pass rushers not named Garrett, coming up with 4.5 sacks with six tackles for loss and 29 tackles. At 6-6 and 260 pounds he’s a very big, very athletic pass rusher who has seen more than enough time over his first two seasons to be ready to shine on the other side of Myles Garrett – especially if Julien Obioha spends more time inside, as expected. Hall has the upside to put up huge numbers whenever offenses key on Garrett.
8. QB Kyler Murray, Fr.
He might not look like a top-shelf quarterback at just 5-11 and 185 pounds, and he might ultimately be a better baseball player – even though he’s blowing off the MLB draft to be a two-sport Aggie – but he’s an elite prospect who earned just about every sort of Player of the Year honor. 42-0 and a three-time Texas high school state champion, he’s blazing fast, has a big-time arm, and outside of his lack of bulk, has prototype dual-threat skills. Think Johnny Manziel, but with real skills.
9. S Justin Evans, Soph.
The JUCO transfer got to the program early and showed he was ready to step in and fill an instant void in the secondary. The 6-1, 195-pound safety from Gulf Coast CC is a huge hitter and a tone-setter who gets all over the field. The defensive backs have put up numbers over the last few seasons, but there hasn’t been enough production. Evans might change all of that having taken over a role from the start. At the lower level he was a ball hawk who came up with big play after big play. The Aggies need that, too.
10. DT Daylon Mack, Fr.
The team’s top recruit among a class of terrific recruits – it takes a lot to be a better prospect than QB Kyler Murray – but Mack is a special defensive tackle who’s built to sit on the nose and own the interior whenever he gets his chances. Very, very athletic for a 6-1, 320-pound block of granite, he can be an anchor, he can move, and he can be a pass rusher. Able to play running back at times in high school, he moves like a next-level tackle – he’ll do more than just eat up the run.
|Sept. 5||Arizona State (in Houston)|
|Sept. 12||Ball State|
|Sept. 26||at Arkansas|
|Oct. 3||Miss State|
|Oct. 10||OPEN DATE|
|Oct. 24||at Ole Miss|
|Oct. 31||South Carolina|
|Nov. 14||Western Carolina|
|Nov. 21||at Vanderbilt|
|Nov. 28||at LSU|
|Ten Best A&M Players|
|1. DE Myles Garrett, Soph.|
|2. WR Josh Reynolds, Jr.|
|3. QB Kyle Allen, Soph.|
|4. P Drew Kaser, Sr.|
|5. QB Kyler Murray, Fr.|
|6. WR Speedy Noil, Soph.|
|7. DE Daeshon Hall, Jr.|
|8. OT Germain Ifedi, Jr.|
|9. S Justin Evans, Soph.|
|10. DT Daylon Mack, Fr.|