Previews 2017: Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M

Jul 12, 2017; Hoover, AL, USA; Texas A&M Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin speaks to media during SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham-The Winfrey Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 12, 2017; Hoover, AL, USA; Texas Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin speaks to media during SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham-The Winfrey Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY

Texas Aggies

Overview: The defense will determine how far Texas goes in 2017. Changes to offensive philosophy last year made this a tougher, better-balanced program, and the key pieces are there to see the same result this season. The question for Kevin Sumlin is whether Texas A&M will continue to be patient, or begin to demand divisional championships beginning with this season. The Aggies have either not been able to recruit the kind of defensive it really needs, or develop the ones that they do get.

Projected record: 8-4 (UA, LSU, OM, UCLA); 5-3 and 3rd SEC West

Returning offensive starters: 5 (SE, LG, C, RG, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 6 (RDT, LDT, WLB, RCB, SS, FS)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Unit
QB: Av DL: Av
RB: Vg LB: Pr
WR: Av DB: Av
OL: Vg ST: Vg

 

Offensive breakdown: The addition of SEC veteran Noel Mazzone as offensive coordinator paid dividends for the Aggies. Gone was the soft, pure-finesse offensive Sumlin had brought to College Station. In its place was an offense still multiple in its approach, but committed to making defenses get tough up front. For 2017, Trevor Knight is gone from the quarterback position, but Jake Hubenak was a capable backup in 2016 and should be more than capable of doing what Texas needs to run this offensive effectively. A pair of freshmen, redshirt and signee Kellen Mond, will compete for the backup job and could push Hubenak if his development levels off.

The running back group – Trayveon Williams, Keith Ford, Kwame Etwi and Kendall Bussey – is as good as most in the SEC, but a lot of that hinges on Ford’s continued good health. He’s the only thing that passes for a true banger on this team, although Williams has great balance and an immense dislike for falling victim to shoestring tackles. For the first time in years, though, there is concern at receiver. and his 928 receiving yards return from a year ago, but the rest of the unit was gutted.

Things got even worse when, after the conclusion of spring camp, transfer Kirk Merritt was dismissed from the after an off-field incident. Freshmen Jhamon Ausbon and are the favorites to win starting jobs, but little-used senior Damion Ratley is also in the mix. The tight end will be either Kalvin Cline, Tanner Schorp or Aaron Hansford, none of which have really shown anything up to this point. This unit rates as “average” mostly on Sumlin’s past resume, meaning his ability to identify talent.

Fortunately, the offensive line has fewer questions. Center Colton Prater and guards Erik McCoy and Connor Lanfear were a big part of the improved rushing attack, although McCoy and Prater might swap back to their old positions (center and guard, respectively) depending on fall work. At tackle, Koda Martin and Keaton Sutherland led spring drills, but depth here is tenuous as best. Prater got a brief look at tackle in the spring. Freshman Kellen Diesch is the only other holdover option, but was able to attract Oklahoma transfer Christian Daimler as a graduate transfer and he’ll get every opportunity to win a starting job.

Defensive/ST breakdown: Up front, things should eventually top out at the “OK” level. Tackles Zaycoven Henderson and Kingsley Keke have plenty of experience. The ends, though, need a push. Seniors Jarrett Johnson and Qualen Cunningham played sparingly in reserve roles last year, but they’ll need to emerge this fall, and fast. JUCO transfer Micheal Clemons showed up a bit out of shape, a disappointing development given he was expected to push Johnson early in camp. Depth isn’t ’s strongest suit; there are no experienced ends, and Daylon Mack is the only tackle worth noting.

But whatever is wrong up front, it pales in comparison to a linebacker corps that is both thin and ineffective. Otaro Alaka returns on the weakside but honestly, needs an upgrade there. Tyrel Dodson led the battle at middle linebacker coming out of spring, but that was largely due to no other good candidates. Freshman Anthony Hines draws the strongside assignment, but that position will get pulled off in favor of a nickelback more often than not. Almost all other candidates for legitimate playing time are freshmen.

The secondary is also in need of a group-wide kick in the pants, as even the unit’s best player, free safety Armani Watts, was a liability at times in 2016. Priest Willis heads up the cornerback group and Donovan Wilson is another veteran with plenty of experience, but John Chavis has to be pulling hair watching the bad tackling mechanics the back seven has shown consistently since his arrival.

Things are in much better shape in the kicking game. had decent, but not necessarily solid sophomore campaign, so he’ll be looked to continue to develop. Punter Shane Tripucka is one of the better second-tier punters in the SEC. is a true weapon as a punt returner, and ought to have enough athletes available to cover kicks well. The kickoff return group needs minor attention

Overall trend: Up. Slowly but surely, the move to “power-spread” football is working for Texas A&M, but now it’s time for the defense to start pulling its own load. The Aggies scored almost 35 points per game last year, yet played .500 ball inside the SEC and lost a to Kansas State. With the bulk of the SEC West expected to congregate around the 8-4 mark in 2017, the opportunity exists for to stand out from the pack. Sumlin might need that in order to keep his job.

 

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