Texas A&M Aggies
Projected record: 7-5 (Clem, UA, USC, MSU, AU); 4-4 and 5th SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 6 (SE, LG, C, RG, QB, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 6 (RDE, RDT, RLB, LLB, LCB, SS)
Returning specialists: 1 (PK)
QB: Vg DL: Av
RB: Av LB: Av
WR: Fr DB: Fr
OL: Av ST: Av
Overview: The hiring of Jimbo Fisher as head coach has almost gone unnoticed with all the attention on the good (Alabama, Nick Saban) and the bad (LSU, Ed Orgeron) in the SEC West at the moment. Fisher takes over for Kevin Sumlin and while the Aggies will continue to employ an explosive offense, the 2018 season and beyond will be a continuation of the move toward a more ground-based attack that actually started last year under Sumlin’s watch. This is a team with a lot of talent, but little discipline and almost no confidence. The turnaround process won’t be short.
Offensive breakdown: Sumlin knew he had to stop throwing the ball all over the place and put the Aggies on a path to a more physical game two years ago. He didn’t get to see that through, but Fisher will certainly continue the work. And it all starts up front with the offensive line. Fisher reshuffled this group completely, with the biggest shock being senior Connor Lanfear, who was making preseason all-SEC lists a year ago, is now without a starting job and looking up at a sophomore, Jared Hocker, who will be the new right guard. Another player with starting experience, Ryan McCollum, was also benched. Left tackle Koda Martin left for Syracuse. That leaves Keaton Sutherland and Erik McCoy in place at left guard and center, respectively, but everything else is new. Dan Moore and Carson Greene become the new tackles. Colton Prater moves from center to a backup guard spot, giving the Aggies arguably the most experienced second-string guards in all of college football. Kellen Diesch is now the swing tackle. There are a lot of questions surrounding how well this new alignment will work together.
Last year’s quarterback battle produced a situation in which Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond split almost 50 percent of the snaps evenly, but neither really showed out. Starkel is the better passer, but isn’t a dynamic one and tends to try to force throws. Mond has explosive running ability and good arm strength, but he doesn’t read defenses well and was goaded by veteran defensive coordinators into making numerous mistakes. Starkel had the job coming out of spring but the race has tightened since. It’s a big decision for Fisher to make because the team has a completely different feel with one quarterback under center versus the other.
Running back is in the capable hands of Trayveon Williams, who is garnering Heisman attention despite his diminutive size. Williams’ sophomore season was more ho-hum than originally expected, but he still finished with decent numbers despite sharing the job with Keith Ford, who graduated. The big question of the spring here was whether A&M could find a decent backup. Kwame Etwi and Kendall Bussey both had numerous chances, with varying results. Bussey took himself out of the running by transferring to Nicholls State. In its first fall depth chart, Fisher didn’t even bother to list a third-team back, even though there are several choices. It could wind up being signee Jashaun Corbin. The Aggies will use a fullback enough that it’s worth mentioning who the starter is – the 12th Man, walkon Cullen Gillaspia, in a rare case of that special tag producing more than just a special team gunner. Most internal A&M documents are showing a two-wide, I-formation base, but it’s more likely to see three wides and a multiple format. Still, good for Gillaspia.
For the first time in a very long time, receiver is a question mark. Kevin Sumlin loved signing way too many receivers and then spending the year trying to get each of them touches. Jhamon Ausbon, Quartney Davis and Camron Buckley give A&M three sophomores with the talent to get the job done, but Ausbon needs to work on getting open on deep routes. Davis was at one time a top-tier prospect since slowed by knee injuries, but the coaching change appears to have given him new life. Kendrick Rogers and Hezekiah Jones round out the A-rotation. Klyde Chriss and Roshauud Paul are probably the only others with a shot to see time, unless signee Jalen Preston busts through. At tight end, Jace Sternberger and Trevor Wood, a graduate transfer from Arizona, lead the pack.
Defensive/ST breakdown: If anything killed Sumlin’s career in College Station, it wasn’t the offense, it was a defense that was never good. And this year’s version might actually be worse. There are only about three names on the defense worth watching, and two of them are up front: end Landis Durham and tackle Kingsley Keke. Keke will split time between tackle and end this year so as to let Daylon Mack onto the field at the same time with him, Durham and Justin Madubuike, a new starter at tackle that the coaches like. T.D. Moton offers some quality depth in the middle, but there are questions at reserve end, where mostly freshmen are going to have to answer the call. Tyree Johnson and Bobby Brown are leading the pack there.
The other name to watch is linebacker Otaro Alaka, but it’s not always clear what exactly you’re watching for him to do. Alaka can make big plays, but also big busts. He’ll start in the middle with either former elite recruit Anthony Hines or Tyrel Dodson on the weakside. The loser of that battle was set to go to the strongside, but Hines is currently listed as out with no reason given. Depth took a hit when Santino Marchiol left the team and transferred to Arizona, but what could eventually hurt worse are the allegations of NCAA rule-breaking Marchiol tossed behind him on his way out the door. In the middle of all this, Texas A&M has to find new backups, so Braden White looks like he could be the guy at all three positions. Buddy Johnson, a hybrid linebacker-safety, will have a role, probably at strongside behind Dodson eventually.
With the Aggies flexing between a 4-3 and 4-2-5 alignment – often using the same personnel – the secondary will be challenged. Pass defense has been dreadful in College Station for years, so any improvement will be welcomed. Charles Oliver and Debione Renfro finished the 2017 season as starters, but Renfro was demoted in the spring in hopes someone better would step up – and no one did. Clifford Chattman and Roney Elam figure to be the backups. Derrick Tucker returns at one of the safety positions, and senior journeyman Donovan Wilson gets the other. DeShawn Capers-Smith, Leon O’Neal and Keldrick Carper are the other possibilities.
Placekicker Daniel LaCamera established himself as a weapon with a strong 2017 season, but a new punter is needed. Kickoff specialist Braden Mann appears to have won the job. The return units will have to be rebuilt, and A&M appears ready to use its only proven offensive star, RB Trayveon Williams, as a primary return man.
Overall trend: Up. Fisher might have a rough go of things in his first year, but long-term signs point to A&M becoming a force in the SEC West. Few schools can match the Aggies in regards to financial resources, and Fisher will get everything he needs, wants or even dreams of in order to catch and pass LSU and Auburn on his way to challenging his former boss, Nick Saban of Alabama.
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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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