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Texas A&M preview: Aggies missing key parts while trying to take down Tide



Count Texas A&M as yet another team adopting the 4-2-5 as its base set. Mike Elko, a Texas A&M alum, is the Aggies’ coordinator, but his career numbers have been suspect at best and he’s under pressure to improve upon some absolutely woeful pass defense ratings in 2019. While A&M did shut down Vanderbilt, the Commodore offense is barely functional as an SEC test and there are still questions in the back of the Aggies’ defense. So, too, are there questions in Alabama’s secondary, but the front seven showed marked improvement against Missouri compared to how they finished the 2019 season. Alabama will operate from a 3-4 over/under base scheme, and given Texas A&M sometimes employs a fullback, expect Alabama to be in base more often than has been customary lately.

Finding someone to replace Justin Madubuike as an interior tackle is going to be Texas A&M’s chief responsibility up front. Madubuike was tough for Alabama to deal with last year, but thankfully he answered the call of the NFL. He had more sacks (5.5) than the rest of the A&M tackles combined. Jayden Peevy has some explosiveness and was the only other tackle that displayed consistent ability to get into the backfield. Bobby Brown has a ton of natural talent but needs to stay healthy and consistent. They’ll be the starters, but like the wide receiver position, the depth chart behind them makes liberal use of the word “or” and is filled completely by freshmen.

Things are in a bit better shape outside, where Tyree Johnson and Michael Clemons return. Johnson turned into the team’s best outside pass-rush threat in 2019, notching 4 sacks, but he’s a bit on the light side and it remains to be seen whether he can hold up against Bama’s inside run. DeMarvin Leal is much better-suited to run defense, as he is 50 pounds heavier than Johnson, and he’ll be the primary backup on both sides. Jeremiah Martin is moving from a role player in 2019 to a key part of the 2020 rotation.

Alabama holds a distinct advantage in depth, and with Christian Barmore set to return this week, it gives Alabama the kind of threat Texas A&M possessed last year in the form of Madubuike. D.J. Dale will start inside with Justin Eboigbe and LaBryan Ray outside. Ray had a strong season debut against Missouri, reminding everyone of just how dominant he was becoming in 2019 prior to a season-ending foot injury. Eboigbe also looked quicker and stronger. Barmore will back up all three spots, and will be joined by Phidarian Mathis inside and Byron Young outside.

Mathis and Young need to improve upon their Week 1 performances. True freshman Tim Smith is expected to join the rotation at nose at some point. In regards to starters, A&M holds the experience edge, but Alabama has more experience throughout the depth chart and the combination of Ray, Eboigbe and Barmore at tackle/end stands up just fine to A&M’s veterans. Advantage: Alabama

Texas A&M took a big hit when Anthony Hines elected to opt out of the 2020 season. Hines was the team’s No. 2 tackler in 2019 and had 10.5 tackles for loss. He was not effective as a pass rusher, however, and his replacement, Aaron Hansford, was much more of a bang/bust type of player in 2019, both good and bad.

Steady Buddy Johnson returns to start at middle linebacker. Like Hines, he had a lot of production against running games but wasn’t a pass-rushing threat. The two combined for 22 tackles against Vanderbilt, with Andre White Jr. adding 5 more as a backup to both slots. We sound like a broken record here, but there are an awful lot of freshmen dotting the reserve slots in A&M linebacker group.

Linebacker, for Alabama, has gone from being a source of consternation to being arguably the deepest group on the team besides running back. Christian Harris and Dylan Moses had sterling season debuts against Missouri, with Moses showing everyone how much his loss meant to the team in 2019. Outside backers Christopher Allen and Will Anderson Jr. picked up right where their predecessors left off.

Ben Davis and Drew Sanders played a bunch as backup outside linebackers, while veterans Jaylen Moody and Shane Lee are the backup inside players. Alabama didn’t even get into their packages using Brandon Ale Kaho. Hansford and Johnson aren’t going to embarrass Texas A&M at all, but neither is the kind of player Moses is, and the improvement shown by Harris answered one of Bama’s biggest questions. Advantage: Alabama

This was regarded as being a potential weakness for Alabama; against Missouri, it was certainly a mixed bag. First, the good: Jordan Battle played a fine game at strong safety, and Josh Jobe had a solid season debut after starting the bowl game at the end of Bama’s 2019 season. Jobe arguably looked better than the more experienced Patrick Surtain Jr., who was good in coverage but still isn’t the strongest corner out there against the run.

The real issue was at free safety, where Daniel Wright led the team with 11 tackles but did so mostly with the play coming to him rather than him having to go to it. Malachi Moore’s first game as the starting Star safety had its moments but after reviewing film of the game, Moore’s performance looked a little better the second time around.

DeMarcco Hellams apparently has the dime safety job this year, but he didn’t play as much as expected, as Alabama wanted to feature its linebackers more so than in 2019. Texas A&M would probably take this category, but again, the Aggies got bitten by Covid-19; Elijah Blades, expected to start at one of the cornerback slots, opted out for 2020. Given where the Aggies were ranked in pass defense, and especially since Vanderbilt was the first opponent, it’s hard to know how much better or worse they really are this season.

Leon O’Neal Jr. and Demani Richardson returned as starters at safety, but their 2019 numbers weren’t good either in run support or in pass defense. Both had an interception and at least one tackle for loss each against Vanderbilt, however. The rest of the secondary is mostly new, although Myles Jones was part of the cornerback trio in 2019 and while he was outside the top 10 in team tackles, he made the most big plays in the secondary.

Jaylon Jones and Travon Fuller are continuing to fight for the spot Blades was supposed to hold, while Erick Young is the new nickel with Devin Morris playing dime. Due to the experience at safety, we’ll take Texas A&M here, but Alabama probably holds the edge at corner. Advantage: Texas A&M

Seth Small is one of the best returning kickers in the SEC, if not the best overall. He scored 100 points in 2019, didn’t miss a PAT and was almost 80% accurate on field goal tries. Nik Constantinou is the new punter, although he did get in a game in 2019, and so far, so good. Ainias Smith was solid as a punt returner last year but just OK at returning kicks; Texas A&M was below average in both after Week 1.

Alabama’s Will Reichard looked strong on kicks against Missouri and the Crimson Tide elected to go with true freshman walk-on Chase Allen as its new kickoff man. Allen was erratic, booming a couple of kicks but coming up well short on a couple of others. Punter Sam Johnson didn’t really do anything wrong, but he averaged less than 40 yards per punt without a ton of hang time. It’s quite possible the punting job is still up for grabs, with Ty Perine and Charlie Scott vying for a shot.

Jaylen Waddle is the best kick returner on either team, but Missouri neutralized him with directional kicks and a strong kickoff specialist. Caden Davis, who will handle kickoffs for Texas A&M, had 3 touchbacks out of 5 kicks last week, and one of the kicks that didn’t go for a touchback followed a safety, meaning Davis had no real chance to record a touchback then.

If Texas A&M can duplicate its success in kick defense – the Aggies come in ranked 8th in net punting – then Smith is a real weapon at kicker and this category isn’t very close at all. Advantage: Texas A&M


For the second straight week, Alabama leads in six categories, while its opponent leads in two. The defensive back category could go either way, but Texas A&M is much closer to Alabama than Missouri was in most of the categories in which the Aggies trail. The biggest mismatch on the board is probably special teams, where the Aggies lead. As for OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama holds a modest but noticeable edge when its OL is on the field against the Aggie DL. Going the other way, it’s probably a push.

There’s no logical reason for Texas A&M’s struggles against an overmatched Vanderbilt team in the first week, other than Jimbo Fisher has become known for laying two or three eggs each year from an offensive gameplanning and execution standpoint. The reality is that the Aggies are a good team with a lot of talent, and are very capable of competing for the SEC’s West Division.

But to beat Alabama, everything has to go right. Fisher has to get it right on the sidelines, Kellen Mond has to have a career day under center, the Aggie special teams have to perform as advertised, and the Aggie defense has to make a couple of hero plays along the way. Fail to have any of this come together, and Alabama will probably win by multiple scores. This becomes more likely, too, thanks to Texas A&M losing four very key players to the effects of Covid-19, with Aggie coaches seeing a lot of talent opt to sit on the sidelines.

If Alabama plays to the potential it showed in the first half of the Missouri game, this game may not end up being very competitive at all. Alabama seemed to take its foot off the gas last week in Columbia. This game is in Bryant-Denny Stadium, and while the crowd won’t be nearly what it otherwise could have been, Alabama will certainly have at least a slight edge from the fraction that is in attendance. More importantly, Alabama was able to hold Missouri’s running game to low output, and if Texas A&M can’t find balance on the ground, the issues at wide receiver may be too much for the Aggies to overcome to get a win out of the trip.

Alabama 38
Texas A&M 17

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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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