The first season of the post-Johnny Manziel era was a mixed bag for the Texas A&M Aggies in 2014. One’s view on the season could be swayed by the Aggies’ 45-37 victory over West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl or the realization that head coach Kevin Sumlin is trending in the wrong direction in the win-loss department.
Sumlin may deserve a little more time to get “his” guys into the system both on the roster and his coaching staff to make the necessary adjustments going forward, but the truth is the Aggies have recruited well and are stocked with talent. What the 12th Man has seen is diminishing returns on the field, slipping from an 11-win team in 2012 to nine in ’13, and just eight last fall. Sumlin is now entering his fourth season in College Station, the unwritten timeline for all college coaches to show the program is headed in the right direction.
That direction-changing help may have come in the offseason in the form of defensive coordinator John Chavis. Former defensive coordinator Mark Snyder posted back-to-back defensive performances that ranked in the bottom 20 (109th in 2013, 102nd in ’14) of the nation, not exactly a resume-building block.
If there was a Lord of the Defensive Dance in the SEC, Chavis and Auburn defensive coordinator Will Mushchamp would be the masters of said jig. Chavis comes to A&M after a successful stint at LSU. The Tigers were the ninth-ranked defense in 2014 and finished No. 15 the year before. These types of results are sorely needed if Sumlin is to maintain his good graces in College Station going forward.
Among the other problems facing the Aggies is a physical running attack. No one can argue the passing game, orchestrated by Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, doesn’t get results, but the inability to pick up needed short-yardage first downs last season stalled 76 drives, as Texas A&M converted just 41 percent of its third down attempts (63rd nationally).
If Sumlin wants to take some of the pressure off, progress on the field must be shown. Aggie fans might be able to stomach another eight-win season but 10-plus is the mandate. Also, the addition of Chavis didn’t come cheap, so everyone associated with the program is expecting results, and sooner rather than later.
As Texas A&M gets ready to start practices next week, here are the five biggest things to keep an eye on as the Aggies prepare to open the season against Arizona State in Houston on Sept. 5.
Texas A&M’s Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. The Chavis Effect
There is no nice way to put it, Texas A&M’s defense was not very good last season. If Chavis is a miracle worker then the Aggies’ defense could be one of the most improved units in the nation by season’s end, not that it would take that much to accomplish.
Texas A&M could not stop the run (216 yards per game) or the pass (235) last season. As a unit the defense allowed an average of 28 points per game. The offense mustered 35 points per game knowing it would have to carry the load. If Chavis can shave 100 total yards of offense off last year’s numbers along with seven points per game, then perhaps close losses like the ones suffered to Missouri (34-27) and LSU (23-17) in 2014 could be turned into wins this fall.
2. Increased Productivity in the Running Game
Since the 2012 season, when Texas A&M averaged 242 rushing yards per game, the production on the ground has dropped dramatically. In 2013, the Aggies toughed out 185 yards per game, while last season that number dropped to 149.9. That’s nearly 100 yards fewer per game in just two seasons. And the 2014 results were even worse in SEC play, as the Aggies managed just 107 yards rushing per game in conference action.
Finesse offenses can work in the SEC, just ask former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino. But in the big games, teams need to be able to turn to their offensive line and ball carrier when they need just a few yards, and do so with confidence. Can Texas A&M do this in 2015?
The Aggies do bring back three returning starters on their offensive line along with leading rusher Tra Carson (581 yards, 5 TDs). Brandon Williams and James White will be pushed by true freshman Jay Bradford for carries in camp. One or more of these backs need to step up this season.
3. Playmaking Linebackers
The linebacker corps is one of promise but also question marks. Sophomore Otaro Alaka was coming on at the end of last year but needed offseason shoulder surgery forcing him to miss spring ball. How will he bounce back?
Another question mark is fellow sophomore Josh Walker. Walker is expected to man the middle being the quarterback on defense. Walker is not a prototypical (listed at 6-1, 233) SEC Mike linebacker. How will he hold up to a season’s worth of getting worked over by 6-foot-5, 300-pound SEC offensive linemen?
Perhaps the biggest unknown is linebacker A.J. Hillard. Hillard got in one game last year after suffering a broken ankle in the opener against South Carolina. The junior has the size (6-2, 245) to play the strong-side position, but is he ready?
4. Find Four Bodies to Play in the Secondary
Texas A&M’s pass defense, statistically, looks a little bit better than what the front seven did against the run, but some perspective is needed. Over the past two years the SEC West has not been known as a passing division. Consider that Alabama (278 passing ypg), was arguably the most prolific passing attack the Aggies faced in 2014. Other opponents, like Mississippi State (281), Ole Miss (264), Auburn (230), Arkansas (188), and LSU (163) would rather run their opponents into the ground than rely on throwing the football down field.
Furthering the case for a much-needed upgrade, if the opposition knows it can run against the Aggies’ front seven why take any chances throwing the ball? Still Texas A&M gave up 235 yards through the air per game playing against conference foes that do not typically pass the ball.
Sophomore safety Armani Watts stood out last year, leading the team with three interceptions while coming up with 59 tackles. Fourth-year starter De’Vante Harris showed signs of improvement last season. Opposing offenses were able to run to his side in years past but he shored up his tackling skills, recording 54 total stops (33 solo) in 2014. He also had five pass breakups and picked off a pass. Can he continue to improve to an All-SEC kind of level?
Victor Davis started five games at cornerback as a true freshman in 2014. Hopes are high that he can continue to improve, but he is still raw.
Sumlin and Chavis appear to be putting a lot of faith in junior college transfer Justin Evans to fill in at the other safety position. The Mississippi native made an impression on his teammates during spring practices. How quickly he responds to picking up SEC offenses will be the key to an improved Aggies secondary in 2015.
5. Maximizing Immense Talent at Wide Receiver
Year after year Texas A&M reloads at wide receiver, whether it’s going from Mike Evans to Ryan Swope to Malcome Kennedy. The future is once again very bright on the outside and in the slot with Speedy Noil, Ricky Seals-Jones, and school record-setter Josh Reynolds. Reynolds stole the limelight last year, hauling in 13 touchdown passes (school record) while averaging 16 yards per catch. He led the Aggies in receiving yards (842) and was one reception shy of tying Kennedy’s team-high 53 grabs.
How effectively can sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen spread the ball around to his playmakers? Can these receivers make up for a lack of a running game, working quick slants and short routes dinking and dunking down the field while looking for the big shot down the sidelines? On top of the experienced talent that’s coming back, the anticipated debut of true freshman Christian Kirk also should be worth watching in 2015.
If Texas A&M can get a handle on these five question marks before the season begins, a nine-win campaign could easily be had. If problems persist, however, a 7-5 regular season just might be around the corner, continuing the Aggies’ trend of diminishing results since Sumlin’s arrival in College Station.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.