Spring time in College Station represents a new football life in 2018 for everyone associated with the Texas A&M Aggies. After a disappointing 7-6 showing (4-4 in SEC) in 2017, former head coach Kevin Sumlin was dismissed. Jimbo Fisher, coming off an identical 7-6 campaign (3-5 in the ACC) at Florida State, decided to leave the Seminoles after enjoying so much success during his eight-year tenure in Tallahassee.
Fisher’s arrival has resulted in a near-complete turnover of the coaching staff, all the way down to the area of strength and conditioning. While Sumlin and Fisher have one thing in common in that they both have offensive pedigrees, that’s really where the similarities end when it comes to overall approach and program philosophies.
Fisher has already been lauded for putting together such a strong coaching staff in a relatively short amount of time. Defensive coordinator Mike Elko left Notre Dame to come to Texas A&M and he has work cut out for him after the Aggies gave up 409 yards per game in 2017. For offensive coordinator, Fisher has turned to Darrell Dickey, a staple in the Texas coaching ranks after serving as head coach of North Texas for nine years. Dickey brings a wide-open offensive approach from his last stop, a successful five-year run as offensive coordinator at Memphis.
If Fisher’s winning ways are to follow him, the entire staff has a lot of work to do during spring practice. With 19 starters returning, experience is on the roster, but new formations and play-calls could slow progress as the bulk of the 15 scheduled spring practices will focus on installing plays while sorting out the depth chart, a process that will carry over to fall camp. But for now, the focus will be on what transpires over these next few weeks leading up to the April 14 spring game.
5 Storylines to Watch During Texas A&M’s Spring Practice
1. Who wins the starting quarterback job?
On paper, the decision may seem like a no-brainer with Nick Starkel (above, right) resuming his starting role from last season, but fellow sophomore Kellen Mond may have something to say about how everything plays out. Starkel out-performed Mond statistically speaking last season and did so in fewer pass attempts, but Mond’s upside and raw athleticism may intrigue the new staff. If Mond can tighten up his accuracy and ability to read defenses, his speed and explosiveness as a ball carrier is another dimension that he brings to the table that Starkel cannot match.
Both quarterbacks are confronted with the same challenges, switching from a multiple-front attack to a pro-style base. Reads off a five- or seven-step drop are different than receiving the ball in the shotgun in Sumlin’s former spread set. Whoever wins the starting job, will have impress Fisher with an ability to handle run- and pass-checks.
2. Mike Elko’s transition to the SEC
Elko has a wealth of defensive coordinator experience at the FBS level, including five seasons at Bowling Green (2009-13), three at Wake Forest (2014-16) and last year with Notre Dame. But as well as his defenses performed at those stops, the SEC is a different beast.
Elko helped the Fighting Irish improve against the run, going from 72nd in 2016 to 51st last year, and the defense did a better job limiting opponents on the scoreboard (62nd to 31st), but the proverbial shelves in College Station are not stacked with defensive talent. The Aggies gave up 237 passing yards per game last season and lost three of their four starters in the secondary — Priest Willis, Donovan Wilson and Armani Watts. The defensive line has similar holes to fill with three key seniors — Jarrett Johnson, Zaycoven Henderson and Qualen Cunningham — gone. If there is one good piece of news, middle linebacker Tyrel Dodson and outside linebacker Otaro Alaka are both back.
3. Reshaping the offensive line
The Aggies’ offensive line took hits throughout the 2017 season, dealing with a combination of injuries and a consistent reshuffling of the starting lineup. These growing pains could end up being a positive development for the new coaching staff. Nine offensive linemen with starting experience return, as does offensive line coach Jim Turner. Continuity will be there between coach and players, but adapting to a different style of offense will separate the group.
Due to injury, Connor Lanfear is expected to miss most of if not all of spring practice, leaving room for someone to make a move. Carson Green could slide from right tackle over to the left side this spring. Aggie fans can only hope that Colton Prater can return to form. Prater started 12 games as a freshman and then the first three last season before losing favor with Sumlin. Perhaps the one position not up for grabs up front is at center. Erik McCoy has made 15 starts at the pivot over the past two seasons and he should add to that total this fall.
4. Replacing Christian Kirk
Any team tasked with replacing a dynamic playmaker like Kirk has enough of a challenge on their hands right there. But besides, losing its top target in Kirk (71 rec., 919 yds., 10 TDs), Texas A&M also said good-bye to its No. 2 pass catcher, Damion Ratley (30, 694, 6). Jhamon Ausbon was better than advertised during his freshman season, finishing second on the team in receptions (50), and third in both receiving yards (571) and touchdowns (3). While Ausbon may become the top target, Camron Buckley could emerge as next big deep threat for the Aggies. Buckley dazzled in spots during his freshman season, averaging 16.5 yards per catch (17 rec.) with three touchdowns. His big-play capability was only topped by Ratley, who averaged 23 yards per catch.
5. Energizing the rushing attack
Texas A&M’s run game dropped dramatically in 2017, going from 212 rushing yards per game in ‘16 to just 156. Leading rusher Trayveon Williams returns, but the team loses backfield mate Keith Ford. That presents an opportunity for Kendall Bussey to carve out a role. Another player to watch for is Jacob Kibodi. He had just 11 carries in five games as a true freshman, but averaged a ridiculous 11 yards per rushing attempt with a touchdown. Kibodi has the build (6-2, 210) to be a featured back in the SEC.
— 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 and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.