The heat has been on Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher since signing a 10-year, $75 million contract heading into the 2018 season. As is the case for all high-profile college football programs, the fans want to know if the dollar amount is worth the investment in wins and losses on the field. After producing the Aggies' best season in the Southeastern Conference since joining in 2012, what can Fisher do as an encore pushing past his 9-1 (8-1 SEC) record in 2020? Progress all begins with spring practices.
Although Fisher is an offensive-minded coach, the push towards an SEC West title and a possible at-large invite to the College Football Playoff in 2020 was behind a tough-as-nails defense. Coordinator Mike Elko morphed his side of the ball into the conference's best, holding opponents (all but one from the SEC) to 317.3 yards per game. The Aggies also finished third in the conference at 21.7 points per game allowed.
As much talent as A&M had on the offensive line, a four-year starter at quarterback, and an All-SEC tight end in Jalen Wydermyer and back in Isaiah Spiller, this unit was still behind the grade among conference members, checking in fourth in both scoring (32.6 ppg) and total (439.2 ypg) offense. Only a few key pieces return on offense, making this side of the ball the focal point throughout the spring session.
The Aggies' spring practices will wrap on April 24 with the Maroon and White Game. All the offseason work lays down the foundation for a 2021 kickoff on Sept. 4 at home against Kent State.
5 Storylines to Watch During Texas A&M's Spring Practices
1. Offensive line
This spring, the entire line is the focus for A&M. Four senior offensive linemen who had the option to come back in 2021 are now testing their talents in the professional ranks leaving only left guard Kenyon Green returning. In the SEC, where outside linebackers and defensive ends are amazingly talented off the edge, both offensive tackle spots vacated by Dan Moore and Carson Green are key. But perhaps the most important spot up front is at center where Ryan McCollum was anchoring the interior.
During the season, Smart Chibuzo was backing up McCollum. Chris Morris, Blake Trainor, and Galen Gallagher will be moved from one tackle spot to the other until coaches identify the best fit. At the interior positions, watch for Josh Bankhead, Layden Robinson, and Aki Ogunbiyi. How well this line gels will dictate everything for A&M in 2021.
Every rep in the pocket will count for freshmen Zach Calzada and Haynes King. Calzada has more game experience but King is who Fisher turned to last season as Kellen Mond's backup. King's in-game reps were limited to two appearances in which he completed two of four pass attempts for 59 yards with one touchdown and one interception. During the 2019 season, Calzada appeared in three games, finishing 12-for-24 for 133 yards with two touchdowns and a pick.
Another contender to watch for 2021 four-star recruit Eli Stowers, a true dual-threat signal-caller out of Guyer (Texas) High School. In each of the past three seasons, Stowers rushed for more than 1,000 yards while throwing for a career-high 2,969 yards with 36 touchdowns against just four picks as a junior. Outside of knowing the playbook, all quarterbacks are on equal footing with a line being revamped and needing to develop chemistry with their receiving corps.
3. Developing a stronger receiving corps
Within the SEC alone, A&M's passing attack was very middle-of-the-road last season. The Aggies finished ninth with 234.1passing yards per game. The three main receivers, Chase Lane, Caleb Chapman, and Hezekiah Jones accounted for 61 receptions, 784 yards and five touchdowns. Running backs Ainias Smith and Isaiah Spiller along with tight end Jalen Wydermyer produced 109 receptions for 1,263 yards with 12 scores.
Lane and Chapman have big-play potential as both averaged better than 14 yards per catch. Chapman (three games) and Jones (six) were limited in 2020. A potential boost is getting receiver Camron Buckley back after missing all of 2020. The Aggies also added three receivers in the 2021 haul with four-star Shadrach Banks already on campus. Wydermyer is out for the spring after a finger injury that required surgery and his status for the fall is unknown. Is there another tight end on the roster that can fill Wydermeyer's role? Can this group of receivers extend defenses to give the running backs more room to roam while producing game-changing plays downfield?
4. Backup at running back
A&M is in the proverbial catbird's seat in the backfield with Spiller and Smith mixing it up. Freshman scatback Devon Achane was fantastic when called upon, averaging 8.5 yards per carry. But another feature back who can carry the rock 20 times a game (call it Spiller insurance) is needed.
Aggie fans will have to wait until this summer for the highly anticipated arrival of 2021 four-star backs LJ Johnson and Amari Daniels. The time is now for guys like Darvon Hubbard, Deondre Jackson, and Earnest Crownover to separate from the pack.
5. How dominating can A&M's defense become?
There are so many key players coming back to the Aggies' defense highlighted by tackle Jayden Peevy, safeties Leon O'Neal Jr. and Keldrick Carper, corners Myles Jones, Jaylon Jones, Travon Fuller and Elijah Blades, nickel Erick Young, and ends Tyree Johnson and Michael Clemons. But is this a championship-caliber unit that can carry an inexperienced offense?
Coordinator Mike Elko has done a great job recruiting players to fit his scheme, and the top talent continues to get a change of address to College Station. The secondary is deep, the linemen are big, and the linebackers are athletic. The challenge is replacing tackle Bobby Brown and middle linebacker Buddy Johnson. The fun part of the spring will be watching this part of the team grow into what should again be one of the SEC's best defenses.
— 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.