2016 season preview: Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M had a tumultuous offseason, undergoing several changes to key areas of the program. Quarterback transfers and coaching changes aside though, there’s a sense of optimism surrounding this year’s version of the Aggies.
A&M returns an ever-improving defense led by one of the top defenders in the nation and should see increased production out of their offense under the direction of new OC Noel Mazzone and new QB Trevor Knight. 2016 may be the most important year in Kevin Sumlin’s tenure as head coach, so let’s take a look at what to expect from his team this season:
The offense is where the majority of the uncertainty lies for the Aggies heading into the season, namely at quarterback and offensive line. The departures of Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray left a massive void at the quarterback position, which was later filled when Trevor Knight arrived via graduate transfer from Oklahoma. Knight is a talented athlete, but has lacked consistency over his career. He’s shown signs of stardom at times, with most pointing to his four-TD performance vsersus Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, however he failed to play up to that level on a consistent basis, ultimately losing his starting job at Oklahoma to Baker Mayfield. Knight graded negatively (-9.4) in his last full season as a starter at OU, but expect new OC Noel Mazzone to get the most out of him this season, utilizing Knight’s ability to get the ball out quickly and relying heavily on a talented group of skill players.
At running back, A&M will turn to a combination of James White, Oklahoma transfer Keith Ford, and a slew of talented, but unproven freshmen. White has had trouble staying healthy over his career, playing just 243 snaps the past two seasons while Ford hasn’t played a snap since 2014 when he earned a +2.9 overall grade.
Considered a strength in years past, the A&M offensive line struggled in 2015. Four out of five starters graded negatively, leading to the firing of offensive line coach Dave Christensen after just one season in Aggieland. New OL coach Jim Turner will be tasked with turning around a group that will see three new starters in 2016, however he has plenty of talent to work with. Keaton Sutherland returns at LG after a strong finish to his freshmen season, earning positive grades in five of his last six games and Jermaine Eluemunor looks to solidify the other guard spot, hoping to expand on a solid performance in his 143 snaps last year.
A&M boasts one of the top wide receiver units in the nation, led by standouts Christian Kirk and Josh Reynolds. Kirk burst onto the scene last year, earning the highest grade of any freshman WR in the nation. Reynolds was outstanding in his own right, leading the SEC in deep pass yardage as well as possessing one of the highest WR ratings in the conference. This group is as deep as it is talented, with Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil rounding out the top four and offering great compliments to the talents of Kirk and Reynolds.
The A&M defense begins and ends with Myles Garrett, who is the headliner on an unbelievably talented defensive line. Garrett has been otherworldly in his first two seasons; earning the highest pass-rushing grade in the nation over that period, second only to recent first-round pick Joey Bosa. Bookended by Daeshon Hall, who graded positively in every defensive category last season, the Aggies have possibly the best defensive end tandem in the country. Add in Kingsley Keke, Zaycoven Henderson and Daylon Mack — who all graded positively last year at defensive tackle — and the A&M front four should be a force in the SEC this season.
A&M has a talented secondary, led by safeties Armani Watts, Justin Evans and Donovan Wilson. Watts led all SEC safeties in tackles last year and always seemed to make a play when the team needed it most. Wilson also excelled, collecting five interceptions and earning the fourth-highest grade among SEC safeties. Nick Harvey and UCLA transfer Priest Willis will be taking over at corner, where both are somewhat unknown commodities. Harvey showed good production in his 446 snaps last season though, allowing only 30.8 percent of receptions to be completed in his coverage — the lowest rate in the nation.
The linebacker corps was the weakest unit for A&M’s defense last season, particularly when defending the run. The return of Otaro Alaka and the emergence of Richard Moore should provide plenty of optimism in this area though. Despite only playing 102 snaps last year due to injury, Alaka earned a +4.6 run defense grade which ranked sixth on the team. Moore didn’t see any action until Week 7, but quickly made his presence felt, racking up the second-highest run stop percentage in the SEC at his position.
Without question, the biggest star on this A&M team is defensive end Myles Garrett. Not only is Garrett the best player on his own team, he may be the best defender in the entire nation. Garrett has graded as a top-three defensive end in each of his first two seasons, racking up 111 total pressures over that time. While Garrett struggled some in run defense his freshman year, he greatly improved in that area last season, earning a respectable +8.8 run defense grade. His ridiculous burst off the edge and knack for making timely plays make Garrett one of the most feared defenders in college football.
There were a few deserving candidates for A&M’s breakout player in 2016, but ultimately it was difficult to look past Daylon Mack’s potential. Mack played in a backup role last season, but put up impressive numbers over his 388 snaps played. By season’s end, Mack was the best run defender on the team and had the highest run defense grade (+22.2) of any returning defensive tackle in the SEC. Similar to Garrett, Mack gets off the line in a hurry and spent plenty of time in the backfield of opposing offenses last season. With an expanded role in 2016, look for Mack to improve as a pass-rusher and continue to establish himself as one of the best run stopping linemen in the country.
Texas A&M enters 2016 in unfamiliar territory with an experienced defense and an offense with more questions than answers. The defense should continue to build on their progress from last season and will likely have one of the strongest front fours in the country. The offense, however, will largely depend on the performance of Trevor Knight and an inexperienced offensive line. If Knight and the offense can limit turnovers and provide reliable production each week, this A&M defense is talented enough to carry the team to another 8+ win season and possibly have them in the thick of the SEC West title race come November.