Three keys to Texas A&M's 6-0 start
Starting a season 5-0 is great, but Texas A&M has been there and done that. Securing that sixth win in a row is what the Aggies have been unable to do in each of the last two seasons. Consider that proverbial weight lifted, as this year’s team finally pulled it off with their dramatic double overtime win over Tennessee on Saturday.
That unblemished record through six weeks is no fluke. The Aggies have earned every one of their wins, with three of those victories coming against opponents ranked in the top 25 and two others against SEC rivals. So what’s different about this year’s version of the Aggies? Let’s take a look at three keys to A&M’s success so far this season:
1. Improved running game
If you’re going to find success in the SEC, a strong offensive line and dependable running game are key. Texas A&M was without both last season, one of the main reasons they weren’t able to truly challenge Alabama in the SEC West.
It’s amazing the difference one year can make.
Here we are six weeks into the 2016 season and this Aggie offense boasts one of the nation’s top ground attacks, ranking in the top five in both average rushing yards per game and total rushing touchdowns. So what’s been the difference? Well for starters, new offensive line coach Jim Turner has been able to get the most out of a very inexperienced offensive line that features four new starters this season. Right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor (71.8) and center Erik McCoy (74.1) have provided the physical presence up front that A&M had been lacking, while the lone returning starter Avery Gennesy (62.6) has shown marked improvement in the run game since last season.
The true spark that has ignited the resurgence in the A&M rushing attack has been running back Trayveon Williams (77.5), a true freshman who has quickly become one of the most dynamic backs in the nation. Through six games, Williams is one of just six runners to force at least 25 missed tackles and is the only one to do so on less than 90 rushing attempts. He’s proven to be the big-play threat that the A&M offense needed, picking up 401 of his 702 rushing yards on runs of 15 yards or longer — the 12th-best breakaway percentage in the nation. Though not the biggest back, Williams has shown he can pick up the tough yardage as well with an impressive average of 5.50 yards after contact per attempt. With a vastly improved offensive line, a home run-hitter like Williams, and quarterback Trevor Knight’s added threat as a runner (more on him later), the Aggies have the pieces in place for continued dominance on the ground this season.
2. Defensive depth and playmakers
The Kevin Sumlin era at Texas A&M has largely been marked by high octane offenses and anemic defenses. That perception started to change after the 2014 season when Sumlin hired away longtime LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, and the Aggies are seeing the fruits of that hire in full force this season. Chavis has brought an aggressive style of defense to College Station, blitzing on 48.6 percent of their plays this season, a substantial amount more than the NCAA average of just 30.5 percent. His recruitment and development of players over the last season and a half has been nothing short of amazing, and whispers of the “wrecking crew” have begun to echo throughout College Station as the Aggie defense proves to be one of the best units in the SEC this season.
Look no further than linebacker Shaan Washington (83.4) for evidence of “the Chavis effect.” Washington finished 2015 ranked 345th among the nation’s linebackers, struggling with missed tackles and one of the worst run defense grades in the country. Through six games this year, the senior is the SEC’s second-highest graded linebacker and has excelled in both coverage and run defense. A truly remarkable turnaround. The linebacker corps as a whole has greatly improved for the Aggies, with Claude George (79.2) and Otaro Alaka (68.1) also grading well this season and ranking among the SEC’s 10 best run-stopping linebackers.
With Myles Garrett (89.9) on the field, the Aggies defensive line was always going to prove a threat to opposing offenses, but Garrett doesn’t have to bear the whole burden anymore as A&M has a greater level of depth up front than in seasons past. Garrett continues to have an outstanding year himself, grading as the nation’s top edge rusher and ranking second with his 33 total pressures, but this year he’s finally got some help. Defensive end Daeshon Hall (78.5) bookends the line opposite Garrett and has some serious talent of his own, picking up 25 total pressures this season and was recently named one of the conference’s 10 best pass-rushers. On the interior, the Aggies have a deep rotation of talented defensive tackles in Zaycoven Henderson (79.3), Kingsley Keke (77.9), Daylon Mack (75.7) and Reggie Chevis (72.5). Keke and Henderson have been two of the best run stopping tackles in the SEC this season, and all four players rank among the conference’s top-13 pass rushers at their position.
Finally, on the backend A&M has two of the SEC’s top safeties in Armani Watts (71.3) and Justin Evans (76.3). Both players have had their struggles with missed tackles at times, but the good far outweighs the bad as each has a knack for making key plays week in and week out when the defense needs it most. Together, the two have accounted for 10 total “plays on the ball” (interceptions + pass breakups) this season, tied for the second most of any safety duo in the nation.
3. Stability at quarterback
He hasn’t been perfect by any means, but Trevor Knight (64.4) has been just what this A&M team needed at quarterback this season. After years of instability under center, the graduate transfer has provided the Aggies with a team leader who has shown capable of stepping up and making plays in key situations. As was somewhat expected coming into the season, there have been ups and downs with Knight’s passing game, often following a perfectly placed go route down the sideline with a badly off target screen pass. There’s no doubting he has the ability to make big time throws though, especially when pushing the ball downfield. On deep pass attempts, Knight has posted a 40% accuracy rate and totaled 529 yards this season, both top-15 marks in the nation. While he has made some crucial passes this year, Knight’s biggest impact for A&M has been as a runner. On 43 designed QB runs, Knight has picked up 425 rushing yards and eight touchdowns this season. He’s also shown to be more than capable of taking the ball to the house on any given play, an added threat that has helped open up running lanes for A&M’s stable of running backs. He’s not your prototypical quarterback, but with his effectiveness as a runner and big-play ability through the air, Trevor Knight has the right mix of tools needed to lead the Aggie offense to new heights this season.
Texas A&M finds themselves in a great position heading into their bye week. They’re coming off of one of the biggest wins in program history and now have an extra week to heal up and prepare for their showdown with Alabama in two weeks. With their improved rushing game, attacking defense and some much needed stability at quarterback, they’ve clearly found a recipe for success this season. If they can continue to play at this level, there’s no reason why the Aggies can’t beat Bama and challenge for the SEC West title this year.