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March 27, 2013

A&M using Evans as a matchup nightmare

Today's slot receiver fulfills the role that the tight end or the running back had back in the day: a check down receiver that the quarterback can go to when the deeper routes are covered or as a blitz beater so the ball can come out quickly before the rush gets there.

As a result, slots must be able to beat zone or man coverage Typically, slots are smaller players that are elusive and able to avoid safeties and linebackers to get open. That elusiveness combined with speed also means that they should be able to make people miss for yards after the catch or beat people deep.

Former Texas A&M slot Ryan Swope was something of a unique player at the position in that while he could move the chains with short tosses, his speed enabled him to be a more of a deep threat than most.

We've written before about what a 6 foot, 5 inch sized plus athlete would be able to do in man coverage versus Alabama's corners on an island. In fact, that appeared to be the primary motivation for recruiting some of the prospects in the 2013 class, most particularly 6 foot, 6 inch Ricky Seals Jones. However, Saturday we got a totally different view of how this staff could use someone like that when A&M's leading receiver for 2012, Mike Evans, got moved to the inside.

With a larger slot like the 6 foot 5, 220 pound Evans -- basically an X receiver playing inside -- it's hard to put an undersized nickel back on Evans and expect him to hold up because a guy like Evans (a former basketball player) can literally post them up. You have to use a safety (still a mismatch in terms of size) or a linebacker (mismatch in terms of quickness).

Saturday just reinforced how unique Evans is: a lot of big guys can't pull off what he does because they lack the quick feet to make the cuts required in an area where the quarterback's margin for error in getting the ball to them is much smaller than it is to the outside. Evans will require linebackers will have to look for him all of the time, meaning that mesh and 95 Y Cross (staples of the Air Raid) will always be open or require more defenders to account for them.

It also makes you wonder what's going to happen when A&M gets guys like Seals-Jones on campus: big receivers that can serve as pseudo tight ends. Essentially having a tight end who can run like a receiver in the slot opens up a whole new world of options that A&M's didn't use last year. You've now got a guy on the edge that can not only run a seam route down the field but can also wall a linebacker off the edge in the running game which can open up the outside for the backs. In addition, not too many people run tunnel screens these days but now A&M can move Evans inside and he can block an inside linebacker on tunnel.

This concept is something that Sumlin brought with him from Oklahoma. The Sooners used former first round draft pick Jermaine Gresham (who was at Oklahoma during Sumlin's last year there in 2007 and was 6 foot 6 and 250 pounds) in much the same way -- they would split him out in the slot and throw the ball to him just like he was 5 foot 11 and 180 pounds. They still had mismatches but his size created different types of mismatches than most teams were used to seeing.

Oklahoma's use of Gresham in this manner has been overshadowed in recent years by other teams doing the same thing, most notably New England with Tom Brady throwing to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots used the duo to open up their running game but also get bigger personnel on the field to punish defenses that had gotten smaller to match the speed of New England's spread attack and get to Brady faster via the blitz.

Most slots generally average 11 to 12 yards per reception due to the shorter routes they run and the traffic nearer the line of scrimmage where they operate. Ryan Swope, the leading receiver in A&M history and something of a deep threat compared to your typical slot receiver, averaged 12.7 yards per reception last season. In contrast, Evans probably averaged about 15 yards a catch on Saturday and had a 70 yard touchdown reception. Gresham himself averaged between 14 and 15 yards per reception for the Sooners in 2007 and 2008 which are normally averages that are put up by outside receivers who run deeper routes and face less traffic on the outside. Sumlin carried over the concepts of a larger slot with Justin Johnson who lacked Evans' or Gresham's height but, at 223 pounds, was almost like an H back and averaged a little over 14 yards per catch in 2011, Sumlin's last year at UH.

Finally, let's look how it benefits everyone else on the offense. Evans was A&M's leading receiver last season and served as something of a security blanket for quarterback Johnny Manziel. Now, Manziel won't have to throw the ball across the field to get it to the guy most capable of bailing him out of trouble. It also means that teams may have to double him (linebacker down low with a slot over the top) which means that you have to cover the outside receivers man to man with a greater chance of them being able to get deep. Manziel can throw tunnel screens to the outside receivers or the other slot and Evans can use his size against linebackers on the inside just like he used it against cornerbacks last season on bubble screens to the outside. Additionally, by blocking on the edge, it helps open up A&M's outside running game with speed option, toss, and outside zone -- plays that are harder to run without the presence of a big slot on the perimeter that can block people and hold their blocks a little longer.

Overall, Evans' ability to do all of those things means that outside receivers and runners will be able to play in space more often and he may find it even easier to get down the field himself. Those factors should translate into even more explosive plays for A&M (the 2008 Sooners averaged 9.5 yards per pass attempt and one touchdown per about ten attempts). In addition, defenses that flooded the field last season with smaller personnel packages to contain Manziel's running ability will be forced to stay in their base defenses more often which can play into A&M's hands. In particular, if A&M can move Evans in and out of the slot without otherwise changing their personnel groupings, defense won't be able to substitute and match the Aggies' personnel with suitable personnel groupings of their own. This should result in even more explosive plays on A&M's part -- and that's before even you factor in the abilities of the returning Heisman Trophy winner and the most dangerous player in all of college football.

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