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October 5, 2013

A&M's offense potent, as expected

Texas A&M is about midway through the 2013 season with a bye week coming off of a victory over Arkansas and going into one of its bigger games of the season against Ole Miss. It's been a roller coaster ride on one side of the ball but on the other it's been nothing but smooth sailing as the Aggie offense has been one of the country's most prolific. The Aggies rank in the top five nationally in scoring, passing, and total offense and are running the ball at a 5.48 yard per carry clip. On the other hand, the defense ranks in the 86th or worse in all major defensive categories.

It didn't seem like that long ago that during the off season we were talking daily about the expectations for the 2013 campaign which was the most publicized in A&M history. Today, we look at the offensive side of the ball in terms of our perceptions prior to the season and whether or not those projections have come true.

Expectations:

Last season, Manziel was the Aggies' leading ball carrier both in terms of numbers of yardage and accrues. Expectations were that the running backs would carry more of the burden as the position was as talented and deep as any on the roster; two of them were rated as five star prospects coming out of high school, another was a four star, and two of the group had transferred to A&M after getting carries as freshmen at other quality programs. The spring featured two back sets much of the time which was a departure from 2012. The Aggies also had freshman Quiv Gonzalez to take handoffs out of the slot. Junior college transfer Cameron Clear had been used extensively in the spring and was expected to provide more of a blocking threat both in line and as a slot at tight end.

In the passing game, Mike Evans had seen more time in the slot than outside in the spring and although he had moved back outside in August, it provided a preview of what was anticipated to come with super freshman Ricky Seals Jones. Seals Jones was actually bigger than Evans and was anticipated to provide matchup problems for smaller defensive backs and slower linebackers. In addition to Seals Jones, other true freshmen receivers such as Gonzalez were anticipated to play quite a bit due to the losses of Ryan Swope in the slot and Uzoma Nwachukwu on the outside.

The offensive line featured Jake Matthews switching to right tackle and Cedric Ogbuehi moving from guard to tackle. A couple of newcomers, Mike Matthews at center and Germain Ifedi at guard, were supposed to be such high caliber replacements that the loss of talented veterans such as Luke Joeckel and Patrick Lewis was to be minimized. In particular, it was thought that with a couple of 320 pound road graders at guard that the running game would be improved and that Matthews would be able to maintain a faster tempo at center with his athleticism.

Finally, although quarterback Johnny Manziel was coming off of Heisman Trophy campaign, there was thought to be room for improvement. He was tasked to stay in the pocket more, trust his protection, and let his receivers get into their routes moreso than what they did last season.

Reality:

Manziel didn't run much during A&M's first two games of the year and when he did he wasn't the dynamic playmaker that he was in 2012. However, when the A&M staff decided to make him a bigger part of the game plan in week three versus Alabama, he responded with one his best games ever by rushing 14 times for 98 yards. Alabama stayed in man coverage throughout the game which meant that when Manziel took off Alabama's back seven were busy chasing receivers instead of him. That contest ushered in a three game stretch where Manziel ran 35 times (he averaged about 15 runs a game last season). Due to the fact that SMU and Arkansas played two high safeties, he was unable to break off any long runs.

In the meantime, the running backs themselves were quietly having a solid season. Due to injuries to Brandon Williams and Trey Williams, Ben Malena and Tra Carson carried the burden with A&M piling up a little over 200 yards in each game. In particular, Carson ran low and with authority, something that didn't happen during the spring. He lived up to everyone's expectations as a short yardage back (four touchdowns rushing) and even surpassed them by showing enough balance and quickness to be an every down runner (5.6 yards per carry). Trey Williams really didn't get going until the Arkansas game but he averaged over nine yards a carry and had a 31 yard run and a 17 yard run.

In the Arkansas game, facing two high safeties and as offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney put it "a favorable run box" and adverse weather conditions the Aggies went to two back sets for the first time all season and rolled up 262 yards. In fact, A&M didn't throw the ball much in the second half and the backs blocked well for one another.

Meanwheile, Manziel showed that he had made the transition to being a complete quarterback by holding the ball longer and looking down the field. He's averaging over ten yards an attempt and put up a 14:4 touchdown to interception ratio. In the Alabama game, he transitioned to Johnny Football and put the team on his back; against Arkansas, he spent much of the second half handing off and getting A&M in the right play.

Mike Evans exploded onto the scene last year as a physical receiver who could muscle defenders for jump balls and shove them around for yards after the catch. He became Manziel's security blanket but this year has become a big play receiver averaging an astounding 24.7 yards per catch. He's had at least one catch of at least 20 yards in each game and his 95 yard catch and run versus Alabama was the play of the season.

Ricky Seals Jones was injured after a 71 yard catch and run in the opener versus Rice and was lost for the season. In addition, after the first couple of games, other freshmen expected to play larger roles such as Gonzalez and Jeremy Tabuyo got less time. His loss simply shifted the burden to other receivers such as slot Malcome Kennedy and outside receiver Derel Walker. With the threat of the freshmen taking potential playing time, they responded by catching everything thrown their way and running better routes. Kennedy has four touchdown receptions and Walker has become a tremendous runner after the catch. Clear hasn't played as much of a role because of the development of the other receivers but he's been a good blocker in short yardage situations.

The offensive line has been everything they were expected to be. A&M is averaging over 10 yards per pass and 5.5 yards per rush which are among the best figures per play in the country. Against Alabama, they provided sufficient protection for Manziel to throw deep to Evans from his own end zone; against Arkansas, they put the running game on their backs and pushed a vaunted defensive line all over the field. Tackles Jake Matthews and Ced Ogbuehi have lived up to their athleticism and guards Germain Ifedi and Jarvis Harrison have been enforcers on inside zone. However, although there's been a couple of games where A&M was able to push tempo, the Aggies are actually averaging fewer plays this season than what they did last season as Alabama controlled the ball on the ground in their win and surprisingly enough the Aggies did the same thing to Arkansas last week.

Summary

Injuries have taken away or limited some of the players that the A&M staff wanted to emphasize prior to the season. However, their abilities were more complimentary than essential. The core of A&M's offense -- Manziel, Evans, and the offensive line -- have remained intact and have been more productive than last year due to Manziel's improvement and a superior running game. Due to their efforts against Alabama, it looks like that they'll be able to put up 40 plus points a game in every outing regardless of the opponent and stay in the hunt for a BCS bowl.


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