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November 25, 2013

Tarp's Monday Thoughts

It's hard to know where to start after this weekend's events in Baton Rouge, primarily because they came as such a shock to everyone. No one expected Texas A&M's defense to play at a high level and so the 500+ yards and 34 points didn't come as a surprise. However, an offense that had scored no fewer than 41 points all year and had even hung 42 on the best defense in the country…it was inconceivable that anyone could slow them down, especially the Tigers who had lost so many of the defenders that had slowed down A&M last season. Even so, the way that it happened and the fact that the Aggies' play was part of a season closing trend left everyone questioning the direction of the program going forward much more than a single loss should have.

So let's gain some perspective on where A&M is heading based on how everything is trending as the season winds down and what that means for the future of A&M football.

First off, the Aggies will not be better off without Johnny Manziel, at least in the short term. 2014 will represent a transition period. Manziel has been making worse decisions as the season has progressed and now has 13 interceptions on the season. He's trying to get the ball down the field, especially to Mike Evans. Regardless of whether or not it's because he and the rest of the offense are pressed to try to outscore a defense having all kinds of issues, the team has become so Manziel centric that everyone…offense, defense….is standing around and waiting for him to make something happen.

However, the Aggies are AVERAGING 45 points a game because they have the best football player in the country (even if he doesn't win the Heisman Trophy again) who averaging 9.9 yards an attempt with a 69% completion rate. That combination of statistics is obscene because you're getting a first down literally every time you drop back to pass.

The three teams behind them in scoring offense in the SEC are Missouri, Alabama, and Auburn who have exactly two losses between them and are ranked in the top ten. In other words, if the Aggies had a defense even as good as Auburn's (fifth in the SEC at 22 points a game and the worst of the three defensively), they would be playing Missouri for a BCS bid this weekend.

Without Manziel, A&M will be trotting out either Matt Joeckel or Kenny Hill who lack his experience or chops. It's true that the Aggies should return everyone on the offensive line but Jake Matthews and a stable of four and five star runners. However, the 2013 receiving corps loses multiple players including Evans and some young guys who haven't caught many passes will have to come on in a hurry. They may turn it over less and run the ball better but they're going to score fewer points.

That brings us to our second point.

Last season, the Aggies played with a chip on their shoulder due to the fact that they had a first year staff out to prove itself and a team that had been told that playing in the Big 12 wouldn't prepare them for the SEC. They were focused mentally but more importantly they physically stood up to people or pushed them around even though they weren't the biggest football team around on the offensive or defensive lines. The season's enduring memory in that regard was undersized nosetackle Spencer Nealy steering Alabama's All American center Barrett Jones on one play like he was driving a rental car on a European vacation.

However, in the SEC, physical teams are usually loaded with upperclassmen, especially on both lines. Lost in A&M's transition to the conference was that for all of the talk of the Aggies starting a true freshman like Julien Obioha at defensive end or a 270 pound nosetackle was that among the 12 players on the offensive line and defensive front seven, Obioha was the only one that had been on campus less than three years. Everyone else was no worse than a redshirt sophomore. Such players were not only physically mature due to multiple off season conditioning/nutrition programs but were experienced as well. They had played meaningful games in hostile environments on the road and were more confident in their abilities than younger players who lacked such physical and mental pedigrees.

Let's use Alabama as another example. The Tide run a 3-4 defense and so have eight starting linemen on both sides of the ball. All eight have been in that program for at least three years and all but two of them have been redshirted. In addition, five of them have been in the program for at least four years.

Oh, and before you talk about all of the Rivals.com rated four and five star prospects that Alabama has loaded up on and are playing, half of Alabama's starters in the trenches were rated as three star prospects coming out of high school.

Right now, the Aggies are starting two second year players in the offensive line and due to injuries are starting just four players with at least three years of on campus experience in the front seven. In addition, their backups for the most part (especially in the front seven) consist of true freshmen.

On defense, A&M is overmatched physically against the better teams on its schedule. There's no better evidence of that than the fact that A&M is ranked dead last in the SEC in run defense and 10th in sacks. In addition, you can coach containment, run fits, and hands but younger players just don't absorb those things overnight. It takes time and making those mistakes over and over before they get it right.

On the offensive line, you say there's no excuse with all of that size (four players over 300 pounds) and pedigree (4 four star prospects) that A&M can't run the ball. Well, A&M's two second year players are on the interior and the Aggies have struggled to run the ball to an extent when they have faced bigger nosetackles like Brandon Ivory of Alabama, Ego Ferguson of LSU, Gabe Wright of Auburn, and Chris Jones at Mississippi State. All of them are juniors except for Jones who is combines size with the athleticism of a converted defensive end. In addition, when these nosetackles play well, the energy level needed to keep a fast tempo going all goes into blocking them.

The Aggies miss center Patrick Lewis to a much bigger degree than imagined….not only was Lewis a smart four year starter but he weighed close to 320 pounds and could take on the nosetackles of the SEC single handedly or allow the guards to do so before moving off to block a linebacker.

The Aggies return four starters on the offensive line for next season and all of them will have at least three years in the program. However, the front seven will still feature multiple second year players so the Aggies are still a year away on defense from being where you would like them to be.

Nonetheless, the running game's problems against the better defenses can't be totally explained away by a lack of experience. It's still a talented group on the line and in the backfield. However, it's a group in a strength and conditioning program that emphasizes conditioning to run an up tempo attack. It's a group that had transitioned from a three point stance in 2011 to a two point stance in 2012 but seemingly has regressed at coming off the ball as 2013 has gone on. The running game has become less and less diverse as it has become more productive…it's almost solely about inside zone with occasional power plays with a lineman pulling in short yardage. Finally, because A&M can get ten yards throwing the ball whenever it wants, less of the running game with the backs has been used as the season has worn down simply because it's just not as productive.

You almost would certainly look for that to change next season as the Aggies trot out an inexperienced quarterback and receivers even if the spread is a quarterback centric attack. However, if A&M is going to run the ball against the better defenses on its schedule, there are some changes that are going to have to be made. The defense will be better as talented bodies are worked into the lineup and they will make their presence felt against the less talented teams on the schedule but it will still be a transition when facing the Alabamas and Auburns of the world. Realistically, it's still a year away.

Third point.

I've talked about this multiple times prior to Sumlin's first game but what killed former A&M coaches Dennis Franchione and Mike Sherman in recruiting largely before they got through the first year of their tenures was their 4-8 starts. Coaches sell either the hope or the reality of winning (depending on their situations) to lure prospects to campuses. For a new coach, if you can't win right away, you don't have a lot to sell.

Last year's group of upperclassmen and Manziel along with a great job by the staff enabled Kevin Sumlin to get over this hump and not just in terms of Ws. The game against Alabama was a program defining win as evidenced by these statistics provided by one of our subscribers, jeff tweedy. Prior to the Alabama win, the Aggies had 21 commitments and nine of them were four stars. After the Alabama win, A&M nabbed ten commits and six of them were four stars. Of A&M's 17 current commitments, 11 of them are four stars which is a similar hit rate (60% to 65% four stars).

Even so, this is the best recruiting staff that A&M has had since R.C. Slocum's first staff in 1989 which included four current or former NFL/college head coaches. Sumlin is personable and a masterful tactician, using social media and a helicopter like no other coaches around. Manziel made A&M cool, something that seemed impossible a couple of years ago. Clarence McKinney and David Beaty have made the Aggies the dominant presence in Houston and Dallas, respectively (the two major recruiting grounds in the state). In particular, Oklahoma and Texas had dominated Dallas for years and what the Horns weren't getting the Sooners did. Now, the Sooners have all but been pushed out of the discussion when it comes to four star talent. In addition, offensive line coach B.J. Anderson has reestablished the Aggies in east Texas and they have already nabbed the top two prospects in the region for 2015, defensive tackle Daylon Mack and safety Justin Dunning. The Aggies aren't just taking out of state prospects that are sleepers…they're taking four plus star caliber recruits and beating national powers for them like Kyle Allen and Qualen Cunningham.

In other words, the Aggies haven't recruited like this since the days of Slocum, especially on the defensive side of the ball where championships are won. The people that hired Sumlin wanted a CEO that delegated responsibilities to his assistants so that he could be the face of the program and recruit and he's done just that. Not only that, despite having a reputation as an offensive coach, Sumlin inherently understands that defense wins championships and he's obtained one of the better defensive line recruiters in the country in Terry Price to make that happen.

Because of that recruiting (especially on the defensive side of the ball and at quarterback), A&M is well placed to compete at a high level beginning in 2015 once the Aggies make a transition from Manziel to having a more well rounded program. The bottom line with the program is that Manziel's talent has enabled A&M to buy time to build the roster to SEC standards via recruiting. One game won't change A&M's future course but the LSU game indicated that changes may be necessary to supplement the talent that's already in the program and coming into it.

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