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December 3, 2013

Aggies need to follow Mizzou's blueprint in '14

If you're looking for a blueprint for Texas A&M's 2014 offense, look no further than last Saturday night's opponent, the Missouri Tigers.

Like A&M, the 2012 edition of the Tigers ran the spread offense with an Air Raid passing game but too often the Tigers used empty sets and straight drop back passes which emphasized that the ball had to come out quickly rather than protection of the quarterback. In addition, their running game involved outside zone runs with undersized backs reading blocks and cutting back behind them. However, Missouri's offensive linemen stepped backwards when they blocked the outside zone plays like they did on pass protection to cut off penetration. As a result, they were not a physical group because they never had to come off the ball and attack people. Finally, they rarely used a tight end to facilitate outside runs and were reduced to running the option and exposing their quarterback to even more hits.

In previous years, the Tigers did not gave issues running their offense in the Big 12 which was full of spread offenses and undersized linebackers and defensive backs geared toward stopping the pass. In their first year in the SEC which was a much bigger and more physical league, quarterback James Franklin took too many hits because of a lack of pass protection and mobility. In addition, he was too exposed in the running game and due to a lack of pass protection. The Tigers also didn't run the ball well with their backs to set up play action and take the pressure off of Franklin with the running game. The net result of it all was a losing record, much heat on head coach Gary Pinkel, and a desire to change their approach.

New offensive coordinator Josh Henson was a former offensive lineman who elected to take a more physical approach. Missouri now uses an in line tight end on many plays and puts it guards in a three point stance which helps with run blocking and pass protection. Missouri has fewer designed runs for Franklin and fewer opportunities in the passing game for him to take hits. The changes have resulted in the Tigers ranking in the top third in the SEC in most offensive categories including rushing yardage. Even when they lost Franklin to injury in the Georgia game, redshirt freshman Maty Mauk got enough help that the Tigers kept rolling anyway.

Why is Missouri's blueprint important? Well, the 2013 A&M offense will lose quite a few starters besides Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel. Offensive tackle Jake Matthews is graduating and guard Jarvis Harrison is anticipated to turn pro which would wipe out the left side of the offensive line. A&M also loses senior receivers Travis Labhart and Derel Walker, Mike Evans is expected to eventually turn pro, and Malcome Kennedy is making noise about doing so. Add in reliable runner Ben Malena and it's quite possible that A&M could bring back just four starters on that side of the ball for 2014. Thus, the strength of the team will lie in three starters on the offensive line and a multitude of running backs and what the Tigers did this season plays to those strengths.

In particular, Manziel himself benefitted greatly the past two seasons from one of the better offensive lines in the country. That enabled him to hold the ball for long stretches and throw the deeper routes much more frequently. If Harrison leaves for the pros, that probably won't be the case next season. A&M has commitments from a couple of highly junior college transfers in Jermaine Eluemunor and Avery Gennesey but the Aggies will not be able to replace over 80 starts in the offensive line seamlessly. They're going to have to ask less of that unit in that regard and the best way to do that is to have the ball come out more quickly.

In addition, Missouri didn't have a physically dominant offensive line as they started two sophomores and a walk on. However, they played well together, set a physical tone, and set up play action passes which made the pass blocking chores easier. The Aggies have the backs to run the ball well with Trey Williams, Tra Carson, Brandon Williams, and the redshirting James White. All of them offer different strengths but they can run most of the running plays within the offense and in theory will be more of a focus of the offense next season.

A&M's will miss Manziel's ability to turn broken plays into productive ones as well as his experience in running the offense. The Aggies have multiple candidates for the position in Kenny Hill, Matt Joeckel, and incoming freshman Kyle Allen. None of them have extensive game experience with Joeckel having started the Rice game and Hill being know for his composure. Also, while we've talked about having experience in the front seven, it's worth noting that underclassmen at the position rarely become difference makers at any conference. For example, outside of Manziel, the top seven rated quarterbacks in the league were upperclassmen. First year starters such as Dak Prescott at Mississippi State and Brandon Allen at Arkansas struggled mightily…both averaged seven yards or less per attempt and had touchdown to interception ratios near one to one. Thus, it's important for A&M not to put everything on the quarterback's shoulders and to ask them to be manage games, particularly versus the better defenses on A&M's schedule.

However, if there's one offense that a new quarterback should be able to run, it's the Air Raid. The concepts are quarterback friendly and the ball can come out quickly. When Hill and Joeckel played this season, they typically looked for the shorter crossing routes more often than Manziel did and hit those routes. That will probably continue to be a trend next season, particularly given the losses in the offensive line.

Finally, the Aggies' 2013 receiving class will have to step it up next season with the losses in the receiving corps. Ricky Seals Jones certainly would have made an impact at the slot position had he stayed healthy and Quiv Gonzalez has got to be used as something other than a decoy. He's made for those shorter crossing routes where he can get the ball in space and make big plays with it. If Kennedy returns, he can be the move the chains guy that Labhart evolved into. However, if both Evans and Walker are gone, A&M will need something from its outside receivers in order to keep defenses from homing in on the shorter routes. Seals Jones could move out there and JaQuay Williams must be able to do more than run go routes. A&M's focus on downfield routes meant that tight ends Cameron Clear and Nehemiah Hicks didn't play a lot but they could see more time as in line blockers in the running game and alternatives in the short passing game.

One thing that A&M didn't do down the stretch in 2013 was diversify its passing game. Previously, receivers moved around and were used to create matchup problems for opposing defenses. However, the Aggies never moved players around and as the season went on the routes became predictable as well…for the most part the outside receivers stayed outside the hashes and the slots worked the middle of the field. In addition, A&M focused on hitting those deeper routes and paid a price in the red zone when the field became compressed. Quality defenses made adjustments and the passing game suffered accordingly. There needs to be greater diversity in the passing game next fall to make sure that the same thing doesn't happen in 2014.

Overall, the 2014 offense is going to have to look a lot different because of the personnel losses which will be significant in both quantity and quality. The 2013 offense is going to send a number of people to the NFL and is why they averaged 50 points a game for most of the season. Replicating that type of success is too much to expect. However, turnovers and an inability to run the ball with the backs made a difference in games versus the better teams on A&M's schedule. The Aggies are going to have to make adjustments for both personnel losses (in terms of quality and experience) and to correct their deficiencies. Nonetheless, the scheme and talent are in place for A&M to be a quality unit if all of the right moves are made.

Just look at Missouri.

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