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December 19, 2013

Tarp's Thursday Thoughts

-Yesterday was an eventful day for Texas A&M football fans although it didn't start out that way.

A press conference for the Chick Fil A Bowl that started in the morning was followed in the early afternoon by word that secondary coach Marcel Yates was leaving A&M to return to Boise State as defensive coordinator. Yates left Boise State prior to the 2012 season to join Aggie head coach's Kevin Sumlin and now he was coming back with new head coach Bryan Harsin (Yates had previously coached with Harsin under Chris Petersen).

Yates' loss won't be felt much on the recruiting trail although he did a good job with out of state prospects such as Louisiana's Noel Ellis and California's Sebastian Larue last year. This season, he spent most of his time in Louisiana and although he got A&M close on the New Orleans Edna Karr duo of Speedy Noll and Gerald Willis III, it was going to be hard in the end to hold off in state LSU. He did play a major role in landing West Mesquite four star Dylan Sumner Gardner in the spring (who told us last night that he was sticking with A&M) and also was the primary recruiter on Jenks, Oklahoma four star safety Steven Parker who is deciding between A&M, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State. Yates' absence may have a negative impact on A&M's chances with Parker but it's wait and see situation right now.

However, the Aggies may be able to help themselves in this situation by finding a coach that can recruit Texas or other parts of the Southeast or even the West Coast (where Sumlin is following the Bob Stoops strategy of picking off highly regarded prospects in regions like Arizona and Las Vegas). In addition, although the Aggies lacked a pass rush this season which allowed quarterbacks to hold the ball too long for longer routes, they continually had breakdowns in coverages, techniques, and against certain routes.

For example, one of the most underrated things that a secondary defender aligned on the line of scrimmage can do is be physical with the receiver early in the route to force them off away from their planned route. Many routes in the spread offense and even the West Coast offense are timing routes and even the least little contact can upset the route. A&M was very good in 2012 about this; 2013 was a different story.

There were individual plays where all three issues were in evidence. For example, LSU completed a wheel route for a touchdown against A&M and trouble started when the safety aligned on the slot who eventually caught the pass never touched the receiver. The receiver was able to get into his route at top speed early on which means that they're getting into the secondary before the defense can respond. Then, the safety didn't stay with the receiver or communicate with any other defenders to switch responsibilities when the outside receiver ran a route to the inside. The safety thought that he was in zone coverage and had deep help; the remainder of the secondary was in man coverage.

The confusing thing about all of this is the fact that A&M didn't have these issues in 2012. Seniors such as Dustin Harris developed into a physical corner despite his smaller stature; Steven Terrell played free safety and managed to get everyone aligned. This year, A&M rotated four players for two safety spots and five different players at corner and nickel.

The unit did play well at times, particularly in stretches of the season where they forced multiple turnovers. However, when the Aggies played better opposition, they were unable to be a factor.

Overall, A&M could get a recruiter with superior ties to the state of Texas or other parts of the country. Two names that have been thrown out there are former Texas secondary coach Duane Akina and current South Florida secondary coach Ron Cooper. Akina has recruited Texas for years and was a superb developer of talent in Austin, churning out NFL draft picks on a consistent basis. Cooper has been both a defensive coordinator and secondary coach in the SEC and may be looking to come back. In addition, keep in mind the name of TCU cornerbacks coach Clay Jennings; he spent time at Houston prior to the arrival of Sumlin but reportedly has a good relationship with him and has been effective as both a recruiter and a developer of talent. Another possibility is Terry Joseph of Nebraska, who once coached defensive backs at Louisiana Tech and has expressed an interest in returning to the south.

Most importantly, with $3.4 million being allocated to his assistants, it's a chance for Kevin Sumlin to go out and make a splash hire.

-Yesterday was also newsworthy because of major changes on the offensive side of the ball.

In the second sentence of the press release yesterday about Yates leaving was the fact that Jake Spavital was being named the sole offensive coordinator for the Aggies which means that Spavital was being elevated co-offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney was being demoted back to running backs coach. Last season, McKinney was the play caller but now those duties are in the hands of Spavital.

One of the major complaints about last year's offense was the lack of designed rushing plays. The Aggies ran the ball just six times against LSU which was highlighted as a major issue. This wasn't a problem prior to the Ole Miss game; in fact, the Aggies pounded Arkansas on the ground in the second half of a win in Fayetteville. However, as the season went on, A&M seemed to place more confidence in the arm and feet of Johnny Manziel rather than the legs of the running backs. If nothing else, this exposed Manziel to more hits even as the Aggies continued to score at a clip of about 50 points a game. As a result, Manziel eventually suffered multiple injuries that severely impacted his ability to perform against the better teams on A&M's schedule and only scored 34 total points in season ending losses to LSU and Missouri. What's surprising about all of this is that McKinney was the running backs coach and his unit wasn't being prominently featured despite having an offensive line with multiple NFL draft picks and a host of talented runners. In addition, the Aggies faced favorable fronts and two high safeties prior to the Ole Miss game and adjusted their play calling accordingly; after the Arkansas game they rarely got away from Manziel being the focus no matter what defenses they were facing.

What does this mean going forward? Play calling is probably the most overrated aspect of football. It's easy for fans to second guess that aspect of any team because it's the most visible part of a coach's game day decisions. However, any head coach should be able to direct his play caller to carry out his wishes. It's not hard to tell someone to run the ball late in the game when protecting a lead or facing a favorable defensive scheme and maybe A&M got away from that often enough regardless of what else was going on that a change was necessary.

Even so, how you use your personnel is even more important. The Aggies didn't run the ball enough but also never managed to implement a consistent rotation among its running backs. They also never developed any of their freshman wideouts even though they could have played them more in blowouts. Finally, A&M emphasized the deeper routes in the Air Raid offense and had Manziel hold the ball to let those routes develop. A&M's offense was extremely productive by using the deeper routes but also exposed Manziel to more hits.

Regardless of who A&M's offensive coordinator, the DIRECTION of the offense is far more important than the play calling itself. For example, without Manziel, will the offense revert back to its Air Raid roots with emphasis on the shorter routes? Will they run the ball more? Will the running game move toward the diversity that was displayed in the Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma last January? Will A&M utilize a tight end more to facilitate the running game?

In addition, who will be the starting quarterback going forward? Spavital personally recruited incoming freshman Kyle Allen but he also expressed some interest current freshman Kenny Hill when he was at West Virginia. Both are dropback passers but Hill offers a little bit more mobility. Neither has Manziel's ability to improvise and so the offense must be more precise.

Finally, A&M will lose multiple offensive linemen after the 2013 and 2014 seasons that have been multi-year starters. Their replacements will include a couple of junior college signees and a number of incoming 2014 freshmen who offer length and footwork rather than bulk. It's a line suited to zone blocking and pass protection.

Going forward, Spavital must be able to use the talent on hand to play to the strengths of that personnel. That wasn't always the case in 2013 but the Aggies now longer have Manziel to bail them out of bad situations and must conduct a more precise offense with less margin for error. In addition, if the play caller needs a nudge from the head coach to go a certain direction, that nudge needs to be applied.

McKinney called plays in the 2013 Cotton Bowl but the direction of the offense in that game wasn't replicated in the regular season. The direction of the offense that we see in the Chick Fil A Bowl will open the curtain on the 2014 season in much the same way.

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