Can the new look Wrecking Crew stop the SEC spread?

Ian Boyd

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The Fighting Aggies of Texas A&M have a pretty complicated history with the spread offense. In their final years in the Big 12, head coach Mike Sherman wasted tremendous offensive talent by insisting on maintaining the I-formation within the structure of the offense. Ryan Tannehill working with Ryan Swope, Uzoma Nwachukwu, and Jeff Fuller from the shotgun spread could occasionally be a devastating force, but the Aggies forced the I-formation elements to run the ball even as they blew multiple second half leads over the course of the season.

The following year (2012) they went full Air Raid with Johnny Manziel in the SEC and had perhaps the finest season in the program’s history, going 11-2 with a pair of narrow losses to 10-win Florida and LSU teams, a narrow win over National Champion Alabama, and a blowout win over Big 12 Champion Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. It was remarkable to see how effective Mike Sherman’s recruits could be in a spread offensive concept and they followed it up with another nice season in 2013, even though their defense slipped after losing multiple seniors.

Under Jimbo Fisher and his defensive coordinator Mike Elko, the team has really been much closer to their identity in the Jackie Sherrill and RC Slocum golden years of the late 80s and early 90s. The Aggies’ clear intention is to compete for championships in the SEC by having as good or better an offensive and defensive line as anyone on the schedule. It’s a goal I’ve been highly skeptical of and interestingly, it’s increasingly a direct counter to the prevailing strategies of the league.

In 2020 Texas A&M faced RPO-heavy spread teams such as Steve Sarkisian’s Alabama, Phil Longo’s UNC Tar Heels, and Kendall Briles’ Razorbacks and then also faced some spread passing teams such as the Mike Leach Bulldogs, Dan Mullen Gators, and a faltering LSU squad. They came through it all fairly well and now return most of their key players on defense for a 2021 gauntlet which will include the SEC West teams mentioned above along with the Lane Kiffin Ole Miss Rebels.

Mike Elko is returning a lot of seniors and some draftable juniors to face this schedule and his unit may be asked to do a lot of heavy lifting opposite a retooled offensive line and first-year starting quarterback. How the Aggies fare in facing these ghosts of their Big 12 past should make for a fascinating season.

Mike Elko’s anti-spread defense

Elko runs a modernized 4-3 Under scheme with a lot of hybridized elements and he runs it out of a nickel package with true defensive backs in the nickel position, not rangy linebackers like they often used at Notre Dame. The “Under” dimension of the front relates mostly to where they play their nose tackle and strongside end. The traditional 4-3 Under was designed to play a nose tackle (1-technique), middle linebacker (B-gap), strongside end (5-technique), and strongside linebacker (9-technique) to the strongside (obviously) of the formation while the weakside had the 3-technique, weakside linebacker, and weakside end.

Elko’s Aggies usually treat the wide, field side of the formation as the strongside whereas an old school 4-3 Under defense would treat the tight end side as the “strong side.”

A&M Under.jpg


Middle linebacker Buddy Johnson was living the good life last season playing behind nose Bobby Brown and strongside end DeMarvin Leal and he nearly doubled up the team’s second leading tackler as a result, with 85 tackles to weakside linebacker Aaron Hansford’s 49. Not only was he able to run free and find the football playing behind those two, but with a nickel and strong safety Demani Richardson aligned to receivers outside of him he was allowed to park in the box without worrying about drifting out into space. Johnson is now gone but Hansford returns along with Andre White (presumptive new mike backer) who took his lumps learning the defense in 2020 as a frequent rotational player.

Before Leal it was Kingsley Keke in the strongside end position, helping the Aggies to blow up runs to the wide side of the field and protecting the nickel and strong safety from needing to arrive immediately in run support. Their ability to find and develop difference makers in this position has been key to their success under Elko. Big McKinnley Jackson (6-2, 335) figures to be next in line at nose after Bobby Brown, who followed Daylon Mack.

Having big, powerful players in the nose and strongside end spots is essential to the structure of the Aggie defense and it allows them to mix in a few different coverages behind the Under front. They tend to play Demani Richardson to the deep hash or deep middle and then on the boundary, big Leon O’Neal can help bracket receivers there and/or be another defender coming late to the box against the run. The nickel typically plays man or match coverage underneath with Richardson over the top. Leal and the middle linebacker have to defend runs to the wide side of the field without quick-arriving help from either the nickel or Richardson.

This scheme works pretty well up front against the run, due to Leal’s prowess and power up front at 6-4 and 290 pounds, and it sets them up for success in pass defense which doesn’t always materialize. While being able to play with two-high safeties and matching routes underneath with their various nickel defenders and then big outside cornerbacks Jaylon and Myles Jones would appear a major advantage, the Aggies had a few weak spots against spread teams in 2020.

Caught in space

The easiest way to attack this Aggie defense, particularly when the starting linebackers are in, is by forcing the linebackers to play coverage. Several teams were able to run the ball against the Aggies as well, especially if young Andre White was in the game, but better still was to catch them in space.

The Sarkisian Tide put the Aggie inside-backers through countless spin cycles, typically with the mesh-sit concept everyone loves, forcing them to chase Najee Harris out of the backfield and vacate the middle of the field for shallow crossers from DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle.

The Gators made their living with some double slants concepts from trips formations, drawing in Richardson to help their middle linebacker the Aggies didn’t want to ask to leave the box and leaving the nickel exposed 1-on-1 against Kyle Pitts running a slant into wide open space:

Gator double slants vs A&M.jpg

Teams also aimed to beat the Aggies over the top and I saw a few different approaches. Both the Gators and the Tide tried to beat Demani Richardson with double deep route combinations using the slot and outside receiver.

The Gators ran “mills” with a dig route and a post behind it, Richardson showed on the dig route for a moment but quickly shuffled back to stay on the post and nearly picked it in the end zone. From then on Florida chose to do their work underneath or they attacked O’Neal, particularly with a slot fade in the boundary where Kadarius Toney flew by the slower Aggie safety.

Alabama attacked Richardson with what appeared to be double slants before Jaylen Waddle turned upfield after Richardson bit on the slant and ran by him for a touchdown. North Carolina caught O’Neal once or twice.

A concerning note for next season is how the Tide also attacked the A&M cornerbacks with some double moves. Jaylon Jones is 6-2, 200 pounds, ran a 4.66 at a SPARQ event in high school (not ideal at corner), and played in a cover 2 scheme in high school at Cibolo Steele with help over the top. Myles Jones is 6-4, 190 pounds and there’s film to suggest he has the sorts of speed limitations you’d expect of someone with such size.


Alabama is running “mills” here but after motioning a receiver and getting the Aggies to check into their base boundary coverage, which here is “MOD quarters.” O’Neal helps on vertical routes by the #2 receiver (the tight end) and so he’s sucked in by the dig route. Myles Jones is left to cover the post route by John Metchie by his lonesome and after a head fake got him turned around, he can only helplessly watch Metchie dash by for an easy pitch and catch touchdown.

The Aggies figure to jam opponents up next season with the Jones brothers (not literally brothers) and perhaps 6-3 Antonio Johnson in the nickel or else maybe 6-1, 200 pound Devin Morris. Both Demani Richardson and Leon O’Neal return behind them at safety with a lot of banked experience now in this scheme and conference.

It’s likely to be a very tough unit to work against for most teams, especially when the safeties are deep on the hashes and helping to outnumber receivers and provide timely help against route combinations. Everyone has length and they can jam and press underneath, which buys time for the pass rush and thwarts some perimeter screens in the RPO game. However, they also may be short a lockdown corner who can hold up against go routes, post routes, and slot fades against a top deep threat if he doesn’t have safety help over the top. Richardson and O’Neal can’t help over the top on everyone all the time.

It may all hinge on Elijah Blades, another big corner (6-2, 188) who opted out in 2020 and allowed Jaylon Jones to start, who has more recovery speed and ran a 4.4 40 in high school at a SPARQ event. The Aggies need Blades back in the lineup at boundary corner so they can avoid having one of the Jones bros trying to turn and run with a John Metchie or Kayshon Boutte.

Texas A&M has been very successful at building physical defensive fronts with NFL caliber players along the D-line. The 2021 season should well put to the test whether their defensive backfield can make the most of it or whether the spread offenses which now dominate the SEC can circumnavigate Fisher’s fronts and take A&M on a walk down memory lane of taking Ls in space in the Big 12 conference.
 
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sherf1

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Good stuff.

A&M seems to generally have the right approach of loading up on the D line and using that talent to help out the secondary, schematically. Thankfully they haven't recruited DBs of the same caliber as their big guys, so they have some limitations.

The defense has been propping them up though, curious to see if the offense is capable of evolving beyond the running game and short passes to TEs and RBs.
 

Ian Boyd

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Good stuff.

A&M seems to generally have the right approach of loading up on the D line and using that talent to help out the secondary, schematically. Thankfully they haven't recruited DBs of the same caliber as their big guys, so they have some limitations.

The defense has been propping them up though, curious to see if the offense is capable of evolving beyond the running game and short passes to TEs and RBs.
I think things are promising here with Chapman, Demas, and the others back at WR. QB and LT are bigger question marks. I think Kenyon Green is moving out to left tackle, who knows how that will go? QB...Haynes King?

You never know. No one expected the 2013 Seminoles to hit big so fast in the passing game.
 

Fuddy

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I think things are promising here with Chapman, Demas, and the others back at WR. QB and LT are bigger question marks. I think Kenyon Green is moving out to left tackle, who knows how that will go? QB...Haynes King?

You never know. No one expected the 2013 Seminoles to hit big so fast in the passing game.
I think Tennessee transfer Jahmir Johnson gets LT, Kenyon Green gets RT, and Matthews gets C. And then a bunch of inexperienced guys are battling for the two guard spots.
 

Ian Boyd

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I think Tennessee transfer Jahmir Johnson gets LT, Kenyon Green gets RT, and Matthews gets C. And then a bunch of inexperienced guys are battling for the two guard spots.
Maybe so, either way it's not obvious they'll be great in the pass-pro department. Will likely continue to rely on play-action and throwing to Jalen Wydermyer. There are worse tactics.
 
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sherf1

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Maybe so, either way it's not obvious they'll be great in the pass-pro department. Will likely continue to rely on play-action and throwing to Jalen Wydermyer. There are worse tactics.
High floor but very low ceiling.
 

stringsays

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not sure what happens at offensive line but it's fair to say that the tackles will be johnson and green. one guard spot will be layden robinson who was pretty darn good in limited time. wouldnt surprise me if bryce foster started as a freshman--either at C or G.

im guilty of criticizing the offense but its hard for me to do so when i look at us being 15th in F+ at the end of the year.

starting QB will likely be king. gotta find a consistent deep threat.

leon is good in the box and ok in coverage if his eyes arent in the backfield. the second he peeks in the backfield it's over, he's going to take step towards the LOS and his guy is gonna blow by him.

i wonder what it would have been like if bama wasnt game 2. jaylon jones got better and better as the season went on and askinga. true freshman to guard metchie and waddle was a large task.

starting corners will likely be myles jones and jaylen jones. wildcard is safety antonio johnson. him and richardson as a combo might give us the balance we need out of our safeties.
 

Ian Boyd

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starting corners will likely be myles jones and jaylen jones. wildcard is safety antonio johnson. him and richardson as a combo might give us the balance we need out of our safeties.
I don't think Blades came back to sit behind Jones, I'd expect to see him if he's healthy. Antonio Johnson at nickel, I guess.

O'Neal is really pretty good as long as he isn't playing teams that can attack him down the field, just spin him down to dime in those instances, Elko.
 

stringsays

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I don't think Blades came back to sit behind Jones, I'd expect to see him if he's healthy. Antonio Johnson at nickel, I guess.

O'Neal is really pretty good as long as he isn't playing teams that can attack him down the field, just spin him down to dime in those instances, Elko.
problem with blades is that hes got a hard time staying healthy. he’s got a slight build and seems to always have one nagging injury or another. I’d be pretty surprised if he started over either of the joneses

agree with leon. Great in the box kind of guy. not great outside the box.
 

Ian Boyd

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problem with blades is that hes got a hard time staying healthy. he’s got a slight build and seems to always have one nagging injury or another. I’d be pretty surprised if he started over either of the joneses

agree with leon. Great in the box kind of guy. not great outside the box.
I don't think either Jones can keep up with the Metchies of the world, is the thing.
 

stringsays

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What about Jones at NB?
jaylen jones? nah. im pretty confident that he and myles jones will be our starting corners. blades will back one of them up. i think he came back because he just doesnt have enough film to do anything else.

nickel will be some combo of erick young devin morris and maybe even antonio johnson.
 

stringsays

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I don't think either Jones can keep up with the Metchies of the world, is the thing.
i mean who can tho?

with bama last year at the beginning of the year it was a pick your poison thing. we stopped their run game...and based on the box score it seemed like we keyed on devonta smith but then metchie and waddle kicked our ass.
 

stilesbbq

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i mean who can tho?

with bama last year at the beginning of the year it was a pick your poison thing. we stopped their run game...and based on the box score it seemed like we keyed on devonta smith but then metchie and waddle kicked our ass.
Do people in Aggyland generally have a problem with how Jimbo plays?
 

Ian Boyd

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i mean who can tho?

with bama last year at the beginning of the year it was a pick your poison thing. we stopped their run game...and based on the box score it seemed like we keyed on devonta smith but then metchie and waddle kicked our ass.
Maybe Blades, the other two lack the speed I think.
 

keganr

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I was Texas A&M landing a top quarterback transfer away from picking the Aggies to win the SEC West this year.
 
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stilesbbq

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I'm sure you know by now that stringsays is a good guy aggy. You can have a rational discussion with him and he doesn't come over here to insult or spout aggy rhetoric. More like him are always welcome.
Love string and he shares my taste for expensive sneakers! Since this is a free board I was just surprised more Aggy didn’t come over and spout uninformed opinions.
 
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