The trouble with Jimbo's strategy at Texas A&M

Ian Boyd

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For a brief, glorious season back in 2012 it looked like Texas A&M had completely reinvented their program. People around the region stared in wonder and began to consider whether the “sleeping giant” had actually finally been awoken. Had Texas’ “little brother” escaped the shadow? Could the Aggies become the pre-eminent football program in the state of Texas?

A&M was playing an exciting brand of football, combining young Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense with a generational talent in Johnny Manziel and no one even saw it coming. Mike Sherman had been fired despite stockpiling some impressive talent on the roster, including multiple future first round offensive talents, many of them along the offensive line. But after going 7-5 in 2011 and losing the final scheduled contest with Texas despite fielding a 2012 first round draft pick at quarterback (Ryan Tannehill), that was it for Sherman. Heading into their inaugural season in the SEC West in 2012, everyone knew A&M had some talent but no one was expecting new coach Kevin Sumlin to put it all together while competing in college football’s toughest division.

Instead, the Aggies’ use of cutting edge offensive tactics with exciting Texan talents made them more than competitive in the West. The Aggies went 10-2 with narrow, single-possession defeats against Florida and LSU and a big road win against the eventual National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide. “Johnny Football” ran for 1410 yards (before removing sack yardage) and threw for another 3706 while scoring 47 touchdowns. After the season the Aggies travelled to Dallas to play the Big 12 co-champion Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl and beat them senseless, 41-13. It appeared as though the Aggies had truly left their Big 12 origins behind and kicked the dust off their feet.

They’ve yet to win 10 games in a season since.

The goal in hiring Jimbo Fisher in 2018 from Florida State for $75 million guaranteed was to kick start that machine again. After a promising 9-4 start in year one, things stalled in year two with a 7-5 record in which the Aggies were 6-0 against teams with a losing record but 1-5 against teams that finished above .500. The sole win was a 24-21 bowl victory over an Oklahoma State team missing quarterback Spencer Sanders and wide receiver Tylan Wallace. The 2019 Aggies were young, but quarterback Kellen Mond didn't make the expected leap and there wasn't a single victory all year that demonstrated substantial growth from the program.

Thanks to a much lighter schedule than 2019’s brutal slate, 2020 will be a useful barometer for how the Jimbo Fisher program is coming along. Another year without any substantial victories would dampen the positive narrative around the program.

Jimbo’s strategy

Fisher ostensibly left Florida State out of frustration with that program’s unwillingness to commit major resources to facilities and contracts. Texas A&M seized the opportunity to nab the 83-23 coach with National Championship rings as both an offensive coordinator (LSU, 2003) and head coach (Florida State, 2013).

A&M opened up the vaults to bring Fisher in, offering him a 10-year contract with $75 million guaranteed in which every bit of leverage and optionality exists for Fisher and not the University. The Aggies saw an opportunity to secure a highly successful coach and refused to allow money to be an obstacle. Since taking over, Fisher has subsequently ramped up their recruiting efforts again which had slipped under Kevin Sumlin after top 10 classes in 2013 and 2014. Here’s a glimpse of the classes that compose the current A&M roster:

A&M 5-year recruiting.jpg

Ever since Nick Saban conquered the SEC back in 2009, the assumed best practice in the SEC is to use a national recruiting strategy to build overpowered rosters. Multiple teams have hired Nick Saban assistants, and Jimbo Fisher is one, hoping to replicate the coach's mastery for program organization and high level recruiting.

FIsher’s top ranked classes in 2019 and 2020 included 16 blue chip prospects from within the state of Texas and 14 from out of state. Overall 29 of 52 prospects were Texans as the Aggies have plunged headlong into the competitive world of southern recruiting. The strategy with all of these top level recruits has been revealed to be very trench-oriented, much like Saban’s approach in Tuscaloosa. Hopes in 2020 center around a collection of big former blue chips.

On the defensive line the Aggies have former 5-star DeMarvin Leal, a 6-4, 290 pounder taking over as the 3-technique defensive tackle in Mike Elko’s 4-3 Under defense and former 4-star Bobby Brown, a 6-4, 315 pounder at the nose. The offense hopes to be powered by 4-star tight ends Jalen Wydermyer (6-5, 260) and Baylor Cupp (6-6, 245) bringing some run/pass versatility along with a line with five players with at least 13 career starts.

The approach under Fisher has been decidedly run-centric. Quarterback Kellen Mond, who returns for another year in 2020, threw for 3107 yards at 7.5 ypa in 2018 and then slipped to 2897 yards at 6.9 ypa in 2019 after losing star tight end Jace Sternberger. The most proven targets on the team are Wydermyer and the 6-2, 220 pound Jhamon Ausbon outside, the latter of whom was a 4.67 40 guy in high school and more of a big body target than an over the top weapon.

Fisher will likely get back to pounding the football to a lead back now that Isaiah Spiller (former 4-star) is a 220 pound sophomore. The favorite schemes include outside zone and a few brands of counter that include extra lead blocks off tackle, when the Aggies are in 12 personnel with two tight ends:

A&M 12 pers counter.jpg

These schemes have long been some of Fisher’s best, particularly with Dalvin Cook, and they set up a lot of play-action opportunities for the tight ends to feign blocks and slip downfield wide open. For instance, the Y tight end here is already advancing to the second level, if he showed a block but then darted over the middle would the defense be ready to pick him up? Typically the answer against Sternberger or Wydermyer has been, "no."

Overall the Aggies are still a few years away from their recruiting of big, powerful athletes in the trenches to take hold on the field. The O-line in particular is not a place where you can expect first and second year players to consistently have a big impact, freshman guard Kenyon Green’s flashes in 2019 notwithstanding.

The problem with Jimbo’s strategy

The problem with all of this is exactly the same problem that existed for LSU up until 2019, for Auburn, for Florida, for Georgia, for Tennessee, and for everyone else in the SEC. Ramping up facilities updates, national recruiting, and expansive coaching staffs may be necessary to keep pace with Alabama but it doesn’t put any of those teams over the top against the Tide or necessarily one another.

What allowed the Aggies to catch the nation’s imagination and topple Saban in the Manziel era wasn’t just Johnny Football’s unique ability, it was the way they changed how games are won. The 2012 Aggies in particular had a tremendous space force and when Kliff Kingsbury turned games into a contest of 1-on-1 athletes in space rather than a scrum in the trenches like Jimbo or Saban prefer, the Aggies were at a decided advantage.

Here’s the breakdown of the Aggie space force in 2012 vs the 2020 crew.

Aggie 2012 space force vs 2020.jpg

While some of the recruiting looks similar, everyone knows that Sherman’s unit in 2012 proved to be stocked with elite athletes at these positions. Evans is one of the NFL's best receivers today and Swope, who was forced to retire due to concussions, ran a 4.34 40 at the combine.

In the crucial “space battles” that take place between pass-rushers and tackles or receivers and defensive backs, the Aggies had some of the best athletes on the field every single week. Of course they also had Johnny, but many quarterbacks could have done some damage in that set-up, if perhaps less than he did.

The 2020 Aggies are not in great shape out in space. They have an X-factor in Jalen Wydermyer but he’ll undoubtedly spend a fair amount of his time blocking and helping to own the trenches off tackle. Offensive tackles Dan Moore and Carson Green were regularly overmatched in 2019 and the Aggies yielded a sack rate of 7.5%, good for 90th in the nation. Out wide both at cornerback and at safety the Aggies leaned towards big and tall rather than fast and skilled, which made for an ugly day against LSU but also lead to the disastrous loss against Auburn when Bo Nix lead a late game drive to snatch away the victory. While their recruiting in the secondary has included some highly regarded talents, it's still rather large with questionable speed.

Texas A&M’s major advantage as a major Texas school competing in the SEC West isn’t going to be their capacity for printing dollars, their access to powerful athletes in the trenches, or their ability to control games with the run game or a big defensive line. Most everyone in the SEC West has all of those same resources at comparable or higher levels.

Texas A&M has clearly been drifting away from their best strategy for winning championships in the SEC. Their emphasis in recruiting needs to be on securing elite athletes on the perimeter and then employing pro-spread strategies that force SEC opponents to handle them in space rather than trying to be the biggest bully in the trenches. Kellen Mond may or may not be the right guy for that approach, the system hasn't always served his skill set, but A&M's plodding pace and run-centric nature isn't going to unlock the best from Haynes King or other Texan signal-callers either.

Until they get past the urge to try and win in the A-gaps rather than the perimeter and down the field, the initial promise of the SEC Aggies in 2012 will remain a mirage rather than a true sign of the promised land.
 
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shanew21

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Their offense is maybe the most boring thing I've ever watched. It's not really a surprise to see that once they get behind and start running tempo and flinging the ball around they have more success.

Interested to see how Mississippi State does in year 1 under Leach. They got Tyrell Shavers and KJ Costello in and Kylin Hill was already good. This would seem to back up your hypothesis if they were to succeed.
 

sherf1

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Freeman is Ian's sock account, confirmed.

JK, but yeah it's pretty hilarious to see A&M get out Big 12'ed by LSU of all people (and now Miss State, with Leach), while they're trying to do a Bama impression.

Kirby and Jimbo would be the World War I generals saying they just need more artillery before ordering another charge over the top.
 

Ian Boyd

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Their offense is maybe the most boring thing I've ever watched. It's not really a surprise to see that once they get behind and start running tempo and flinging the ball around they have more success.

Interested to see how Mississippi State does in year 1 under Leach. They got Tyrell Shavers and KJ Costello in and Kylin Hill was already good. This would seem to back up your hypothesis if they were to succeed.
Maybe best not to expect too much in year one from Leach’s bulldogs. They haven’t tried to be anything close to this in some time, really ever. Closest they got was with senior Dak.
 

stringsays

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good write up.

1) our OL underperformed last year. losing mccoy was hard, but im hopeful it was just a transition year to getting used to henson's schemes.

2) we lack speed on offense. we're slow as ****.

3) we lack dogs at WR. our upperclassmen WRs struggled with consistently being dogs. when rogers wanted to be a dog he was one--clemson and LSU in 2018 as examples, but he lacked a consistent motor. wydermyer and smith seem to have it in them, and im hopeful that some of the younger WR do too.

4) jimbo needs to let kellen run more. he's a better passer when he's allowed to run and take some hits.
 

Ian Boyd

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good write up.

1) our OL underperformed last year. losing mccoy was hard, but im hopeful it was just a transition year to getting used to henson's schemes.

2) we lack speed on offense. we're slow as ****.

3) we lack dogs at WR. our upperclassmen WRs struggled with consistently being dogs. when rogers wanted to be a dog he was one--clemson and LSU in 2018 as examples, but he lacked a consistent motor. wydermyer and smith seem to have it in them, and im hopeful that some of the younger WR do too.

4) jimbo needs to let kellen run more. he's a better passer when he's allowed to run and take some hits.
How fast are Wright and Demas? Seems like a great deal rides on those guys panning out in a big way.

If there's any depth at all at QB I'd give Mond as many carries as he can take this season. Totally agree that it helps him, also he's very effective in the quarterback run game. Try to make him into Jalen Hurts this season. What do people think would happen if Hurts played in this offense with this supporting cast? Something an awful lot like what it looks like with Mond.
 

wabash

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How fast are Wright and Demas? Seems like a great deal rides on those guys panning out in a big way.

If there's any depth at all at QB I'd give Mond as many carries as he can take this season. Totally agree that it helps him, also he's very effective in the quarterback run game. Try to make him into Jalen Hurts this season. What do people think would happen if Hurts played in this offense with this supporting cast? Something an awful lot like what it looks like with Mond.
Demas was a laser 4.43 at the opening
 

stringsays

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How fast are Wright and Demas? Seems like a great deal rides on those guys panning out in a big way.

If there's any depth at all at QB I'd give Mond as many carries as he can take this season. Totally agree that it helps him, also he's very effective in the quarterback run game. Try to make him into Jalen Hurts this season. What do people think would happen if Hurts played in this offense with this supporting cast? Something an awful lot like what it looks like with Mond.
hurts is a great comparison. i wish we'd use him like they did hurts.

WR recruiting has been the bane of my existence since the sumlin days. lots of smoke and mirrors, but i think we're slowly building adecent room. demas i think is a 4.4 guy. not sure about dylan wright. think he's more of a mauler than he is a speed guy. also excited to see moose muhammad on the field.

mond looked so much better in 2018 because he had sternberger to throw the ball to. a sure handed dog who wasnt gonna bitch if the ball wasnt exactly in the strike zone. losing cupp early this year hurt, and wydermyer took a little while to come on.

mond is who he is. the only way for him to get better is to improve those around him.
 

Fuddy

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Several things I've noticed about A&M on offense

- They always have a ton of talent at WR, but I think the west coast offensive route tree keeps them from being able to just go out and ball sometimes. It does scheme guys open at times, but also leads to some struggles for talented but raw WRs

- The offense would be much better if Mond were allowed to run more, but I think Jimbo tried to avoid doing that except for in big games to preserve him, because the backup situation was ugly. We've seen him hit home runs against Bama before

- Jimbo's offensive line struggled big time at FSU, and after watching him closely at A&M for a few years now, I'm wondering if much of that was prospect evaluations. He's finally taking some better ones in 2021, perhaps because of the new OL coach, but he's taken some immobile short fat guys for the interior and some tall guards to play tackle
 
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Ian Boyd

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Several things I've noticed about A&M on offense

- They always have a ton of talent at WR, but I think the west coast offensive route tree keeps them from being able to just go out and ball sometimes. It does scheme guys open at times, but also leads to some struggles talented but raw WRs

- The offense would be much better if Mond were allowed to run more, but I think Jimbo tried to avoid doing that except for in big games to preserve him, because the backup situation was ugly. We've seen him hit home runs against Bama before

- Jimbo's offensive line struggled big time at FSU, and after watching him closely at A&M for a few years now, I'm wondering if much of that was prospect evaluations. He's finally taking some better ones in 2021, perhaps because of the new OL coach, but he's taken some immobile short fat guys for the interior and some tall guards to play tackle
I think the passing scheme is fine, you just need to give it the time and attention it needs. That’s hard if a lot of your practice time and choices are geared toward serving the run game.

Totally agree on Mond. Henson is a good OL coach, Fisher hasn’t always seemed to nail that hire.
 
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Ian Boyd

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Also on Fisher OL, he always wants to be a wide zone team. That requires quickness on the line. You have to prioritize lateral quickness, it can’t be substituted.
 

Ian Boyd

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I just can't get on board with Kellen Mond at QB. He shows flashes but is so wildly inefficient at even the most basic QB stuff.
Holding the ball under center until the clock is near zero and then trying to execute run-centric, pro-style schemes from 12 personnel isn't the best way to optimize his skill set.
 

msflash

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good write up.

1) our OL underperformed last year. losing mccoy was hard, but im hopeful it was just a transition year to getting used to henson's schemes.

2) we lack speed on offense. we're slow as ****.

3) we lack dogs at WR. our upperclassmen WRs struggled with consistently being dogs. when rogers wanted to be a dog he was one--clemson and LSU in 2018 as examples, but he lacked a consistent motor. wydermyer and smith seem to have it in them, and im hopeful that some of the younger WR do too.

4) jimbo needs to let kellen run more. he's a better passer when he's allowed to run and take some hits.
What are your feelings about Jimbo and the contract in general?
 

stringsays

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What are your feelings about Jimbo and the contract in general?
It’s commensurate with a top tier coach

money has already been committed. no matter what he’ll get at least 5 years here.

it’s all play money in the grand scheme of things.
 

msflash

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It’s commensurate with a top tier coach

money has already been committed. no matter what he’ll get at least 5 years here.

it’s all play money in the grand scheme of things.
Thanks. I guess I worded my question poorly. In addition to the contract situation, how do you feel about him as a coach?
 

stringsays

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Thanks. I guess I worded my question poorly. In addition to the contract situation, how do you feel about him as a coach?
this year and next are a big time litmus test. 2018 was a good year. Last year was a disappointment. I fully expected us to win one out of our big games.

I’m hopeful we’re on the trajectory he was on at Florida stars. He was 19-8 in his first two years and then he took off. He’s 17-9 right now.

again this year and next are big time litmus tests.
 

Ian Boyd

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this year and next are a big time litmus test. 2018 was a good year. Last year was a disappointment. I fully expected us to win one out of our big games.

I’m hopeful we’re on the trajectory he was on at Florida stars. He was 19-8 in his first two years and then he took off. He’s 17-9 right now.

again this year and next are big time litmus tests.
I think the Haynes King era is key. Or whoever follows Mond. If that guy isn’t lights out then turn out the lights because the party is over.
 

ttaghorn

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Its not a question of what your record says, its who are you beating within that record, wins against FCS schools will not result in better recruiting chops. They are bottom feeders in the SEC West and will remain in that position this year. The up and comers in that Divn are MSt and Ole Miss. I look for the Pirate to do some great things at State, maybe not this year, but he will win more than Aggie over the next 2-3 year span, and it will not be against FCS schools.
King is being billed as Savior, he is not Johnny Football. They do not have the WR's to catch the ball from him, and he better enjoy getting hit because they don't have the mobile line to give him time to throw. What really sticks out is their lack of depth and QB, RB, and WR. How do they expect to score.
 
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BEW

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I can remember how panicked some on this board were about the aggies becoming dominant. I’ve lived way too long to expect the aggies to be anything but what they’ve always been. They always will shoot themselves in the foot at every available opportunity. This will never change. They may be a sleeping giant but are far better at sleeping than being a giant.
 

Fuddy

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I think the Haynes King era is key. Or whoever follows Mond. If that guy isn’t lights out then turn out the lights because the party is over.
Stowers is following Mond, and he's a similar player. Might actually be a better athlete.
 

Jdhmills

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Stowers is following Mond, and he's a similar player. Might actually be a better athlete.
They have all their eggs in the Haynes King basket, stowers isn’t winning that job as a true freshman.
 

Doc Longhorn

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Its not a question of what your record says, its who are you beating within that record, wins against FCS schools will not result in better recruiting chops. They are bottom feeders in the SEC West and will remain in that position this year. The up and comers in that Divn are MSt and Ole Miss. I look for the Pirate to do some great things at State, maybe not this year, but he will win more than Aggie over the next 2-3 year span, and it will not be against FCS schools.
King is being billed as Savior, he is not Johnny Football. They do not have the WR's to catch the ball from him, and he better enjoy getting hit because they don't have the mobile line to give him time to throw. What really sticks out is their lack of depth and QB, RB, and WR. How do they expect to score.
IMO, Manziel got his Heisman based purely on his peripheral vision and Evans.
 

Doc Longhorn

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I can remember how panicked some on this board were about the aggies becoming dominant. I’ve lived way too long to expect the aggies to be anything but what they’ve always been. They always will shoot themselves in the foot at every available opportunity. This will never change. They may be a sleeping giant but are far better at sleeping than being a giant.
Disagree The only thing consistent about life IS change. Even the aggy's.
 

coolhorn

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this year and next are a big time litmus test. 2018 was a good year. Last year was a disappointment. I fully expected us to win one out of our big games.

I’m hopeful we’re on the trajectory he was on at Florida stars. He was 19-8 in his first two years and then he took off. He’s 17-9 right now.

again this year and next are big time litmus tests.
string, out of curiosity, how long does Jimbo hang on to Elko before he goes off to be a head coach?
 

stringsays

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string, out of curiosity, how long does Jimbo hang on to Elko before he goes off to be a head coach?
I’d be surprised if elko were around in 2021 assuming we have a good 2020 (and assuming there’s football at all)
 
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stringsays

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Doesn’t Elko need a good showing from the Ags defense to jump into the head coaching conversation?
I think he could have had a couple of jobs last year and the year before. he’s got a good enough reputation. think it was temple that he was about to bounce for.

but yeah definitely needs to have good years.