With the game between Alabama and Texas A&M coming up, I spoke with Robert Behrens of Good Bull Hunting to get a feel for the Aggie fans’ pulse on the game. As always, give him a follow on Twitter @rcb05 and check out the other half of our Q&A on their site here.
- So, 3-2 with losses to App State and Miss State... I’m sure that’s not what Aggie fans were expecting two months ago. What’s the current general mood in the fan base about this team and the direction of the program?
Obviously nobody is pleased with how this season has gone so far, but the degree to which A&M fans are displeased certainly varies. Some see this as growing pains with a very young roster, while others are flat out ready to move on from Jimbo Fisher. As is usually the case, most folks fall somewhere in the middle, but to say that the long-term outlook for this program is being called into question is an understatement. There are so many things seemingly going wrong right now that it’s hard to see a path to significant improvement, at least in 2022.
- Are we going to see Max Johnson or Haynes King this weekend? And who would you rather see on the field?
My preference would be for Max Johnson to start, and while he hasn’t been ruled out, I don’t personally think he’ll be able to play. A thumb injury that knocks you out of a game generally isn’t something you come back from a week later. So it seems likely we’ll see Haynes King. While King shows flashes of playmaking ability, his indecisiveness and inability to protect the football mean he tends to make costly mistakes. Let’s hope that changes Saturday.
- Ainias Smith has absolutely cooked Alabama the last two years, so, as much as I hate the injury (and will be rooting for him to be drafted by my favorite NFL team), I’m a bit relieved he won’t be there. Obviously, Devon Achane is an explosive runner, but is there anyone else that brings the big-play threat to the passing game that Smith did?
Moose Muhmmad seemed to fill that void last week, catching six passes for119 yards and a touchdown. But more than likely, it’s a group effort to replace Smith’s production. Five-star freshmen Evan Stewart and Chris Marshall continue to see a lot of snaps, and it feels like only a matter of time until one of them breaks off a big play. I think you’ll also start to see freshman TE Donovan Green get more and more involved and he acclimates to the offense.
- Losing Demarvin Leal, Michael Clemons, and Tyree Johnson after the 2021 was a ridiculous amount of pass rushing production out the door. Has new defensive coordinator DJ Durkin found a way to generate a pass even remotely as dangerous as last year’s?
Texas A&M’s six sacks (tied for11th in the SEC) would tell you that he has not. Though it’s hard to say how much of that is because of lost talent and how much is because of scheme. Durkin has primarily run a set with only three down linemen, which has led to some success in pass coverage, but has seemingly also caused a lack of pressure on opposing QBs and also has the Aggies’ run defense among the worst in the country so far this year. This head-scratching scheme has irked plenty of A&M fans as the season progresses.
This seems to be a “bend but don’t break” defense, rarely giving up big plays. But the lack of a consistent run defense and also a lack of turnovers (which was supposed to be a focus this offseason) has limited it’s effectiveness.
-Speaking of Durkin, how has his defense (both scheme and production) compared to Mike Elko’s defense? The Aggies were a top 5 defense last year, giving up only 15.9 points per game. They’ve slid a little, but 17.8 ppg is still in the upper end of the country.
I feel like I ended up answering this one in the question above
-Are there any true freshmen from the vaunted 2022 recruiting class that are already starting to make an impact?
Tons, which has been equal parts encouraging and concerning. Evan Stewart leads the team in receptions with Chris Marshall fourth on that list (and they’re likely to stay there with Ainias Smith now gone). TE Donovan Green stepped in when starter Max Wright went down with an injury and appears to have cemented his role as a starter. And while Devon Achane is A&M’s feature back, freshman Leveon Moss did record his first career carry last week.
On defense is where we’ve seen even more of these freshmen see the field, partially due to their talent and partially due to injury. A&M’s defensive line has seen a bevy of injuries to veterans like Shemar Turner (who is now back), Tunmise Adileye and McKinnley Jackson (who have both missed the past several games). That means the defensive front has been loaded with stud freshmen like Shemar Stewart, Anthonly Lucas, Lebbeus Overton, Walter Nolen and Enai White. In the secondary, we’ve also seen CB Denver Harris play significant snaps due to an injury to starter Jaylon Jones, and S Bryce Anderson led the team in tackles against Miami when starter Demani Richardson was ejected for targeting.
While these guys are the future of the team, and many of them are simply filling in due to injuries, I think it also calls into question why A&M is in a spot where they have to rely on so many freshmen. This class was spectacular, but A&M recruited well in previous years too. The fact that there aren’t more developed upperclassmen ready to play is a potential red flag for this program.
-What’s your prediction for how this game goes, understanding that both squads are being coy with who their starting QBs will be? (don’t have to answer this if it goes against superstition).
I simply don’t see a path to A&M winning this game based on what I’ve seen so far. They’ve shown potential, and even improvement over the course of the season, but they’ve also shown a proclivity to shoot themselves in the foot in new and inventive ways each week (see the two redzone turnovers and two non-offensive touchdowns given up to Mississippi State last week). At some point, you have to accept that those mental errors aren’t an exception, they’re the rule.
It may not be the Bama blowout some are predicting, but I just don’t think the Aggies have a realistic shot of pulling off the upset, no matter who is playing QB.
That said, this is exactly how a felt about this game a year ago.
- If this winds up a loss to the Tide, will Jimbo Fisher officially be on the hot seat? Or is there still a decent bit of leash for him?
Jimbo’s contract all but ensures he won’t be in danger of getting fired any time soon, no matter how this season goes. Whether that contract proves to be an albatross or a beneficial impulse control mechanism remains to be seen. Either way, Jimbo will be A&M’s head coach in 2023, and likely even beyond that.
The more interesting conversation is what other staff changes may come about, especially offensively. Will Jimbo relinquish play-calling duties, or be willing to hire a new OC and let him implement his offensive system? If he doesn’t want to, what leverage does A&M have to force his hand (the answer is likely very little).
- What are your thoughts on Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC as a former Big 12 transplant yourselves, are you excited to welcome them, or just annoyed to have to deal with them again?
I think most A&M fans were perfectly happy to let them languish in a lesser conference (especially Texas). But if you accept that Texas and Oklahoma were going to joining one of the big boy conferences (which seems like it was an inevitability), I’m glad it’s the SEC that snagged them, and I’m also looking forward to playing them regularly again.
One of the biggest reasons A&M left the Big 12 was the warped power dynamics and undue influence the Longhorns had in the conference’s decision-making process. That won’t be an issue in the SEC. So you get the perks (beating them on the field) without the headaches. Even the staunchest opponents of them joining the conference will no doubt be stoked with the Aggies and Longhorns play each other in football again.