Texas A&M Season Preview: On the Hot Seat

It makes or break year for Kevin Sumlin, at least that's how it appears from the outside looking in. A&M's Athletic Director made that clear last spring when he gave the opposite of a vote of confidence. Sumlin hasn't been bad, he averages eight wins a year, but he's yet to match the excitement of his first two seasons when Johnny Football was at the helm. 

Can the Aggies do better than eight wins a year in the tough SEC? Some alumni and fans apparently think so. We're a bit more hesitant. 

This season Sumlin's team breaks in a new quarterback, new receivers, reformats the offensive line, and, hopefully, stays on track for 2nd-year offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. If the Aggies can pin their hopes on anything, it's a talented running back duo of Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford. Then's there's dynamic playmaker Christian Kirk, who can make plays outside and in the return game. If A&M can facilitate those weapons, they should be okay offensively. 

Defense is another matter as John Chavis enters year three as A&M defensive coordinator. His unit is starting to look more and more like his LSU defenses with lankier, speedier athletes out wide and rangier linebackers. The front seven will be a huge focus early as A&M attempts to replace top draft pick Myles Garrett and his running mate Daeshon Hall at defensive end. The Aggies dipped from 51st in total defense in Chavis' first year to 90th last season. Can the Aggies get into that elite, top 30 level defensive neighborhood this season? We doubt it, but Chavis doesn't make upwards of $1.6 million per season to finish in the lower third of the FBS in defense. 

Key Numbers

Scoring Drive %
(SEC Rank)
Touchdown Drive %
(SEC Rank)
Scoring Drives % Allowed
(SEC Rank)
Touchdown % Allowed
(SEC Rank)
3rd Down %
(SEC Rank)
3rd Down Defense
SEC Rank)
Turnover Margin
(SEC Rank)
Total Adjusted Run Rate
(FBS Rank)
40% (4) 30% (4) 31% (6) 20% (5) 39% (11) 39% (7) 3 (7) 1.196 (21)
  • Scoring Drive %: Percentage of offensive drives that end in points.
  • Touchdown Drive %: Percentage of offensive drives that end in touchdowns. 
  • Scoring Drives % Allowed: Percentage of drives allowed that ended in points. 
  • Touchdown % Allowed: Percentage of opponent's drives that end in a touchdown. 
  • 3rd Down %: Offensives success on 3rd down. 
  • 3rd Down Defense %: Can a defense get off the field.
  • Turnover Margin: Total number of giveaways minus total number of takeaways. 
  • Total Adjusted Run Rate: Taking the national average of yards per carry and yards allowed per carry and comparing that to the relative team. Teams that end up with a plus Total Adjusted Run Rate average 8.4 wins per year. Teams with a negative Total Adjusted Run Rate average 5.5 wins per season. The top 20 teams in Total Adjusted Run Rate Averaged 9.7 wins per season over a five year period. 

Quarterbacks

Last season Texas A&M turned to a grad transfer, Trevor Knight, after their recent haul of four and five star recruits up and left town. Knight did some nice things for the Aggie offense but not enough to push them into elite status in the  SEC West. 

Currently, there is a three horse race to see who gets a shot at leading the Aggies in 2017. Senior Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel, and true freshman Kellen Mond

Hubenak has the most experience by a mile; he's made several starts over the past two seasons. Hubenak was one of the most prolific passers in high school football his senior year out of Georgetown. As a collegian he's reliable, but he hasn't been anything special.

He's yet to complete 60% or better in any start, last season's 58% completion percentage ranked him in the 44th percentile and was 5 point improvement over 2015. Hubenak, from a percentile rank, also took a lot of sacks in 2016. 

On the positive side, Hubenak threw downfield to the tune of 8.5 yards per attempt. That would have been good enough for second among SEC quarterbacks behind Austin Allen, had Hubenak qualified. For his career, he's had a 3-1 touchdown to interception ratio.

If A&M plays it safe, they'd start Hubenak and save the young quarterbacks for emergency situations. However, the hot seat in College Station may not afford Kevin Sumlin that luxury. 

 Nick Starkel

Nick Starkel

Starkel, a redshirt freshman out of Liberty Christian in Argyle, was given every chance to win the job in the spring. He threw for 174 yards in the spring game and showed off his best asset, arm strength. Starkel may have the most arm talent of any quarterback at A&M in recent memory. He's been linked to offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone since the latter was at UCLA. Once Mazzone jumped to A&M, Starkel de-committed from Oklahoma State and signed with the Aggies. He would provide a noticeable difference from Knight as he can push the ball downfield. 

Meanwhile, Mond is yet another quarterback to be anointed the future of A&M football. Sort of like being the Spinal Tap drummer. Mond played at San Antonio Reagan before transferring to IMG Academy in Florida. He's a true dual threat quarterback and the best runner in the A&M QB room. As a passer, he looked a bit unpolished in the spring, but he should grow into an excellent player.

If he sticks around.  

Running Backs

 Trayveon Williams

Trayveon Williams

Trayveon Williams has a chance to be really special. As an 18-year-old playing in the rigors of the SEC, Williams didn't blink. Historically the SEC is big boy football: between the tackles, physical, not for the faint of heart. In his first SEC game, Williams went for over 100 yards and averaged 12 yards a carry against Arkansas. He followed that up with 98 yards against South Carolina and over 200 yards against Tennessee. For the season Williams ran for 1,057 yards at 6.8 per carry. Williams caught the ball fairly well for a first year player at 19 receptions and catching 67% of his targets. 

Williams is direct at the line of scrimmage, minimal wasted movement, and when he gets to the second level, he can make players miss. Williams is a home run threat. A year in A&M's offseason program should make him even more dynamic. 

Williams' emergence pushed Oklahoma transfer Keith Ford down the pecking order to some extent. Ford was still productive, albeit in a reduced role. He rushed for 100 yards against LSU and over 600 yards on the year at over 5.3 yards per carry. Ford seeks contact more than any other Aggie rusher. He's a violent runner who rarely gets dropped by the first defender. 

Behind Ford and Williams, Kendall Bussey and Kwame Etwi give some semblance of depth. Etwi has averaged over six yards per carry in his two seasons. Bussey, a highly regarded redshirt sophomore from New Orleans, averaged eight yards a touch in 2016 in very limited mop up duty. 

Receivers

Enjoy this season with Christian Kirk because it will be his last at A&M. Kirk is destined for the NFL as a receiver and a return man. He's already one of the top three receivers in A&M history. (Give us Mike Evans, Kirk, and we're not even sure who else. Robert Ferguson?) 

Kirk caught 83 passes in 2016 including a 63% catch rate. In two years Kirk has returned five punts for touchdowns and averaged 21 yards a return. Kirk is a physical receiver and a game breaker with the ball in his hands. 

The question is who's left after the departures of Ricky Seals-Jones, Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil, Edward Pope and well, just about everyone else. Even Frank Iheanacho transferred to SFA. We could buy into the company line coming out of College Station that the newcomers will step right in and pick up where everyone else left off. 

All that means Kirk will get a lot of attention from defenders this season. 

Jhamon Ausbon and Hezekiah Jones are both very talented true freshman with all bell and whistle measurables. Ausbon in particular impressed in the spring. He played for those mercenaries at IMG. 

Tight Ends

A&M lists eight tight ends on its roster. None of which have registered a catch for the Aggies. Virginia Tech transfer Kalvin Cline caught a few passes in Blacksburg but none so far in College Station. At 6-5, 245 he has ideal size. He's the best receiver of the group; we use that term loosely.

Tanner Schorp is an A&M legacy, his old man Greg was a great Aggie tight end in the early 90's. He's a bit undersized for the uses A&M has at the position, i.e., mainly an H-back blocker. The senior from Reagan has played the most snaps of any Aggie tight end on the roster. 

Behind Cline and Schorp are a bunch of unknowns. Jayln Judkins was a relatively productive high school player for at Angleton. Grant Gustafson played at Fort Worth All-Saints. Greer Shetler saw some limited playing time last season for the Aggies. 

Offensive Line

The Aggies were young on the offensive line last year, this season they're older but replacing two NFL tackles won't be easy. Neither will all the new spots thanks to A&M's musical chairs. The Ags were a better than average run blocking team last season. Kevin Sumlin is hoping line coach Jim Turner can mix and match without losing effectiveness. Koda Martin had a chance at right tackle last year, but ended up playing in relief. This year he will hold down the left tackle position. He's a converted defensive lineman who transitioned to the offensive side two years ago. 

At right tackle either Oklahoma transfer, Christian Daimler or Keaton Sutherland will fill out the spot. Sutherland made starts at guard last season. Daimler played sparingly at OU the last three years. 

Inside, Freshman All-America center Erik McCoy moves to guard. He's the best lineman on campus and moving to guard will eliminate snapping issues he had in 2016. He and Colton Prater will switch positions. Prater missed the spring due to injury so that the grand experiment will play out in fall camp. If Prater isn't able to handle it, either McCoy moves back and no harm done or Austin Anderson will get a look. His twin brother Riley Anderson will back up McCoy at guard. 

At the other guard spot, Connor Lanfear returns. He also missed the spring due to injury, but he was solid in 2016. 

Defensive Line

You don't lose two NFL defensive ends, including the number 1 overall pick and come out unscathed. A&M's defensive line will look different no doubt, but can it be as effective, just in a different way. 

Senior Qualen Cunningham has waited in Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall's shadows, so has Jarrett Johnson, the senior from Katy.  The seniors get their shot in the limelight as THE pass rushing options for the Aggies. They aren't short on potential or ability, but they are short on time in the spotlight. 

 Daylon Mack

Daylon Mack

Inside the Aggies have a decent rotation that will only get better as their young players on the second unit grow up. Zaycoven Henderson, Daylon Mack, and Kingsley Keke will rotate inside.  Keke has been the most consistent of the three, but not the most explosive. That title belongs to Mack. He does things that cause a double take with his combination of brute strength and explosiveness. His arm length and height issues cause him some trouble, but he's a powder keg that can go at any time.

Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Justin Madubuike is a pup growing into his frame and developing a skill set. T.D. Moton, a four star from Louisiana redshirted in 2016, and he should get reps inside. He's a run stuffer. 

Cunningham and Johnson will be backed up by Landis Durham and Michael Clemons. Durham is a converted linebacker. He's explosive, but the question will be how he handles the run. Clemons is a JC transfer. At 6-6, 260, he's a rangy, long armed option who was a four-star recruit for the Aggies in February. He's explosive, but as with all JC players, the question will be whether his skills translate to the FBS. 

Linebackers

For a period in the 80's and 90's the Aggies could rightfully claim title to Linebacker U. That was a long time ago. John Chavis defense has yet to develop the type of physical, athletic linebackers that were commonplace at LSU. 

Junior Otaro Alaka is set to start in the middle. He's bulked up to the 240-pound range since arriving on campus. The added bulk hasn't helped Alaka stay healthy. His staying on the field will be a huge bonus for the Aggies. Sophomore Tyrel Dodson returns inside. If Alaka can't go, Dodson will. Dodson can play in the middle or outside. He may be too good to keep off the field. 

True freshman Anthony Hines came out of the spring as the starter on the weak side. Hines was the jewel of the 2017 recruiting class. Justin Dunning moves from safety to linebacker and hopes to stay healthy for the first time in his A&M career. If he can, Dunning is the type of athlete that Chavis covets at the position. Three ACL tears into his career it's hard to know what to count on from the sophomore. 

Four-star recruit Santino Marchiol out of IMG is the most highly regarded recruit after Hines in the 2017 defensive class. Junior Dwaine Thomas started the bowl game against Kansas State and played in twelve of A&M's thirteen contests in 2016. 

Secondary

 Armani Watts

Armani Watts

The Aggies finished 45th in QB rating allowed at 124.2. Texas A&M was about the same in most statistical categories in 2016, not elite, but pretty good. This unit should be better. 

The strength of A&M's secondary will be at safety with Armani Watts. Watts is a potential All-SEC performer or even better. He's put together a great A&M career since arriving from North Forney. Larry Pryor will move in at free safety after starting the final three games of 2016. 

The other strength is the nickel back Donovan Wilson. The Aggies list him as a nickel, but chances are he won't come off the field much. He's been a consistent playmaker in the backend of the Aggie defense for three seasons. 

A corner Priest Willis is a steady force and, if he can stay healthy, he's got lockdown potential. On the other side, the Aggies will look to one of two young players to step up after losing Nick Harvey to injury. Sophomore Charles Oliver was very active in the spring and could take the job. If not Roney Elam is the next man up. A&M's secondary has been remade by John Chavis to be taller and longer. Freshman safety Ikenna Okeke at 6-3 and 219 pounds is the classic Chavis mold.

Specialists

Texas A&M has become known for punters. Not exactly what you'd like to be known for, but it's something. Shane Tripuka is the next in the lineage. Tripuka, a senior averaged 42.9 yards per punt and put 27 inside the 20-yard line. He hit a career long 59-yard punt three times last year. 

The Aggies Daniel LaCamera made 17 of 24 kicks last season including a long of 49. Became the fifth Aggie kicker to surpass 100 points in a season. 

In the return game, the Aggies have a dangerous weapon in Christian Kirk. Kirk averaged over 23 yards a return and three punts for touchdowns. He averaged 28 yards on kickoff returns. Don't expect the Aggies to make the junior the focus of the return game, but he's available if necessary. 

2017 Schedule

Best Case:

Aggies find a quarterback, a defensive line, and receivers. Chavis' defense take a big step, especially with the athletes coming back in the secondary. Aggies can get to eight wins. 

Worst Case:

Aggies can't replace the best defensive end duo in the country and lack the playmaking ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. The quarterbacks can't find a rhythm or can't find reliable targets. A brutal SEC schedule takes its toll. Aggies could hit a floor or 4-5 wins. 

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at UCLA (Pick'em)

The Bruins and Aggies both need this one in the worst way. 

Ags better prep for Josh Rosen, he's special. 

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Nichols State (Win)

FCS body bag game. 

Aggies can work in a lot young players prepping for the SEC schedule. 

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Louisiana Lafayette (Win)

Dangerous Sun Belt opponent comes to town. 

Aggies can't look ahead to Arkansas.

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Arkansas (AT&T Stadium Dallas) (Loss)

The last three years this one's gone to the wire. 

Bilema finally gets his revenge.

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South Carolina (Win)

Aggies welcome the Gamecocks to Kyle Field. 

SC is improving but not enough to win here. 

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Alabama (Loss)

The Crimson Tide Machine once again rolls into College Station.

Stadium will be amped, can the Ags match that energy. 

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At Florida (Loss)

Aggies travel to the swamp, as hostile as it gets in the SEC. 

SEC East favorites get the win.

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Mississippi State (Pick'em)

Aggies need this one. 

Can Chavis' defense stand up to the Bulldog rushing attack. 

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Auburn (Loss)

Aggies second game of three in a row at home. 

Ags have struggled with Auburn in College Station. 

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New Mexico (Win)

Bob Davie returns to College Station. 

No pushover here, the Lobos bring a unique offense that can grind yardage. 

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at Ole Miss (Win)

Aggies travel to Oxford at the right time, Ole Miss could be imploding. 

Rebels will throw the kitchen sink this year, they've got nothing to lose. 

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at LSU (Loss)

LSU hasn't beaten the Tigers since joining the league. 

Streak doesn't end this year. 

Fearless Prediction 6-6