Texas A&M: Beyond the Box Score Offensive Preview

On Friday, we started our look at Texas A&M with a defense that could make the difference between "fun team that finds itself in a lot of shootouts" and "really good team."  Today, we look at an offensive unit that was a bit inconsistent but was well-rounded and explosive.

56, 19, 31, 14, 52, 35, 34, 10, 38.  Those are the points scored by Texas A&M over a nine-game span last season.  When it worked, it really worked.  But when it worked was a bit of a mystery.  Average-at-best Arkansas and Kansas State defenses held A&M to under 20 points, but the Aggies scored 31 on a solid Oklahoma State defense and 39 on a very good Texas defense.  They were too young to be truly great, but on average things worked out pretty well for A&M on the offensive side of the ball.  How much improvement can we expect this fall?

Offense

Overall Ranks

F/+: 18th

S&P+: 15th
Success Rate+: 17th
PPP+: 9th

Standard Downs S&P+: 30th
Passing Downs S&P+: 5th

Redzone S&P+: 21st

Q1 S&P+: 16th
Q2 S&P+: 25th
Q3 S&P+: 30th
Q4 S&P+: 9th

1st Down S&P+: 45th
2nd Down S&P+: 31st
3rd Down S&P+: 1st

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 6th
Rushing SR+: 10th
Rushing PPP+: 5th

Standard Downs: 18th
Passing Downs: 3rd

Redzone: 19th

Adj. Line Yards: 12th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 24th
Passing SR+: 32nd
Passing PPP+: 24th

Standard Downs: 57th
Passing Downs: 19th

Redzone: 33rd

Adj. Sack Rate: 29th
SD Sack Rate: 33rd
PD Sack Rate: 66th


Thanks to Jerrod Johnson's legs and a wealth of bail-out options, A&M almost had the best Passing Downs offense in the country last season and did have the best third-down offense.  Being that all of the same options return this season, A&M might be able to expect the same success in those situations.  But here's a suggestion if you want to improve your overall offensive consistency: stay out of so many passing downs!  While A&M converted on a higher-than-expected number of passing situations, they also gave up a lot of drive-ending sacks.  Because of this (and a sieve for a defense), the Aggies ranked just 98th in Field Position Advantage, a neat stat created by my Football Outsiders colleague Brian Fremeau.  This means they were constantly having to put together longer drives than their opponents.  They were dangerous at all times (particularly in the first and fourth quarters), but they made just enough mistakes that they were often unable to make up for their defensive struggles.

A&M's Standard Downs offense was okay -- 30th is nothing to scoff at -- but it held them back.  The passing game was especially shaky.  It's like the passing game couldn't thrive until Johnson was scrambling and attempting to create something downfield.  In normal first-and-10, second-and-4 situations, the passing offense left something to be desired.  While Johnson is a wonderful creator, he needs to become more steady in the passing game if he wants to avoid having to create too much.

Rankings History

Category 2005
Rk
2006
Rk
2007
Rk
2008
Rk
2009
Rk
F/+ N/A* 27 54 66 18
S&P+ 12 30 44 85 15
Success Rate+ 21 23 36 95 17
PPP+ 8 32 49 74 9
Rushing S&P+ 5 8 23 95 6
Passing S&P+ 47 61 82 70 24
Standard Downs S&P+ 12 37 26 87 30
Passing Downs S&P+ 3 19 76 26 5
Adj. Line Yards 5 31 16 92 12
Adj. Sack Rate 34 63 26 106 29
* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season.

One thing is certain: the Aggies' running game is back.  With two young backs that had just a year of experience between them), A&M reassumed a spot in the Rushing S&P+ Top Ten after falling apart in 2007-08.  This is a different style of running game that existed for the Aggies when big Jorvorskie Lane was in the backfield, but it is no less dangerous.

Mike Sherman is an offense-minded coach, and after breaking things down and starting from scratch in 2008, there's no question that his O made gigantic strides in 2009.  They improved in every category above, and by rarely less than 50 spots.  Once Sherman was able to figure out what he had and get his key players some experience, he took the reins off, and the Aggies thrived.  There is no reason to think 2010 will be any different, unless you believe in regression to the mean.  Often, when a team or unit makes ridiculous improvement in a given year, it is followed by a bit of regression.  In college football, a boatload of talent rarely appears out of nowhere, and a team that improves significantly was probably either overachieving or a bit lucky.  Maybe A&M was really just a Top 30-40 offense instead of Top 20, and maybe they will find out they were playing over their heads last season.  But recruiting rankings are on the Aggies' sides -- 4-star (and in the case of Christine Michael, 5-star) talent is found up and down the depth chart, so if anybody is capable of sustaining a surge like this, it is probably Texas A&M.

Quarterback

Jerrod Johnson put up the stats that people think Jake Locker put up last season.

2009 Unit Ranking: 13th (2nd in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Jerrod Johnson (6'5, 243, Sr., 59.6% completion rate, 3,579 passing yds, 30 TD; 506 rushing yds, 8 TD)
Ryan Tannehill (6'4, 216, Jr., 50.0% completion rate, 60 passing yards, a second life as a receiver)
Patrick O'Quinn (6'2, 190, RSFr.)

I'm not going to proclaim who will be better in 2010 -- Jerrod Johnson or Blaine Gabbert -- but what I will say is, if Gabbert is the better quarterback, Missouri is going to be really good this year.  Johnson is really fun to watch.  As mentioned above, he needs to do himself a few more favors when it comes to passing on standard downs, but there might not be a more exciting quarterback once Johnson has escaped the pocket.  While he might not be the type of 2000-1000 running threat that Brad Smith was at Missouri (who is?), I think he's more than happy to settle with the just-as-rare 3500-500 split.  Unless Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase does his own solid Brad Smith impersonation in The Dome to start the season, Johnson will be Mizzou's first true fight-or-flight test.  MU linebackers will need to remain extremely disciplined to contain Johnson and the Aggies.

And to be sure, Johnson can be contained.  He was held below 40 yards rushing six times last season, and he was sacked repeatedly by an inspired Kansas State defense.  And when his legs are hindered, his arm usually is too -- in those aforementioned six games, Johnson only completed 52.9% of his passes (it falls to 49.1% if you take out his 23-for-28 performance against Iowa State, in which he wasn't necessarily "held" to under 40 yards rushing, but just didn't rush very much).  In the other seven games, he completed 65.9% of his passes.  When it works for Johnson, it all works; and if you stop Johnson's legs, you stop the Aggies' offense.

Running Backs

Image via Zimbio

2009 Unit Ranking: 8th (1st in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Christine Michael (5'11, 206, So., 844 rushing yds, 5.1 per carry, 10 TD; 66 receiving yds, 4.4 per catch)
Cyrus Gray (5'10, 196, Jr., 757 rushing yds, 4.8 per carry, 5 TD; 226 receiving yds, 8.1 per catch, 2 TD)
Kalvin Guyton (5'10, 201, RSFr.)

Now, this is not to say that A&M's offense is all about Johnson.  What Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray -- the RB duo with the coolest pair of names in college football -- managed to do last year was astounding considering their youth.  The true freshman Michael and grizzled sophomore Gray combined for five yards per carry, 1,601 yards and 15 touchdowns.  Granted, five yards per carry is only good and not great, but they showed both durability and occasional explosiveness ... and again, they had one combined year of experience between them.  If it really is true that you make your biggest leaps in your first two years on campus, Michael and Gray could easily jump to 5.5 yards per carry or so in 2010.  Michael appears to be the No. 1 back heading into the fall, but look out for Gray on third downs.  His 226 receiving yards were very good for a running back.

An offense like this can be very frustrating -- you think you are doing well in containing the dangerous quarterback, and you are handling A&M's huge receivers, but they are still moving the chains because of dump-offs ... and then you get impatient and get burned deep.

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

Image via Houston Chronicle

2009 Unit Ranking: 24th (3rd in the Big 12)

Projected WR Depth Chart
Uzoma Nwachukwu (6'0, 189, So., 708 receiving yds, 17.7 per catch, 6 TD; 87 rushing yds, 10.9 per carry, 1 TD)
Ryan Tannehill (6'4, 216, Jr., 609 receiving yds, 13.2 per catch, 4 TD)
Jeff Fuller (6'4, 215, Jr., 568 receiving yds, 13.9 per catch, 7 TD)
Brandal Jackson (6'1, 182, So., 272 receiving yds, 17.0 per catch, 1 TD)
Ryan Swope (6'0, 202, So., 172 receiving yds, 9.1 per catch, 1 TD)
Kenric McNeal (6'1, 170, So., 97 receiving yds, 16.2 per catch, 1 TD)
Terrence McCoy (6'4, 211, Sr., 77 receiving yds, 11.0 per catch)
Keon Furtch (6'2, 200, So.)
Taylor Randle (6'0, 183, Jr.)

Projected TE Depth Chart
Kenny Brown (6'3, 216, Sr., 21 receiving yds, 1 TD)
Hutson Prioleau (6'4, 253, RSFr.)
Tommy Dorman (6'2, 231, So.)

It was all-or-nothing for the Aggie passing game in 2009.  Six of their top seven returning receivers averaged at least 11 yards per catch, while each of their top four averaged over 13 yards.  This is not a conservative passing game -- if they want conservative, they'll dump the ball to Gray.  The threesome of Nwachukwu, Tannehill and Fuller go deep.  A lot.  And for Missouri fans still having nightmares about defensive backs getting burned deep by Baylor and Texas last season (and a lot more teams in 2008), thinking about this unit will not improve your anxiety level.

In theory, this is the kind of receiving corps Mizzou's defense, as structured, should be able to handle.  The principles for the Missouri passing defense are to allow big cushions, avoid getting burned deep, and allow underneath completions while making repeated big hits.  These big Aggies aren't the waterbug speedsters that Baylor torched Mizzou with last year, and the secondary is built to handle big, physical receivers ... but only if they execute as planned.  We have learned in the last couple of seasons that breakdowns are more than possible for the Mizzou secondary, and if they happen, Mizzou is likely toast.  Mizzou must must must keep all plays in front of them in College Station, allowing big cushions if they have to and making the more-explosive-than-consistent Aggies drive the length of the field.  If they can avoid getting burned over the top, they can eventually hope to end drives with a big sack or stop.  But if A&M is completing long passes, Missouri will have to score 35 or more to win.

Offensive Line

Nobody cares about OL pictures, so instead you get Reveille

2009 Unit Ranking: 38th (6th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
G Patrick Lewis (6'2, 312, So.)
G Evan Eike (6'4, 305, Jr.)
C Matt Allen (6'2, 294, Sr.)
T Brian Thomas (6'3, 303, So.)
T Luke Joeckel (6'6, 280, Fr.)
G Joe Villavisencio (6'4, 300, Jr.)
G Jeffrey Hyde (6'5, 307, So.)
T Rhontae Scales (6'6, 318, RSFr.)
C Danny Baker (6'5, 300, Jr.)
T Jake Matthews (6'5, 285, Fr.)

If there is a weakness on the Aggie offense, it comes up front.  Only two starters return (three with solid starting experience), and there is the very distinct possibility that at least one true freshman will find his way into heavy rotation.  Luke Joeckel ended the spring as a starter, and while his recruiting rankings were good and he might eventually be a great tackle, you still have to like your chances against a true freshman halfway through his first season.  If Mizzou's defensive line can collapse the pocket as much as possible, it might allow Johnson escape and roam free at times ... but it might also end a few drives.  You're going to allow some good plays against the Aggies -- the key is to make explosive plays yourself.

Summary

Let's be honest: there might not be a more fun game on the schedule than Missouri-A&M.  Both teams feature offenses that were young, explosive and inconsistent last season, and defenses that allowed a few too many big plays.  Both fanbases expect improvement from their defenses, and we might both be right.  But there's a chance that this game becomes a good, old-fashioned shootout, and while those games are a lot more fun when you win them, the entertainment value could be high.  Mizzou has played pretty well in their last three trips to College Station -- they lost by three in 1998 (Randy F***ing Potter), won in OT in 2002, and lost via fumble-at-the-goalline in 2006.  If they do so again in 2010, they could very well come away with a win.  But there are no guarantees.  The more disciplined defense will do the deed.

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