As everyone watching college football should have expected, the Furman Paladins did little to answer questions about the battle between Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence. What it did do, however, was give the latter, and other freshman, a chance to get their feet under them and knock off some rust in preparation for the Tigers’ first big test of the season in College Station against the Texas A&M Aggies.
The Aggies came into 2018 with a 10-year, $75 million plan in the form of Jimbo Fisher, with whom Clemson is all too familiar after over a decade of slugfests. After six years of underachieving, porous defenses, and five-star quarterback transfers under the Kevin Sumlin regime, the Aggies hope Fisher can lead them to glory in the loaded SEC West Division.
Known for his pro-style offenses, Fisher surprisingly hired Darnell Dickey as his offensive coordinator from the University of Memphis, who is well-known for his up-tempo spread offenses. While Fisher will still call plays, Dickey is notorious throughout his career for working in conjunction with other offensive-minded head coaches in the past and adjusting to their concepts and personnel (i.e., Justin Fuente, Mike Norvell). While Fisher’s base offense remains the same, Dickey’s ability to inject more spread concepts such — RPOs, tempo, and no huddle — means Texas A&M is banking on this relationship to keep Fisher’s offenses from growing stale and predictable, as they did late in his Florida State tenure.
Personnel-wise, until Fisher’s able to bring in more of his own players and establish his identity, he’s simply had to deal with the hand that Sumlin’s late tenure has dealt him. At quarterback, the Aggies are stuck between either Kellen Mond or Nick Starkel. Mond, who showed plenty early last season but regressed, earned the starting nod in the Aggies’ 59-7 victory over FCS Northwestern State, and went 17-25 for 184 yards and two touchdowns. By all indications, Mond looks more comfortable compared to the end of last year when he was benched for Starkel. While Fisher has stated that the quarterback competition remains open, Mond appears to have a good grasp on the position with his performance last Thursday.
On offense, the Aggies’ biggest threat is likely to come from running back Trayveon Williams who carried the ball 20 times for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Williams, whose rushing yards accounted for 31.6% of the Aggies’ total offensive production in their win over Northwestern State looked explosive in all facets, and the Aggies’ success on offense will most certainly be dictated by the pace he sets.
Of course, a large part of his success is also due to Texas A&M’s veteran offensive line, as the team returned nine of their 10 offensive linemen from last season. Of particular note is center Erik McCoy, who is the only offensive linemen to have started all 13 games for the Aggies last season. However, Clemson’s defensive line isn’t Northwestern State, and Williams might find it a little hard to run in-between the tackles against the Tigers’ front.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of the Aggies is their young yet talented receiving corps. Having lost athletic speedster Christian Kirk to the NFL (thank God), there is no longer a clear cut No.1 option for Mond. Against Northwestern State, their leading receiver was Jhamon Ausbon, who led the group with 81 receiving yards. While he finished last season with a modest 571 receiving yards, he doesn’t exactly have a nose for the end zone, only finding it three times last season and failing to find it against the Demons on Thursday.
To make up for their play at receiver, the key to their passing game will be the use of tight end, particularly Jace Sternberger, who was the recipient of two of the three receiving touchdowns the Aggies had. Given some of Clemson’s inconsistencies in the past covering tight ends, a major gameplan for Brent Venables will be in taking away Fisher’s best option in the passing game. It will be the first big test for redshirt sophomore Isaiah Simmons, who will likely be called upon to cover Sternberger. Expect the Aggies to likely throw in more quick passes, screens, and misdirection to offset Clemson’s aggressive pass rush.
Defense was arguably the Aggies’ achilles heel during the entirety of the Sumlin era, and an area that Clemson could very likely exploit to its fullest, especially with its slew of athletic receivers on the outside. The Aggies have lacked depth in the secondary for several seasons while suffering from constant rotations and instability. This is a game in which Clemson has an opportunity to demonstrate an improved prowess in its deep passing game. If Bryant and/or Lawrence are able to hit on a few deep passes early, it could open up running lanes for Travis Etienne to do his thing.
New defensive coordinator Mike Elko does have a few pieces to work with; the Aggies’ defensive front brings back some experienced players from last season. Their defensive line does contain some pass-rushing prowess, with defensive end Landis Durham leading the way with 10.5 sacks from last season. At linebacker, Tyrel Dodson and Otara Alaka combined for 23 tackles for loss and 11 sacks last season. For a coordinator who raised Notre Dame’s defensive ranking from 61st to 31st in a year, Fisher has a lot of faith in Elko’s ability to turn the Aggies’ defense into something worthwhile.
The defensive front will have the task of trying to bottle up a Clemson rushing attack which will finally feature Etienne as the lead back, with Adam Choice and Tavien Feaster serving as great complementary backs. And that’s without mentioning Bryant’s rushing ability in the zone-read. Of course, there’s also the additional factor of Trevor Lawrence, and how much he plays could be a factor in how the Aggies plan to attack Clemson’s offense.
The hope for Texas A&M against a team like Clemson that pretty much has an advantage across the board is to bank on a primetime night game at home against the No.2 team being enough to rattle an offense breaking in some talented yet younger fresh blood starting at receiver for the first time. Forcing early turnovers and pressuring both of the Tigers’ quarterbacks from establishing a rhythm early could allow them to stick around longer and take advantage through their special teams The Aggies still have a solid returning kicker in Daniel LaCamera, who went 18-21 last season. Fisher had a knack for developing great special teams play during his time at Florida State, so Clemson can’t get caught sleeping here. Should the Aggies be unable to find the endzone early, their kicking game can keep them afloat as they attempt to find holes in Venables’ defense.
The key for the Aggies will be to establish their offense around Williams. This could mean emphasizing the perimeter and making the Tigers run sideline to sideline and using plays like wheel routes to take advantage of aggressive safety play (looking at you Tanner Muse). All of these methods were employed in some way by teams like Pittsburgh in 2016 and Syracuse in 2017 in their respective upset victories. Sternberger could also become a factor in Aggies’ ability to attack the middle of the field in the passing game. If the Aggies defense can get stops early and hold Clemson to field goal attempts, their chance at a major Week 2 upset could increase, especially when backed by their home crowd.