Clemson fans will probably find the Texas A&M offense pretty familiar. Unlike his former players, Jimbo Fisher was able to leave Florida State without spending a semester at Last Chance U. They run a “pro-style” offense but have kept pace with the NFL’s evolutions, primarily using 11 personnel and shotgun formations. They can also operate from under center or the pistol and feature 12, 21, 20 and 22 personnel packages. Despite not being a fan of them, Fisher has begun working RPO’s in, perhaps owing to the roster he inherited and hiring an offensive coordinator from Memphis.
Fisher’s FSU’s offenses were primarily based around zone running and his Texas A&M team appears to be the same way. Trayveon Williams has shown feature back potential before and there’s enough depth behind him to run the ball as much as the offensive line will allow. Establishing that the Aggies are physical is important to this coaching staff. Inside zone and outside zone make up the majority of running plays, supplemented with counters and draws. Power is in the playbook but limited mostly to short yardage situations.
To make up for this lack of complexity a variety of shifts, formations, surfaces and blocking tags from tight ends and fullbacks are used. The shifts help set up play action passes and show quarterbacks and coordinators what coverage a defense is in as well.
Outside zone also allows large offensive lineman to use their frames to screen off players without asking them to drive defenders off the ball. The Noles ran outside zone more than many college teams, using both the traditional and “pin-pull” variations. Doing this allowed them to take advantage of the speed and vision of their backs to compensate for issues along the offensive line. Given the Aggies offensive line includes three sophomores and no one under 6’4” or 300 lbs. I would expect this to continue. The bootleg pass off of zone looks is a staple as well, and Mond can throw pretty well on the run.
For all the talk of Fisher running an NFL offense (and not always kindly) he’s been able to adapt to having a mobile quarterback before. No one will accuse the Aggies of being a spread-option team, but they sprinkle in inside and outside zone reads situationally. Kellen Mond appears to have won the starting quarterback job in no small part because of what he can add to the running game. They run the speed option from under center, particularly the I-formation, and have featured a shotgun triple option look in the past.
Every returning receiver who caught a ball in 2017 is a sophomore, as are both options at quarterback. Despite having one of the youngest passing games I’ve ever seen, the Aggies were pretty good at throwing the ball in 2017, coming in 37th in S&P+.
The running game? Well. There’s room for improvement. Fortunately for the Aggies they ranked 40th in passing down S&P+ last year. A&M struggled with protecting the quarterback in third and long situations, ranking 96th in passing down sack rate. This has continued into 2018, with the offensive line struggling with blitz pickup on several occasions.
Jimbo will keep running backs and tight ends in to protect his young quarterbacks, but there’s a limit to how much skill positions can help. The running back did his job just fine in the gif above.
Fisher is very comfortable attacking the field vertically, both to generate big plays and give his running back and tight end room to get open underneath. He also is willing to call long passes, particularly play action, on first down. Fisher attempts to balance this by building in dump off passes so the offense can gain three to six yards and call it again.
Mond does have a tendency to miss deep on longer throws, but has shown some improvement this year.
This offense is going to emphasize the tight end, and believe me they want you to know about it. Jace Sternberger does seem to be, in fairness, a tight end worth being excited about. He led their spring game in receptions and yardage, and had five receptions for 56 yards and 2 touchdowns last week.
Sternberger will be used running up the seams and as a big threat in the red zone in addition to the underneath option routes that Nick O’Leary and others feasted off of at FSU. For a team that got seven total receptions from their tight ends last year this is a wholesale change.
Gameday will be there and Clemson is on the road in a difficult environment, upsets can and do happen. Fisher is more adaptable than he’s been given credit for and was able, for a time, to change the culture at Florida State after Bobby Bowden held on a bit too long. Still, it’s hard to bet on what looks to be a less talented and cohesive team. Young receivers often struggled at Florida State, and the sophomores A&M is running out are still in their second game in a new system. Offensive lines struggling with blitz pickup doesn’t tend to get fixed overnight. Clemson’s defensive line should be able to force A&M out of their element and Venables is as creative a DC as you’ll find in the country. The Aggies could be formidable eventually, but this Saturday it’s hard to see them winning without something wild happening.