Clemson players and fans are going to be familiar with the offense that Jimbo Fisher rolls out in Death Valley this Saturday. We all remember those FSU offenses, and that’s before we get to what happened last year. Quite a few of the players on defense are taking this game personally after a disappointing effort in 2018. Clemson entered the fourth quarter of that game with a two-touchdown lead before Kellen Mond went off for 206 yards and two TD’s in that quarter alone. The Tigers escaped Kyle Field by the skin of their teeth in what was Mond’s best game so far. Mond is legit, Venables went as far as to call him the best player on Clemson’s schedule.
You can tell two very different stories about Texas A&M’s offensive personnel going into this season. On the one hand, the Aggies return seven starters from that side of the ball. Texas A&M is one of the programs that can recruit at Clemson’s level, meaning the replacements should be expected to be talented.
Those returning starters include the QB and his top four wide outs. It’s reasonable to expect Mond to take a step forward with a years worth of experience under his belt. The A&M passing game was extremely young last year, with the quarterback and every wide receiver of note being sophomores. That experience is going to pay off this year. In Kendrick Rodgers, Quartney Davis, Jhamon Ausbon and Camron Buckley A&M is deep with experienced 6’2+” wide receivers.
On the other hand the skill players the offense was built around depart. The Aggies lost record-setting RB Trayveon Williams and TE Jace Sternberger (who led the team in receiving targets, catches, yards and touchdowns) to the NFL. No one is too worried about running back with Isaiah Spiller and Jashuan Corbin looking promising. Things are worse than just losing Sternberger at tight end. 2018’s backup tight end/blocking specialist Trevor Wood departed as well. Five-star tight end Baylor Cupp was hurt before the season began and is out for the foreseeable future.
It’s fair to have questions about the offensive line too. Center Erik McCoy was A&M’s best offensive lineman and the leader of the unit, now he’s a Saint. Texas A&M’s recruiting at offensive line lags behind the rest of their offense, and that’s with a five-star freshman starting at guard. Texas State was able to generate pressure and stuff the run in short yardage last week. Maybe that’ll get cleaned up and maybe it won’t, Jimbo’s FSU teams struggled mightily with offensive line play on the back end of his tenure. Last years’ A&M offensive line allowed plenty of TFL’s and sacks. The Aggies didn’t do themselves any favors with perimeter blocking last week either.
Jimbo has always been a big fan of outside zone, and this years running game looks to feature it heavily as well. Texas A&M features both traditional outside zone and the “pin-pull” variety that looks more like a sweep. When it’s working well the scheme allows A&M’s massive offensive linemen to seal off defenders and use their momentum against them. When it isn’t working well it’s vulnerable to penetration.
The same goes for A&M’s version of inside zone, which emphasizes second level blocking at the expense of double teams along the line of scrimmage. When it works, it’s explosive. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t get far. The zone runs are complemented by counter schemes, often pulling the tight end. The Aggies run two back power primarily as a short yardage play, although they can run one back power from 11 personnel. Texas A&M is also fond of getting into the I formation and running inside zone with a lead blocker in short yardage. Sprinkle in QB option reads, the occasional direct snap run, RPO’s and draws and that’s really the extent of the A&M base running game.
Despite the much-publicized talk about how complex Fisher’s offenses are, the “complexity” doesn’t come from running a lot of plays. Other coaches have noted this, saying that Jimbo’s FSU team was “very simple” and “basically runs three plays”. The complexity comes from a handful of sources, the first is that a lot of the passing plays ask receivers and quarterbacks to read coverages before and after the snap. Freshman pass catchers have often struggled as a result.
The second reason is that the system is very complex for the quarterback. The quarterback in this offense has to make protection calls, audible at the line of scrimmage and read coverages before and after the snap. Fisher, a former quarterback, prefers to teach his quarterbacks more than teach the other ten players another play. Fisher wants to master a small number of versatile concepts and expects his quarterback to get him into the right play. That’s why, despite being able to run a no huddle, Texas A&M doesn’t tend to use fast pace as a weapon outside of the two minute drill and red zone. The Aggies usually “hurry up” to the line “and wait” while Mond makes his reads, or just to control the clock.
The third reason this system is regarded as complex is how many formations Fisher will run those base plays from. The Aggies run plays from shotgun, pistol and under center. They can run plays from 22, 21, 12, 11, 10 personnel and empty sets. If “pro-style” means anything these days, with NFL teams hiring air raid coaches and running the zone read, it’s the ability to be this multiple.
With that said, A&M isn’t asking Texas quarterbacks that have been taking shotgun snaps since Pop Warner to spend forty snaps a game under center. The Aggies base out of 11 personnel much like everyone else does.
Fisher is as good as they come at using formations to stress the defense, mixing in a heavy dose of trips, bunch, “nub”, unbalanced formations and formation into the boundary to create leverage. Take this play, which uses both formation into the boundary and a receiver bunch to create conflict for the defense. On one side of the field you have three bunched receivers, on the other you have a lone receiver with all the space in the world and a quarterback who can make every throw.
A lot of this stress is created by having a tight end who can credibly block and run option routes in the seam. That is to say, for this system to really work it needs an NFL tight end. The only way to really handle a tight end like that is some sort of bracket coverage. This forces teams to leave other receivers in one on one coverage, or reduces their ability to keep numbers in the box. In Jimbo’s last six years at FSU he had the third most snaps featuring a tight end in the country. You may point out that this makes it a very hard system for a small school to run. I would point out that hasn’t really been Jimbo’s problem this millennium.
Last years third string TE Glenn Beal is one of the co-starters at the position. Beal has impressed as a blocker but is still more potential than production as a receiver. Joining him at co-starter is true freshman Jalen Wydermyer, a four-star. Between needing to master the passing game and being strong enough to take on defenders in the run game, tight end is generally regarded as a hard position for true freshmen. The Aggies will need one of the two, and preferably both, to step up quickly.
Fisher likes to call aggressive shots downfield on running downs, both off play-action and drop back passes. Part of what keeps this system efficient is his emphasis on checking the ball down to running backs if the defense takes away the deep routes. Jimbo’s teams have tended to be quite good at using screens to slow down opposing pass rushes.
Venables asks defensive backs to account for gaps in the run game, which will always leave the Tigers a bit vulnerable to run/pass conflicts. On the flip side, much of the Aggie passing game is dependent on play-action passes or RPO’s. Balanced schemes often struggle when one of the core aspects is taken away. If Texas A&M can’t run the ball (either due to offensive line play or Clemson taking a lead) a lot of this offense loses its punch.
Fisher has a few other tricks up his sleeve for handling Clemson’s pass rush. Last year A&M moved the pocket and used two TE formations to keep extra blockers in for Mond. Mond is also more than capable of turning nothing into something with his legs.
A lot of A&M’s passing success in the second half of last years game occurred because they were able to attack linebackers in pass coverage or get the safeties into run/pass conflicts. With Clemson’s more experienced safeties and better pass defenders at linebacker that’s not going to be a great option this year. Clemson’s experience and depth in the secondary matches A&M’s strength at receiver well, although I expect Derion Kendrick to be challenged early. I’m not sure how much the returning production the Aggies have at receiver offsets the apparent loss at tight end, and we won’t have a way of finding out until Saturday.
It’ll be interesting to see how Clemson’s smaller defensive line this year holds up against a big offensive front, and less experienced ends do setting the edge, but I’ll believe someone ran the ball on the Tigers when I see it. It’s hard to see A&M’s passing game operating at full efficiency without a reliable tight end. This still might be as dangerous an offense as Clemson will see this year, and they’re fully capable of pulling off the upset.