Players, coaches on Aggies scheme, personnel

We spoke with a number of Arizona State players and coaches to get their take on Texas A&M's players and scheme for a better sense of what they expect to face Saturday in Houston.

When Arizona State and Texas A&M square off on Saturday evening in Houston, the highly-anticipated Pac-12 vs. SEC showdown will feature two programs with rising profiles on the national scale. Success breeds interest and appeal, and head coaches Todd Graham and Kevin Sumlin have certainly been able to stir up momentum during their tenures at their respective schools.

One of the defining characteristics of both programs is a steadfast commitment to their schematic philosophies. ASU is known for it’s high-risk, high-reward attacking style of defense, while Texas A&M has been lauded for its wide-open spread offense that capitalizes on the athleticism of skill position players in space.

So as the two teams prepare to do battle to open the 2015 season, neither team will likely be surprised by the scheme, tempo, and style of play its opponent will roll out.

In fact, Saturday’s result could hinge more on the players’ ability to execute than ever before, as both coaching staffs have had an entire offseason of film study to prepare for what’s coming next in each situation that might arise.

“I don’t think you’re going to look at A&M in the first game and say they look a lot different,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said of the Aggies' offense, which has a new offensive line coach from Utah,, Dave Christensen. “I think what you’re going to see is some very small changes that fit within the system. They’ve been running that system and had a lot of success running their system for a very long time, so I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of wholesale changes.”

New Coaches, New Wrinkles

Despite recruiting some of the best overall athletes in the country under Sumlin, Texas A&M has struggled to have its defense keep pace with its offense. A season ago, the Aggies ranked No. 75 in the country in scoring defense at 28.1 points per game, and ranked No. 80 nationally in passing yards allowed at 234.8 yards per game.

In lieu of waiting for the Aggies’ young defensive personnel to mature and evolve on its own, Sumlin hired former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis (pictured above) to take over the same responsibilities in College Station. Though Chavis will have to double as a handyman to fix many of the porous holes that existed in the Aggies’ defense a season ago, many outsiders perceive that Chavis has the ability to turn Texas A&M’s defense into an advantage in his first year on the job.

ASU’s offensive players said they have watched a number of LSU games from a season ago to get a handle on what to expect in terms of play calls, and redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici said the Sun Devil offense is anticipating a heavy dose of man coverage. Chavis' defenses are much more aggressive -- similar to ASU's under Todd Graham -- than the conservative two-gap, zone style approach of the Aggies last year; a bend-but-don't break approach that ended up going bust.

“I mean, they're very, you know, he's obviously a very confident defensive coordinator,” Bercovici said. “They do a lot of the same things. We see tendencies in what they see. They're a big man team, it’s what they're excited about. It comes down to match-ups. It comes down to winning one-on-ones. That could be at left tackle, it could be the right slot receiver, it could be the running back in space.”

The new defensive wrinkles Chavis introduces to Texas A&M will likely be the most significant schematic changes the Aggies showcase this year, but the Sun Devils feel as though they’re in a good position to anticipate how Chavis’ scheme will mix with Texas A&M’s personnel.

After having the offseason to study both LSU and Texas A&M game film, senior center Nick Kelly said ASU has maximized time in the meeting room by becoming precise and specific about what to look for along the defensive line.

“We’ve been watching the schemes of LSU, but then watching the personnel of Texas A&M to see what the individual defensive linemen are doing, what’s their go-to move and stuff like that,” Kelly said.

Chavis’ acquisition was the most high-profile coaching change for Texas A&M this offseason, but ASU is paying just as much attention to a more subtle move. Christensen will make his Texas A&M debut on Saturday, as the 31-year coaching veteran has been tabbed to coordinate the Aggie run game.

Christensen’s run blocking schemes paid dividends for the Utes last year en route to a 9-4 record, and his lone season in Salt Lake City was enough to turn junior college transfer Devontae Booker into one of the most potent backs in the country.

While there’s no reason to believe Texas A&M move away from a pass-happy offensive approach, sophomore WILL linebacker Christian Sam said the Sun Devils have broken down last year’s Utah film in anticipation for Saturday’s contest.

“We watch a lot of stuff, we’ve watched all the previous games from last year, but a lot of people don’t know this, but the Utah offensive line coach went down there and we still keep that in mind because they’re going to try to incorporate some of that stuff from last year,” Sam said. “I don’t think we’re missing anything, on Saturday we’ll be fully prepared for them.”

ASU expects Christensen to be influential enough that its players and coaches believe Texas A&M will incorporate some of the same split zone and power running play concepts Utah ran last year into its week one scheme.

When asked about comparisons to Pac-12 teams ASU has faced, redshirt senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington indicated he anticipates Texas A&M to run a similar Air Raid passing attack to that of Washington State while using the run blocking concepts Christensen took from Utah to College Station.

“I would say Utah and Washington State, the Air Raid play-style of offense,” Carrington said. “In terms of spreading the ball around and running screen plays and plays of that nature to replace runs, so the main thing is being disciplined with your assignments.”

ASU is confident it has a handle on Texas A&M’s schemes and philosophy, but just as many of the Aggies opponents have found out in recent years, there’s no way of knowing if the Sun Devils have the firepower to slow down the Aggies’ speed until the teams step on the field.

Players to Watch

Texas A&M has a handful of players who can single-handedly make or break the outcome of Saturday’s game, and the Sun Devils have paid close attention to two in particular this week.

Sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen and sophomore defensive end Myles Garrett are not just anchors on their respective sides of the ball for the Aggies, but they are symbols of the type of young talent Texas A&M has gathered under Sumlin.

As a true freshman, Garrett racked up 11.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits, which set the tone for an Aggie defense that otherwise struggled to put pressure on opposing passers. With ASU breaking in a pair of first-time starters at the offensive tackle position on Saturday, Graham eluded to the idea redshirt junior Evan Goodman and redshirt senior William McGehee will think every defensive end is as difficult to defend as Garrett after facing him in the first week of the season.

“He'll (Garrett) be one of the best,” Graham said. “You won't play any better. He's arguably the best pass rusher in their conference, and would have to be the best in the country that I've seen on film. I haven't seen everybody, but he's as good as it gets.”

Kelly, who last year faced off against a number of future NFL draft picks in the form of Pac-12 nose guards, drew a comparison from Garrett to former Utah defensive end Nate Orchard, saying that Garrett’s style of play is reminiscent of the lineman who notched 10 tackles against the Sun Devils last year.

When ASU played Utah in 2014, the Sun Devils shifted their approach in run blocking at the point of attack to counteract Orchard, which freed up the defensive end on the opposite side of the field, Hunter Dimick, to collect eight tackles and 3.0 tackles for loss.

Goodman wasn’t ready to make the same comparison Kelly did, but he did offer plenty of praise for Garrett and fellow Aggie defensive end Daeshon Hall.

"Those (Garrett and Hall) are different types of players,” Goodman said. “Those are special players that they have. You can't really compare them. Just fast off the ball, elusive, smooth, great hips."

On the offensive side of the ball, ASU is concerned about shutting down Allen and Texas A&M’s vertical passing game. The Aggies haven’t been afraid to take deep shots with Sumlin at the helm, and Allen is the type of quarterback who can play the point guard role for a team that has no shortage of weapons on the perimeter.

In the nine games Allen played last season as a true freshman, he completed more than 60 percent of his passes, and that total figures to rise as he become more acclimated to the Aggies’ scheme.

A Desert Mountain High School product from Scottsdale, Ariz., Allen was recruited by Graham and the ASU staff before selecting Texas A&M, and Graham said the Allen he sees on film is the same one he tried to keep close to home in Tempe.

“Well, he's (Allen) exactly what I thought he was when we were recruiting him,” Graham said. “I mean, you can tell he's a high-character kid, very much in command, very smart quarterback, makes all the throws, executes their offense. Being able to play as a freshman is pretty impressive, and I thought he did a remarkable job. He improves every single game he's out there and solid. He's a really solid quarterback.”

Graham gave the young passer an impressive compliment at Monday’s press conference, saying Allen reminds him of USC quarterback Cody Kessler. Known for his accuracy and ability to exploit defenses in the vertical passing game, Kessler is on many preseason All-Conference lists in the quarterback-driven Pac-12.

“There are a lot of guys that have strong arms and he can make all the throws, but he's really accurate down the field and makes quick decisions and is a guy that is able to buy time in the pocket,” Graham said. “He's not a guy that can't move. He moves really well. He's hurt people running quarterback draw. He's hurt people scrambling and extending plays. So he's a solid quarterback. I've been really impressed with him.”

Allen has three receivers at his disposal who all caught at least 45 passes last season, plus he’ll benefit from the addition of 5-star recruit Christian Kirk who is already atop the depth chart in College Station. With so many potential options needing attention, Carrington said the ASU defensive backs are preparing for the threat of big plays and have practiced against preventing downfield targets.

“We’ve got great respect for him (Allen), he’s very good and he’s an accurate guy,” Carrington said. “He’s a guy that’s not afraid to put the ball down the field and put the ball in the right location for his receivers so that’s going to be a big thing being a defensive back to stay in position and play my own fundamentals.”

ASU co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball said Texas A&M often has four skill position players on the field at any given time who can hurt defenses vertically, and he backed up Carrington’s assertion defensive backs must stay disciplined in their alignment and depth.

Still, Ball made a point of saying ASU isn’t just hoping to cut off the deep threat, he wants the secondary in position to create opportunities from Texas A&M’s downfield attack by pursuing turnovers and interceptions.

“It’s a really useful part of our everyday practices is to cut off vertical lines,” Ball said. “I think that Kyle (Allen) does a great job of throwing the ball downfield and throwing the back shoulder, but their receivers have great ball skills, really good ball skills. So we’ve got to be in a position not only to cut the vertical line, but to make a play on the ball.”

Despite the concerns about vertical threats, Texas A&M’s receivers averaged 11.96 yards per catch in 2014, which suggests the Aggies are still committed to passing plays that serve as “replacement runs.” With four wide receivers on the field so frequently, the Aggies will likely look for screens, short dump offs, and quick patterns that depend on accuracy to pick up small chunks of yards.

So for all the talk of Texas A&M’s vaunted passing game, Patterson said the primary priority for ASU’s defense is still stopping the Aggie running game. If the Sun Devils are able to do that on Saturday, it will make Texas A&M more one-dimensional and put ASU’s defense at a competitive advantage.

“Obviously it always begins with stopping the run, because if you do that, you don’t let their play-action pass options set up,” Patterson said. If they’re running the football effectively, then they’re throwing all of their run-pass options off of it, as well as play-action shots down the field and then you’re going to be in for a long day.”

By the time kickoff rolls around on Saturday, the players and coaches on both sidelines will have had more than eight months to analyze, break down, and dissect their opponent’s personnel and schemes. And because of that, as is often the case in big games, execution will be at a premium.

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