Expert Advance: Texas A&M

Our flagship game preview is back for a huge season opener for Arizona State. Get the full scoop on this clash between the Sun Devils and Aggies.

Before I get into this thing in detail it’s important to point out that even though we’ve had the entire off-season to prepare for this game, it’s been very challenging to do so and as a result, this particular expert advance probably won’t be quite as wired-in as some of those you’ll read with ASU’s Pac-12 opponents.

This is primarily because Texas A&M has a new defensive coordinator — former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis — who is installing an entirely different style of defense than the one the Aggies played last season, and also a new offensive line coach and run game coordinator — former Utah offensive coordinator Dave Christensen — who is overhauling Texas A&M’s run schemes.

As a result of these coaching moves, we’ve had to prepare for this game by watching several of LSU’s games from last season in order to get more familiar with Chavis, and some of Utah’s games from last year to see how he is likely to marry his philosophy with that of Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, the team’s offensive play caller. Of course, we’ve also watched Texas A&M film, which is beneficial for understanding not only personnel, but also Sumlin’s offensive approach, though that may change to some degree this year.

It’s a very challenging thing to have to try to cobble together news reports of how personnel is likely to be used, especially because reporters aren’t able to observe and report on too much of the Aggies’ practices. Essentially we’ve had to study Texas A&M’s personnel, the new coaches’ philosophies and imagine how those things can be best melded.

This, of course, is also what ASU has had to do in its preparations. So coaches and players have talked about watching not only Texas A&M, but probably just as much LSU and some Utah film. In this regard, the Aggies have what I consider to be a bit of a preparation advantage and especially because with as many as 13 seniors starting, they’ve seen most of ASU’s personnel doing exactly what it will do in this game.

Texas A&M Offensive Scheme

Sumlin’s ideology is a one-back spread style that is an amalgamation of classic West Coast offense and Air Raid offense.

West Coast offense is an ethos popularized by Bill Walsh during his time coaching the San Francisco 49ers — though it was around before that — that rebelled against the notion that a strong run game is a prerequisite to opening up the field for big play opportunities in the passing game. Walsh and others believed that the same thing could be done by quick throws laterally to stretch a defense out that way and bring more defensive backs into the box and nearer the line of scrimmage, which then led to more vertical opportunities.

More recently, these types of plays have become commonly known as “replacement runs” because they’re completed at a very high percentage and essentially take the place of runs. This is the way these coaches justify the lack of run/pass balance that many pro-style disciples reject.

ASU fans know all about replacement runs from the days of Noel Mazzone as its offensive coordinator under Dennis Erickson. Mazzone and other one-back coaches built upon the West Coast offense with their own offshoot, which heavily uses swing passes to the running back to achieve the same horizontal stretch effect, in addition to perimeter screens and other so-called quick-game throws, which is another liberally used term by theses coaches.

Sumlin and Mazzone are very close friends and their offenses have a lot in common, unsurprisingly. They’ve honed their one-back philosophies together in annual clinics with other like-minded offensive architects in the college landscape for many years.

ASU fans who aren’t aware will find it interesting that the roots of the one-back offense — simply defined as an offense that features only one running back in the backfield on most downs —at the college level originate with Erickson dating to 1979, when he coached at San Jose State with Jack Elway, the father of John Elway, who is believed to be the originator of the one-back offense at Granada Hills High School in the Los Angeles-area, where he coached Elway in the 1970s.

Like Mazzone, Sumlin likes to utilize a lot of replacement runs to the back and also a lot of screens of different varieties. In that respect, the Aggies are a lot like UCLA, and also like ASU used to be under Mazzone. What’s particularly challenging about Sumlin’s version of the offense is how he also utilizes Air Raid — popularized by current Washington State coach Mike Leach — concepts blended with West Coast formations to enhance his vertical attacks, and does this with better athletes at wide receiver than most coaches have to work with in the Air Raid.

As an example of how this manifests on the field, Sumlin likes to runs swing passes to motioning running backs and screens to wide receivers in 3x1 formations with trips to the field side on that side of the field in a way that lulls defensive players into trying to anticipate such plays. Immediately post-snap, two or three of the receivers on that side of the field are blocking for the screen or swing.

Defensive backs start to want to anticipate this and then get caught because the wide receivers can sell block with their footwork in the first second or so post-snap and get defensive backs moving toward them in an effort to beat blocks to the spot or attack the block, only to have the receivers slip past them and be open. If this happens in Cover 1 (single high safety) or Cover 0 situations (no safety help) it can result in one-play touchdowns.

Aggressive defenses like ASU are particularly vulnerable because of how much they blitz and put defensive backs in man conflict situations. Sumlin likes to aggravate this with the use of the running back or slot motion before the snap, because of how it forces defenses to quickly communicate and adjust on the fly. That’s how breakdowns occur with regard to which player has the No. 2 or No. 3 receiver, etc. Not only will he do it to the formation strength and to the play-side, but he’ll do it away from the play and away from the formation to move a defender and force pre-snap adjustment.

The addition of Christensen brings a whole new wrinkle into the fold. Previously, Texas A&M ran the ball reluctantly; even less than Mazzone, who has a similar ideology. On the difficult to define scale, Sumlin was somewhere between Mazzone and Leach. But Sumlin ran the ball fewer than every team except Vanderbilt in the SEC last season, and didn’t even really disguise his team’s intentions, as its offensive linemen typically started from a 2-point stance. It’s hard to run the ball purposefully or even project that ability when that’s the case.

Christensen is bringing much more of a pro-style approach to running the ball, with the standard-fare power and inside zone concepts being heavily incorporated. It man take a while to implement all of this, but if Texas A&M can become a better and more reliable pro-style run team — and that’s a legitimate question mark because of the associated personnel and formation challenges including but not limited to the juxtaposition between pro-style schemes being very tight end reliant in their best forms and Sumlin’s one-back spread being almost devoid of tight ends to this point in his career (an example being how Texas A&M often used a backup center as extra blocker last season) — it will really broaden out the offense’s overall capability.

A big part of what the Aggies do is quick game throws to its slot receivers — this year that’ll primarily be big-bodied Ricky Seals-Jones and quick and shifty Christian Kirk — in four receiver sets and backs when pressured, and even when not. The system is designed to have hot targets available when the quarterback is under pressure and that’s almost always going to be the eligible receivers closest to the formation. Seals-Jones is a classic Y-receiver possession type guy, similar to how Mazzone used Gerell Robinson. He’ll get targeted a lot. Sumlin and his prodigy Dana Holgosen at West Virginia are famous for having a high percentage of throws of five yards or less.

Then there are the plays in which Sumlin will max protect with the back and really put the Air Raid on display, with three and even four vertical concepts meant to stress either zone or man coverages. There’s not a lot of trickery there, though they’ll do some atypical things, like putting four receivers on one side of the formation or trips into the boundary. They’ll rely on an accurate big-armed quarterback and big-framed or speed burner receivers beating defenders. They’ll also spread the ball around. A lot.

Texas A&M Offensive Personnel

QB Kyle Allen (No. 10) — A classic pocket style pro-passer who became a starter last year as a true freshman, Allen has a plus arm and is extremely accurate down the field when he’s allowed to operate in a clean pocket. He has great weapons at his disposal in the passing game, and reads coverages well — and ASU isn’t an especially challenging team with decoy coverages pre-snap — and puts the ball on target vertically. So he’s someone who has to be made uncomfortable and to re-set his feet in the pocket. When he is uncomfortable, Allen will put the ball in jeopardy. He had seven interceptions last year in just 192 attempts, a very high rate.

RB Tra Carson (No. 21) — At 6-feet and 235 pounds, Carson is about as big a back as ASU will face. He’s not a dynamic guy at the second level to make someone miss, but more of a physical plodder who will try to eek out extra effort and post-contact hards. Last year his averaged 4.7 yards per carry, which is very modest, but the offensive line and scheme probably didn’t help.

WR Ricky Seals-Jones (No. 9) — Huge, at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Seals-Jones is a big Y-receiver who aligns in the slot and makes a lot of possession type grabs and is a hot target. He averaged a modest 9.5 yards per reception and had four touchdowns last season as a true freshman but should end up a high volume target before he’s done in College Station.

WR Josh Reynolds (No. 11) — An outside receiver with speed to burn and yet extremely long at 6-foot-4, Reynolds is a player who typically aligned to the boundary and beats a ton of one-on-on situations to the tune of team-highs in yards, touchdowns and yards-per-catch in 2014. This is one of the best college receivers I’ve watched on film in the last year. He’s going to test ASU senior Lloyd Carrington severely, with Carrington having to excel consistently at the line of scrimmage because if he’s physically beaten technically, Reynolds has the wheels to make a big play.

WR Christian Kirk (No. 3) — Operating from the slot in 2x2 or 3x1 formations Kirk could end up getting matched up against players who simply can’t handle him in space, especially if aligned to the boundary inside of another receiver. His ability to get separation nearer the line of scrimmage is elite. He may ultimately be the most dangerous player for the Sun Devils to handle in this game because ASU’s cornerbacks on the outside are seniors who can hold their own in coverage but speed through the middle of ASU’s defense is more of a question mark.

C Mike Matthews (No. 56) — A multi-year starter at center and probably Texas A&M’s most disciplined and best executing offensive lineman, though not its best overall athlete. Matthews communicates well with Allen and the offensive line.

Aggies offensive line — The right side is more experienced and solid, with big tackle Germain Ifedi at 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds returning. On the left side, Avery Gennesy redshirted as a junior college addition last year who was among the highest rated in the country.

ASU defensive approach and keys against Texas A&M offense

All off-season we’ve heard Todd Graham and ASU’s defensive coaches talk about wanting to do a better job of limiting explosive plays. They’re going to get a monumental first test to see how they are in that regard this season right out of the gate against the Aggies. The first thing they’re going to have to do is completely destroy the line of scrimmage from the outset and make Sumlin fall back to his tendency of wanting to abandon the run.

This will allow ASU’s linebackers — and particularly junior SAM Salamo Fiso — to be better able to combat the Aggies West Coast approach of stretching the field horizontally. Once that’s been established, ASU is going to have to be very disciplined with its eyes on the perimeter and at the field safety position, where sophomore Armand Perry is going to get all he could ask for in his first start at the position.

The Sun Devils can’t get caught guessing screen or swing when the play is really setting them up for a vertical shot. Perry, junior Spur Laiu Moeakiola and senior field corner Kweishi Brown are the key players to watch in this regard. If there are coverage busts that result in big play touchdowns, they’ll likely come here.

Then, ASU is going to have to handle man coverage assignments on vertical routes. For the corners, this involved success in bump techniques at the line of scrimmage when ASU is pressuring. If Carrington or Brown miss and allow a free release on a bump technique and the blitz doesn’t get to Allen, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Finally, ASU has to make Allen uncomfortable to some degree in the pocket and force him into mistake throws that put the ball in jeopardy. This is challenging to do because it’ll result in defensive backs being on islands, like Seals-Jones or Kirk against Perry.

We may see ASU elect to play nickel on some base downs if Fiso is proving to be a liability against this spread offense or if a 2x2 formation leads to ASU senior safety Jordan Simone having to cover in space, which isn’t his strength as Simone had no pass breakups last season. Typically Fiso handles pro-style teams better than spread offenses, so if ASU can get the run game in check, it can bring senior Solomon Means on the field more, which provides more coverage ability on the interior. There’s also the possibility ASU has to do this because Fiso isn’t running to and making plays on screens/swings to the field side.

Texas A&M Defensive Scheme

With the addition of Chavis at a cool $1.5 million per annum, the Aggies are making a polar shift defensively and will look extremely different in 2015 schematically versus the defense they put on the field during Sumlin’s first three years in College Station.

Whereas Todd Graham has had a very clear ideology on offense and defense — special teams being another matter — even years prior to his arrival at ASU and the major college level, Sumlin has seemingly been desperate enough even at age 51 to have a mid-career coaching crisis and make drastic wholesale changes going into the fourth year of his tenure at a school in the SEC West.

Generally speaking, that’s not a positive sign, but Chavis is good enough that it probably won’t matter. In Sumlin’s defense, he at least identified and reacted to his flaws rather than to stubbornly refuse to adjust. The question is whether Texas A&M can win enough in the next year or two that the new form of the team can really take hold, considering he’s not finished better than fourth in the SEC West in the last two years.

To be sure, Chavis is an excellent defensive coordinator. Last year the Aggies were running a conservative two-gap style front and a lot of relaxed zone. That’s not Chavis’ approach to defensive football. As the defensive coordinator at Tennessee and later LSU (2009-2014) Chavis constantly refined his aggressive 4-3 approach, which is a one-gap style over-front that wants to advantage pass rushers and puts athletic cornerbacks in a lot of man coverage conflict.

LSU has put out as many or more defensive backs to the NFL as anyone in recent years, and that’s of course due to the never-ending flow of elite talent that emanates from the state’s prep ranks, but just as much, how Chavis has been able to channel it.

Chavis gets his cornerbacks into a lot of press technique coverage with outside leverage, which is designed to take away or at least severely limit opponents’ ability to successfully target wide receivers on outside releases, like fades and go routes. The goal is to shrink the horizontal span of the field at depth with perimeter athleticism and a dedicated approach to keeping potential receivers operating to the inside and underneath the defense, while at the same time not being conservative in the approach.

LSU’s great personnel up front enabled Chavis to not have to blitz a lot on run downs, which was especially beneficial because of how he uses a four man front. We’ll have to see if his players at A&M afford him that advantage but he’s inheriting sophomore end Myles Garrett, who had double digit sacks last year and is a monstrous force in space on the edge. When his teams impact the quarterback with four rushers, Chavis’ defenders are exceedingly difficult to attack given the range on the backend and willingness to be physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage.

The over-front Chavis likes to use is designed to most-commonly get a player like Garrett into space against an opposing team’s field side tackle, so this is going to be a monumental task for ASU’s first-year starting offensive tackles Evan Goodman and Billy McGehee.

Behind the four-man front on base downs, Chavis plays a wide variety of coverage shells, with the strong side safety being a key player to watch. He’ll often come up into the box pre-snap or immediately post-snap. So the Aggies are likely to show a lot of quarters coverage looks that morph into single-hit safety Cover 1 or Cover 3.

The challenge is going to be for ASU senior quarterback Mike Bercovici to identify this and know where to deliver the football as a result. He’ll want to avoid misidentifying the coverage because that’s a sure-fire way to get intercepted by the strongside or MIKE linebacker, or strongside safety breaking on a decoy coverage.

Chavis’ third down defense is where he gets especially creative and is really revered by his peers in the coaching community. LSU was consistently the best team in the SEC and probably in the country on third downs. On obvious passing downs he often incorporates a so-called “Mustang” package which has just three down defensive linemen on the field and two linebackers, so it’s essentially a 3-2-6 dime sub-package look.

This type of look provides Chavis with myriad blitzing combinations. He’ll often fire blitz (overloading one side) or bring the nickel or dime corner, and will vary from three man pressures with zone under drops all the way to six or even seven man pressures with man free Cover 0 all the way across. Third down is also when he tends to play the most Cover 2, with two rangy deep safeties breaking aggressively on everything in front of them to generate stops shy of the goal to gain.

Texas A&M Defensive Personnel

Please note, this is extremely difficult because these players are going to be asked to do different things — and in some cases completely different — than last season. So we looked more at athletic traits and then how LSU uses the players.

DE Myles Garrett (No. 15) — A&M moved Garrett around for matchup purposes in its 3-4 defense last year from field to boundary but Chavis probably will play him in an over to the field for desired one-on-on opportunities. Garrett is big for how explosive he is, and he converts speed to power on the edge, which is what offensive tackles really can struggle with. His bull-speed combo rush is about as good as ASU will face and somewhat like Utah’s Hunter Dimick, a guy who has given ASU some problems, but even better.

SAM Shaan Washington (No. 33) — This is one of A&M’s best overall athletes and he’s added size onto his great frame in order to become more of a linebacker and hold up physically in the box. But the Aggies will rely on his range and he has to cover in space, be stout against the run on the perimeter and at times will attack. Think of him kind of like how ASU uses Laiu Moeakiola.

FS Armani Watts (No. 23) — Watts led A&M in interceptions last year with three and tied with eight pass breakups and fifth in total tackles. Chavis will use him as a the deep range safety in a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3 on base downs and Cover 2 on passing downs. Watts gets out and runs well and re-directs, anticipates reasonably well and can be a takeaway threat when quarterbacks and offensive coordinators haven’t manipulated and accounted for him properly on throws down the field.

DT Alonzo Williams (No. 83) — Williams has good quickness for a 305-pounder up front and has the ability to disengage and get back to the football. He led the defensive tackles on the team last year with 5.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 of which were sacks. ASU’s going to have to keep him secured in the run game at the point of attack with its interior linemen in order to establish itself in that regard.

CB De’Vante Harris (No. 1) — A three-year starter, Harris has beefed up in the off-season to better handle Chavis’ man coverage approach. He’s been decent coverage though not as good as you’d expect from a long-time starter, but tended to be susceptible to getting washed out on screens and attacked by blockers in the run game.

CB Brandon Williams (No. 21) — A converted running back who will play corner for the first time this season, Williams is going to be thrown into the fire immediately. It’s tough to project what to expect but ASU will probably try to quickly determine his capability.

ASU offensive keys against Texas A&M defense

The most important thing ASU’s going to have to do here is establish the run game. The subjects of Chavis’ dialogue with reporters leads us to believe he’s especially concerned with how the Aggies will handle ASU’s perimeter run game, as the Sun Devils have shown on film just enough athleticism with its offensive linemen to kick out and try to win on the perimeter.

Four-down defenses are a bit more susceptible to this when the field side end is managed, though this is going to be tough when Garrett is there. Even so, his tendency to want to get upfield may be something ASU can use against him.

With the Aggies playing more over-front, ASU may be able to attack the boundary in the run game and that’s something it has shown a tendency to like to do anyway.

Really the whole key is to create manageable third down situations by success on early downs, which stems from running the ball effectively.

In the passing game, Bercovici is going to have to read a lot of coverages correctly and not get caught making mistakes over the middle third shaded to the field side, as that’s where deception can force turnovers. He’ll have to keep Watts occupied post-snap to set up big play shots down the field that Watts can’t get to.

ASU’s wide receivers are going to have to get off the same press and bump techniques they see from ASU’s defense every day in order to get open, and ASU will have to hold up with his protects when it is facing nickel and dime defenses, with its backs aware of the pressure. The Sun Devils can probably hit screen throws to the backs on third downs for big gainers if they get a bit of luck on the defensive play call. They'll have a harder time getting the ball to their receivers outside the numbers.

If the offensive line protects Bercovici and he’s making quick reads and ASU’s getting run-pass balance, there’s an opportunity for a big production day as the Aggies are still adjusting to their new defensive approach. Look for senior D.J. Foster to be targeted a lot working back to the formation and junior De'Chavon Hayes to be a weapon in the passing game vertically through the heart of the defense and as a Cover 2 stressor.

Texas A&M Special Teams

Taylor Bertolet handled kickoffs last year and did a fine job and will also be the placekicker this year after Josh Lambo departs following a year in which he made 13 of 15 attempts. Bertolet has created some anxiousness about the position in camp.

Drew Kaser is back as the punter after a 44.1 yard average last season and is a solid but not outstanding option at the position though he’s a third-team preseason pick in the SEC.

Kickoff and punt returner Speedy Noil is an elite weapon.

Prediction

I’ve genuinely wavered on this pick for weeks as I’ve watched ASU’s preseason and studied Texas A&M and the game itself is what’s led to indecisiveness about whether to forecast the Sun Devils as a 10-win team or 9-win team.

ASU is more sound and established in its approach on both sides of the ball but the Aggies are probably more athletic and the game is essentially a home game for them. Their offensive passing attack is potent and ASU’s speed and coverage ability on the backend at safety is a legitimate question mark.

The Sun Devils’ secondary is going to have to play well in this one for the Sun Devils to win and even so there should be a lot of points in the game and ASU’s offense will have to be firing on all cylinders.

The expectation here is that it’ll be a good, close game, moderate to high scoring. It may come down to the last possession and if someone gets a stop or a score. Overall, I like where ASU is at a little more coming into this game and it’s good for the Sun Devils that it’s Chavis’ first game. For that reason, I’ve decided to updated my earlier prediction and take the Sun Devils to win, 41-38. Consequently I'm also now forecasting a 10-win season for the Sun Devils and Pac-12 South title.


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