With true freshman at defensive tackle, rush end, safety, both linebacker positions, outside receiver, and quarterback, the 2014 Aggies fielded an exceptionally young team. They took their lumps before upsetting Auburn and taking down West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl. Can Kevin Sumlin continue that momentum?
Before A&M plays yet another brutal SEC schedule that includes road dates at Oxford and Baton Rouge, they play Arizona State in Houston on opening weekend (7 p.m. ET, Sept. 5, ESPN).
Todd Graham's Sun Devils have been on the up and up, and they are heading into 2015 with enough talent and experience to suggest 2015 might be more of a reload than a rebuild.
This game should demonstrate if Arizona State is ready to contend for the Pac-12, or if the Aggies are ready to make a leap, because these teams are excellent foils for each other. Although they are both up-tempo spread teams, the Sun Devils and Aggies present a major clash of styles. That always makes for a good match.
The power run vs. a talented defense
The Aggies finished 110th nationally in rushing S&P+ and 86th on standard downs. If teams weren't trying to throw the ball while Myles Garrett (11.5 sacks in 2014) rushed the passer, then the Aggies were not providing much resistance. This resulted in the hire of LSU's John Chavis to mold talent into the kind of defense one would expect from A&M's recruiting rankings.
Arizona State will provide a unique test. The Sun Devils mix four-wide formations and power run schemes in a way that A&M doesn't typically see in the SEC, even from Mississippi State or Auburn.
This is a pin-and-pull run, packaged with a screen behind the blocks of the outside receiver and flexed-out H-back.
In this version, the QB reads the coverage before the snap to make sure the defense has enough numbers out wide to stop the screen (to Y, below). If the defense has accounted for the screen, he reads the unblocked defensive end (right E, below) before handing off, to keep the the running back from being tackled from behind.
It's a nasty concept for a cover 3 defense to stop. The weakside linebacker (W) is the only player who can force the run back inside, and even if he's able beat the pulling blocks, the middle linebacker (M) will struggle to make the play with the tackle blocking down on him. The rest of the defense is far away from the ball. Utah struggled mightily to stop this while playing a scheme that Chavis used regularly at LSU.
The Chavis defense looks to keep things simple and allow athletes to play fast. The Aggies struggled to do either last year with their revolving door of young players and undisciplined play. The Sun Devil offense is going to attack with lots of motion and spread tactics that force the defensive front to play sound and the secondary to provide timely tackles.
Arizona State is not the ideal opponent for a retooling defense.
The air raid vs. relentless pressure
Sumlin's offense is one of the most difficult to stop in all of college football, in part for the simple way it spreads the field and isolates defenders. All air raid offenses do that, but A&M's does so with athletes like Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans, and the current group of five-stars.
They'll be at their most deadly in four-wide formations that put the 6'4 Josh Reynolds (the team's 2014 leading receiver) and Speedy Noil (a legit 4.4 burner and a former top-10 recruit) on the outside, with 6'5 Ricky Seals-Jones (a former top-25 recruit) and Christian Kirk (another former top-25 recruit and legit 4.4 burner) in the slot.
At the helm is likely sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen, who enjoyed modest success in 2014, throwing 192 passes for 1,322 yards, good for 6.89 per attempt, with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's at his best fitting the ball into windows many other QBs can't hit, with the ability to be accurate outside the hash marks and down the field.
The major concern is replacing yet another first-round NFL draft pick at left tackle and two other starters along the OL. In 2014's opener, this wasn't an issue, as they had the fortune to open against a South Carolina defense that looked like it'd never seen an air raid before.
Arizona State will present some different challenges. Graham opts for the all-or-nothing approach to defending up-tempo spread teams, with basically a 4-3 that uses a rush end and a space-backer as the strongside linebacker. The Devils bring pressure with nearly reckless abandon.
The Devils play a press-quarters defense similar to that of Michigan State or Baylor, with a unique quirk. Whereas the Spartans want to always line up in the optimal base defense, Sun Devil players are entrusted to get the defense in the right blitz call to attack. Playing base defense with two deep safeties is the change-up, and bringing pressure is the default.
Because the Devils' structure allows them to play different coverages on each side of the field, they can bring man/zone blitz combinations and will do so at least a quarter of the time. The Devils also bring pure man blitzes, including a cover zero "robber" blitz that uses the deep safety (F, below) to occupy the QB's eyes:
Graham's defense features little compromise. Although every blitz is designed to keep defenders in positions where they can succeed, they will almost always choose to be aggressive, as is evident in their preference to use the extra safety to jump routes rather than drop deep.
One compromise the Devils will have to make vs. A&M is to use their nickel package, like in the above diagram. They'll play their "spur," Viliami Moeakiola, as an outside linebacker while nickel corner Chad Adams subs in to help cover slot receivers. There is simply no chance that the Devils' aggressive blitz strategies can work if they are matching up linebackers in man coverage on Seals-Jones.
The Aggies are going to need extra time over the summer to learn how to identify different Devil pressures so the OL can pick them up and Allen can distribute without turning over the football.
The final lesson?
The Arizona State game plan will be simple: attack the Aggies with exotic blitzes on defense and motion/misdirection on offense. Look for a lead, then pound the ball on the ground to avoid having to block Garrett in crunch time. If the Aggies are still naive, ASU is perfectly designed to ruin their day.
But if this young Aggie squad is ready to put in upperclassman hours in the film room, it should have the talent to punish aggressiveness. This contest could be the final lesson this team needs before making the leap.