The opening weekend battle between Texas A&M and UCLA should be a fascinating proving ground for two programs that could be on the brink of either breakthrough seasons or disappointments. Naturally, both are counting on their quarterbacks to be the catalysts.
The Bruins are adapting their offense to feature QB Josh Rosen. UCLA will feature more of a pro-style system in an effort to give the highly regarded true sophomore more command and more opportunities to push the ball down the field.
Meanwhile his former offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone, is attempting to salvage Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight’s college career.
Beyond the merits of this overall entertaining matchup, it should be very interesting to see which is on a firmer path with its signal caller.
Rosen takes on a talented Wrecking Crew
The 2015 A&M defense was just a pair of average linebackers away from being a truly dominant unit. The front was anchored by up-and-comers at tackle with Daylon Mack and Zaycoven Henderson and bookended by the best DE tandem in college football: Daeshon Hall (seven sacks, two forced fumbles in 2015) and Feldman Freak of the year, Myles Garrett (12.5 sacks, five forced fumbles).
The back end was quite solid at corner, thanks to the successful conversion of RB Brandon Williams opposite veteran De’Vante Harris. Safety was the strength of the backfield, with leading tackler Armani Watts, versatile nickel Donovan Wilson, and enforcer Justin Evans.
But linebacker was an issue. The Aggies regularly saw their backers out of position or outleveraged, wasting the efforts of their talented teammates.
The Aggies finished 29th in defensive S&P on the year, with the No. 2 passing S&P and No. 14 passing-downs defense ... and the No. 82 rushing defense. Those are the kinds of numbers you get when you have a pair of devils rushing the quarterback, but are relying on your free safety to make all the tackles.
It’ll be a battle of strength on strength when Garrett and Hall go up against the UCLA tackle tandem of Conor McDermott and Zach Bateman. The smart money would be on UCLA struggling to find time for Rosen to push the ball down the field unless they can exploit the Aggie run defense and set up play action.
In that event, the Aggies are replacing both cornerbacks and could be vulnerable to Rosen’s accuracy and ball placement, if he can set his feet well enough to get the ball outside the hash marks.
The hang-up is that A&M was particularly vulnerable to QB option plays in 2015. That’s not a feature of a pro-style offense like UCLA’s. Instead, the Bruins will use concepts like lead zone and power with a fullback. A&M coordinator John Chavis will regularly face such tactics in the SEC.
However, here’s the kind of opportunity that was available for opponents that went that route in 2015 (even for backs who weren’t as good as Leonard Fournette):
As a linebacker, you can’t ask for a better opportunity than to be unblocked and in position to light up the running back in the hole. However, freshman Richard Moore was late to the party and stacked behind his DE in the C gap before realizing what was up. He was run over by the more powerful Fournette.
The Bruins won’t be that effective running between the tackles, and A&M won’t be that bad again at stopping it. But some UCLA success on the ground sure make it easier for Rosen to get after those green cornerbacks without worrying about the safeties or nickel.
There’s not much even veteran corners can do to stop throws like that unless they have help.
A new scene for Knight
There was a time when the world was Knight’s oyster. He appeared ready to be the next great Oklahoma QB after Sam Bradford and Landry Jones. Then he played most of a season with a brilliant OL, 1,000-yard WR Sterling Shepard, and 1,700-yard rusher Samaje Perine and yet threw only 14 TDs to 12 interceptions.
The Sooners went back to the air raid, Knight was supplanted by Baker Mayfield, and now he’s in an Aggie uniform for his final year of eligibility. The hope was that Mazzone can cure him of his tendency to stare down targets and overthrow receivers ...
... and it looks like there are still some kinks to iron out over the summer.
Knight does offer athleticism that should prove very useful to Mazzone. The A&M running game has to replace tailback Tra Carson and the threat posed by QB Kyler Murray, plus three starting linemen. Mazzone loves to work the QB read option that includes quick pass options outside, and Knight is skilled in each of these facets.
From the spring game, you see Knight’s ability to win the edge on the zone read keeper:
The biggest issue for A&M will be whether Knight is effective enough in the spread passing game to unlock an ultra-athletic WR corps of Speedy Noil, Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds, and Ricky Seals-Jones. That means mastering quick reads and hitting quick throws outside the numbers, allowing these guys to turn upfield and make hay in space.
Knight has the arm strength and understanding of these concepts to accomplish that, as you can see from this snag route:
You can see some of Chavis’ positive impact from how well the second-team A&M defense pattern-matches these routes.
The nickel (second cornerback from the top) moves to stop the running back’s route by going over the top of the snag. Because of how well he positions himself and slow plays the route combinations, there’s a very tight window for Knight. Yet Knight hits it and even gives his receiver a chance to turn away from the hit.
UCLA DC Tom Bradley’s defensive backfield is loaded with athletes who know how to match Mazzone’s concepts. They won’t give the Aggies many easy windows. Knight’s ability to hit what he can find will be key, as will his ability to provide a numbers advantage for the run game.
Both of these defenses are well coached and filled with athletes who can make a spread passing attack exceptionally difficult.
The Bruins may be vulnerable to a downhill running game, but the Aggies’ offense isn’t really designed to exploit that.
Meanwhile, UCLA will look to give Rosen time to attack a team that is uniquely difficult to attack with a vertical passing game.
If this comes down to a contest between Knight and Rosen at beating athletic coverage and avoiding mistakes, look for the Bruins to come away with the win. And if one of these teams can establish the run between the tackles, it should win not only this opener but plenty of conference games this fall.