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College Football Preview 2021: 11. Texas A&M Aggies

Jalen Wydermyer, Texas A&M

11. Texas A&M Aggies 

With depth and talent throughout the roster, plus a star tailback, last season's breakthrough was just the beginning

2020 Review
Entering the ultra-important Year 3 of the Jimbo Fisher era, Texas A&M had high expectations in 2020. However, their first two weeks of the campaign left a lot to be desired. They entered their opener against Vanderbilt as 30 point favorites and won an ugly 17-12 game before heading into Tuscaloosca and being run out of the stadium by eventual champion Alabama. The Aggies impressed in their ability to weather the slow start and their season turned around when they upset fourth-ranked Florida in College Station. It have them the momentum needed to run the table over the coming seven games to finish 9-1 and fifth in the nation. With a Top 10 ranking and New Year's Six bowl win under his belt, the next goal for Jimbo and A&M become even more lofty: winning the SEC West, winning the league, and making the CFB Playoff. 

2021 Outlook
Offense: After starting four seasons for the Aggies, Kellen Mond departed to the NFL as the program's all-time passing leader. It's difficult to quantify just how large of a loss this is for Texas A&M. Mond was a rock-solid, steady quarterback but he never was quite able to get the offense over the top. His absence leaves a three-man quarterback competition brewing.

The three players set to compete are freshman Haynes King, redshirt freshman Zach Calzada, and newcomer Eli Stowers. None of the trio have much in-game experience, but all three have their own skill sets. King has natural arm talent and is surprisingly fast for his size, while Calzada is a big QB who is very accurate. Stowers is more of a wild card as a superb athlete who may be the future at the position, but will need time to adjust. Early on, King is the favorite as a former high-profile recruit who seems to fit Fisher's offense. He played in two games in 2020 and threw a total of four times, one of which went for a touchdown.

While quarterback remains somewhat up in the air, the Aggies have the luxury of a loaded running back room. The headliner is certainly Isaiah Spiller, who went for 946 yards as a freshman in 2019 then built on it with a 1,036-yard 2020. Spiller is known as a hard-nosed runner, but last season he showed an improved ability to make opponents miss. He has All-American talent and the Aggies are likely to lean on him early on in 2021, considering the mystery in the passing game.

Spiller will operate as the workhorse tailback, but Devon Achane showed that he could add a nice change of pace option. He played in eight games last fall, finishing with 364 rushing yards and four scores, while averaging 8.5 yards per carry. At 5'9" with blazing fast speed, he's obviously quite different than Spiller, but adds much-needed versatility to the offense. Other names to watch in the backfield include sophomore Earnest Crownover, a former JUCO transfer, and big-name true frosh L.J. Johnson.

Perhaps no position group on the roster has undergone as much turnover and transition as A&M's receivers. Jahmon Ausbon was their top pass-catcher in 2019 and was looking for a major 2020, but he opted out. Then Cameron Buckley and Caleb Chapman were both lost for the season, leaving them very thin. Ausbon is long gone and Buckley has transferred, but Chapman returns to a unit that should be much more stable this year. He is joined by a group that includes Ainias Smith, Hezekiah Jones, Chase Lane, and Demond Demas. Smith is the top returning option after he totaled 43 receptions and 564 yards. The RB/WR hybrid is one of the funnest players to watch anywhere in college football, but you get the feeling the Aggies want a more traditional wide out to step up. That could be Demas, who came to A&M with loads of hype, but didn't make a catch in 2020. Demas has athletic abilities that are almost super-human, but needs to polish off other elements of his game to be truly effective.

Jimbo Fisher has always been known as a head coach that loves to utilize his tight ends, and he has an elite 1-2 punch in Jalen Wydermyer and Baylor Cupp. Cupp was a five-star recruit who was supposed to be the ideal fit for Jimbo's offense, but he has missed both of the last two years with injury. Those injuries gave Wydermyer a chance and he has flourished into a John Mackey Award favorite. Wydermyer snagged 46 passes for 506 yards in 2020 and will once again operate as the security blanket for this offense. Cupp will have to play a supporting role to begin, but he has serious upside if he's able to stay healthy.

A&M's offensive line was the unsung strength of the 9-1 team, but they were hit hard by losses over the off-season. Tackles Carson Green and Dan Moore were All-League players who will need to be replaced, while anchor Ryan McCollum also moves on. The good news is that sophomore Kenyon Green remains and will be the star of the unit. Green has started 23 games at guard over the last two seasons and was an All-American last fall but is likely to move outside to one of the vacated tackle spots. The only other player with much starting experience is former Tennessee transfer Jahmir Johnson, who made 17 starts in Knoxville. Johnson has played most of his time as a guard as well, but does have some starting experience. Beyond those two, this unit is full of question marks, although there is talent to be found. Names like center Luke Matthews, who played in 11 games in 2019 before losing last year to injury, will have to play larger roles.

A&M's offensive outlook for 2021 is really a mixed bag. They're well-stocked at running back, receiver, and tight end, and the QB room has loads of potential. With that being said, replacing any longtime QB, even a guy like Mond, is often a tall task in the SEC. Growing pains are to be expected, which is why the relatively easy non-conference schedule is good news.

Defense: Once the overwhelming Achilles Heel of Texas A&M as a program, the defense has turned into one of the SEC's best. Coordinator Mike Elko has been a huge help in turning the group around, as has a defensive staff that has upped the recruiting on this side of the ball. This unit has the potential to be the SEC's best in 2021, and one of the best anywhere in the nation.

The defensive line has a nice mix of star power and depth. After flashing potential as a true freshman, defensive end DeMarvin Leal evolved into an All-SEC pass rusher last year. His blend of explosiveness and size is a nightmare for opposing blockers on the edge, and he has already caught the attention of NFL scouts. He is joined on the outside by veterans Michael Clemons and Tyree Johnson, who bring a proven pedigree to the unit. Both notched four sacks in 2020 and will play important roles. On the inside, senior Jayden Peevy earned All-SEC attention in 2020 and returns, as does freshman McKinley Jackson, who made one start last year. Keep an eye on a few of the youngsters that joined the group over the spring, including Tunmise Adeleye and Elijah Jeudy. Adeyele is a former Ohio State commit who was a major recruiting win for this staff.

At linebacker, Texas A&M must find a way to replace hard-hitting Buddy Johnson, who finished as the team leader in tackles, with 86. Not only was he a crucial asset in run support, Johnson also set the tone as a leader of the defense. It isn't clear who will take over his spot at middle linebacker, although Edgerrin Cooper appears to be the favorite. Cooper played in all ten games a season ago and flashed impressive closing speed, but he'll have to battle out several others for the starting MLB job. Senior Aaron Hansford returns to man the outside linebacker role in this 4-2-5 defense. Hansford made just one start in 2019 but emerged as a key contributor last season, starting all ten. 

The secondary should be the strength of the defense, with every starter returning and plenty of depth. At corner, the Aggies have a proven veteran in Myles Jones, as well as a rising youngster in Jaylon Jones. Myles Jones is a long-armed, intelligent defender who finds a way to get into passing lanes, while Jaylon Jones had 30 tackles and seven pass deflections as a true freshman. Junior Brian George also offers a healthy amount of experience and was a big name JUCO transfer.

The safety spots are to be manned by junior Leon O'Neal at strong safety and Demani Richardson at free safety. O'Neal had entered his name into the transfer portal prior to 2020 but then decided to stay, ensuring the Aggies a skilled and technical safety on the back-end. He earned a spot on the Fourth Team All-SEC in 2020, but he has potential to do even more. Richardson is still acclimating to the ever-important free safety role, but he did have 36 tackles a season ago.

The growth that A&M's defense has shown over the past half-decade has been one of the more underrated stories in the SEC. They're not only a stronger, better-coached group but also one loaded with guys that are going to be playing on Sundays. As long as they can find somebody to take over for Buddy Johnson, it should be an elite group.

Special Teams: The Aggies bring back both their punter and kicker for the 2021 season, with Seth Small handling placekicking and Nik Constantinou at punter. Small has 64 field goal attempts in his A&M career and is among the best in the SEC, while Constantinou had a 40.5 punt average last fall.

Bottom Line: A&M checked off a bunch of boxes in 2020, but there's still plenty of motivation for '21. Jimbo Fisher and the staff have upgraded the talent level on both sides of the ball and there's future NFL stars throughout the roster. Can that talent take the next step and topple Alabama for an SEC West Title? It will be difficult to do so in 2021 as they replace a proven veteran at quarterback, but playmakers at running back and receiver should keep the offense chugging along. The schedule works out favorably enough that 10-11 regular season wins should be the goal. Their cross-division matchups are against Missouri and South Carolina, two teams that are fringe bowl teams entering the fall. Even so, I still think A&M is a step below 'Bama in the division and Georgia in the broader league. With that being said, the gap is closing, and another jump this season wouldn't be a shock.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-2 (6-2 SEC)
Offensive MVP: RB Isaiah Spiller
Defensive MVP: DL DeMarvin Leal
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Demond Demas
Impact Freshman: DL Tunmise Adeleye

Recruiting Breakdown
Texas A&M continues to be a force to be reckoned with on the recruiting trail, notching a Top 10 class in the 2021 Cycle. They brought in a haul of future NFL defensive linemen, including Tunmise Adeleye, Shemar Turner, Marcus Burris, and Elijah Jeudy. Adeyele and Turner in particular could see plenty of playing time in 2021, even with a fairly deep defensive line. Offensively, quarterback Eli Stowers and tailback L.J. Johnson should be the backfield pairing of the future. Stowers is likely too raw to seriously challenge for the QB job this season, but Johnson may see some action, even with Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane in front of him. A player to watch that hasn't received much fanfare just yet is offensive linemen Jordan Spasojevic-Moko, who comes from Snow College in Utah. He has a chance to push for action at one of the tackle spots, although Kenyon Green and Jahmir Johnson will be difficult to unseat.

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