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College Football Preview 2022: 8. Texas A&M Aggies

Jalen Preston, Texas A&M

8. Texas A&M Aggies

Quarterback questions aside, the Aggies are loaded with talent and ready to challenge for a division title

2021 Review
After going 9-1 and barely missing the 2021 CFB Playoff, Texas A&M entered last year with sky-high expectations. Within a matter of a few weeks, those expectations had to be re-evaluated, following the season-ending injury to starting QB Haynes King. His replacement, Zach Calzada, was ill-equipped to lead the Aggie offense, leading to a 3-2 start on the year. Entering an October 9th meeting against Alabama, a team that had owned A&M since the days of Johnny Manziel, the chances of an upset looked unrealistic. Instead, Calzada and the Aggie offense had the game of their lives, leading to a shocking defeat of the reigning National Champions. Fans were hopeful such a monumental victory would spring A&M towards a successful second half, but a pair of road losses to Ole Miss and LSU left the Aggies 8-4 on the year. A cancelled bowl game put a cap on a season that had plenty of potential, but was ultimately unsatisfying. It also puts pressure on head coach Jimbo Fisher to deliver more as he enters a pivotal fifth year in College Station, aiming to breakthrough the nine-win ceiling that has defined his tenure up to this point.

2022 Outlook
Offense: We never got much of an opportunity to see the Texas A&M offense at their best in 2021, as King fractured his leg during the second game of the year. Zach Calzada did the best he could in a complicated situation, but is pretty clear he wasn't the quarterback of the future, leading to an eventual transfer inside the division, to Auburn.

With Calzada gone, Fisher is overseeing a three-man quarterback competition to lead his complex offensive scheme. King has an excellent shot at winning the job, assuming he's able to recover and get back to 100 percent. He's a former high-profile recruit with real athleticism, but his lack of experience at the collegiate level is a real concern. 

A pair of newcomers threaten to give him quite the battle at QB in LSU transfer Max Johnson and true freshman Conner Weigman. Johnson finished 2020 strong and parlayed it into the starting job with the Tigers; he flashed plenty of potential, but also suffered serious ups-and-downs. His edge in experience gives him an advantage, but don't count out Weigman, one of the highest-rated quarterbacks in the Class of 2022. Weigman has earned rave reviews from the coaching staff and no matter what happens this offseason, he is the future in College Station.

The quarterback competition will be the storyline to watch through fall camp and into the regular season, but running back appears to be in good hands. Devon Achane was one of the best backups, regardless of position, in college football last fall. He totaled 910 yards on the ground and added 261 as a receiver, while averaging seven yards per carry. He shouldn't have much difficulties transitioning into the feature back for the Aggies. However, it will be interesting to see who else emerges at the position, as Fisher has always preferred multiple tailbacks. Redshirt frosh L.J. Johnson Jr. is a prime candidate, appearing in four games last year, but maintaining his redshirt. 

For most of the Fisher era, the lack of proven playmakers has crippled his offense. There's a chance for that to change in 2022 as candidates line the receiver room, but the lack of experienced options leaves plenty of questions.

Do-it-all Ainias Smith is the most explosive player on the roster, a converted running back who finished second on the team with 509 receiving yards last fall. He's not a traditional Fisher-type wide out, but A&M is creative with how they get him the ball and he adds a much-needed element to this offense. Joining him are Chase Lane and Jalen Preston, two players who have had flashes of brilliance, but are still awaiting their respective breakouts. It's now or never for Preston in particular, who won the Offense's Most Improved Award in 2020, but wasn't quite able to build on it last fall and is now a senior. True freshman Evan Stewart is another name to monitor; he was a five-star recruit and already plays like a seasoned vet.

Fisher is well-known for his ability to develop the tight end position, but the Aggies will be without one of the nation's best, as Jalen Wydermyer moves on. Senior Max Wright remains on the roster, but true freshman Jake Johnson may be the better bet to start. He was one of the top-ranked tight ends in this year's recruiting class and the younger brother of Max.

The offensive line was inconsistent in 2021, but could be in line for improvement. That is, assuming they're able to find a quality replacement for All-American guard Kenyon Green, who is off to the NFL. The trio of Layden Robinson, Bryce Foster, and Reuben Fatheree II gives the Aggies a nice core to work with, while Trey Zuhn III is an excellent breakout candidate. He's the favorite to man the left tackle spot left open by Jahmir Johnson's departure.

Despite his background as an offensive coordinator, Fisher's offenses have been mostly average during his tenure with A&M. There is certainly potential for that to change, with weapons like Achane and Smith dotting the roster, but it all hinges on the quarterback. Calzada did the best he could given the circumstances, but the Aggies need more if they are going to seriously threaten Alabama in the SEC West. Whether that's Johnson, King, or even Weigman, QB will decide what A&M can be this fall.

Defense: One of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in college football, Mike Elko finally decided to take the jump to head coaching, becoming the next head man at Duke. In his place, Fisher stayed inside the division and hired D.J. Durkin from Ole Miss. Durkin is a controversial name among college football, going back to his time as head coach at Maryland and the tragic death of Jordan McNair.

Up front, A&M is loaded with talent, but it will be Durkin's job to unleash it. McKinnley Jackson and Shemar Turner both saw a healthy dosage of playing time in 2021 and now project as starters on the inside, while the Aggies are hopeful someone emerges at end, most likely redshirt freshman Tunmise Adeleye. There's also three highly touted newcomers set to join the D-Line, including the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, Walter Nolen. He's the most likely to see serious snaps this fall, but keep an eye on Shemar Stewart and Gabriel Brownlow-Diddy.

The linebacker corps is more experienced and proven, even if it's not quite as talented as the defensive line. Senior Andre White Jr. is a solid defender who should rack up the tackles as the starting middle linebacker. Joining him is likely to be sophomore outside 'backer Edgerrin Cooper, who notched 5.5 tackles for loss in 2021.

A&M was strong defending the pass a season ago, finishing third in the SEC and 17th nationally. This may be the strength of the entire team once more, as they're loaded on the back-end. Sophomore Tyreek Chappell emerged last season and is in line for a starting role, while the pair of Jaylon Jones and Myles Jones man the corner spot opposite of him. There's also a chance another big-name true frosh could see action here right away, as in-state product Denver Harris has drawn rave reviews.

Junior Antonio Johnson was the best defender on the team a year ago, finishing with 79 tackles, 8.5 TFL, and five pass deflections. He played the nickel in 2021 but there's some thought that he could move around under the leadership of Durkin. Joining him will be Demani Richardson, and the two could form one of the nation's top safety combos. If Johnson does indeed move around, senior Brian George or sophomore Deuce Harmon will take over nickelback responsibilities. Harmon was awfully impressive last year despite being inexperienced, but George has been in the program for a number of years now.

Even though he is highly controversial among the college football community, there isn't much denying how good of a defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin is, going back to his time with Florida and Michigan. He has loads of talent to work with on this roster and takes over a group that finished third nationally in scoring defense. Don't be surprised if this is among the SEC's, and nation's, best once again this fall.

Special Teams: Kicker Seth Small became an A&M legend with his game-sealing field goal to beat Alabama, but he has since moved on, leading the Aggies searching for answers at the position. Fortunately, the rest of the special teams should be very strong, with explosive options in the return game and a proven punter in junior Nick Constantinou.

Bottom Line: Instead of building on the impressive 2020 campaign, Texas A&M was a disappointment a year ago. Some of it can be credited to the loss of King so early on in the season but at some point, all the blue-chip recruits dotting this roster are going to have to come through and deliver something meaningful to College Station. It may be tough to do so in 2022 with Alabama looking as invincible as ever at the top of the division, but the Aggies still have the pieces in place to be a CFB Playoff contender. Even as questions surround the quarterback spot, the offense has a chance to be productive, and I don't have any doubt Durkin will spearhead an elite defensive group. The schedule is no breeze, with Miami in the non-conference and road trips to Alabama, Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Auburn but at this point, there should be no more excuses. 10 regular season victories and a New Year's Six bowl isn't too much to task for; if Fisher is unable to deliver, it's time to start asking whether the Aggies are ever going to achieve their breakthrough under the highly compensated head coach.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Fisher got his start in coaching under a Bowden, Terry, back at Samford in the late 1980s. That relationship helped him land at Florida State under Bobby, as he was OC/QB coach from 2007-2009 before becoming the legendary head man's predecessor. He delivered a National Title to Tallahassee and a CFB Playoff berth before ditching to A&M prior to the 2018 season. His offensive coordinator is Darrell Dickey, who also served as QB coach before moving to tight ends over the offseason in a staff shuffle. He's the former head man at North Texas and has made the rounds as an assistant since then. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin is a former assistant under Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh who previously served as Florida interim head coach and Maryland head coach from 2016-2018. After spending 2019 with the Atlanta Falcons in an off-field role following the tragic death of Jordan McNair, he returned to college as co-DC with Ole Miss before landing with A&M.

Recruiting Breakdown
Whether it was the result of NIL inducements or simply the great work of the coaching staff, Texas A&M managed to land the No. 1 group in the Class of 2022. This class is loaded with blue-chippers just about everywhere, with eight five-stars in total. The headliner is unquestionably defensive linemen Walter Nolen, rated either the No. 1 or 2 overall prospect in the cycle, depending on which recruiting service you use. He's joined by several big names along the defensive line, including Shemar Stewart, Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy, and Lebbeus Overton. On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Conner Weigman is rated as the No. 2 quarterback in the class and is unquestionably the future at the position, while receivers Evan Stewart and Chris Marshall will also contribute in the long-term. Don't be surprised if tight end Jake Johnson starts right away in his first season on campus. The younger brother of projected starting QB Max, Jake has already received plenty of recognition since he's been on campus.

2022 X-Factor: Max Johnson, QB
Jimbo Fisher's offensive scheme is notoriously complex, so it's no surprise Zach Calzada had serious struggles in 2021. Now that Calzada has left for a division rival, Fisher is overseeing a quarterback competition for the second straight year, with Haynes King and Max Johnson the two frontrunners. King may know the offense, but the fact that Johnson has already started in the SEC for a year-and-a-half gives him a distinct advantage. Johnson, the son of former NFL QB Brad, had a strong 2021 campaign despite drama swirling around the LSU drama and a lack of proven targets on the perimeter. There should be more stability at A&M and the pieces on the outside are oozing with potential, even if they haven't quite lived up to the hype just yet. Johnson doesn't need to be a superstar for A&M to contend for an SEC West crown, but he does have to help them develop some type of downfield passing game. The Aggies have ranked near the bottom of the Power Five in explosiveness through the air year after year under Fisher; there's no way they can topple Alabama if that's the case again in 2022.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 10-2 (6-2 SEC)
Offensive MVP: RB Devon Achane
Defensive MVP: DB Antonio Johnson
Breakout Player of the Year: OT Trey Zuhn III
Impact Freshman: TE Jake Johnson

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