The number two problem every Air Raid or finesse spread offense encounters is how to run the ball against teams that sell out to stop the passing game. Their number one problem being the struggle to play great defense.
Texas A&M made significant steps to solve problem one when they hired John Chavis to coordinate their defense and he was able to leverage their absurd collection of young DL talent into a squad that is posting better numbers than last year in most every statistical ranking and returns the core of the team for 2016.
But running the ball is another issue and it's something A&M has struggled to do since their two-time leading rusher departed for the NFL. Finesse spread teams that can't run the ball inevitably come across the problem of how to handle dime defense and five-man boxes that squeeze their passing lanes and make even a good spread passing attack too inefficient to score a ton of points.
The 2015 Aggies already hit this wall against Alabama when their offense was unable to hurt Saban's defense for a 2nd consecutive year. The Tide strategy was to play a good deal of dime defense with two deep safeties and stuff the run with their interior combination of Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, A'Shawn Robinson, and Reggie Ragland.
A&M couldn't make them pay and were buried under the building when their repeated turnovers brought everything down:
But now a true freshman who was a two-time state champion at the highest level of Texas high school football is at the helm for A&M and he has a skill set that is certainly "Johnny-esque." Both are tiny (sub 6'0" and probably each under 200 at this age) and both take advantage of their short legs to demonstrate absurd change of direction quickness and acceleration to wiggle through creases and embarass defenders that have to be aware of their ability to throw the ball.
These guys are basically slot receivers who throw like shortstops, a lethal combination for a QB in an Air Raid offense. Incidentally, the number of Texas QBs who double as baseball stars suggests more programs might look to steal from the diamond, or at least steal the diamond stars' progeny.
Anyways, with Kyler Murray at the helm, it's possible that A&M might be able to once again have the kind of running game that makes their offense exceptionally difficult to stop.
The A&M run game sans a dual-threat QB
The Aggies didn't have much hope of running the ball between the tackles against Alabama straight up with zone as their personnel were simply over-matched by the power and ability of the Tide DTs and ILB. Even a RPO combining an inside zone run with a pass to the perimeter stood little chance simply because the Bama nose tackle Jarran Reed could command a double team and free Ragland to run to the ball unblocked:
With that fact already more or less accepted by their coaches, the Aggies instead determined to try and gain a numerical advantage and run at the perimeter with the "power-read" concept. The problem with this QB option play is that you give the defense a chance to choose which concept they'd rather defend; the inside power run featuring the QB or the perimeter sweep featuring the tailback.
With Kyle Allen in the game at QB, that was an easy choice for the Tide:
The power-read concept was an utter failure for the Aggies in this game as they couldn't consistently power the ball down main street, like in this example where they lose control of the DT without the double team, and they might have contributed to Allen's shoulder problems that have now taken him out of action.
With Manziel, the Aggies had a diverse collection of QB running plays that were virtually impossible to defend, including QB lead runs from spread sets where it was impossible to get numbers to the point of attack and RPOs where Manziel would read if the defense was dropping back to stop the pass or loading the box and either make a quick pass or take off. Either way you were then left to tackle someone fast in space.
With Allen at the helm and without a dominant OL to create advantages, the A&M run game was DOA for 2015 against better SEC defenses.
The Kyler Murray effect
Here's a glimpse of what power-read looks like when the defense is remotely concerned about the possibility of the QB keeping the ball behind a pulling guard:
The DE has to stay home and offers the sweeper a soft edge to attack and the pursuit has to wait a beat before flying to the perimeter to chase down the runner. The resulting leverage (and some good WR blocking) allow Christian Kirk to win the edge and pick up 10 yards on a first down run.
Tra Carson is another beneficiary and the Aggies did tremendous damage to South Carolina's defense after Murray was named the starter with simple zone read plays that had bubble screens attached on the outside to help isolate the Gamecock defenders:
Occasionally A&M would sub in a blocker at the H-back position and use him to lead the way to the perimeter for Murray, a standard trick which left the Gamecocks totally helpless. As simple as these tactics are though, the excellent spacing translates against good defenses as well and makes it exceptionally difficult to handle A&M's runners. The Gamecock DEs eventually tried to get very wide to prevent Murray from getting loose on the edge only to be gashed by Carson on cutback runs:
So long as they can present a threat with the perimeter passing game, it's all too easy for A&M to scheme different ways for Kyler Murray to carry the ball in open spaces, even when the opposing team has A&M outnumbered in the box as they do on the clip above. Against South Carolina they ran ran gap schemes, zone read plays, power-read plays, and QB draws for Murray as he carried the ball 20 times for 156 yards against the helpless Gamecocks while freeing up Carson to add another 122 yards on 21 carries.
Moving forward with Kyler Murray
While Murray now makes it easy for the A&M offensive staff to scheme easy ways to run the football on their opponents, they have two concerns for the future that will determine whether Murray can help them finally find their way to the top of the SEC West in 2016.
The first is Murray's body, he's listed at 5'11" 185 and the former number is probably generous if the latter isn't. A&M does not want him carrying the ball 20 times per game, Manziel only had 20 or more carries twice in his career and both were in his first year and he was bigger than Murray.
It's reasonable for the Aggies to hope that Murray's quickness and ability to avoid taking too many direct shots should help to keep him healthy, but if they try to maintain this pace they'll be asking for trouble.
The next concern is his mastery of their passing game, which would allow him to carry the ball less and throw more, and would also ensure that they always have adequate spacing for their numerous burners to run around in.
Some of the A&M passing game is fairly simple, particularly fantastic plays such as this one that they've added since Manziel which plays off their execution of Bob Stitt-style tunnel screens:
The gist of the Stitt tunnel screen is that the OL don't release downfield as blockers downfield since Stitt found that this tends to clue the DL and LBs to what's going on and results in less space to work in rather than more. A&M add a play-action fake here to freeze the LBs and Ricky Seals-Jones takes a few steps to suggest he's blocking for a tunnel screen before blowing past the DB who lunges forward to stop the screen and running into open grass.
Alabama also struggled heavily with the play-fakes A&M ran off their tunnel screen concept, but it didn't matter because A&M couldn't run the ball.
Where the Aggies could eventually become devastating is if Murray can start drilling go routes and back shoulder fades down the sideline to targets like Josh Reynolds and Speedy Noil, which will open up the middle of the field to become his personal play-ground with QB runs and RPOs.
Murray is only averaging 6.6 yards per attempt on the year so far, mostly because he's not been asked to do much other than throw quick passes in the middle like the one above, but if he progresses on a normal Air Raid QB timetable he could become a lethal passer in year two with potentially all of his top targets returning.
Keep an eye on this team heading into 2016, they could be back on the threshold of breakthrough once again.