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The key to Jimbo’s first year at Texas A&M

Fisher has a tough task ahead converting the spread-oriented Aggie offense into something closer to his preferred pro-style approach. JUCO TE Jace Sternberger or another recent addition could be the most important part of that transition.

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-Wake Forest vs Texas A&M Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Jimbo Fisher’s offenses at Florida State were pro-style both in the colloquial sense and in the more proper sense of “mirroring modern, professional offenses.” He regularly used a fullback and lined his QB up under center but the Seminoles also included heavy doses of dropback concepts from 11 personnel sets where the TE was asked to run a variety of routes in the seam.

While Kevin Sumlin was at Texas A&M they ran first an Air Raid offense under the direction of Kliff Kingsbury and then Jake Spavital before converting to a similar single-back spread system coached by Noel Mazzone. None of these offenses made much use of under center formations and tended to replace the seam-shredding TE with either a slot receiver or a blocking H-back depending on situation.

Consequently the Aggies have a considerable transition ahead of them in going from Mazzone’s rather simple system to Fisher’s richly layered approach. In particular the Aggies didn’t have all the pieces that Fisher prefers to use in executing his system, especially at the TE and FB positions.

The A&M personnel

What Fisher did inherit at A&M was a pair of sophomore skill talents that could easily translate to any scheme. Running back Trayveon Williams (the cane guy) who ran for 798 yards and eight TDs as a sophomore...

...and fellow sophomore Jhamon Ausbon, who caught 50 balls for 571 yards (second on the team). It’s probably safe to assume that some of the other skill talents waiting in the wings after being plucked from the top ranks of Texas HS programs by Sumlin are also pretty dangerous athletes.

The OL is fairly experienced, although they weren’t dominant in 2017 and lost left tackle Koda Martin when he transferred to Syracuse, and welcomes back four upperclassmen on the interior who have started games in the SEC.

At the all-important QB position Fisher is choosing between former 4-star IMG signal caller Kellen Mond and the less mobile but considerably more effective Nick Starkel, a former 3-star. Starkel was the much more accomplished passer, which is likely to prove the difference in Fisher’s legitimately pro-style passing playbook.

Early acquisitions by Fisher

The obvious challenge facing Fisher in year one at A&M is how to make the most of a talent like Trayveon Williams without the normal pieces that he used to unlock guys like Dalvin Cook at FSU. Jimbo immediately set about to remake the roster by converting former walk-on and special teams star Cullen Gillaspia into a fullback while adding a JUCO TE (Jace Sternberger) and a grad transfer TE from Arizona (Trevor Wood). The Aggies also added a transfer fullback from the demise of Mike Riley’s pro-style era at Nebraska, Les Miles’ son Ben.

Reports from spring camp had Gillaspia and the I-formation playing a significant role in the Aggies’ offensive install with Trayveon claiming that as many as 70% of the offensive snaps included Gilaspia.

Sternberger was a promising 3-star athlete out of Oklahoma back in 2015 when he originally signed with the Kansas Jayhawks. The Jayhawk’s Air Raid offense didn’t offer him very promising prospects (to say nothing of winning) so he transferred back to Oklahoma to play at the JUCO level until now. He caught eight balls for 147 yards and a pair of scores in the Aggies’ spring game and figures to be a prominent piece of the puzzle in 2018.

Trevor Wood was largely used as a bludgeon in the run game at Arizona on behalf of Kahlil Tate but is said to have some promise as a receiver as well. Each of these additions could prove essential to kickstarting the Fisher era in College Station.

The 2018 Aggie offense

The Aggies spent most of the spring game in 11 personnel spread sets, either giving lie to Trayveon’s remark about the focus on fullbacks in the spring or (more likely) concealing their favorite concepts from the prying eyes of opponents. However, the spring game did reveal a knack on the part of Sternberger for running underneath routes that could hold opponents and create leverage down the field for Ausbon.

They made good use of him running underneath routes after chipping in with pass protection...

...and in running some out routes from the seam to help create windows for throwing to Ausbon working against man coverage down the field.

In both examples you see the Aggies double Sternberger underneath with a pair of underneath defenders only to be abused down the field by Ausbon. That’s an ideal result for a TE that blocks and runs some routes in the seams or the flats, to be able to draw that kind of attention and free up a more explosive playmaker.

But the Aggies had a few issues in the spring game. The first was that Sternberger wasn’t exactly a brilliant blocker and the second was that Nick Starkel didn’t always show great vision and awareness working through progressions in which he’d read coverage responses to the TE in the middle of the field.

That’s a stick route again with a flat route from the slot and the outside guy running a post deep. Fisher has the TE running the stick at much greater depth than many teams do it here, which can make the play extra deadly when done well but Starkel’s vision doesn’t include the nickel hanging in the flat rather than committing to the quick route out wide. Ideally the Aggies could use Sternberger as a cheat code for creating simple reads and leverage on passing downs but their QBs have to become proficient in these schemes to make that work properly and it could be difficult to learn them in time to take on SEC West defenses.

Sternberger should be a boon in allowing the Aggies to line up with bigger sets, get more protection help for their young tackles, and attacking the middle of the field overall. That said, Gillaspia could be the more important piece both for improving their blocking and in freeing up Sternberger to draw easier blocking assignments and get out on routes more.

It’s hard to imagine Starkel or Mond showing a high level mastery of Fisher’s dropback passing game in year one and guiding the Aggies to wins unless they can lean heavily on the running game. Running the ball from 11 personnel sets is iffy if the TE blocking isn’t good or is heavily dependent on mixing in play-action shots that allow Sternberger to fool LBs, the Aggies need to be able to get hats on hats and hand off in key moments.

So the best outcome in 2018 would be for Gillaspia to take well to fullback and allow the Aggies to hammer opponents with a variety of schemes for loosing the explosive Trayveon Williams and make the year one passing game largely about ultra-simple reads in which Sternberger and Ausbon can tag team to create windows to throw down the field.

Fisher has moved quickly to try and transform the Aggie offensive roster into the kind of unit that can execute his schemes and allow them to leverage the talents that Sumlin left behind. For all the hype about Sumlin’s recruiting classes and then the ones that Fisher is aiming to build, 2018 and the promise of a quick start will come down to a walk-on and a JUCO.