Can the Aggies be slowed down?
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn opponent preview. On October 19th, Auburn takes to the road after Homecoming to take on Texas A&M at Kyle Field. The general consensus from the media this season is that the Aggies will have a hard time duplicating their successful 11 wins of a year ago. The defense is supposed to be weaker, A&M replaces most of their starting receivers, and everyone figures that Johnny Manziel is headed for something of a sophomore slump. Personally, I’m not buying much of any of those sentiments. This will be another very tough road trip for the Tigers.
The Aggies have a very navigable schedule this season. They’ve got Rice, then Sam Houston State at home, leading up to a visit by defending national champ Alabama. Plenty of time to scrimmage prior to the Tide, eh? SMU follows at home, then A&M hits the road to Arkansas and Ole Miss. There’s an open date between those last two. Then A&M is back home for four straight: Auburn, Vanderbilt, UTEP, and Mississippi State. Another off-date follows, then the Aggies end up on the road against LSU and Missouri. Frankly, I see only Alabama and LSU as big-time challenges on this schedule.
This time last year, we figured A&M would be shaky at quarterback. Manziel was pretty much an afterthought after an arrest in the spring. For those who’ve frowned on his off-season this year, at least he hasn’t been arrested. Will Manziel’s football acumen suffer this season? Not if he plays like he did in the spring game this year, hitting 24 of 30 passes for 303 yards. And he wasn’t allowed to run around this spring, either.
The Aggies lost a couple of linemen to the NFL draft, but they’ve got a solid, deep pool of beef up front to replace it with. They might not be quite as dominant up front as a year ago, but they’ll be solid. Numerous receivers in the playing rotation graduated, but what’s notable is that arguably the best one, Mike Evans, is back. Several 4-star types join him, and the Aggies signed four more that will be added to the mix this fall. Add in some talented veteran running backs, and I can’t see the Aggies missing a beat on offense.
Another idea last year was that Texas A&M simply didn’t have the depth on defense to hold up. It proved not to be true, as A&M played their best ball down the stretch. I wrongly thought Auburn would be able to run on the Aggies last season, but as it turned out, we didn’t even have the patience to try. Of course, it’s kind of tough to call successive running plays when you’re down 21-0 in the first quarter. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Gus Malzhan’s running game will be less predictable and harder to defend.
If you had to pick the weak point in the Aggie front seven, it would be at defensive tackle, where Spencer Nealy and Jonathan Mathis were stout all year. They are gone, but the Aggies signed 3 four-star tackles last season, and they’ll have to step up this year. Will they perform, or will they look a lot like the 2nd year guys Auburn has thrown in the breach the past two seasons?
On special teams, the Aggies hope to shore up both kicking games. Tyler Bertolet was was hit or miss as a freshman last season, and steady punter Ryan Epperson must be replaced. A&M was pretty good on both coverage units, and has a lot of talent on the roster to send that way again. Finding a reliable punt returner to replace Dustin Harris will be important.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Texas A&M offensive line: Auburn will likely go with a tackle rotation of Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeffery Whitaker. Dee Ford, Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae will be the primary ends. The Tigers have depth beyond those six guys, but none except Ford have distinguished themselves, either. I don’t think any offensive line mauled Auburn up front as badly as Texas A&M did last season. Fortunately, a couple of those guys graduated. Don’t expect that to make a huge difference, though. The Aggies have moved veteran, talented guards out to the edge, and brought up more talent to replace those guards. This year’s edition of the Aggie line, from left to right is senior Jake Matthews, junior Jarvis Harrison, sophomore Mike Matthews at center, senior Shep Klinke, and junior Cedric Oghbuehi. Auburn’s guys will have to show me that they are up to this sort of challenge. Advantage: Texas A&M.
Auburn linebackers vs. Texas A&M backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are sophomores Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Neither has a huge amount of game experience, and it’s a concern going into the season. The Aggies have a wealth of talent here. Senior Ben Malena was a weapon last season, and incoming transfer backups Trey Williams and Brandon Williams were both 5 stars coming out of high school. Throw in sophomore Tra Carson, and this is a fast and dangerous bunch. Advantage: Texas A&M.
Auburn corners vs. Texas A&M receivers: Auburn is surprisingly deep at corner, and will need good play from starters Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy to have a prayer in this game. Sophomore Mike Evans is a big 6′-5” target that caught 5 balls for 80 yards on Auburn last year. New starters at this time will probably come from a pool of senior Derel Walker, sophomore Edward Pope, and senior Nate Askew. Toss in a talented freshman here and there, and you’ve got a really tough matchup. Advantage: Texas A&M.
Auburn safeties vs. Texas A&M secondary receivers and quarterback: I’m lumping “star” Justin Garrett in with the safeties, because I’ve done that in earlier previews, and Texas A&M will likely attempt more passes than runs this season. This may be another game where one will see both stars on the field, Garrett and Robensen Therezie. Both have the speed to stay with wide receivers, and Therezie does have a cornerback background. Junior free safety Jermaine Whitehead has really come on this spring, so the real question is who will play strong safety. Right now, converted corner Joshua Holsey is atop the Auburn depth chart there, but senior Demetruce McNeal will return this fall and likely make a serious run. Most of these guys played against Johnny Manziel last season, and didn’t look very good. Hopefully, there will be more film to study on how to read the Heisman winner’s tendencies, this year. Secondary receivers of note for the Aggies include sophomore Sabian Holmes, junior Malcomb Kennedy, and senior tight end Nehemiah Hicks. Advantage: Texas A&M.
Punting: Auburn returns senior punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can’t be returned. Clark had 70 punts for a 39.8 yard average, but only 5 were returned, for a total of 4 yards. Junior Drew Kaser appears to have won the punting job for Texas A&M. He’s had two career punts a couple of years ago, but they went for a 45.5 yard average. Junior LeKendrick Williams takes over the punt returner role for the Aggies this season. Auburn counters with veteran Quan Bray. Both teams covered very well. On experience, it’s advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn didn’t score enough to generate many kickoffs in 2012, but when they did, Cody Parkey nailed 33 of 48 of them for touchbacks. Like Parkey, sophomore Tyler Bartolet has a big-time leg for the Aggies. He parked 65 of 103 kickoffs for touchbacks last season. When Parkey wasn’t putting the kickoff in the stands, Auburn gave up only 16.6 yards per return. Texas A&M gave up 18.6. Auburn averaged 22.4 yards per kick return last season. Texas A&M averaged only 19.9 last season. Slight advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn’s Cody Parkey was 11 of 14 on field goal attempts, and perfect on his extra points last season. Tyler Bartolet hit only 13 of 22 field goals, and and had 7 extra points not make it. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Texas A&M defensive line: Auburn’s starting A-Day unit of sophomore Greg Robinson, redshirt freshman Alex Kozan, junior Reese Dismukes, junior Chad Slade, and sophomore Patrick Miller looked dominant. In addition, the 2nd line did well against the starting D-line. I suspect that A&M will have a line by committee situation this season with some less-experienced guys in the breech. However, they’ve got a couple of dangerous options at end. Right now, your depth chart there shows senior Kirby Ennis and sophomore Alonzo Williams at tackles, and sophomore Julian Obioha and junior Brandon Alexander at ends. This will be a solid lineup, but Auburn’s guys have more experience. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Texas A&M linebackers: Auburn finished spring with a trio of dangerous running backs, and more are on the way this fall in the incoming class. Junior Tre Mason is a 1000 yard incumbent, JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne wowed the A-Day crowd with his power and agility, and junior Corey Grant is a threat on the outside. In addition, the Tigers will have bruising senior H-back Jay Prosch paving the way. The Aggies return senior Will linebacker Steven Jenkins, and have moved veteran junior Donnie Baggs up to the Mike spot. During the spring, sophomore Michael Richardson held the top spot on the strong side. Outside of Jenkins and Baggs, there’s negligible experience here. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Texas A&M corners: Auburn’s starters on the outside post-spring are juniors Jaylon Denson and Trovon Reed, neither of who have done much previously on the field. Backups Sammie Coates and Ricardo Lewis should add an explosive dimension when they sub in. The Aggies return both starting corners, sophomore De’Vante Harris, and junior Deshazo Everett. Harris had 4 passes defended, and Everett had 12, which led the team. The way A&M’s secondary got carved up in the spring game, I’m hesitant to call this one. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Texas A&M safeties: Auburn has some matchup nightmares as secondary receivers, starting with C. J. Uzomah and Quan Bray. Few safeties can keep up with either in a foot race. If a team puts extra corners in to shut that down, Auburn will run over them. Put in beefier safeties, and those guys will be wide open. The real question is who’ll pull the trigger for the Auburn offense. The QB competition is said to be neck and neck between junior Khiel Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace. Neither distinguished himself on A-Day. The race will become five-headed for a while when the newcomers arrive this fall. Pencilled in to start this season are junior Floyd Raven and junior Howard Matthews. Matthews did have 5 starts last season, with 6 pass breakups. Raven had one pick and one pass breakup. Auburn has the edge with receivers, but the quarterback questions negate that. Advantage: Even.
This is probably Auburn’s toughest road trip of the year. Yes, Auburn might be able to run the ball and hit a few trick plays on a suspect defense. But I’ve got no clue how this Auburn team will be able to stop the A&M offense, especially after watching last year’s debacle in person. Add in the fact that it’s in Kyle Field, where the home crowd will keep the noise down for the Aggie attack. Finally, a second-year Manziel needs fewer instructions, and fewer “check with me” plays. I figure pace will be a factor, too.
Prediction: Auburn runs the ball better this year against the A&M, but remains winless all-time against the Aggies. Texas A&M wins, 44-21.
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