An Aggie Visit! (Previewing Auburn vs. Texas A&M)
Trayveon Williams is a threat to take it to the house
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn game preview! After a bye week on the October 27th weekend, Auburn will host the Texas A&M Aggies on November 3rd. Since the Aggies joined the SEC, the home team has yet to win a game in this series. Auburn will have a great chance to end that streak this year. New head coach Jimbo Fisher intends to transform Texas A&M from a spread team to one that is more pro style on both sides of the ball. That sort of shift rarely works out well in year one.
Texas A&M has a brutal schedule early on. The Aggies open on a Thursday night in late August with Northwestern State, then host Clemson and Louisiana Monroe in back-to-back weeks. The Aggies then travel to play Alabama, followed by Arkansas in Arlington, Texas. Texas A&M then hosts Kentucky and travels to South Carolina. The Aggies have a bye week, then travel to Starkville to take on a tough Mississippi State team before their trip to Auburn. Auburn will have played Washington in Atlanta and hosted Alabama State, LSU, Arkansas and Southern Miss before traveling to Mississippi State. Auburn then hosts Tennessee before heading to Oxford to play Ole Miss. The Tigers have a bye week before hosting Texas A&M.
One of the issues of transforming from a spread attack to a more conventional offense is whether the team has any players on the roster that can handle the lead blocking roles played by tight ends and fullbacks. If the spring game is any indication, the Aggies have found a tight end or two that should be good. Fullback was more of a walk-on situation, and the Aggies ran a lot of one-back offense in the spring. I worry about those positions every year at Auburn, and now the Aggies have those worries. Still, I expect to see the team lean heavily on star running back Trayveon Williams. Williams is fast, but hasn’t yet been put in the position of having to be the bell-cow runner.
Texas A&M wasn’t great up front on offense last season, but it does get most starters back and has retained offensive line coach Jim Turner from the previous staff. The quarterback is still up in the air as sophomores Nick Starkell and Kellen Mond continue to battle it out. One would think that Starkell’s drop-back style would be a better fit for the style of offense head coach Jimbo Fisher likes to run. Mond is more of a mobile, dual-threat quarterback. Fisher hired Darrell Dickey to run the offense, and Dickey is known for the formidable passing offense he put together last season at Memphis.
Defensively, Fisher was able to hire Mike Elko away from Notre Dame to run the defense. Elko runs a pressure style, multiple defense which is difficult to prepare for. Elko inherits a defense that has been less than the sum of its parts the past couple of season. The Aggies could pressure the quarterback but were quite leaky on the back end. Elko has talent and experience to work with at every level of the defense.
Texas A&M has a pair of very strong, accurate legs in veteran kicker Daniel LaCamera and punter/kickoff man Braden Mann. The Aggies will have to replace legendary kick/punt returner Christian Kirk, although there are plenty of good speedsters on the roster to audition. Texas A&M was average in punt coverage and somewhat suspect in kick coverage last season.
Unit battles, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Texas A&M offensive line: Auburn brings a big, athletic defensive line back this season. Likely starters at tackle are senior Dontavius Russell and junior Derrick Brown. Junior strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side is a rotation between sophomores TD Moultry and Big Kat Bryant. Auburn can play monster sophomore Nick Coe at any position on the line with great results. Auburn has serious depth all across the line as well. The Aggies took a blow this past spring when starting left tackle Koda Martin suffered a heat stroke and subsequently transferred to Syracuse. The next man up is sophomore Dan Moore, Jr., but there may be some shuffling in fall camp. Carson Green took hold of the right tackle spot this past spring but may be moved to the left side and in that case look for Keaton Sutherland to start on the right. Guards should be junior Colton Prater and senior Connor Lanfear. Junior Erik McCoy will start at center. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Texas A&M backs: The Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Senior Deshaun Davis leads the bunch, seniors Darrell Williams and Montravious Atkinson are able to play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players out on the field at a given time. Auburn has lots of depth behind the starters as well. Auburn’s linebackers play with leverage and are sure tacklers. Junior Trayveon Williams will start at running back for the Aggies. Williams has bedeviled the Auburn defense with long runs the past couple of seasons but did not get a ton of carries. It remains to be seen how well he will hold up as a primary ball carrier by the time November rolls around. Advantage: even.
Auburn corners vs. Texas A&M receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners in juniors Javaris Davis and Jamel Dean. Junior Jeremiah Dinson could move over from safety, if needed. Sophomore converted wide receiver Noah Igbinoghene turned heads this spring and could be a co-starter on either side. John Broussard Jr. provides quality depth. Texas A&M lost a couple of great receivers, as they seem to do every year, but there is still a stockpile of talent here. Look for sophomores Kendrick Rogers and Jhamon Ausbon to start, with depth provided by Klyde Chriss and Hezekiah Jones. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Texas A&M secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features Juniors Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas at safety. Thomas was an experienced backup last season, and Dinson played nickel back. Dinson can play every position in the secondary well but has missed considerable time with injuries over the past 3 seasons. Sophomore Jordyn Peters is listed as Auburn’s top nickel back as of now. Auburn is very young behind the starters. The star of the Aggie spring game was transfer tight end Jace Sternberger, who was a serious threat in the passing game. Sophomore slot receiver Cameron Buckley may be the fastest of all Aggie receivers. The duel between sophomore quarterbacks Nick Starkell and Kellen Mond will continue this fall camp, but a starter should be settled on by November. It is important to remember that Jimbo Fisher has quite the reputation as a developer of quarterbacks. Advantage: Even.
Punting: For now, Auburn sophomore Aiden Marshall is the starter, backed up by Ian Shannon. Both were inconsistent last year and didn’t do much to impress in Auburn’s A-Day game in bad weather. Australian import Arryn Siposs is expected to come in and win the starting punting job this fall. Last season, Shannon averaged 39.8 yards per punt, and Marshall averaged 39.4. The Aggies will miss the leg of Shane Tripucka, but junior replacement Braden Mann looks like a more than adequate punter. Neither team was great in punt coverage last season. Texas A&M gave up 8.1 yards per return, and Auburn gave up 11.4. Both teams are still trying to find a punt returner for this season. Advantage: Texas A&M.
Kickoffs: Auburn redshirt freshman Anders Carlson has no experience, but given his displayed leg strength on A-Day, I think kicking a lot of touchbacks should be a given next season. Also, there is a new fair catch rule in effect this season, that puts the ball at the 25. I think we will see a lot of fair catches on anything fielded inside the 5 this season. Braden Mann should be a strong kickoff man for the Aggies. Auburn will return kickoffs with sophomore Noah Igbinoghene, who averaged 23.8 yards per return last season despite only fair-to-poor blocking. We’re not sure who’ll return kicks for the Aggies yet, but it is worth noting that Trayveon Williams averaged 30.5 yards per return on 6 returns last season. Whether the Aggies would consider their top running back for return duties is up in the air. Auburn was awful on kick coverage giving up 27.2 yards per return last season. Fortunately, Carlson can produce a lot of touchbacks. Texas A&M was suspect, giving up 22.4. Advantage: Texas A&M.
Place kicking: Anders Carlson of Auburn has no experience, but he did hit 4 of 4 in bad weather in Auburn’s spring game. I watched him in warmups, too. His only miss in practice was from 53 yards, hitting the upright. Senior Daniel LaCamera returns for the Aggies after hitting on 18 of 21 field goals last season. Advantage: Texas A&M.
Auburn offensive line vs. Texas A&M defensive line: It’s still not settled who’ll start for Auburn on the line, although the starters looked decent on A-Day. Auburn is set at the guard spots with veteran juniors Mike Horton and Marquel Harrell. Left tackle seems solid with junior Prince Tega Wanagho, who has reputedly taken the next step forward this spring after struggling last season in limited starts. Right tackle was a battle this spring between freshmen Austin Troxell and Calvin Ashley. Both had good moments, but Auburn turned around and signed graduate transfer Jack Driscoll from UMass. Driscoll played last season against SEC foes Tennessee and Mississippi State and allowed just 1 quarterback pressure. Center is another big question mark for Auburn. Junior Kaleb Kim and redshirt freshman NickBrahms were battling for the starting job, but both went out with injuries and may or may not be back for the season opener. Converted H-back/tight end/walk-on Tucker Brown started on A-Day and actually did a good job. By midseason, I’m confident that line coach J. B. Grimes will have a strong offensive line out there. Grimes did a really solid job with the Auburn line in his previous stint from 2013-2015. Grimes has been greatly missed the past couple of seasons! The Aggies have a stout pair of senior tackles, Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke, with depth behind them. At end, the Aggies return senior Landis Durham, who led the SEC in sacks last season. Junior Michael Clemmons appears to have nabbed the other starting spot. Depth is good at end, as well. It is worth noting that this team only got to the Auburn quarterback a couple of times last season in College Station. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. Texas A&M linebackers: Auburn features senior H-back Chandler Cox, a 4-year starter, blowing open holes. The real question is who will carry the ball. Junior Kam Martin is blazing fast but has had durability issues in the past. Junior Malik Miller has size, power, and a few carries here and there but hasn’t been used much. Sophomore Devan Barrett has been moved to receiver. Auburn played freshmen JaTarvious Whitlow and Asa Martin a lot on A-Day. Both were suspect in pass blocking, and running sideways or backwards. Whitlow dropped several passes. The best A-Day runner for the second year in a row was junior walk-on C. J. Tolbert, who had 137 yards. Tolbert is on the small side and didn’t have an actual carry in 2017. We do know, after watching the Gus Malzahn offense for 8 years at Auburn, there will be a bell-cow running back identified by this time, tearing SEC defenses up, as long as the offense is balanced. The Aggies should be solid here with returning starters. Senior Otara Alaka and sophomore Buddy Johnson will handle the outside, while junior Tyrel Dodson lines up in the middle. Auburn piled up 228 rushing yards against Texas A&M last season. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. Texas A&M corners: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were juniors Nate Craig-Myers and Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly, have good height, and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had the catch of the day on A-Day and is someone to watch out for on the outside as well. Veteran junior Charles Oliver holds down one side, and evidently Clifford Chattman will return after sitting out of academic reasons last year. There is good depth at corner as well. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Texas A&M safeties: Auburn senior Ryan Davis shattered the team single-season receptions mark last year with 84 catches. Teams that gave Davis a cushion last season got eaten up 5 to 10 yards per quick pass. Teams that tried to press were often burned for touchdowns. Auburn depth at the slot took blows with both Will Hastings and Eli Stove having knee injuries and surgeries this spring. Both did a ton of damage last year. Auburn has moved running back Devan Barrett to the slot for depth. Barrett has good hands and is a good runner, but he’s not the breakaway threat the guys above him are. Auburn’s tight end is senior Jalen Harris. Teams can key on him as a blocker only. I think Auburn has targeted Harris maybe 3 times in his 3 years as a starter. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham had a slow start and a propensity to take hits last season but heated up by about game 4 and lit up some SEC secondaries. He’s mobile in the pocket, and can make every throw. The Aggies are pretty stout at safety with a strong rotation. Expect some combination of Donovan Wilson, Derrick Turner, Keldrick Carper, Deshawn Capers-Smith, and Larry Pryor to keep the top on the defense. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn should have a good home-field advantage in this one, and depth tends to matter more in November. Auburn has better depth than Texas A&M in spots as well as more top-end talent, especially throughout the defense. I suspect both teams will try to establish the run and control the clock, in order to keep the other team’s dangerous skill players on the sideline. However, I think Texas A&M is a couple of recruiting classes away from being able to pound on SEC West defenses.
Prediction: Year one of the the Fisher era is going to be a tough transition. Auburn wins in workmanlike fashion, 27-10.