Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher has a reputation for developing quarterbacks from his time at Florida State. Look deeper into his tenure and it becomes clear that running backs hold the keys to the kingdom.
For every Jameis Winston or EJ Manuel, there’s a Devonta Freeman, Dalvin Cook or Karlos Williams. It’s no coincidence that Texas A&M had its best season in Fisher’s first year when Trayveon Williams led the SEC with 1,760 yards – a full mile.
Today, the same principle holds true. Sophomore running back Isaiah Spiller has been the key to Texas A&M’s 3-1 start and first AP top 10 appearance in four years.
When Spiller first touched the practice field in College Station as a true freshman – just months out of Klein Collins – it was obvious he was special. The Aggies were loaded at running back, but injuries and transfers quickly gave him an increased workload. Spiller played so well as a true freshman that it was impossible to take him off the field.
“One of the reasons he did so well as a freshman is because he had to,” Fisher said. “He got thrown into the fire. He came in ready and was able to pick up things early. A lot of people talk about the physical abilities, but for a lot of these young guys, being in a system and how quick they can learn and adjust to the game is key.”
His growth as a 200-pound high school recruit to 225-pound SEC running back has paid off in a big way in 2020. The sophomore ranks No. 12 nationally with 107.5 yards per game. Only two Power Five running backs in the top 25 of rushers average better than Spiller’s 6.7 yards per carry – and both are seniors playing in the ACC, not the SEC.
“Every part of his craft has grown,” said defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal, who leads the SEC's top rushing defense against Spiller every day in practice. ”You can tell he’s not scared to hit the hole. He’s hitting it and lowering his shoulder. He doesn’t care. He’s getting after it.”
But while Spiller’s production looks good on the statsheet, it’s quickly becoming clear that the offense goes as he goes. Spiller carried the ball double-digit times for the first time against Alabama in 2019. Since then, the sophomore has played 10 games. The numbers show that Texas A&M’s offense supercharges when Spiller touches the ball.
When Texas A&M wins against Power Five opponents, Spiller touches the ball 19.1 times per game and averages 111.3 yards per game. In losses, Spiller gets the ball just 10.8 times per game and averages 31.3 yards per game.
The Aggies have seen those numbers bear themselves out on the field. Spiller’s lone tough game against Alabama was their only loss. In the opener against Vanderbilt, Fisher brought Spiller along slowly with just eight carries, and the Aggies struggled.
Over the past two games, Fisher leaned heavily on Spiller and found strong results. He exploded for 174 yards and two scores in an upset victory over Florida, and later paced the Aggies with 114 yards and two scores against a strong Mississippi State front.
Interestingly, the numbers show that Spiller’s carries actually help the passing game be far more efficient as well. Spiller has at least 20 carries in three games, including the upset win over No. 4 Florida. In those games, Kellen Mond has completed a ridiculous 67.3 percent of passes and 8.4 yards per attempt, well above his career averages.
In games where Spiller rushes fewer than 10 times, Mond completes 52.4 percent of passes and 5.6 yards per attempt. Even in games where other running backs or Mond himself received heavy carries, not handing the ball to Spiller still spelled doom.
It’s worth acknowledging the obvious. Of course, when Texas A&M plays against better defenses it struggles to run the ball more than against better teams. Still, the disparity in those numbers is notable, and the 20-carry games do include matchups against solid defenses at South Carolina and Mississippi State. The numbers speak to how Spiller can completely change a team offense.
“It gives you diversity, it gives you options,” Fisher said. “It allows you to have different packages and people can’t work on everything. The more diverse you can be, the more successful you can be in all those areas.”
For Texas A&M’s physical collection of blockers, the changes on offense are notable when Spiller takes his game to another level.
“It gets us all going,” tight end Jalen Wydermyer said. “If we’re all making blocks, it’s an attitude. If we all have the same attitude and are all clicking, we can do anything we want to do.”
Senior tackle Carson Green jokes that no offensive linemen wants to pass block. Running the ball well – and getting some help from Spiller’s physicality – makes their jobs far easier.
“Who wants to get T’d off when someone’s running at you in a 5-yard sprint?” Green said. “Our main thing is showing [Fisher] that we can run the ball so he doesn’t want to call pass plays because he loves throwing the ball to receivers...you love it when you get to hear him pop someone and run them over. You get fired up.”
Matching the legacy of Fisher’s other running backs is no easy task. Fisher has turned nine running backs into NFL draft picks as a head coach or offensive coordinator, many of whom became high picks in an era that undervalues running backs. However, Spiller has a chance to join the list.
The true sophomore is putting together an All-SEC season.
“If you watch the film, as good as he’s played, he’s still got a lot of room to improve,” Fisher said. “I don’t mean that as disrespect – that’s an encouraging thing that you’re getting the production you’re getting. He’s very open to coaching and that’s a great thing.”
This article is available to our Digital Subscribers.
Click "Subscribe Now" to see a list of subscription offers.
Already a Subscriber? Sign In to access this content.