The cruel reality of life in the SEC was on full display during Texas A&M’s 2021 campaign. The high of knocking off perennial contender Alabama at Kyle Field was offset by four conference losses. An 8-4 season was the result as the Aggies struggled through inconsistency in the passing game thanks to an early-season injury to starting quarterback Haynes King.
“We can talk about it all we want, but it is about demanding the best every single day,” Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said of life in the SEC. “We are creating a habit on a daily basis of what we’re supposed to do and how we’re supposed to do it.”
Many scoffed when the Aggies hired Fisher as a declaration of intent to compete with the big boys in the SEC. Four seasons later and Texas A&M is right on the doorstep of true national relevance as a football program. The first step toward playing for, and eventually winning, a national championship is on the recruiting trail. Texas A&M is acquiring talent as well as anybody in the country, inking the No. 1-ranked class in the 2022 cycle. The group included eight five-star talents and was rated as the best class in modern recruiting history.
“Maybe as good of a transitional group of guys that I’ve ever been around,” Fisher said of the early enrollees from the 2022 cycle. “It is normal for a few guys in the group to struggle, but these guys showed up ready. It’s been a blessing.”
But is 2022 too soon? Fisher said the early enrollees are already making an impact. Five-star wide receiver Evan Stewart could make a similar impact as a true freshman as Xavier Worthy did for rival Texas in 2021. Jake Johnson might be the favorite to start at tight end. Denver Harris and Bryce Anderson add to an already talented secondary. Quarterback Conner Weigman is in a three-way battle with transfer Max Johnson and a healthy King.
The real run for Texas A&M might be a year away. The Aggies’ best players at most positions are underclassmen. Fisher’s squad should know its quarterback going into 2023. The offensive line will be led by then-juniors Bryce Foster and Reuben Fatheree II. The new crop of talented defensive linemen will have a season of SEC play under their belts. The weapons at tight end and wide receiver will be seasoned. Oh, and Fisher is sure to sign another top-10 class to fill the ranks.
The 2022 season is about building confidence at quarterback, at the skill positions, and in the front seven of the defense. Texas A&M went 8-1 in SEC play during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The Aggies are a combined 13-11 in the SEC under Fisher in the other three seasons. Taking the next step for Texas A&M is seriously competing for the conference’s West Division title. A&M has lost at least four SEC games in seven of the last nine years. It has lost at least three conference games in eight of the 10 seasons played in the SEC. Take away the pandemic year and Texas A&M hasn’t finished ranked in the top 15 of the final AP Poll since Johnny Manziel was on campus.
“My expectation is to always be at the top,” Fisher said. “But expectations are only goals and aspirations. Now, our daily habits must match those goals and aspirations, or they’re wasted. I think we can be an excellent football team, as good as we want to be, as long as we become a great team daily.”
With so many new faces, anything better than eight wins should be considered a success and a platform to jump into 2023 with College Football Playoff aspirations. The talent is on campus, but it might need another season before its ready to consistently win in the toughest division in college football - a division that’s produced five national champions since Texas A&M joined the conference in 2012.
“Like coach always says, our opponents are faceless,” wide receiver Ainias Smith said. “If we go out and work the way we’re supposed to work, the test should be easy.”
The Aggies get healthy at quarterback and add enough five-star talent to consistently navigate the SEC and crash the College Football Playoffs.
The Aggies suffer through another four-loss SEC season thanks to an inconsistent passing attack and inexperience on the defensive line.
Game of the Year
Texas A&M vs. LSU — November 26
The budding football rivalry between Texas A&M and LSU is an undersold story in the modern SEC. Seemingly every game is a barnburner, and both coaching staffs recruit the same areas of southeast Texas, including the hotbed in Houston. If all goes right, the Aggies might be playing for their first berth into the SEC championship game.
Inconsistencies at the quarterback position cost Texas A&M a run at the SEC crown in 2021. The offense was inefficient on third down and in the red zone. The Aggies converted 55 percent of their third down tries in 2020 with Kellen Mond at quarterback and scored 31 touchdowns in 47 trips to the red zone. Those numbers plummeted to 38 percent on third downs and 22 red zone touchdowns in 43 tries.
Texas A&M exited spring practice without a definitive answer in its three-man quarterback battle. Haynes King, who earned the starting job heading into 2021, participated in the spring and should be fully healthy for fall after a season-ending ankle injury last year. The Aggies added LSU transfer Max Johnson and five-star freshman Conner Weigman to the room.
“We’re looking for more consistency, but I think you’re always looking for more of that,” head coach Jimbo Fisher said of the quarterbacks. “I was pleased with their overall command of things. They are natural leaders who each had their moments during the spring.”
The wide receiver position is another spot that must improve for the 2022 season to meet lofty expectations. Slot receiver Ainias Smith, who plays a Deebo Samuel type role, led the team last season with 47 catches. No other receiver caught more than 17 passes. Tight end Jalen Wydermyer, who is off to the NFL, and running back Devon Achane were the only other two players with more than 20 catches.
Smith is back but might be needed more as a running back than in previous years with the departure of Isaiah Spiller. Five-star signee Evan Stewart emerged as the no. 1 threat on the outside for Texas A&M in the spring. He’ll be flanked by Jalen Preston and Moose Muhammad III.
The run game is in great hands with Achane, who led the SEC in yards per carry in 2021. He’s ready for a bigger workload in 2022. Bryce Foster and Reuben Fatheree II anchor an offensive line that lost Kenyon Green to the NFL Draft. Layden Robinson drew praise at guard after the spring.
Offensive MVP: Devon Achane
Achane is a big-play threat who should receive more touches in 2022. He led the SEC in 2021 with a seven-yard per carry average.
Offensive Name to Know: WR Moose Muhammad III
The Aggies need wide receivers to step up and take pressure off whichever player emerges at starting quarterback. Texas A&M knows what is has in Ainias Smith, a hybrid wide receiver and running back who led the team with 47 catches in 2021. Five-star freshman Evan Stewart established himself as a potential go-to weapon during his first spring on campus. Consistent production from Muhammad, who caught 10 passes last year, would provide variety to the offense.
The Aggies added LSU transfer Max Johnson and true freshman Conner Weigman to compete with Haynes King, who missed most of 2021 due to an ankle injury.
RUNNING BACKS: B+
Devon Achane takes over the No. 1 running back role with Isaiah Spiller off to the NFL. Achane led the SEC in yards per carry in 2021.
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: C-
Five-star true freshman Evan Stewart was billed as an immediate impact player from the 2022 recruiting class. He’ll need to be for a position unit without a star.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A
Sophomores Bryce Foster and Reuben Fatheree II grew up as true freshmen. The unit does lose a multiple-year starter who played multiple positions in Kenyon Green.
D.J. Durkin replaced Mike Elko as Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator after Elko became the head coach at Duke. The Aggies allowed fewer than 16 points a game during the 2021 season.
The nation’s No. 1-rated recruiting class is expected to replenish the defensive ranks in College Station following a massive loss of production from the 2021 team. Gone is top tackler Aaron Hansford as well as defensive linemen DeMarvin Leal, Micheal Clemons, and Tyree Johnson. Those four combined for 31 of the team’s 88 tackles for loss and 26 of its 39 team sacks.
Defensive line figures to be one of the strengths of the team despite the losses if the highly rated recruits live up to the hype. Sophomore Fadil Diggs was the Defensive MVP of spring camp. Young players such as Shemar Turner, Tunmise Adeleye and Marcus Burris are ready to emerge after redshirt seasons in 2021. True freshman Anthony Lucas enrolled early and was a menace during spring practices. Five-star defensive linemen Walter Nolen, Shemar Stewart, and Lebbeus Overton arrive in the summer.
“Those older guys laid a foundation of how to play and what to do,” Fisher said of the defensive front. “Now, the next group of players must prove it on a consistent basis.”
The duo of Edgerrin Cooper and Andre White Jr. headline the linebacker room. Cooper, a sophomore from Louisiana, was tied for fourth on the team in 2021 with 58 tackles. White, a senior from Pennsylvania, was right behind Cooper with 57 tackles. Ish Harris is a young player who caught the staff’s eye during spring ball.
The secondary is the most experienced group on the team. Safety Demani Richardson is entering his fourth season as a starter. Junior Antonio Johnson was an Associated Press All-SEC second team selection last season. Defensive back Tyreek Chappell was on the SEC Coaches All-Freshman Team a year ago. Cornerback Jaylon Jones started in each of the 24 games A&M has played since he stepped on campus prior to the 2020 campaign. Myles Jones, who was fourth on the team in tackles in 2020, returns from injury, as well.
Defensive MVP: Antonio Johnson
Johnson emerged as the state’s best defensive back after a standout sophomore campaign that earned him AP All-SEC second team and PFF All-America first team honors.
Defensive Name to Know: DT Marcus Burris
Texas A&M needs new defensive linemen to step into starring roles after losing each of its starters from the 2021 season. Most of the headlines in College Station feature the new additions from the 2022 recruiting cycle but forget about defensive tackle Marcus Burris at your own peril. Burris was excellent during spring practices. The redshirt freshman from Texarkana Pleasant Grove was a four-star recruit who is listed at 6-4 and 285 pounds.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
The Aggies must replace most of the production in the trenches from the 2021 season, but highly recruited prospects are awaiting their turn to lead the Wrecking Crew.
Edgerrin Cooper, who was fourth on the team in tackles last year, is responsible for leading a new-look linebacker core that is without 2021 leading tackler Aaron Hansford.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: A+
Safeties Antonio Johnson and Demani Richardson headline a loaded Aggies secondary. Tyreek Chapman and Jaylon Jones possess all-conference ability at the cornerback position.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
Texas A&M is forced to find a new place kicker with Seth Small no longer on campus. The Aggies do field a solid punter in Nik Constantinou.
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