Good luck slowing down the runaway train—the Aggie offense—anytime soon
by Homer Jacobs
12th Man Magazine
In today’s college football, defensive coordinators at major programs are cashing paychecks that were once reserved for the head coach.
Call it hazard pay.
Because to watch an offensive machine like Texas A&M is enough to make Nick Saban pull out his well-coiffed hair, which is what it looked like when the Aggies rolled up a staggering 628 yards of total offense on the proud and usually punishing Alabama defense on Sept. 14.
“If I were to come back as a coach, I’d be a receivers coach,” said former A&M coach R. C. Slocum. “I wouldn’t want any part of being a secondary coach or defensive line coach.”
Indeed, even the defensive-minded Slocum is fully aware of the nightmare that is trying to defend A&M’s incredible, multi-faceted offense that has become a Kevin Sumlin staple.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Aggies, including many years under Slocum, were plodders on offense, hell bent on playing defense with solid special teams.
"If I were to come back as a coach, I’d be a receivers coach. I wouldn’t want any part of being a secondary coach or defensive line coach."
- Hall of Fame Coach R.C. Slocum
The evolution of offense in college football has been fascinating, from the days of the wing T to the Wishbone era under Emory Bellard to the two-back, I-formation look in the 1980s and 1990s.
But the spread look, “Air Raid” offshoot of the original run-and-shoot made famous by the Houston Cougars under Jack Pardee and John Jenkins is all the rage these days, and A&M certainly is one of the modern-day pioneers of breakneck basketball on grass.
How much has the A&M offensive attack transformed over the years? Well, just 15 years ago in the Aggies’ Big 12 championship season, A&M did not top the 40-point mark in any of its 14 games. It scored over 30 points just twice in wins over Baylor (35-14) and Kansas State in double overtime (36-33).
In ’98, the Aggies averaged 312 yards of total offense a game, while the 2012 team averaged 316.5 yards passing per game. In the Wishbone heyday in 1975, the Aggies’ total passing output for the year was 556 yards. In one game this fall (Sam Houston State), the Aggies passed for 500 yards.
“I wouldn’t get a whole lot of sleep the week before the ballgame,” said former A&M defensive back great Dave Elmendorf on the thought of facing the 2013 Aggies. “There are just so many weapons. The A&M offense is so capable in so many ways. It always starts up front because the offensive line is just outstanding. But then you look at all the other weapons that this offense has, with a stable of running backs who are all very capable, great wide receivers with height and jumping ability like Mike Evans.
“And then you add to that the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, and I think he’s the catalyst. He’s what makes this offense so unstoppable.”
Manziel, no doubt, is the maestro of the Aggie juggernaut, turning a tricky spread offense into a head-spinning offensive machine.
A&M was averaging just under 600 yards of total offense (586.4) heading into the Ole Miss game, and its 628 total yards were the most Alabama had allowed in its long and storied football history.
While Oregon operates at warp speed and runs the ball more out of the spread offense, A&M can run a power back, throw deep to a 6-foot-5 Mike Evans, hit Malcome Kennedy on a bubble screen or find the tight end for a touchdown on play-action.
And then there’s the magic of Manziel.
“You look at last year’s two defeats, and it was a case of a young and inexperienced Johnny Manziel,” said former A&M linebackers coach Alan Weddell, an unabashed follower of A&M football. “So basically they had the athletes at LSU and Florida who could line up and man up with our people and had enough of them to take that stuff away. I don’t think they have them this year. I don’t think anybody does.
“Johnny has matured so much that he can do so many more things now. What has impressed me most about Johnny this year is his accuracy. He’s putting the ball on the spot where people can’t catch it unless it’s our receiver.”
In year two of the Sumlin spread, Manziel has complete command of the offense, and it’s paying huge dividends. Formerly checking with the sideline often for audibles, the redshirt sophomore is now surveying the defense and switching plays at the last second with incredible subtlety.
Some signals to his receivers amazingly unfold mid-snap.
“The defense doesn’t know what we’re going to do, and sometimes we don’t know what we’re going to do,” Kennedy says. “It’s just special with Johnny being back there. We just have a few signals, and a lot of them look the same, it’s just different hand motions. It’s like a sign language out there. All of them are very quick, so it’s hard for the defenses to see. Johnny does a lot of them behind the offensive line. He’ll give them a number that coordinates with the signal. Sometimes, it’s too subtle for (the receivers).
“As a receiver, we’re always taught to keep our eyes on Johnny because he could change the play as the snap is coming out. Mike (Evans) is the outside receiver so he’ll be looking at me because I relay the signals to him. Johnny will snap the ball and catch the ball with two hands, but he’ll change the signal right before he catches the ball. It’s crazy.”
So, the Aggies have the best player in college football, perhaps in the history of the game, flashing signals at the last possible moment in a hurry-up mode, and then he has the option to hand off to a stable of quality running backs, while standing behind one of the nation’s best offensive lines, while waiting for a 6-5 receiver to come open.
Indeed, the old run-and-shoot seems so pedestrian.
“There are very few around the country who have the commitment to this offense,” Slocum added. “You see parts of it among different schools and elements of it. I don’t know of anyone that has the whole package like we do.
“I think Kevin was holding out on me when he was coaching for me (in 2002). I wish he had broken out the whole package. This offense is a lot more complex than the run-and-shoot was.”
Slocum said his teams were able to defend the run-and-shoot because the Aggies had elite speed at linebacker and shutdown cover corners who could allow A&M to incorporate numerous blitz packages.
Oh, and the Houston Cougars employed an old football standard—the huddle.
“The big difference is the speed—how many plays you’re trying to get in,” said Weddell, now the assistant head coach/running backs coach at Brazoswood High School. “In the old run-and-shoot, you had time to line up defensively, time to call your blitz, time to disguise your coverages. Nowadays, you’re snapping the ball every 20 seconds or so and you’re just lucky to get lined up and ready to play.
“I remember asking Mike Sherman, (Clemson offensive coordinator) Chad Morris and Kliff Kingsbury all the same question: Are you worried about teams stealing your signals? All three of them said the same thing: If you’re stealing our signals, we’re not going fast enough. And that’s what it’s all about.”
The offensive numbers in college football can also be traced back to the trends in high school ball, most notably the penchant for the most athletic players to play on the offensive side of the ball. The wide receiver position—not running back or linebacker—has become the cool spot if you’re not playing quarterback.
"Eventually, defenses will catch up, but I’m not sure how. (Defenses) just don’t have answers right now unless you have (superior) personnel. And now A&M has just got too good of personnel."
- Alan Weddell, former A&M LBs coach
And in Texas, the style of play in the state has changed dramatically with the advent of the 7-on-7 leagues in the summer that emphasize throwing and catching.
Indeed, the Who’s Who of quarterbacks in college football recently have been bred in the spread passing games of the Texas high school ranks. Over the past three years, Heisman runner-up Andrew Luck, Heisman winner Robert Griffin III and Manziel have all been products of prep football in the Lone Star State.
“We just have a bunch more really good receivers and really good throwers because they do it a bunch coming up in high school,” Slocum said. “They do it all summer long and then in the games. That just used to not be the case.”
The Aggies are posting mind-boggling offensive statistics that are likely to balloon the rest of the season. To think that this A&M team might top last year’s unit, which led the Southeastern Conference in total offense, passing, rushing and points scored, is mind-boggling.
But the numbers don’t lie:
A&M opened the 2013 season scoring at least 40 points in each of the first five games for the first time in school history.
Heading into the Ole Miss game, A&M had scored 40 points or more for eight straight games dating back to the 2012 season.
The Aggies have surpassed 400 yards in every game but one under Sumlin, and they have reached the 500-yard mark 12 times heading into the Ole Miss game.
Since moving to a more up-tempo offense in 2009, the Aggies have reached the 400-yard plateau 44 times and have hit the 500-yard mark 29 times. In the 10 years prior to 2009, A&M hit the 400-yard mark just 18 times out of 116 games.
Very few coaches thought the Wishbone would be figured out, but that offense went the way of the Sony Walkman, and many thought the run-and-shoot was unstoppable until Jenkins’ program fizzled into mediocrity.
But the hurry-up, no-huddle offenses in college football are here to stay. Texas A&M’s offensive resurgence has proven to be the ultimate litmus test.
“Eventually, defenses will catch up, but I’m not sure how,” Weddell said. “The game has changed forever a little bit. People are still looking for (answers). They just don’t have answers right now unless you have (superior) personnel. And now A&M has just got too good of personnel.
“I think we’ll see that even when Johnny leaves. We’ll see a really good quarterback, but he’s not going to be Johnny Manziel. But the system is going to be there, and it will work. It’s a special time.”
Added Elmendorf: “Maybe they will (figure it out). But you give Alabama—who arguably has as good talent as anybody on defense—a year to play a scheme that’s going to stop A&M, and A&M puts up 42 and it should have been more. And Alabama gave up more yardage than it has in its history. No, they haven’t figured out a way to stop it, and I don’t think they’re going to.”
A worn-out Nick Saban surely can attest.