5 key things that will define Texas A&M's offense in 2021
How about an encore?
Finishing with the program’s best Associated Press Top 25 season in 81 years certainly changed expectations in College Station. No longer is winning an SEC West title some far-off pipe dream. Now, it’s simply the next step. Granted, it’s a big step because it would likely include taking down Alabama.
Taking that next step, of course, will look much different in the post-Kellen Mond era. We know that for the first time in the Jimbo Fisher era, there will be a new starting quarterback in College Station. That in itself makes the likely preseason top-10 squad’s path to an SEC title all the more intriguing.
That’s not the only thing that’ll define A&M’s offense in 2021. Here are the 5 key factors:
1. Haynes King’s development as a passer
If we learned anything from Bo Nix’s start at Auburn, it’s that we shouldn’t assume that young, super athletic mobile quarterbacks will take flight as a passer. Jimbo Fisher praised King’s accuracy during the spring game, and said that was the thing people don’t really talk about enough. It’s hard to gauge that from a spring game, especially when a few of King’s key weapons were sidelined, but King did look comfortable targeting receivers between the hashes.
This is all of course assuming that King will win the starting job over Zach Calzada, who made a solid impression in the spring game but finished with sub-50% passing on the day. King is still the favorite to win the job barring a setback. But an in-season setback would be him not truly developing as a passer. If it’s 1 read and run, that limits what A&M is capable of with so much experience back at the pass-catcher positions.
King’s ability to develop from gunslinger with off-the-charts athleticism into a polished, dual-threat SEC weapon is the ultimate X-factor in 2021.
2. The new-look Maroon Goons finding their footing
A&M’s revamped o-line struggled in the spring game. Granted, that was with starting center Luke Matthews sidelined. Tennessee transfer Jahmir Johnson is also expected to step in and solidify the right tackle position when he arrives this summer. And Kenyon Green, who is the lone returning starter from last year’s Joe Moore Award finalist group, is still figuring things out at left tackle.
The optimistic view is that group is going to be better once it establishes some continuity. Fisher said in the spring game that it actually has more upside than last year’s group. The difference is that last year’s group, which started every game together in the same position, benefited from being experienced and not necessarily needing those spring reps to get on the same page in the way that other offensive lines in the SEC did.
Whatever the case, we saw how much of a difference it made last year when A&M had an elite offensive line. Mond only took 7 sacks, the running game became one of the SEC’s best and the Aggies nearly rode that offensive line to the Playoff. We assume that group will take a step back. It just can’t be a weekly topic of conversation.
3. Ainias Smith’s switch back to that slot receiver role
I loved watching Fisher interact with Smith in the spring game. Greg McElroy brought up the point that Fisher was hardest on his best players. One of those was Smith, who became a versatile, indispensable weapon last year. He moved to running back out of necessity until Devon Achane got rolling down the stretch, and by the time that happened, A&M’s offensive identity was in place.
With Achane now established as the true RB2 behind Isaiah Spiller, Smith is expected to kick back to mostly a full-time slot guy. In the spring game, it looked like King trusted him and Chase Lane the most. That’s a key development. Smith needs the ball in his hands, and if he could come close to flirting with double-digit touches per game like last year, A&M would be better for it. There’s no doubt that Smith can impact the game in a variety of ways with how well he runs routes. It’s a matter of getting on the same page as his new quarterback that’ll determine just how valuable he is in 2021.
4. The emergence of 1 (or multiple) of the young pass-catchers
It has to happen. At least if the Aggies want to take this thing to the next level.
What’s interesting is that the Aggies return 9 of 11 players who caught a pass last year. That doesn’t include former No. 1 overall tight end Baylor Cupp, who is hopefully going to stay healthy after consecutive season-ending injuries. It also doesn’t include former 5-star wideout Demond Demas, who didn’t crack the rotation in Fisher’s offense as a true freshman.
Those 2 are popular candidates to break out and provide a complement to likely preseason All-American Jalen Wydermyer, as well as the aforementioned Smith and Lane. The Aggies are also optimistic about Caleb Chapman, who emerged as a deep threat in that monumental Florida game before going down with a season-ending injury. Hezekiah Jones should also be able to add that element, though the Aggies’ ability to stretch the field is insistent on that pass protection holding up.
King would love to find a target capable of making that highlight-reel play. Demas could become that guy, as could fellow 2020 classmate Moose Muhammad. Whatever the case, the Aggies are in need of a new star or 2 in the passing game to make life easier on the new starting quarterback.
5. Zach Calzada staying in College Station
This is just projecting. I’m not saying Calzada is going to leave A&M. Don’t worry, Aggie fans.
If Calzada were to lose the starting QB competition as many speculated, the best-case scenario is that he approaches this like Nick Starkel did after losing the starting job to Mond in 2018. Starkel was a team-first guy, despite the fact that he could’ve had a Power 5 market had he decided to enter the transfer portal at the start of that season.
Calzada providing that same presence is key. If something were to happen to King like an injury or just subpar play, Fisher would love to be able to turn to someone like Calzada, who is entering Year 3 in his system, as opposed to a Year 1 guy like Eli Stowers. Given what the expectations are with so many draft-eligible skill players returning, pinning A&M’s SEC title hopes on a true freshman quarterback wouldn’t be ideal.
Fisher’s desire to keep Calzada around in 2021 will likely push this battle into fall camp. We saw in the spring game how much it seemed like Fisher was boosting Calzada and King (often at the expense of Smith). With the new 1-time transfer rule in place, there’s going to be more emphasis than ever on recruiting the current roster. That includes Calzada, who broke out at Elite 11 camp as a recruit and flashed some promising traits in the spring game.
King might become the quarterback of the present and future, but A&M’s margin for error is a whole lot greater if Calzada sticks around for the 2021 season.