Which SEC team should have the deepest group of pass-catchers heading into 2021? Why it's Texas A&M
What a difference a year makes, especially in College Station.
Actually, we don’t even need to go back a year. Go back to the third week in September. In a 3-week stretch, A&M took body blow after body blow with its pass-catchers.
First, Camron Buckley tore his ACL in late August. A week later, we found out that for the second consecutive year, former No. 1 overall tight end recruit Baylor Cupp suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp. Then a week later, just to make matters worse, 2019 leading receiver Jhamon Ausbon opted out. That was after an offseason in which receivers Quartney Davis and Kendrick Rogers bolted early for the NFL, only to go undrafted.
The only returning pass-catcher who had more than 250 receiving yards in 2019 was breakout freshman tight end Jalen Wydermyer. To say that the Aggies lacked depth was as unanimous of a take as saying people had opinions about Kellen Mond.
And now, roughly 8 months later, you could make a case that A&M returns the deepest group of pass-catchers in the SEC heading into 2021.
Yes, Georgia fans. That’s factoring in the George Pickens ACL injury.
And yes, Alabama fans, with so many unknowns in the receiver room — including whether John Metchie can truly be the next man up — we can’t assume the title of “SEC’s deepest group of pass-catchers” still resides in Tuscaloosa. Or if it resided in Gainesville last year post-Jaylen Waddle injury, it can’t anymore after losing Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes.
Ole Miss might have that title by season’s end, but replacing Elijah Moore, who had 3 times as many catches as anyone on the roster, makes that a tougher sell, especially with big-play tight end Kenny Yeboah also gone. Arkansas and LSU are searching for complementary second options to take some pressure off of Treylon Burks and Kayshon Boutte, respectively.
It’s true that A&M doesn’t have an established wideout on the level of Burks, Boutte, Metchie or a healthy Pickens. At least not yet. If there’s a knock on the Aggies’ pass-catchers, that’s it. Those other guys have all shown they can take over a game in the right matchup. A&M might have that, but that’s still a bit of a wild card.
Life would be a lot easier on Jimbo Fisher if he had a “go up and get it” guy with a massive catch radius. In an ideal world, former 5-star Demond Demas would develop into that guy by the end of 2021 after he was limited to just 15 snaps as a true freshman who had to learn the system. Fisher has certainly been complimentary of Demas throughout spring.
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher has mentioned at two different events today the exceptional progress of WR Demond Demas during spring drills — that’s really good news for the Aggies.
— Brent Zwerneman (@BrentZwerneman) May 6, 2021
But with what A&M returns with its pass-catchers, the passing game’s success won’t be determined by if Demas or 2020 classmate Moose Muhammad III can turn into stars. The Aggies don’t need Cupp to live up to his status as the former No. 1 overall tight end, either.
Why? Well, I’ve already banged the drum that Wydermyer is the best returning tight end in college football. The guy is so versatile that he never needs to leave the field (he played just 13 fewer snaps than Mond). Cupp might eat into a small portion of that, but it wouldn’t be surprising if A&M ran a lot of 2-tight end sets to try and ease some pressure off the new-look offensive line, which replaced 4 starters from last year’s Joe Moore Award finalist group.
(Anytime I think about the new-look Maroon Goons, my mind goes to Fisher being mic’d up for the spring game and listening to him shout “CAN I GET A CHIP?!?” We need more of Fisher mic’d up.)
Even with Wydermyer out for spring camp after a “freak off-the-field injury,” I’d still bank on his ability to catch passes in traffic on third downs and that he’ll assert himself as a solid run-blocker. That’s a unique weapon to have, even if Wydermyer isn’t on Pitts’ level from a physical standpoint.
Speaking of unique weapons, I made it nearly 600 words talking about A&M’s pass-catchers without mentioning Ainias Smith. For shame. When SEC defensive coordinators draw up game plans to contain A&M’s offense this year, Smith will be a much more urgent priority. Last year, he addressed a need by shifting to that all-purpose back role. At least he did until Devon Achane got his footing under him. Now, with the speedy Achane ready to be a true change-of-pace back for the powerful Isaiah Spiller, Smith is going to kick back to mostly lining up in the slot.
All you have to do is look at Smith’s snap count last year to see why he was such an important piece of the offense. He played 323 snaps out of the slot, 143 in the backfield and believe it or not, he actually lined up on the outside 60 times (PFF). In 10 games, Smith racked up 857 scrimmage yards (564 receiving, 293 rushing) and 10 total touchdowns.
If you watched the spring game, you saw how critical Fisher was of Smith with diagnosing his routes. Really, Fisher was critical of all of the receivers. There were missed routes and drops, which didn’t help bolster the quarterbacks in the way that Fisher hoped. Granted, Wydermyer, Cupp and Demas were sidelined.
Caleb Chapman was also out for the spring game. He’s been out since his game-tying, 51-yard touchdown catch in that thriller against Florida. Chapman tore his ACL on that play, which capped a career day of 9 catches for 151 yards. It’s easy to forget that he was the team’s leading receiver at the time of his awkward landing into the end zone.
— Steve Helwick (@s_helwick) October 10, 2020
After his breakout 2020 season came to a screeching halt, the 6-5 veteran is expected to be ready to go by fall. If he can stay healthy, Chapman is what can help take the A&M offense to a different level than it was at last year. The Aggies were content to dominate time of possession (No. 3 in FBS) and methodically drive down the field. That identity really became entrenched post-Chapman injury.
So let’s recap. You’ve got arguably the best tight end in college football in Wydermyer, you’ve got a nightmare guy to cover out of the slot in Smith and if Chapman can return to his pre-injury form, you’ve got a veteran 6-5 wideout who can line up wide and occasionally stretch the field.
What’s missing from this picture? A glue guy.
That’s Chase Lane. As a redshirt freshman, he took a key step and established himself as the third option. He lined up mostly on the outside (466 snaps) and caught 29 passes for 409 yards, though he showed the versatility to line up in the slot and work the underneath routes. In the spring game, he looked like a bit of a safety blanket for the A&M quarterbacks, especially without Wydermyer out there. In Year 3 in the system, Lane can be huge for Haynes King when plays break down.
Yes, I’m assuming that King will be the guy and that he won’t be named the starter until deep into fall camp. Certainly, that element is one worth keeping in mind. In the post-Mond era, Fisher would love nothing more than to have his new starter complete 65% of his passes (Fisher said in the spring game that King’s accuracy is the thing that doesn’t get talked about enough). Even if that means the inevitable increase of sacks taken and interceptions thrown, this can still be a prolific, efficient passing attack.
King’s job is to maximize the luxury that A&M didn’t have at this time last September. That is, take advantage of the fact that he’s surrounded by a proven backfield and by 9 of the 11 players who caught a pass last year. That includes guys like Hezekiah Jones and Jalen Preston, both of whom were heavily involved in the spring game. It also includes the aforementioned Spiller and Achane, both of whom showed they’re more than capable of making catches out of the backfield.
You know, assuming Fisher doesn’t have to yell “CAN I GET A CHIP?!?” on every drop back, which would limit the route tree for A&M backs with those increased pass protection duties.
Still, though. It’s hard not to be bullish on A&M’s group of pass-catchers. There’s versatility, there’s an established group of veterans and there are promising up-and-comers. The Aggies are in a much different spot than this time last year. Or rather, this time 8 months ago when it appeared the pass-catching wheels were falling off one by one.
Piece by piece, the pass-catching weapons have been built back up in College Station. Come fall, they’ll be ready to do some serious damage.