With Haynes King out for several weeks, let's reset what Texas A&M's expectations should be
With the news that Haynes King will be out until at least mid-October with foot surgery, I probably had the same reaction to you, reader of this column.
Well, that changes things.
Based on what we saw Saturday from Zach Calzada in a thrilling, but offensively deficient comeback win, A&M’s offensive ceiling doesn’t look like it once did. You could’ve come into 2021 as an “A&M isn’t going anywhere” person and think those limitations are there without King.
I fall into that camp. That’s why before the year, I outlined why I thought King was the ultimate X-factor in the SEC. His athleticism combined with his weapons and ability to keep his eyes downfield was going to be key for the Aggies. That’s part of the reason I picked A&M to beat Alabama. Even though the 2021 sample size with King was limited, there was still enough early promise to think that was a realistic possibility.
But now? It’s time to rethink that and reset those King-less expectations with Calzada.
Most teams don’t look like national title contenders with their starting quarterbacks sidelined. Not everybody can just rotate another stud in like Alabama or Ohio State.
A&M might have to hold on for dear life just to keep New Year’s 6 bowl hopes alive. Yes, even with Mike Elko’s defense, which looks like one of the best in America, there could be some tough times ahead. Why? Look at that upcoming schedule:
- Sept. 18: vs. New Mexico
- Sept. 25: vs. No. 20 Arkansas (in Dallas)
- Oct. 2: vs. MSU
- Oct. 9: vs. No. 1 Alabama
Here’s the good news. None of those games are in true road venues. It’s not crazy to think that Calzada could start in those 4 contests and King could return for a tricky road trip to Mizzou.
As for the bad news? Well, all of those teams are undefeated. More importantly, Arkansas, MSU and Alabama already blew out Power 5 teams, too. In 3 consecutive weeks, Calzada will face Barry Odom, Zach Arnett and Nick Saban. Welcome to life in the SEC West. Those elite defensive minds are plenty capable of confusing Calzada and making him look like the guy he was for most of Saturday afternoon in Denver.
A&M might be fortunate to get out of that stretch with just 1 loss.
You might read that and say that’s unfair to Calzada with how poised he was down the stretch. It’s true that once he got his footing a bit, he no longer looked like a 2017 Kellen Mond at UCLA version of “not ready.” It’s also true that with a week to game plan, perhaps Jimbo Fisher is more successful dialing up some high percentage looks, especially against an inferior New Mexico team. It seemed like every time Calzada completed a pass, it was into a tight window.
Fisher said on Monday that the game plan won’t really change. I wouldn’t expect him to throw everything out the window. I would expect to see some more favorable situations for the young signal-caller.
The other good news? A&M’s defense is going to give any quarterback a chance in a given week. It was overshadowed in Week 1 what the Aggies did to Dustin Crum and Kent State, which had the No. 1 offense in America in a shortened 2020 season. The fact the Aggies’ defense came out with this type of message to Calzada is an encouraging sign:
Jimbo Fisher said the defensive players were coming over to Zach Calzada and telling him “we’ll hold (Colorado). You just give us one (scoring) drive.”
Fisher said he was pleased with how his players interacted during the struggles of Saturday’s win.
— Sam Khan Jr. (@skhanjr) September 11, 2021
That’s all well and good.
Let’s also remember the same reason A&M was dinged nationally last year. It didn’t have a high-powered passing attack. In the year 2021, that matters to the college football world (and clearly it mattered to the selection committee). Teams are judged — too much oftentimes — on the potential of their starting quarterback. Iowa just crept into the top 5, and it’s about to face the same exact scrutiny that A&M got last year because of how inconsistent Spencer Petras has been.
If you’re an Aggies fan, you should hope that Calzada’s early struggles — PFF had him graded out No. 142 among 165 qualified FBS signal-callers in 2021 — were the byproduct of him getting meaningful reps for the first time in his career and that he figured some things out against Colorado. He definitely did a much better job of keeping his eyes downfield as the game progressed.
His game-winning touchdown pass to Isaiah Spiller was a culmination of that improved poise:
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 11, 2021
On that play, Calzada had to make an adjustment to find Spiller. In the first few weeks of the season, A&M is going to have to make an adjustment to remain a top-10 team.
The ground game, which was atypically ineffective Saturday, must do its best 2020 imitation and overcome the likely crowded fronts it’ll see with Calzada as the starter. The Maroon Goons have to take care of business up front both there and protecting their new starting quarterback. And that defense? Well, I suppose it doesn’t really have to adjust. Keep holding teams to 1 touchdown per game and Calzada will be in good shape.
As great as that defense is — Jayden Peevy and DeMarvin Leal are turning into one of the SEC’s best defensive line duos in recent memory — A&M’s upside will still be determined by Calzada progressing. A lot.
It’s unfamiliar territory for A&M. Say what you want about Mond. The guy was as durable as duct tape. He never missed a start during his 3 seasons as the full-time starter for Fisher.
All A&M can hope for coming out the other end is to have its division/SEC/Playoff hopes alive when King returns. That’ll be easier said than done.
The baton has been passed to Calzada for a key leg of the 2021 race — and he now plays an integral part in determining how A&M crosses the finish line.