KNOW YOUR FOE: Texas A&M begins Jimbo Fisher era looking for more

Published 6:00 am Saturday, July 14, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE This is the 10th in a 12-part series breaking down each of Ole Miss’ football opponents for the 2018 season.

Texas A&M ponied up to make arguably the biggest splash on the coaching market this offseason, moving on from Kevin Sumlin and luring Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State with a whopping 10-year, $75-million deal.

The only thing bigger than that contract in Aggieland are the expectations.

Email newsletter signup

Fisher is tasked with trying to take A&M to another level in the SEC’s Western Division with good not being good enough in recent years. Sumlin never had a losing season during his six-year tenure at A&M but never came close to duplicating the success of his 11-win season with Heisman winner Johnny Manziel in 2012, the only year in which the Aggies finished better than .500 in league play under their former coach.

Enter Fisher, whose eight-year run at Florida State included three ACC titles, five New Year’s Six bowl appearances and a national championship in 2013. The former SEC assistant’s inaugural season in College Station will include a visit from Ole Miss on Nov. 10 when the Rebels will go for their fourth win in the teams’ last five meetings and their third straight at Kyle Field.

Fisher has developed a reputation as a quarterback guru having coached eight signal callers during his career that have been taken in the NFL Draft, including former No. 1 picks Jamarcus Russell and Jameis Winston. But Fisher has a decision to make at the position between sophomores Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond, who ended the spring locked in a competition to be the starter.

The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Starkel is a true pocket passer, completing 60 percent of his passes for 1,793 yards and 14 touchdowns with six interceptions in seven games last season, while Mond gives the Aggies more of a dual threat at the position. Mond accounted for 1,715 yards of offense and 11 touchdowns in 10 games a season ago, including 340 yards and three scores on the ground.

The Aggies lost one of the SEC’s more dynamic playmakers to the NFL in Christian Kirk, but Jhamon Ausbon is back as the main receiving threat in first-year coordinator Darrell Dickey’s offense after catching 50 passes last season as a freshman. Leading rusher Trayveon Williams returns to pace a running game that will try to give the Aggies’ offense more balance after finishing 10th in the SEC a season ago (155 rushing yards per game).

Texas A&M quarterback Nick Starkel (17) passes against Ole Miss at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss. on Saturday, November 18, 2017. (Bruce Newman, Oxford Eagle via AP)

A&M finished in the top 60 nationally in yards and points last season, which was the norm for Sumlin’s offenses. A&M’s problem has been preventing opposing teams from racking them up in bunches.

The Aggies finished no better than ninth in the SEC in yards allowed, points allowed, rushing defense and passing defense last season despite getting to the quarterback more than any team in the league (43 sacks). Losing fourth-round draft pick Armani Watts won’t help, but new defensive coordinator Mike Elko has some experienced players to work with, including linebacker Tyrel Dodson and his team-leading 105 tackles.

Otaro Alaka also returns at linebacker after tallying 78 tackles and a team-high 12 tackles for loss last season. Former five-star signee Daylon Mack is back to anchor the Aggies’ defensive line on the interior while end Landis Durham returns as one of the SEC’s top pass rushers after leading A&M with 10.5 sacks a season ago.

A&M has to replace Watts’ 86 tackles and four interceptions at safety, but the Aggies have plenty of options with 14 players back in a secondary that may be the deepest position group on the roster. Cornerback Myles Jones had eight pass breakups and a pick last season.