South Carolina and Texas A&M both bring offensive advantages to Columbia for the season's first big FBS game (August 28, 6 p.m. ET, SEC Network). It's the Gamecocks' ground attack that could be the key.
The last two years of Gamecock and Aggie football have been defined by the presence of two very talented and very different football players. While both programs have become rich in talent, you know the two big names that have mattered most.
If you'd asked a Big 12 fan what the Aggies' move to the SEC would portend, the consistent answer would have been a struggle for bowl eligibility. Then Johnny Football sprang forth like Athena from the head of Zeus and led the program on a roller coaster ride that yielded 20 wins in two seasons along with a Heisman Trophy and victories over powers such as Oklahoma and Alabama.
The Gamecocks also saw a jump in 2011, the year Jadeveon Clowney came aboard. South Carolina had three consecutive 11-2 seasons during the freakishly athletic defender's was on campus, their first 10-win years since 1984. Teams had to gameplan to keep Clowney from wrecking their offenses, often eliminating entire pages of their playbook or focusing constant extra blockers on him.
For both the Aggies' offense and the Gamecocks' defense, there are huge questions to be answered in 2014 ... and wouldn't you know it? They face off in Week 1.
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When Texas A&M has the ball
Kevin Sumlin was able to leverage Manziel's unexpected ascendance and Mack Brown's unsurprising collapse into recruiting momentum that has yielded tremendous fruit, much of it already on campus. Heading toward 2015, the Aggies are the dominant name in Texas recruiting.
As a result of that success, along with previous coach Mike Sherman's keen eye for talent, the roster in College Station is absolutely loaded, if young. Sumlin's air raid offense makes things simple, even for underclassmen, and has little difficulty putting premier athletes in space where they can do damage.
The 2013 Aggie offense was built around Manziel's talents, but the 2014 iteration will have a couple of features that won't require legendary quarterback play -- just quick decision-making. This is good, because while the depth chart includes four-star former Texas state champion Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen, a five-star import from Arizona, both are underclassmen, and neither has proven Johnny's ability to turn nothing into touchdowns, to say the least.
While A&M develops its new signal callers, it will simplify further by using its run game and spread craftiness to put the play-making onus on players besides just the QB. Two particular players who will see plenty of attention in this pursuit are wide receivers Ricky Seals-Jones and Devante "Speedy" Noil.
RSJ is a rare, 6'5, 235-pound athlete who insisted throughout his recruitment that he's a wide receiver and not a tight end. Of course, in the air raid, tight ends are often split wide, so while RSJ will generally find himself matched up against linebackers and safeties inside like a tight end, he can still focus on running routes or blocking in space rather than along the line of scrimmage.
Guess what "Speedy" Noil's greatest attribute is? Yes, he's fast. Noil was the 2014 SPARQ combine national champion and is arguably the most athletically gifted player in the SEC. Most have deemed him a slot receiver due to his insane lateral quickness and smaller build, but in the air raid, he'll be played outside and across from RSJ to cause dilemmas for the defense.
Here's a sampling of the possibilities for A&M running one of its favorite concepts, stick-draw, with RSJ lined up in the Y inside receiver position and Noil in the X outside receiver slot.
It's a very simple play for the offense. The quarterback can read the boundary corner across from the X receiver before the snap and throw the quick hitch if the cornerback leaves too much space. Or, he can read the linebackers after the snap to determine if the stick throw to Y is available. If the linebackers widen out to stop the quick throw, that leaves a reduced box to stop the RB draw.
South Carolina didn't have to face trips formations like this very often in 2013, for the simple reason that opponents were too terrified of spreading themselves too thin and facing the wrath of Clowney against reduced protections. That said, when you consider their favored reactions to trip formations by the offense, you can see the problems created by this simple alignment trick by A&M.
The primary response by South Carolina DC Lorenzo Ward to a trips formation is to play cover-1 robber (note the Gamecocks are also expected to use more 3-4 sets):
This is a favorite solution for handling spread teams who use packaged plays, as it puts the strong safety in position to defend the stick route by Y and keeps the linebackers in the box to defend the run play. But now you have your cornerback isolated against X.
Noil's suddenness out of his breaks and explosiveness in open space make that a tricky proposition, and there are several other plays in the A&M system that operate on similar principles. As it happens, South Carolina graduated both top cornerbacks from their 2013 team and have moved senior safety Brison Williams to cornerback as a sieve. Do the Gamecocks trust Williams or one of their several unproven underclassmen to handle that assignment without help?
The other favorite solution for Ward is a quarters adjustment to trips called "solo."
In "solo" coverage, the boundary safety slides over and helps the mike linebacker against any vertical routes by the Y receiver ... and again leaves a cornerback, the boundary this time, in one-on-one coverage against the X receiver. If anything, this solution is even worse, as it has worse leverage against the Y receiver while still leaving the cornerback unaided against Noil.
There are other solutions that the Gamecocks could attempt to employ, but they require excellent coverage from a nickelback or field corner to shade help back over. Suffice to say, if the Aggies' QB can make quick decisions and deliver accurate throws and Noil's athleticism translates sooner than later, the Gamecocks have some real problems here.
The other prominent feature of the A&M offense is their two-back shotgun set, from which they primarily run inside zone:
Against these sets the Gamecocks are much better situated, as they return tackles J.T. Surratt and Gerald Dixon, Jr., along with an athletic pair of inside linebackers in Kaiwan Lewis and Skai Moore. Ward's defense asks the safeties to play in soft zones while they diagnose the play before filling hard on the backside of a play, allowing the linebackers to play the run with aggression:
With the strong safety ($) dropping down hard into the cutback lane, the will and mike linebackers can flow to the action. The defense still has to handle Clear blocking the end, meaning the right tackle could find the safety. But it's hard to imagine A&M dropping a ton of points on the Gamecocks by focusing on running the ball.
Even without Clowney on the field to rush the passer, A&M's offense would still be better suited using the quick/option game and downhill running to take the load off their freshman passers. Repeated deep dropbacks would encourage SC to dial up the pressure with their athletic front, and that could spell trouble for A&M.
A&M needs patience in the run game, plus Noil and RSJ landing some big hits off screen passes and quick hitters. Totally plausible, but can their defense keep them in the game?
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Gamecocks are loaded
•SBNation.com South Carolina must replace most of last year's top names but returns virtually everyone else. Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks are experienced, fast, and physical, and with a kind SEC schedule, they should be considered the favorite in the SEC East.
The next generation of Aggies
•SBNation.com Texas A&M has enough experience, especially on the offensive line, to assure that the bar doesn't fall too low in this post-Manziel universe. Still, the Aggies will have a young quarterback facing a brutal schedule. That sets the bar around 8-4.
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When South Carolina has the ball
While the storylines draw our attention to the clash between A&M's offense and Carolina's defense, the game is likely to be determined by what happens when the Gamecocks are in possession.
Steve Spurrier's weaponry includes some key pieces along a strong OL, athletic tight end Rory Anderson, feature back Mike Davis, and his fullback escort, former team weight room award-winner Connor McLaurin. Reasonable expectations for 2014 include a formidable Gamecock ground attack.
In the Spurrier offense, the downhill run is paired with an aggressive passing game built around vertical option routes, defense-constraining screens, and a smattering of quick routes. The Gamecocks do have to replace Connor Shaw, who had a 24-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season, along with leading receiver Bruce Ellington. However, new quarterback Dylan Thompson has started multiple games, and the Gamecocks have both experience and talent in the receiving corps.
The main features of this offense present serious problems for an Aggie defense that ranked 76th in defensive S&P in 2013. A&M didn't discriminate against either the run or pass, as it allowed opponents to move the ball with relative ease regardless of their preferred strategies for doing so.
The main problems for A&M were a young front seven and a mistake-prone safety tandem. DC Mark Snyder had to replace his two best pass-rushers, nose tackle, and a stalwart linebacker from his underrated 2012 defense and quickly turned to A&M's excellent young signees to fill gaps.
So the Aggies took their lumps against physical SEC opponents with young stars like end Gavin Stansbury, freshman nose tackle Isaiah Golden, freshman will linebacker Darian Claiborne, and freshman weakside end Daeshon Hall. 2014 promised to return these players as veterans while adding even more talent into the mix in the defensive front.
Stansbury, Golden, and Claiborne were all then arrested and booted. The Aggies now turn to another freshman, Zaycoven Henderson, to be a part of the solution at nose tackle. It's likely that A&M will improve from 2013, as they do return some players and it'd be hard to be worse, but the big improvements you would expect from that experience are now lost.
Meanwhile at safety, the Aggies have to hope that Howard Matthews makes a big leap in his senior year. Because of their small and porous front, A&M was frequently bringing up the safeties to be involved in the run. However, his play revealed a poor understanding of his role in the defense, and opponents like Duke easily capitalized:
In the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Matthews looked neither quick nor focused on his assignments, in this instance looking to play a hard edge against the run but forgetting his coverage assignment against Duke's H-back.
Despite gaffes like this, which came in rapid succession on that drive and also included Matthews losing track of a wheel route, A&M still had soft edges against the run. Anthony Boone revealed this later when he stiffarmed Matthews in the red zone on a QB counter run:
When you consider what Carolina brings to the table, particularly with Mike Davis, these issues become red flags. Consider this power run by Davis against a very good UCF defense with excellent safety play:
Davis runs over 6'2, 207-pound Knight safety Clayton Geathers and knocks him out of the game. The following play saw Davis run power again, that time bouncing outside against Geathers' overeager replacement and taking it to the house. A&M will have to make a tremendous leap in overall run defense and in play at safety to avoid being bulldozed by Davis.
The ways that Carolina uses their tight end Anderson could also be problematic for the Aggies. Spurrier loves to use the I-formation and put Anderson on the field with a fullback and two receivers, then use this classic set to accomplish the aims of running downhill and overloading deep coverage with vertical receiving threats.
By getting fullback McLaurin on the field, the Gamecocks can enjoy a two-back run game built around power ...
... and lead draw ...
... and the slim, 227-pound Anderson (Y) doesn't have to execute tough blocking assignments in either scheme. In power, the fullback kicks out the end and the guard leads through the hole while Anderson can head upfield and seek out a safety. In draw, Anderson just has to maintain the edge against a linebacker or end without allowing penetration.
Since the Gamecocks can still have a downhill run game with Anderson on the field, that means the next play after power or draw could be one of Spurrier's vertical passing plays like "Ralph," "Lonnie," or the quarters-busting "Mills":
South Carolina loves to combine deep routes that put deep safeties in a bind, and concepts like "Mills" ask the strong safety ($) to help cover a dig route by Anderson, leaving the deep post to a corner, a very tough assignment for A&M's cornerbacks.
The Gamecocks also have a nice array of running back and tight end screens to punish teams for blitzing or playing soft against the deep routes. It will be relatively easy to put together a gameplan that hammers every weakness A&M showed over the course of the 2013 season -- can A&M prove it's fixed those?
A&M might have an easier time of replacing Manziel with a new cast of explosive playmakers put to work in a player-friendly system than the the Gamecocks will of replacing Clowney. That said, this game will be defined by Mike Davis riding roughshod over a young defense at home, as a more complete Gamecock team reveals the importance of overall roster quality over star talent.
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