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Five players to watch ahead of Texas A&M vs. South Carolina

We’re slightly past the halfway point of the 2023 college football season. For Texas A&M (4-3, 2-2 SEC), head coach Jimbo Fisher and his talented but underwhelming offense have plagued any sense of consistency, recently dropping two consecutive SEC matchups against Alabama and Tennessee.

While Fisher’s coaching future in College Station remains a mystery, the final five games of the regular season will likely provide more answers down the line, especially if what we’ve seen from the Aggies since reaching 4-1 after decisively defeating Arkansas to reach 2-0 in the SEC.

Yes, quarterback Conner Weigman’s season-ending injury certainly threw a wrench in the Aggies’ offensive plans. Still, second-year O-line coach Steve Addazio’s failure to fix the blocking issues in the trenches has put then-backup signal caller Max Johnson under constant duress, virtually destroying any rhythm in both the passing and running game since.

However, facing a Gamecocks defense that allows more than 30 points per game should give the offense confidence heading into the matchup.

This week, we have provided several storylines to help provide the full scoop on what to expect on Saturday afternoon.

Focusing on the players that need to make this weekend, here are the five players to watch ahead of Texas A&M vs. South Carolina.

Wide receiver, Evan Stewart

Mandatory Credit: Brianna Paciorka-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Brianna Paciorka-USA TODAY Sports

Where art thou, Evan Stewart? Texas A&M’s offense has been a mess overall, but it doesn’t help when your star wide receiver is invisible for multiple outings.

As noted earlier this week, Stewarts’ lack of production began after the first two weeks of the season, going from an average of 128.5 yards per game through the first two weeks to failing to break 50 yards in each of his last four games. Despite the recent numbers, Stewart is tied for first in receiving yards (451) with Ainais Smith.

While A&M’s porous offensive line has failed at providing quarterback Max Johnson adequate time in the pocket, a shift to the quick passing game against a struggling South Carolina defense could be the key to unlocking Stewart’s incredible versatility and getting him back to form.

Linebacker, Edgerrin Cooper

Sep 9, 2023; Miami Gardens, Florida; Texas A&M Aggies linebacker Edgerrin Cooper (45) recovers a fumble against the Miami Hurricanes during the second quarter at Hard Rock Stadium. Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Without missing a beat, junior linebacker Edgerrin Cooper has been one of the country’s biggest surprises in 2023, taking full advantage of defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin’s new role as linebackers coach to unlock his potential as a noted pass rusher, leading the Aggies in tackles (45) and sacks (6) in seven games this season.

Texas A&M’s 10th-ranked defense has given the Aggies every chance to succeed in SEC play, while Cooper’s leadership and consistent impact have boosted the play of freshmen LB Taurean York, who is second on the team in tackles with 41.

South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler is simply a wildcard week to week, throwing for 313 yards and four touchdowns in their 41-39 loss to Florida, but was limited to just 217 yards and one interception in last week’s 34-12 loss to Missouri. Good news for Cooper and the Aggie D: the Gamecock’s offensive line is ranked 132nd in sacks allowed (5.0).

Quarterback, Max Johnson

Oct 14, 2023; Knoxville, TN; Texas A&M quarterback Max Johnson (14) looks to hand off the ball during a football game between Tennessee and Texas A&M at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. Saul Young-USA TODAY Sports
Saul Young-USA TODAY Sports

While head coach Jimbo Fisher’s pressure to turn things around in the second half of the Aggies season comes second to none, it will take several monumental performances from quarterback Max Johnson down the stretch as the schedule only gets tougher.

No, Johnson does not deserve all the blame for A&M’s recent offensive woes, as the offensive line (which I will get to shortly) has been a major disappointment and liability despite the preseason hype. However, the veteran southpaw must get the ball out of hand faster to withstand pressure, as first-year offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino must do a better job putting Johnson in favorable passing situations.

Again, South Carolina is allowing 305 passing yards per game this season. Hence, the opportunity is there for Johnson to not only thrive through the air but finally get back to “feeding the studs” and instill more confidence with road games against Ole Miss and LSU waiting in the wings.

Defensive tackle, Walter Nolen

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If Edgerrin Cooper is Texas A&M’s defensive MVP in 2023, sophomore stud defensive tackle Walter Nolen deserves a tie for first.

Second on the team in tackles (26) and sacks (5), Nolen has slowly begun to reach his tremendously high ceiling in the defensive trenches, possessing the speed, strength, and added technique off the snap to not only improve against the run but quickly become one of the program’s top pass rushing options.

After sustaining a potentially devastating injury in the loss to Tennessee, Fisher provided what felt like a season-saving update regarding his health, as his lower body injury was much less severe than expected.

However, nothing is set in stone until we see him on the field before the 11:00 a.m. kickoff.

Texas A&M's Offensive line

 

Brianna Paciorka-USA TODAY Sports
Brianna Paciorka-USA TODAY Sports

Not the worst, but pretty darn bad, as Texas A&M’s much-maligned offensive line has virtually crumbled since the recent losses to Alabama and Tennessee, tied for 74th in sacks allowed (14) with an average of two per contest. While O-line coach Steve Adazzio remains a significant liability, I doubt a change will be made this season, so the players must put forth a greater effort if changes are to be seen.

Position-wise, starting center Bryce Foster has struggled immensely outside of one game this year, as fans and media members have clamored for a change, explicitly giving sophomore guard Mark Nabou a chance at the spot for the remainder of the season.

Look, I agree with Fisher that the last two defenses the line has faced are some of the toughest in the conference, but that’s no excuse for consistently being pushed off the ball and bullied in pass protection with the amount of talent the depth chart possesses. However, against one of the worst pass rushes in the county, the Gamecocks have recorded the third-fewest sacks (13) in the SEC, so maybe this is finally the week to show some improvement.

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Story originally appeared on Aggies Wire