The UCLA Bruin football team opens its 2016 season this Saturday at 12:30 PT at Kyle Field in College Station. This is the first of the home-and-home series against the Aggies. The Bruins are 2-2 versus A&M, with the last two games won by UCLA. These two teams have not met since 1998, so clearly, the programs at these two schools have changed dramatically since their last match up.
Overview and System
Last season, Texas A&M ranked 50th in total offense, which leads us to believe this is the reason they replaced former Offensive Coordinator Jake Spavital with...wait for it...UCLA’s former Offensive Coordinator, Noel Mazzone. While this is a write up on offense and not an op ed piece on the merits of Noel Mazzone, some might say this was not a wise choice. While Mazzone might look good on paper (if you remember, we were actually optimistic when he was hired), he clearly has a shelf life, lasting no more than four or five years at his other posts. Mazzone also brought with him his son, Taylor, to serve on the staff as well. In the not-so-distant past, A&M has actually been known for its offense, with some fans even seeing it as a given. Nonetheless, Mazzone has a three year contract with the Aggies, with his first outing against the Bruins.
Last year, the Aggies averaged 5.59 yards per play and 424.7 yards per game, ranking slightly higher on passing offense at 39th. On the flip side, the Bruins ranked 28th in total offense, averaging 6.25 yards per play, and 465.9 yards per game, coming in at 25th in passing offense. Mazzone’s offense is no stranger to UCLA fans and has racked up quite a bit of criticism, especially in the 2015 season. He has been accused of being conservative and lacking creativity and boldness. However, the Aggies may come to appreciate the Mazzone style, with the option to both run and pass when necessary. A&M has had its ups and downs on this side of the ball, with their previous Offensive Coordinator only lasting two seasons (three if you count the bowl game in the 2013 season). Spavital was both the Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks coach, but was given Dave Christensen to beef up the run game as Co-Offensive Coordinator before the 2015 season (however, he too lost his job at the conclusion of the season). Additionally, Head Coach Kevin Sumlin made other changes to the program, including how and when they practice. Unfortunately, none of this panned out for the Aggies, so they hired Mazzone. And here we are. Mazzone will incorporate bubble screens, but is more interested in stressing a defense's weaknesses with run/pass options. He creates favorable matchups with pre-snap calls and uses inside zone and trap concepts in the running game. However, According to Ralph D. Russo of the Associated Press:
There seems to be a massive disparity between how Noel Mazzone is thought of within coaching and what fans think of him as an OC.— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) January 7, 2016
Of course that can be said for many coaches, especially OCs, but seems few as respected inside as Mazzone and generally unimpressive to fans— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) January 7, 2016
Clearly, there will be a lot of unknowns going into Saturday’s game. As much as we say we all have Mazzone’s playbook memorized, there are surely going to be new schemes and plays that our defense will have to be ready for.
Former Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight has been given the job as the starter for the Aggies. Knight enrolled at Texas A&M in January, and went 25-36 and scored two touchdowns at their Spring Game in April. The quarterback story at A&M has been quite a nightmare, with the transfers of both Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray transferring out back in December. Knight went 179-316, moving the ball 2,300 yards in 10 games for the Sooners back in 2014, but transferred from Oklahoma after losing the starting position last season to Baker Mayfield. Here is a YouTube video of Knight’s Spring Game highlights:
Knight is listed as 6’1", 215 pounds, and was a four-star, dual threat quarterback coming out of high school. With one year of eligibility left, Sumlin is looking to Knight to help revive a dragging program (and possible save his job), while Knight is looking for a new home. Knight actually reached out to Sumlin shortly after the 2015 season, but with two quarterbacks competing for the job, he was quickly dismissed. As fate would have it, Murray and Allen transferred, leaving a void that Knight could fill. Mazzone’s up-tempo offense would fit Knight quite well, and give him the fresh start he so desires. Needless to say, there are high expectations and a lot of pressure on both Sumlin and Knight to move this program in the right direction. Knight has also been known to take risks, which lead him to throw 12 interceptions in eight games in the 2014 season. These mistakes ultimately cost him his job, and could prove fatal for both himself and Sumlin.
Knight is backed up by Jake Hubenak and Hank Hughes, with Hubenak seeing action in six games in 2015, completing 40 of 75 passes for 399 yards and three touchdowns, and was named the starter before last year’s Music City Bowl. Hughes, a Freshman, was his high school district’s MVP in 2014 and given an All-District Honorable Mention and All State Academic nod in 2015.
At the running back position, a key departure for the Aggies was the graduation of Tra Carson. Carson was the first A&M running back to rush for 1,000 yards since 2011, averaging just over four yards per carry last season. While Carson was talented, a challenged offensive line at times made the play schemes almost predictable, leading to Christensen’s firing. An item of note is the fact that the second and third leading rushers last year were Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen, who have both left the program.
A key returnee is Keith Ford, who sat out the 2015 season, transferring from Oklahoma amid a suspension due to team rules and academic violations (he’ll tell you the suspension had nothing to do with his transfer). He was a five-star recruit and the No. 4 running back and No. 24 prospect overall in the class of 2013. Ford carried the ball 71 times for 392 yards and scored six total touchdowns in 2014—good enough to finish as the Sooners' third-leading rusher, despite only appearing in eight games due to injury. Needless to say, Ford will have an impact, and is currently in the number one position on the depth chart. We should definitely see his first start as an Aggie on Saturday.
Listed in the number two position is James White, who carried the ball for 202 yards and is currently the top returning rusher. Behind him is Brice Dolezal, with 191 yards in 2015 (although he had 17 fewer carries than White last season). Additionally, the Aggies have Freshman Trayveon Williams at the running back position. He is expected to see early action and has impressed coaches from day one.
The unknown factor in the run game is how much it will be utilized. With an experienced quarterback, they may rely less on the position and incorporate more passing right off the bat. But you can’t survive in the SEC unless you have all guns firing in your offense, and former teammates Knight and Ford will certainly be turning it up this season. With Mazzone at the helm and his love for running it up the middle, you can bet we’ll see Ford with the ball.
We’ve heard it before—the starters have individual talent, but they they can’t seem to bring it together as a unit. This was definitely the case last year, as the A&M offensive line struggled and looked less than impressive. A key departure was Germain Ifedi, the first round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks, and additional losses were Mike Matthews and Joseph Creek, both of whom finished out their eligibility. However, the Aggies have brought back coach Jim Turner to revive the line and will more than likely see success with him. In case you missed it, Coach Turner was one of two assistants suspended for two weeks without pay in July following a presentation at a football clinic for women that contained sexually explicit remarks. He was also involved in the 2012 bullying scandal that took place in the Miami Dolphins locker room, and was eventually fired. Nevertheless, he is back on the A&M staff with a fairly impressive past in College Station. He not only helped recruit future first round draft picks Jake Matthews, Luke Joeckel and Cedric Ogbuehi during his time with the Aggies in 2008-2011, but he also recruited top talent Mike Evans, who was one of Johnny Manziel’s chosen weapons. The problem now is that Turner won’t find the refrigerator as stocked as when he left.
Senior left tackle Avery Gennesy returns with the most game-time experience, with 13 starts under his belt, and early enrollee Colton Prater has earned the spot at guard. The Aggies have a new center, Freshman Erik McCoy, who will start with no SEC game time experience, and also never played in high school at the center position. But don’t underestimate McCoy. He has actually been labeled as one of the best players on their offensive line. Sophomore Connor Lanfear will more than likely start at right guard, and Jermaine Eluemunor at right tackle. These are the current positions as released by the Aggies website, which is quite different than things looked following spring practice.
The success of the run game (and passing game, for that matter), are largely dependent on the successes and failures of the Front Five. With a freshman at center and three of the other four key starters having little experience, one might speculate that an experienced defense (listen up, Bruins!) could penetrate the line and not only stop the run game, but give Knight a shake up or two. Mazzone’s up-tempo, quick throwing offensive scheme will help alleviate some of the stress on the line and spread out the defense so A&M can run the ball between the tackles. The quicker Knight can throw, the less urgency there will be on the line to pass protect (I’m currently having visions of Kevin Prince running for his life, but I digress...).
A&M’s top two receivers are junior Damion Ratley and senior Josh Reynolds. The back ups, Jeremy Tabuyo and Edward Pope, are both seniors, so needless to say the Aggies are experienced at the wide receiver position. They are all touted as having NFL size and talent, and will make the UCLA secondary work. I would say that in addition to the unknowns, this position could give the UCLA defense the most trouble.
Ratley started six games in 2015, and completed the season with 15 catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns in a total of 12 games on the season. His highlight reel includes a five-catch, 70 yard game against Nevada. Reynolds had an even better 2015 season, averaging a team-best 17.8 yards on 51 catches for 907 yards while seeing action in 12 of 13 games. Additionally, he racked up five touchdowns, which was second best on the team and had a 95-yard catch and run vs. Vanderbilt that tied for the second-longest reception in school history. Reynolds had at least one catch in every game he played, and also had three 100-yard games. He reached the 100 reception plateau, becoming the 15th Aggie to post that many catches. He currently sits fifth in A&M history with his 18 touchdown receptions. Here is a Josh Reynolds highlight video from YouTube:
Of the two, I would expect to see Reynolds out first due to his experience and extremely successful 2015 season. He had one hiccup last year, as he was suspended for their game against Western Carolina for a violation of team rules along with teammate Speedy Noil.
Speaking of Speedy, where is that guy? For unspecified reasons, Noil was suspended for two games in December of last year, which included their bowl game against Louisville, and their season opener against the Bruins. He was also arrested in April for driving without a license, and is currently not listed on the Aggie depth chart. In 2015, he contributed 21 catches for 226 yards and two touchdowns while seeing action in nine of 13 games, including three starts. His best game was a 4-catch, 80-yard effort against Vanderbilt. He posted 241 yards on 11 kickoff returns (21.9 average) and 17 yards on two punt returns. Aside from the suspension and arrest news in April, Sumlin isn’t saying much about Speedy. With so many options at the wide receiver position, Noil may have a hard time making his way back on the depth chart.
Back in February, A&M lost their only tight end on scholarship, Jordan Davis. He transferred to Louisville in April where his position may be more utilized. A&M has four slot receivers on their current depth chart, with Sophomore Christian Kirk being utilized as one of the biggest weapons in their offense. Kirk’s presence on the field spreads out the defense and actually opens up the field for more yards after the catch (which happens to be Kirk’s specialty).
We couldn’t have this conversation without discussing Ricky Seals-Jones. Seals -Jones is touted as having the size of a tight end, but the athleticism of an outside receiver. He averaged 12 yards per reception last spring and is very good at moving through smaller defenders. What is interesting to note is the productivity of Thomas Duarte last year, who averaged a whopping 16 yards per reception under Mazzone. We may see Mazzone utilize Seals-Jones even more this year due to the fact that the Mazzone offense opens up the field for inside receivers and gives them room to move. Again, this is something the Bruin defense will have to be ready for.
Matchup: Texas A&M’s Offense v. UCLA’s Defense
The Bruins are stacked. With the return of Eddie Vanderdoes, and Eli Ankou, both coming in at 6’3", 305 pounds, I expect to see us eat some Aggies for lunch on Saturday. I also see them drawing double teams on the line to hopefully free up our outside linebackers (lest we forget what happens when a Bruin linebacker breaks free).UCLA has nine returning defensemen, and could have upwards of 11 upperclassmen starting. With the returning talent and familiarity with the Mazzone offense, Coach Tom Bradley has the stage set for an amazing start to the season. Eli improved a lot last year, and made some impressive plays in the 2015 season. EV, is, well, EV, and will surely impress the football world once again. He will now be looked to for leadership, and who knows, may even punch in a touchdown or two this year.
Matt DIckerson is another key returner this year at the linebacker position, working mostly with first string during training camp. Last year, we may not have seen everything that the Bruin defense was capable of due to the fact that so many were out with injuries. With a healthy line and a year under Bradley’s belt, we hope to see some significant improvements on Saturday. According to an article by Thuc Nhi Nguyen, Vanderdoes says the line's experience is "golden". Texas A&M will definitely be looking to prove their relevance in the SEC, as well as the fact that their program is on the right path. With so many changes and departures in the offseason, there are a lot of unknowns that will be playing out on the field this weekend.
That concludes the Texas A&M offensive preview. Please continue the discussion and speculation in the comment thread below. THREE MORE DAYS!!! GO BRUINS.