Sam Khan Jr.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — During its first practice of spring football and its first practice of August training camp, among the first things Texas A&M’s offense did under new head coach Jimbo Fisher was line up in the I-formation.
As five offensive linemen and a tight end positioned themselves in three-point stances, the quarterback lined up under center, took the snap and practiced handoffs to a running back lined up 7 yards deep. It was quite the contrast from the air raid days under former coach Kevin Sumlin.
Fisher’s unspoken message was clear: This is a pro-style offense, and Texas A&M will run the football.
It’s easy to hear that term and envision the game that was played before the advent of color television, but this isn’t just 3 yards and a cloud of dust. While some tried-and-true tactics exist in Fisher’s scheme, so do a variety of modern looks — many of which have been trendy in college football — that make his current attack a Swiss army knife of packages.
“We make you defend the entire field, but … we’re a mixture of some old-school philosophies and principles,” Texas A&M offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey said. “But let me just say this: Coach Fisher has always been on the forefront of what’s going on in college football. He was doing RPOs [run-pass options] at LSU. He had the ability to spread people out long before people were doing that.”
One game into his Texas A&M tenure, it’s clear that Fisher is mixing in some old and some new … and a lot of tight-end usage. This isn’t simply a carbon copy of his Florida State offense ported to Aggieland. Most of those elements are there, but there’s also a sprinkling of concepts A&M has used in the recent past.
Whether this offense is ready for prime time will soon be discovered, as a high-profile showdown with No. 2 Clemson awaits (7 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN).
What’s still around: no-huddle, shotgun
While nobody will confuse this offense with Chip Kelly’s Oregon attack, the Aggies still operate mostly out of the no-huddle. Fisher wants the Aggies to move quickly to the ball, center Erik McCoy said, and he’ll remind them if they aren’t moving quickly enough.
“Yeah, that’s something that Coach Fisher has gotten on to us about the past couple of weeks is we were moving too slow,” McCoy said. “The defensive line isn’t going to get set until we get set. So we’re getting in our stance as soon as we can, so they can get set and we can make our points and focus on that.”
The object, McCoy said, is to force defenses to align so the Aggies can decipher what might come before calling a play. The reason the Aggies don’t always snap it right away, Dickey mentioned, is to not waste a play.
“Sometimes, when you’re [going as fast as you can] … you live with some bad plays,” Dickey said. “You’re running plays so fast, you get in, and all of a sudden the defense jumps up, and they’re in a little bit of a better situation than you are, and we don’t want to be in that. We want to make sure we’re in the best play possible for our personnel versus what the defense is lining up in every play imaginable.”
Fisher, a former college quarterback at Samford, still calls the plays and thinks like a quarterback. It’s why he’s so hands-on, from running all the quarterback meetings to still running the offense on game day.
“I still love to be involved with the quarterbacks,” Fisher said. “I think when you call a game, you call it through a quarterback’s eyes.”
Backup quarterback Nick Starkel has been impressed by Fisher’s attention to detail.
“He’s obsessed with that part of the game,” Starkel said.
Although the moniker “pro-style offense” is often synonymous with snaps under center all the time, that isn’t the case here: The Aggies mostly used shotgun in Week 1. Of the 56 snaps the first-team offense took, 42 were in the shotgun or pistol formation.
That provides a comfort level for an entire generation of quarterbacks who’ve come up through youth or high school football taking most of their snaps in the shotgun, particularly in Texas, where hurry-up, no-huddle offenses are the norm.
The pistol formation — in which the quarterback is in the shotgun but has a running back lined up behind him — was a common sight on opening night. The Aggies used pistol 16 times with the first-team offense, running 12 times. Fisher used pistol sporadically at FSU, averaging 56 snaps a season out of the formation in the past six years. In 2017, however, the Seminoles ran it 118 times under Fisher. Sumlin’s Aggies averaged 96 snaps a season out of the formation, though usage dissipated the past two seasons.
It looks like, with dual-threat quarterback Kellen Mond running the show, the Aggies will run out of it regularly.
“When people think of pro-style, it’s not just under the center,” running back Trayveon Williams said. “We still have gun formations, offset, spread, all these different things.”
What’s new: I-formation
Similar to spring ball and training camp, the Aggies lined up in I-formation in their first play from scrimmage of the Fisher era. It was the first of nine such offensive snaps in the formation with the first-team offense.
Williams, a preseason All-SEC selection who was pursued by the previous staff because of his speed and game-breaking ability, is getting accustomed to running downhill more often. He’s going from what fullback Cullen Gillaspia termed “a scatback” who resided mostly outside the tackles to one who will attack defenses up the middle.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” Williams said. “But I love it. I love the role that I’m taking on, coming from the backfield [with the quarterback] coming out from under the center.”
It showed in Week 1. Williams’ first I-formation carry went for 12 yards. His second carry — out of the single-back formation with Mond under center — went for 72 yards and a touchdown. Williams finished with 240 rushing yards and three touchdowns. After a career of mostly lining up next to the quarterback, Williams gets the occasional head of steam when carrying the ball.
Speaking of snaps under center, that’s a more frequent part of Fisher’s A&M offense, too. In 2017, the Aggies took a snap from under center seven times in 955 snaps. Six of those were to take a knee. In Texas A&M’s 2018 opener, the Aggies took 13 snaps under center in the first half alone.
“There are things we like to do in our offense where you need to be under center,” Fisher said.
What else is new: a slightly slower tempo
Fast tempo is an oft-used staple of no-huddle teams. Whether it’s Texas Tech, Memphis or Sumlin’s Texas A&M squads, getting a snap off quickly is one of the features of the system. In the six seasons Sumlin ran the Aggies, they averaged 22.3 seconds of possession per play, which was the seventh-fastest in the Power 5.
Fisher at FSU was a bit slower, averaging 27.5 seconds of possession in that same time span, ranking the Seminoles 52nd in the Power 5. But in his Texas A&M debut, the Aggies moved a little bit faster at times and averaged 25.7 seconds of possession per play.
Of the 49 snaps the first-team offense took that did not follow a change of possession, the Aggies snapped the ball with 15 or more seconds on the play clock 11 times. They snapped with 20 or more seconds on the play clock five times. More often than not, they ran the play clock to about 10 seconds, and they snapped it with 10 or fewer seconds left 23 times.
Dickey, who was Memphis’ offensive coordinator last season and has run offenses at varied tempos, said there’s a benefit to both.
“At Memphis … we were fast-break football,” he said. “We were trying to snap the ball as fast as humanly possible all the time. I think here, what Coach Fisher wants — and I wholeheartedly agree — is we want to control the tempo. We want to be able to go fast when we want to go fast, we want to go at a normal pace that keeps the defense off-balance because we don’t huddle, and then we also want to slow the tempo down when we feel like doing it.”
The Aggies most often went faster in the red zone or the two-minute drill. Four of their 11 first-team snaps with 15 or more seconds on the play clock happened in the red zone, and six were with less than three minutes to go in the first half.
Part of the reasoning for the slower tempo is the additional responsibilities the quarterback has at the line of scrimmage. Many air raid teams, Sumlin’s included, allowed the center to call pass protections. In Fisher’s offense, the quarterback must handle that.
“That makes my job a lot easier,” McCoy said. “I love that.”
Fisher is pleased with how well Mond and Starkel have come along in that area. It wasn’t instant, though. At times in spring practice, he threatened that his quarterbacks would be live for tackling if they didn’t get it right.
“If you get a couple protections wrong in a row, he’ll just say, ‘All right, you’re live, quarterback,'” Starkel said. “It definitely works. You’re not going to mess up a protection when you’ve got [defensive tackle] Justin Madubuike running full speed, trying to take off your head because it’s the one time he gets to hit the quarterback [in practice].”
What fans are excited about: tight ends
When Jace Sternberger caught a 7-yard pass for a first down early in the spring game, Fisher was puzzled by the crowd reaction.
“The stands were going crazy for about 10 minutes, and I was totally confused the whole time,” Fisher said. “I had to look around and wondered, ‘Am I missing something?'”
Later, he was informed: “A tight end caught the ball. We’ve never had a tight end.”
Fisher used that line when visiting with more than 800 alumni in Houston in July, and it, too, drew rousing applause. Fans who had become accustomed to seeing four-receiver sets regularly and tight ends only sporadically were excited about the potential.
In the Aggies’ 59-7 win over Northwestern State in Week 1, Fisher showed that it wasn’t just lip service: Tight ends accounted for six catches. The past six seasons, Texas A&M tight ends combined to catch more than six passes in an entire season only twice.
Fisher’s dedication to tight ends borders on extreme. He joked on Monday that he used at least one tight end on “99.9 percent” of A&M’s offensive snaps last week, but he wasn’t far off: 55 of 56 first-team offensive snaps included at least one tight end in the formation.
In Fisher’s last six years at Florida State, the Seminoles had the third-most offensive snaps with at least one tight end in the formation (4,018). Texas A&M in that same span was 61st, with 1,305 such snaps.
“Those tight ends are critical,” Fisher said. “Not only for what they do in catching the ball but also taking pressure off of the tackle, being able to run the football, being able to be diverse in your formations, being able to isolate people and take advantage of people on the other side of the defense.”
While the season opener yielded clues as to how things are taking shape, Fisher certainly didn’t empty the playbook (few do) with Clemson looming. There’s likely more evolution to come as Fisher further familiarizes himself with his team. Dickey mentioned that he and Fisher were “meshing some things” they’ve done in the past.
Ultimately, it’s Fisher’s offense, and things will be run in his vision.
“I still like coaching,” Fisher said with a smile and a laugh. “I still like the fun part of all those things.”