First and 10: Jimbo Fisher has built Texas A&M into a monster. Now it's time to eat
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
NFL scouts rolled into College Station last week for the Texas A&M Pro Day, and the buildout is quickly coming into focus.
There are no more excuses at Texas A&M. it’s time to win big – now.
“Just the number of guys who will play (in the NFL), and the physical size and speed,” one NFL scout who was in College Station told me. “Haven’t see that anywhere in the state of Texas at any school in quite some time.”
Or as another NFL scout told me: “It’s starting to look like what Jimbo had at Florida State.”
That, of course, means results better soon follow.
It means last year’s win over SEC king Alabama can’t be an anomaly; it must be the beginning of a trend.
It means the signature victories of the past 2 seasons (Alabama, Florida) can’t again be sandwiched around losses to Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
It means the days of 4- and 5-loss seasons are over.
It means Fisher, who has proven he can build an elite program and win a national title, must now prove he can do it surrounded by the elite of college football.
The 3 straight top-10 recruiting classes – capped by this year’s record haul and No. 1 overall class – leave no wiggle room.
It’s not about a young team, or an inexperienced team, or a team that needs to learn how to win big games. As he begins Year 5 at Texas A&M, the program is built out to the point of no surprises and no excuses.
If it doesn’t work, if the Aggies can’t move from significant benchmarks in the growth and development of a program over the past 2 years to winning a conference championship for the first time since 1998, there’s only one person to blame.
Fisher has recruited and developed at such a high level in 5 years, the plan and personnel are firmly in place. Like Alabama and Georgia, player movement – to the NFL, to the transfer portal – means little because those waiting their turn, or those you’ve recruited, will plug and play.
Lose the greatest season in Alabama history with quarterback Mac Jones? No problem. Bryce Young follows with an even better season.
Lose 4 defensive players picked in the top 92 of the 2021 NFL Draft? No problem, Georgia responds with the best defense in the game over the past two decades – and will have at least 4 or 5 more players picked in the top 100 in next month’s NFL Draft.
Alabama and Georgia have it so set up and so good, the Tide won the national title in 2020 and played for it in 2021 with the 2 least productive defenses under Nick Saban since his first season in 2007.
Georgia was so good and so talented everywhere on the field, it won the national title last season with a game manager at quarterback.
Texas A&M, on personnel alone, is closer than anyone in the SEC to Alabama and Georgia. They’re physically – strength and speed – at the same level. They have dudes.
The Aggies are Georgia in the early years under Kirby Smart: full of talent, yet lacking the intangible of mentally believing it will happen.
Georgia took a gut punch from Alabama in last year’s SEC Championship Game and didn’t blink. A month later, the Bulldogs played their best game of the season and won it all.
Texas A&M beat Alabama last season, then lost to Ole Miss and LSU. That can’t happen when there’s a distinct talent advantage.
When Fisher won the national title at FSU, he had the best players every time the Noles stepped on the field. All 24 starters from the Rose Bowl BCS national championship game win over Auburn played in the NFL.
If it truly is starting to look like the talent-rich FSU teams of old in College Station, as one NFL scout told me, it’s time the Aggies play like it.
“I don’t know about all that stuff,” Fisher said. ‘We have got a lot of guys to replace. You just saw our Pro Day workouts. We lost a lot of guys.”
Alabama and Georgia lose a lot, too. It’s plug-and-play from elite recruiting classes and the transfer portal.
The days of 4- and 5-loss seasons are over at Texas A&M.
2. Tip of the spear
The easy out for last year’s 4-loss season – the 3rd season in 4 years of at least 4 losses for Fisher at Texas A&M – was quarterback Zach Calzada.
Starter Haynes King was lost for the season in Week 2, and Calzada quickly became the excuse for early losses to Texas and Mississippi State, and late losses to Ole Miss and LSU (while conveniently ignoring Calzada was the reason for the Alabama win).
So Fisher went out and made moves to correct the problem: He signed LSU quarterback Max Johnson from the transfer portal and signed 5-star recruit Conner Weigman. They are now experiencing Fisher’s legendary hard coaching of the position for the first time.
“I mean, you are pushing everything,” Fisher said. “That’s the big thing, first of all, is the command, leadership and competitiveness in which they can exert the influence they have on other players. You can talk about their own execution, but players got to have that confidence.”
Fisher has been excited about King’s emergence in 2022 since last year’s bowl practices, when King returned and threw well in simulated sets. But Johnson – who threw for 306 yards and 3 TDs in a win over the Aggies last year – has been impressive this spring, and Weigman, one staffer told me, “isn’t backing down; the ball jumps off his hand.”
I’d be shocked if Johnson doesn’t win the job. You don’t sit a player who has a TD/INT ratio of 20/5 in 10 career SEC starts (35/7 overall in 14 starts) for King, who has never started an SEC game and has a career TD/INT ratio of 3/4.
And you’re not starting a true freshman unless he’s the best option on the team.
Getting younger, getting better
We’re 6 practices into spring drills, and early enrollees from the historical 2022 recruiting class are already making an impact.
Jake Johnson, Max’s brother, is pushing his way to the top of a talented tight end depth chart. Wide receiver Evan Stewart, a top-10 recruit according to the 247Sports composite, is the most talented receiver on the roster.
Anthony Lucas, a 5-star 300-pound defensive end, already has shown an ability to use his length and quickness off the edge. Then there’s linebacker Ish Harris, an overlooked 4-star from tiny Pilot Point, in North Texas, who has been the star of spring practice. He still needs to gain weight and strength (6-3, 195), but his speed and athleticism are rare.
That’s just the midterm enrollees from 2022. Two 5-star players from the 2021 class are also making big strides this spring. DL Tunmise Adeleye, a top 40-recruit in 2021 who redshirted last season, is running with the first team in spring practice.
Shemar Turner, a 5-star defensive tackle who played situationally last year, will be a force this season. He’s bigger and stronger and reminds the staff of a young DeMarvin Leal.
The past 3 top-5 recruiting classes are playing out all over the field.
“(Competition) is the only way you raise your game and raise your team,” Fisher said. “People say, ‘How are you going to play them all?’ You play the best ones.”
The same way Alabama and Georgia do it.
4. Another portal hit
There’s no greater indicator of the impact of Jahmyr Gibbs on the Alabama offense than Tide coach Nick Saban praising his transfer tailback from Georgia Tech.
That Saban is talking about Gibbs – and pointing to his practice habits and preparation and skills – before his first carry at Alabama should tell you all you need to know about the potential of Gibbs this season.
“He has been a very good addition to our team,” Saban said.
Understand this: It’s not like Alabama is devoid of talent at tailback. Roydell Williams and Jase McClellan are returning from knee injuries last season, and Trey Sanders is back after playing well as a backup in 2021.
But none of those three has the acceleration and burst of Gibbs, and none is the pass-catching threat of Gibbs. What looked like a nice changeup plan, or 3rd-down back, for Alabama has quickly developed into a player who could be on top of a crowded running backs room.
“He’s not like anything Nick has had there,” an NFL scout told me. “He might be 5-10, maybe, and might be 195-200 pounds. But man, can he move. He has terrific hands. Wait and see how (Alabama OC) Billy (O’Brien) uses him this season. They’re going to do things in the pass game that they’ve never done with their running backs.”
5. The Weekly Five
The top 5 position coach hires of the offseason.
1. Eric Wolford, offensive line, Alabama: One of the top 3 offensive line coaches in college football, Wolford takes over a group that struggled in 2021.
2. Corey Raymond, cornerbacks, Florida: An elite coach, and a better recruiter. Shockingly left his alma mater (LSU) for the rebuild at Florida.
3. Cortez Hankton, wide receivers, LSU: A big loss for the Georgia staff (coach and recruiting), and a huge save for new LSU coach Brian Kelly – after Raymond left for Florida.
4. Bryan McClendon, wide receivers, Georgia: Left the SEC (South Carolina) for the first time after the 2019 season, joined Mario Cristobal and helped build a Pac-12 championship roster at Oregon.
5. Ike Hilliard, wide receivers, Auburn. Spent 11 years coaching in the NFL but has never coached in the college game. Development as a recruiter is critical.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Mississippi State WR Makai Polk.
“He’s intriguing. He’s a long guy (6-3) who has good balls skills and can high-point (throws). He’s not the fastest guy, and immediately, that’s what everyone’s looking at. I look at the athletic ability, and the way he plays the position. He attacks it with precision.
“Reminds me of Van Jefferson, who wasn’t highly thought of coming out, had a big Senior Bowl and is now a guy who will develop into a really good player in the league. (Polk) is not going to stretch a defense, and he’s not the most physical guy. But he will get open, and he will catch the ball – two very underrated aspects of playing the position at this level.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: Ranking the best trifectas (QB/TB/WR) for 2022:
1. Alabama: QB Bryce Young, TB Jahmyr Gibbs, WR Jermaine Burton.
2. Tennessee: QB Hendon Hooker, TB Jabari Small, WR Cedric Tillman.
3. Kentucky: QB Will Levis, TB Chris Rodriguez, WR Tayvion Robinson.
4. Texas A&M: QB Max Johnson, TB Devon Achane, WR Evan Stewart.
5. LSU: QB Myles Brennan, TB Noah Cain, WR Kayshon Boutte.
6. Arkansas: QB KJ Jefferson, TB Raheim Sanders, WR Jadon Haselwood.
7. Georgia: QB Stetson Bennett, TB Kenny McIntosh, WR Adonai Mitchell.
8. Mississippi State: QB Will Rogers, RB Dillon Johnson, WR Jaden Walley.
9. South Carolina: QB Spencer Rattler, RB Christian Beal-Smith, WR Antwane Wells
10. Ole Miss: QB Jaxson Dart, TB Zach Evans, WR Jonathan Mingo.
11. Florida: QB Anthony Richardson, RB Montrell Johnson, WR Xavier Henderson.
12. Auburn: QB Zach Calzada, RB Tank Bigsby, WR Kobe Hudson.
13. Missouri: QB Brady Cook, RB Nathaniel Peat, WR Luther Burden.
14. Vanderbilt: QB Mike Wright, TB Rocko Griffin, WR Will Sheppard.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: At what point does (Missouri coach Eliah) Drinkwitz start to do damage to the starting quarterback he has by chasing all of these transfer quarterbacks he doesn’t have?– Franklin Porter, St. Louis.
Franklin: There’s too much uncertainty at the most important position on the field for Drinkwitz to not land a veteran in the QB room. Let’s say, after a breakout performance in a bowl game loss to Army, Brady Cook is the answer. What else is there? There’s Tyler Macon, the first QB Drinkwitz recruited to Mizzou. He has talent, but he’s raw.
Then there’s Sam Horn, the jewel of this year’s top 15 recruiting class, who could sign in June to play professional baseball (he’ll likely be selected in the first 2 rounds) and have to choose between football and potentially a 7-figure signing bonus from MLB.
In other words, Drinkwitz could be left with all of 2 legitimate options at quarterback this fall. That’s why he’s looking to sign another quarterback. He doesn’t really know what he has with Cook and/or Macon; both have talent, but neither has done it consistently.
If he can land Georgia transfer JT Daniels, everything changes. Daniels would then be the starter in 2022 as long as he stays healthy. If not Daniels, there are other options, including former Florida QB Emory Jones.
There will be more quarterbacks transferring after spring practice, and as long as Missouri adds one prior to May 1, he will be eligible for the 2022 season.
7. Of all the positive Josh Heupel has brought Tennessee, none has been more impactful than last week’s commitment of 5-star QB Nico Iamaleava.
The No. 7 overall prospect in the 2023 class according to the 247Sports composite, Iamaleava’s commitment underscores the work Heupel and his staff accomplished in Year 1 – and what could be in the future. Heupel promised he would recruit elite skill players to Knoxville, and he has in Year 2, and more important, he has done it on a national level.
When Tennessee was rolling through its golden years under Phil Fulmer in the mid-to late-1990s, it was built with impactful recruits in the south and nationally. Iamaleava, who plays high school football in Los Angeles, is the highest-ranked quarterback recruit for Tennessee since a guy named Manning.
10. Quote to note
Auburn coach Bryan Harsin on connecting with players: “I wouldn’t say it just me, but our players, too. We know each other better. We’ve spent more time (together). I really think our coaches are doing a really good job of connecting with our players.”