During the 2014 preseason to the college football season, Ole Hotty Toddy is prepared to bring Ole Miss fans the ultimate coverage preview to the 2014 season. We will be reaching out to fellow FanSided writers of other SEC schools and writers from other networks and publishers of other SEC schools to give us their in depth look of their team with what we call Opponent Sideline Q&A.
In today’s Opponent Sideline Q&A, we sit down with Texas A&M writer David Walker. Walker and I have been friends for the past couple of years and it is always great to chat with him about the Aggies this time of the year. Walker is a former Texas A&M quarterback and is now a sports writer of Aggies sports. Some of Walker’s records that he set while at A&M are still held to this day, and some were not broken until recently by Johnny Manziel. He is the former editor of Fansided’s Texas A&M site – GigEmGazette.com. His work can now been seen on GameDayr.com. Walker has also written a book over the years. You can also follow David on Twitter – @DavidMoonWalker. We want to thank Walker for sitting down with us to discuss the Aggies upcoming season. Below is our interview with Walker.
Ole Hotty Toddy: How much of an impact will it be to the program without Johnny Football? Who replaces him in 2014?
David Walker: We will see the offense everyone expected from Houston’s head coach when he arrived; very similar to what Texas Tech runs now. It’s a catch and throw offense with multiple reads, but the huge unknown and unforeseen part of that offense was the little dart named Manziel zipping through who-knew-where. No one saw that coming or planned for it. It was the extra bonus from out of nowhere. Manziel transformed a catch-and-throw offense into the unexpected, using every inch of the width and depth of the field. That advantage is gone with Johnny, and it was a big one.
That said, the offense will miss the spontaneous fast-break moments we’ve grown so enamored with, and the throws of desperation that seemed to always find their targets. Heck, the whole world will miss Johnny’s style of play, but at least we know Coach Sumlin isn’t one to rein in talent like some coaches at Texas A&M have done in the past.
I haven’t watched Kyle Allen yet. He is certainly highly touted. If he gets the nod, he will be the 9th or 10th true freshman to start at A&M, and the first to start his first game at A&M. I played in the first Texas A&M game I ever saw at 17 years of age, but I was the backup for my first five games. I had no questions about my ability to run our option offense, and if Kyle’s preparation and confidence levels are anywhere close to where mine were, he’ll have a great initial season.
What is curious to me is why A&M burned Kenny Hill’s redshirt year last season. He is now a true sophomore. There was absolutely no reason for him to have stepped on the field unless it was to further secure Allen’s commitment. Hill is a very gifted athlete and has the mobility you like to see. Coach Sumlin doesn’t seem to be one to hold minor off-the-field mishaps against his quarterbacks like, say, Bear Bryant did with Joe Namath. The advantage Kenny has is his time spent as an understudy to a guy like Manziel. Emulation is a big part of self-improvement in amateur athletics, and there’s not a better one out there to emulate.
OHT: Last year it seemed there was struggles on defense. What are some major concerns position wise in Aggie football this year?
DW: I was fortunate to play with the nation’s number one defense during our days at Texas A&M. We were Number 2 and Number 3 another couple of years, yet it took us until our third season before we became very, very good. A&M is in the same spot now, having played a ton of youngsters these last two seasons, both in the SEC. This is the year to transform and blossom. A perfect example is right over there at Baylor. They were in the bottom 10 defensively in 2012 and TOP 10 only a year later. My former Aggie teammate, Phil Bennett, is the coordinator there. A&M’s challenge is to meet these 3rd-year expectations. If they don’t stop anyone this year, there’s a serious problem with effort and preparation in the Valley.
OHT: Who stands out the most to you on the Aggies defense?
DW: We had 1st-team All-Americans playing for us on defense in the 70s; LB Ed Simonini, LB Garth Ten Napel, LB Robert Jackson, DB Pat Thomas and DB Lester Hayes. Melvin Robertson was the best defensive coach in the country and his defense is still the best in Aggie football history. Obviously, you need talent in the secondary and at linebacker to be truly dominant, but it hasn’t shown up yet with this current group. At this point, even with several 3-year starters returning, the defense remains non-descript. I hope some cream will rise eventually.
OHT: Mike Evans was another big talent on offense who departed to the NFL in 2014. Who steps into that wide receiver role now?
DW: Mike Evans was a tremendous talent, no doubt. The shortcoming with the A&M scheme is that their receivers in their Air Raid offense continuously line up on the same side of the ball throughout the game. You don’t have to look him up. There’s no motion unless it’s a running back leaving the backfield. Otherwise, it’s a stationary set and Evans is wide left.
Alabama discovered early in their game with A&M that the Aggies had no one on the opposite side who could match Evans’ speed. There was no one there who could just run by you. They switched cornerbacks after A&M’s first two scores. This forced the Aggies to concentrate on combination routes on their left side and removed Evans from the game, essentially. Knowing this is why LSU and Missouri did so well defensively against the Aggies late in the season. It’s easy to game plan.
Does A&M have anyone who can put that kind of pressure on a defense in 2014? More importantly, do they have two of them? This remains to be seen, and we’ll find out very quickly when they line up in the opener vs. South Carolina.
OHT: Is this going to be a rebuilding year for A&M or are they going to shock the world?
DW: I’d like to say A&M is going to shock the world but that would be over-reaching. Shocking the world “Aggie-style” was strutting into Tuscaloosa and slaying the Giant in A&M’s 3rd straight SEC road game in which they took all three. Who does that?
If A&M has a defense that opens strong, unlike last season when Rice went up and down the field at ease, it will be a very good season. South Carolina will be quite a test and A&M’s level of success there defensively will set the tone for the remainder of the season. You’ll see a team brimming with confidence or the same thing we’ve seen for quite some time now. Trust me, these college offenses are really difficult to slow down, much less stop. It’s a challenge. They hit you where you ain’t more times than not.
The offensive backfield is tremendous and the O-Line will once again be outstanding. A&M’s level of success will hinge on the receivers’ escapability and the QB’s success rate in executing the scheme. A&M receivers have had trouble getting open and we’ll need to see how the new QBs react.
The difference in our era and this one is that we simply kept possession of the ball the whole game. Our defense went dancing after the game and we went home to bed. A&M needs more of that.
OHT: Ole Miss and A&M have had back-to-back thrilling matchups that did not go in Ole Miss’ favor. What’s your preseason prediction for this matchup? Could Ole Miss upset the 12th man? Do you see these two teams developing an intense rivalry in the future?
DW: It’s certainly growing into one of the best rivalries and certainly one of the most anticipated games of the season. Bo Wallace will be exceptional as he’s coming into this season with his shoulder completely healthy and a bevy of fine, experienced receivers. And until A&M’s game against Duke last season, the two Ole Miss games were the only comeback wins on A&M’s resume under Coach Sumlin. Johnny was instrumental in both of those and he’s not around anymore.
Simply put, there is no dominating aura at Kyle Field. Every conference game played there is a coin flip as to who will come out victorious. In other words, A&M has been less than spectacular in conference games played at home.
The Aggies haven’t won a Division or Conference Championship in the 2000’s simply because they lose half their home conference games, on average. Hey, Kyle Field is a Top 5 venue in the country by most accounts…as wonderful environments go, but visiting teams get revved up there as well, apparently. It’s the military band, the music, the crowd; combined, it puts players in a celebratory combat mode that is unique to anywhere else in the country. This uniqueness, however, doesn’t necessarily work to the home team’s benefit.
There’s also a lot of administrative energy put into advertising on the jumbotron. You don’t see all that in other stadiums. The other jumbotrons in the conference focus on producing entertaining material that hopefully will contribute to WINNING GAMES. It’s exciting and high-adrenaline stuff. The Aggies see a game as an advertising opportunity, unfortunately. Money talks and A&M rakes in the cash, but it’s to the detriment of the kids’ emotional stamina in wanting to win football games, in my opinion. Realtor commercials don’t fire me up, particularly.
Since 2000, A&M’s home conference record is 30-27 and is only .500 since joining the SEC. Since 1975 there hasn’t been an A&M team that’s won every home conference game that did not win a 1st-place trophy of some kind. And it’s a tough home schedule in 2014, with Ole Miss coming in and then finishing up with LSU and Missouri. We’ll pack in 109,000 for these games, but until some team comes along to break the mold, A&M’s fortunes will remain status quo.
OHT: You’re a former Aggie quarterback. Did you ever watch Johnny Manziel play and see anything you might have done better?
DW: I wrote immediately following the 3rd game that I saw Johnny play that he was the best quarterback in the history of the school. Since I was the first true freshman starting quarterback here after freshmen became eligible in 1972, I say this with all confidence.
Now, not to totally throw in the towel, my teammates tell me our running and throwing styles were identical, and we are similar in size. In the 70s we ran the triple option and most yardage was gained from execution of the play-design. I was shunned by the coaches from scrambling out of the pocket on pass plays. And we never once lined up in the shotgun, which is Heaven for quarterbacks.
A&M’s current offensive potential spreads throughout 100% of the field and the added threat of a scramble means any portion is susceptible to attack. Our option offense used only half the field, allowing defenses to be in full-steam pursuit the moment the ball was snapped. Conversely, the Air Raid has many defenders back on their heels because there is just no way to predict where the ball is going. This is very different from what they saw from us in the 70s.
I’ve always said I could go to any college and run their offense, but very few could come into A&M and run our triple option. That said, I haven’t seen a QB in the last 40 years who could have out-thrown me, particularly before the sternoclavicular dislocation I suffered as a sophomore. Still, we rarely had impressive passing numbers. When we passed it was from a one-receiver set, and he was always down in a 3-point stance. My other 4 eligible receivers were within arm-reach.
It’s apples and oranges when you compare the implementation of talent from coaching standpoints. Quarterbacking today would be a dream come true, similar to the Gifford Nielson and Tommy Kramer offenses of our era. And at A&M, we never once practiced situational football, such as a two-minute offense, or even a hurry-up offense. That lack of preparation and foresight cost us some big games too.
A little-known fact is I held the all-time single-game rushing record for A&M quarterbacks for 35 years with the 182 yards I picked up in a come-from-behind win over SMU. That dang Johnny Football took it from me in their Cotton Bowl game against Oklahoma. He also set the new all-time rushing record for QBs in bowl games.
But I remain the 2nd-winningest quarterback in A&M’s history, thanks to Johnny turning Pro. Johnny would have shattered that one too, but “he gone!!!!”
I will miss him dearly; the best there ever was or ever will be, in my opinion. But in football, like everything else, we’ve got to move on.