With six key players from Texas A&M’s 9-1 season headed to the 2021 NFL draft, head coach Jimbo Fisher will have plenty of holes to fill if the Aggies want to maintain their form for another season.
Fisher called it a familiar task for any coaching staff.
“I feel very confident about the nucleus of our group coming back,” Fisher said Wednesday during a Zoom press conference for the Paul “Bear” Bryant Award. He was a finalist for the award. “Each team has a one-year life expectancy. No team is ever together greater than one year. It has to develop its identity, its work ethics, its goals, its desires and its work habits and day-to-day habits very quickly. That’s going to be a challenge, but that’s always a challenge. I feel very confident in our guys to do it, because they know how to do it and I think we still have a very strong nucleus of leadership coming back.”
As of Wednesday, three of A&M’s four senior offensive linemen have declared for the 2021 NFL draft: left tackle Dan Moore Jr., right guard Jared Hocker and center Ryan McCollum. Senior quarterback Kellen Mond, senior linebacker Buddy Johnson and junior defensive tackle Bobby Brown also have declared for the draft, and senior linebacker Ikenna Okeke announced he would not return to the team.
Senior defensive tackle Jayden Peevy, wide receiver Camron Buckley and linebacker Aaron Hansford have said they will return for another year.
Prior to the 2020 season, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all players due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Fisher, Hansford made the right decision to return for a super senior season, not only for his possible future for the NFL but for the rest of his college team.
“I think for him to improve his craft and his value going into the next level, I think it’s a very smart decision,” Fisher said. “You get a great special teams player. You get a drop guy. He can rush the passer. He can play inside. You get three or four players in one, who has already been there and has tremendous experience.”
Hansford finished second on the Aggies with 49 tackles this season. He also had three sacks, seven tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. He played in every game for the Aggies this year save the Orange Bowl, when Fisher said he was “unavailable.”
Fisher will have a quarterback battle to sort out with sophomore Zach Calzada, returning freshman Haynes King and incoming freshman Eli Stowers, who will be an early enrollee, competing for the starting role.
“All three of those guys right there have a chance,” Fisher said. “We’ll find out who the better player is and who fits our scheme and our system and who our players respond to best. They are three outstanding guys who we are confident in.”
For those not returning next season, Fisher said it was their work setting a foundation for the program that will elevate the next generation of starters.
“When you have good teams, you’re always going to lose good players,” Fisher said. “I think they set a standard for how things are going to be done and the next group that watched them will be able to step up and hopefully do those things that they do. I feel very confident in the guys that are coming back.”
Transfer market open for business
With every player holding an extra year of eligibility, the transfer portal is full of players looking for another place to showcase their talent. Fisher said the Aggies will look closely at the portal in a system that has become “open free agency.”
“You always have to look at the transfer portal because of the way the rules are going,” Fisher said. “If you don’t, you are hurting your organization if there is something there that you need.”
The NCAA tabled a decision Monday on whether players who transferred this season will be immediately eligible or will have to sit out a season as is typical.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban said during Wednesday’s press conference that the transfer system could lead to recruiting college players who have yet to enter the transfer portal.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing for college football for people to start trying to recruit guys off of other peoples’ rosters to come to your school,” said Saban, who won the Bryant Award on Wednesday. “I think it’s a can of worms that you’re opening it up. If we go down that road, it may be inevitable. I don’t know if it is. But I still think that the schools that have the best programs will still attract the best players. You may end up attracting them from somebody else’s school, which is probably not a good thing for college football, but you’re still going to have players that want to go to the best school.”
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, another finalist for the Bear Bryant Award, said while it’s not the best option, transfer players can help fill voids when players elect to leave during the spring.
“I think everybody just has to adapt and respond accordingly for whatever situation you’re dealt, because you can really have gaps in your roster quickly and you can’t go sign high school kids in May, so there really isn’t another option,” Swinney said.
Coaches say A&M deserved CFP spot
In the last USA Today coaches’ poll, both Saban and Swinney voted the Aggies fourth, which would have placed them in the final spot of the College Football Playoff.
Alabama handed the Aggies their only loss of the season, a 52-24 Crimson Tide victory in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Oct. 3, 2020.
“I think A&M was a really, really good team,” Saban said. “I think they were certainly a team that was in great consideration for the playoff. I think my vote was public, so everyone knew how I voted.”
Swinney’s Tigers also made the CFP but lost to No. 3 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl semifinal. Swinney also ranked the Aggies third, but placed Ohio State No. 11 on his ballot. He said Monday that was because he only really considered teams that played at least nine games this season.
The Aggies faced Clemson in 2017 and 2018, both A&M losses, and Swinney said he saw improvement this season.
“They did a great job,” Swinney said. “I got to see them several times and I thought they had a heck of a year. I was so impressed with Kellen Mond and his development. Jimbo always does a great job, and [Isaiah Spiller] had a great year. They were a really good team. There were a lot of really good teams out there. It was a tough year for everyone, and they had a great finish to their season and something to build on moving forward.”
NOTES — A&M senior cornerback Myles Jones announced Wednesday that he will return for a super senior season. “Run it back,” a sign read in a video attached to Jones’ tweet. “Patience is a virtue,” was the tweet’s caption. Jones had five pass breakups and an interception this season. He finished fourth on the team in tackles with 39. He started the first eight games but missed the last two with a leg injury. ... Texas-San Antonio announced Wednesday that it will play at A&M in 2025.