COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Throughout the 2015 offseason, Texas A&M coaches often spoke of a renewed emphasis on the running game.
The Aggies’ struggles to run effectively, particularly against SEC competition, were believed by head coach Kevin Sumlin to be at the heart of Texas A&M's offensive problems. Offseason changes reflected that when Sumlin hired Dave Christensen to not only be the team’s offensive line coach but also serve as a run-game coordinator.
Emphasizing the run in theory and in practice are two different things, especially in an offense as wide open and pass-oriented as Texas A&M’s. But through five games this season, the Aggies have made good on their preseason promise and are also doing it different than they have since they joined the SEC: by handing the ball primarily to one running back -- Tra Carson.
Statistically, the increased focus on running the ball is clear when comparing 2015 to 2014. Against Power 5 competition, the Aggies averaged 31.9 rush attempts per game in 2014. This season, that number has jumped to 36.7 through three games against Power 5 opponents (Arizona State, Arkansas, Mississippi State).
In two of their first three Power 5 games (against Arizona State and Mississippi State), Texas A&M rushed the ball 45 times each. Only once last season did the Aggies even hit the 40-carry mark -- against West Virginia in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, where Texas A&M had a season-high 48 carries. The Aggies never had more than 39 carries in a game in the 2014 regular season.
And the Aggies have showed commitment to the run, not abandoning it when yards are tough to come by. They’re averaging only 3.97 yards per carry against their three Power 5 opponents this season, slightly down from last year’s clip (4.01) against that caliber of competition, but their third-down success has been significantly better (60 percent of third-down rush attempts converted vs. Power 5 teams compared to 51.3 percent in 2014).
Since Sumlin arrived in 2012, Texas A&M has usually shared carries between three and sometimes four running backs. This season, by necessity because of injuries and depth, Carson has been the point man. The Aggies positioned themselves to have a running back duo of Carson and sophomore James White, but White suffered an injury in the first half of the season-opening win against Arizona State and didn’t return until Saturday’s win over Mississippi State, where he left the game early again because of an ankle injury.
In the meantime, Carson has carried a bigger workload than he has since arriving in Aggieland, toting the ball 95 times in five games and surpassing 20 carries three times this season. Before this season, Carson had only once carried the ball more than 20 times in a game -- in the West Virginia game in January. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound back has averaged 4.53 yards per carry this season and has 430 rushing yards total.
The Aggies have been creative in the ways they’ve run the ball when Carson is taking a breather, like using dual-threat quarterback Kyler Murray as a running option and receiver Christian Kirk in the wildcat formation, something they debuted Saturday. Cornerback Brandon Williams, a running back throughout his career at A&M before making the switch this season, has been called back to offense occasionally for carries. After the Aggies’ win over Nevada, Carson joked with a wide grin: “Brandon, that’s my boy. He’s welcome to come back any time.”
Sumlin was complimentary of the efforts of Christensen and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital to find ways to run the ball.
“Our offensive staff has done a really nice job of trying to be creative in our running game with the addition of some tight ends, H-back sets, in-line tight ends ... some unbalanced lines, wildcat,” Sumlin said. “Dave Christensen and Jake have done a nice job of tweaking things and showing some different formations and having to be that way because Tra has really been the lone back.”
The Aggies' biggest season rushing since Sumlin arrived was 2012, when the dynamic Johnny Manziel was the quarterback. The Aggies averaged 41 rush attempts per game that season. This year they're averaging 39.8 so far against all competition, higher than their 2013 (35.8) and 2014 (32.4) rates. As SEC play wears on and they face tougher defenses, it'll be interesting to see if that commitment remains.