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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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The BattalionMay 4, 2024

Depth boosts 2023 A&M football team

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Photo by Photo by Cameron Johnson

Sophomore WR Moose Muhammad III (7) catches the ball with one hand during A&M’s game against LSU at Kyle Field. on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (Cameron Johnson/The Battalion)

After a multitude of injuries and off-the-field issues forced the 2022 Texas A&M football team to force a handful of backups into action, those trials by fire could lead to a loaded depth chart this season.
Talent was never a question for the Aggies after four years of top-10 recruiting classes, including the nation’s top spot in 2022. It’s a massive leap in competition from high school to college, though, and that youth was evident at times as the team skidded to a 5-7 finish last season.
That was a far cry from the preseason expectations that awarded the maroon and white a No. 6 ranking and expectations of a College Football Playoff appearance. But injuries to sophomore quarterback Max Johnson, graduate wide receiver Ainias Smith, sophomore center Bryce Foster and others put a damper on those hopes.
Players getting hurt wasn’t the only problem. Freshmen such as defensive back Denver Harris, defensive lineman Anthony Lucas and wide receiver Chris Marshall impressed early on, but immaturity resulted in an indefinite suspension that ultimately saw them transfer.
If there was a silver lining to a season Aggies would like to forget, it’s the valuable experience gained by that freshman class and other players that began the year in a backup role. With the return of said injured players as well, A&M has the look of a team that could compete with the SEC’s top programs.
The Aggies rank in the top 10 of teams with the most returning production, with 82% of the offense and 77% of the defense coming back with a chip on their shoulders following a summer of conditioning.
Last year’s offensive line was at the forefront of the team’s injury woes with Foster and juniors Jordan Spasojevic-Moko and Aki Ogunbiyi going down for six games or more. As a result, freshman Matthew Wykoff, now at California, took over at center while freshmen Trey Zuhn III and Kam Dewberry saw their first significant playing time.
The lack of experience was evident as the line struggled to support the quarterback and provide protection in the pocket. A&M’s offense faced difficulty in producing a consistent scoring attack and keeping the offense on the field.
However, the offensive line could well be one of the deepest spots on the team with a healthy group of returners in graduate Layden Robinson, junior Reuben Fatheree II and a highly-touted group of freshmen in Chase Bisontis, TJ Shanahan and Colton Thomasson.
“They’ve all worked all summer long,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “So we feel very good about that. And it’s a lot of guys with experience, so it’s not like you’re missing guys that haven’t played. [We] feel very good with that and should be ready to go.”
A&M’s quarterback room features plenty of depth just a season after junior Max Johnson went down with a broken thumb three games after taking over for sophomore Haynes King’s poor start to the season. Sophomore Conner Weigman saw his first action after King was injured and went on to start the final four games of the season.
Weigman and Johnson return following King’s transfer to Georgia Tech and are joined by Jaylen Henderson of Fresno State, who played in five games over two seasons with the Bulldogs. Weigman appears to have a leg up in the quarterback battle, but whoever is named starter will have a strong supporting cast around him.
Smith leads a proven wide receiver corps with junior Moose Muhammad III and sophomores Evan Stewart and Noah Thomas. Smith enters the season as the unquestioned leader of the Aggies despite going down in the 2022 SEC opener.
Muhammad put the conference on notice with a highlight reel showing in the season finale versus LSU, while Thomas appeared on the radar towards the end of the year. Fisher has talked highly of the Pearland native and named him the offensive MVP in spring ball.
Smith spoke of the team’s growth and maturity over the offseason while discussing how the Aggies are seeking to play as a whole unit this fall.
“There’s more maturity on this team,” Smith said. “The young guys gained experience last year. The team camaraderie is as high as I’ve seen it.”
2022’s defensive line experienced injury firsthand in junior Fadil Diggs and senior McKinnley Jackson, with the pair missing four games each. Diggs and Jackson combined for five sacks and 12 tackles for loss and will lead a line featuring junior Shemar Turner and freshmen Shemar Stewart, Walter Nolen and LT Overton.
“The way they trained over the spring, the way they trained over the summer is getting bigger, stronger, faster,” assistant head coach Elijah Robinson said. “Just understanding what it means to play as a unit, I think those guys have done a really good job.”
Senior Chris Russell Jr. and Edgerrin Cooper were forced to take on a greater role at the linebacker spot and on the pass rush to compensate for the amount of youth on defense. Sophomore Martrell Harris Jr. saw action at the spot in his rookie season, picking up two sacks along the way as he joins Jackson State transfer Jurriente Davis at a unit that’s impressed the coaching staff in fall camp.
“We were extremely young last year in our front, but also talented,” defensive coordinator DJ Durkin said. “As you get a year into that, now those guys have a whole winter, spring, another summer under their belt. You can see the differences just in their body and with their physical abilities.”
Sophomore defensive backs Bryce Anderson, Jacoby Mathews and Jarred Kerr were thrown into the fire as freshmen but made a big impression in their first taste of college ball. They complement a loaded secondary with returners in senior Demani Richardson and juniors Jardin Gilbert and Tyreek Chappell.
“We have high expectations for Bryce, I think he did some really good things last year as a freshman,” Durkin said. “You take his playing experience from last year and go through a whole winter, spring, fall camp. I think he’ll just continue to keep getting better and better.”
The Aggies will have the opportunity to showcase their depth over a nonconference slate that includes New Mexico, Miami and Louisiana-Monroe. Still, over the grind of eight SEC games, the team’s mettle and resilience will no doubt be tested.
Spring ball, summer conditioning and fall camp have afforded returning players the opportunity to grow in their abilities individually while also allowing A&M to develop as a team. Lofty expectations are nothing new in the 979, and utilizing the squad’s depth will be key to living up to them.

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