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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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Underclassmen to headline Texas Bowl versus Oklahoma State

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Word to the wise: forget what you know about Texas A&M football in 2023.

The Aggies will close out the year against Oklahoma State in the TaxAct Texas Bowl in Houston on Wednesday, Dec. 27, finishing a 2023 campaign that saw them cycle through three quarterbacks and two head coaches. From player transfers to NFL Draft declarations to coaching departures, A&M looks far different than it did at the end of the regular season on Nov. 25.

Those changes start at the top, where interim head coach Elijah Robinson will soon be swapping out his maroon and white for orange and navy. The Aggies’ former co-defensive coordinator stepped into the head coaching role following the firing of coach Jimbo Fisher, but will soon head north after being hired as Syracuse’s defensive coordinator earlier this month.

Robinson finds himself in an unusual situation as a coach for two different football programs. When he’s not leading bowl practices for the Aggies, he’s hitting the recruiting trail for the Orange, creating a hectic December for the man affectionately regarded by his players as “E-Rob.”

“My commitment was to see these guys through to the bowl game,” Robinson said. “Before I took a job, I told those programs I was talking to that it was important that I finished through the bowl game. There were days that we weren’t practicing that I had to go on the road and recruit [for Syracuse] … No way, no how did I short A&M in the preparation for these kids.”

Other coaching changes include the departure of offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino to Arkansas, leaving A&M’s play-calling duties in the hands of co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach James Coley and offensive analyst Jim Chaney. Coley has been on A&M’s staff since 2020 following four seasons at Georgia in which the Bulldogs made three SEC Championships.

Following the end of the regular season, wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig was relieved of his duties. While the Aggies have yet to name an official coach in his absence, they’ll receive help from someone that perhaps knows the team better than anyone in graduate wide receiver Ainias Smith.

The five-year veteran announced on Dec. 8 that he suffered a hand injury in A&M’s loss to LSU on Nov. 25 that would keep him from playing in the Texas Bowl. Instead, Smith said he would accept an offer to help coach in the game to wrap up his career with the team.
“I think he can be a great coach because he’s a leader, he cares about people and he builds relationships,” Robinson said. “He brings juice to practice, so he’s a joy to be around. We enjoy having him around as a coaching staff.”

Over 15 Aggies have entered the transfer portal since that loss to LSU, headlined by sophomore defensive lineman Walter Nolen. The defensive line was depleted further by the entries of juniors Fadil Diggs and Isaiah Raikes and sophomore LT Overton to the portal.

Sophomore Jaylen Henderson returns for his fourth start behind center for the Aggies, although he’ll be without several of his top receiving targets. Sophomore wide receiver Evan Stewart made news as A&M’s top offensive player to enter the portal, joining sophomore tight end Jake Johnson, who will be heading to North Carolina with his brother, sophomore quarterback Max Johnson.

“We can only control what we can [control],” Henderson said. “The guys that are here with us, they’re busting their tails, giving 100% everyday, so that’s all we can control.”

The transfer portal hasn’t been the only thing to take a toll on the Maroon and White’s roster, with Smith and three other players declaring for the 2024 NFL Draft. Senior defensive lineman McKinnley Jackson, graduate offensive lineman Layden Robinson and junior linebacker Edgerrin Cooper will join Smith in heading to the next level.

Smith, Cooper and Layden Robinson each earned All-SEC accolades, with Smith and Cooper receiving first-team distinctions at their positions. While Cooper announced his decision to forgo the bowl game, Layden Robinson and Jackson did not announce their intentions to do so. Elijah Robinson added that the pair is nursing injuries.

The moral of this story? It’s going to fall on the Aggies’ young players to provide leadership to the team and put the experience they’ve gained this season to good use. Without future NFL players on the field, the responsibility is on those they’ve led this year to take the next step.

In this sense, the Texas Bowl can be seen more so as a preview of the 2024 season rather than the final chapter of 2023. This A&M squad is in the hands of youngsters like sophomore defensive back Bryce Anderson, sophomore WR Noah Thomas, sophomore DL Shemar Stewart and sophomore OL Kam Dewberry .

It wasn’t but one year ago that these players were wide-eyed freshmen doing their best to keep the Aggies afloat as they sputtered to a 5-7 finish in 2022. That season proved to be a rude awakening for the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.

Joining this legion of sophomores in taking the reins of A&M football are a series of newcomers to the team in 2023, led by Henderson. The Fresno State transfer was likely an afterthought in fans’ minds at the beginning of the year given his No. 3 spot on the depth chart, but injuries forced him into the starting role, where he has a 2-1 record.

“The more reps you get, you tend to just get more confident and get a better understanding within the scheme,” Henderson said. “Every rep, I just feel more confident. My teammates, they know how I play, I know how they play, so it’s just good getting those reps, for sure.”

On the other side of the ball, freshman LB Taurean York has put together an All-SEC campaign in his first season of college ball. Alongside Cooper, he helped form one of the conference’s best linebacker tandems with 66 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.

“It’s been a crazy six months, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” York said. “I think it would be great to show our fight, how we never back down, how we come together as one and hopefully end the season with a ‘W.’”

The Aggies’ season hasn’t always been pretty, and with the offseason moving at the rate it is, it’s easy to see why most eyes are already looking ahead to 2024. Nonetheless, Wednesday’s Texas Bowl can offer a taste of what’s to come next fall as many underclassmen take the spotlight.

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About the Contributor
Luke White
Luke White, Sports Editor
Luke White is a junior telecommunication media studies major and sport management minor from Round Rock, Texas. He has served as head sports editor since May 2023.
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