With backup QB set to play, Aggies need a bit more from their receivers
Texas A&M has to use its backup quarterback Saturday, but the 10th-ranked Aggies will have their full corps of pass-catchers.
Jake Hubenak knows how to get them the ball.
Despite limited playing time in his two seasons at A&M, Hubenak has had success throwing to the Aggie wide receivers. He threw for 307 yards in his lone start, last year’s Music City Bowl against Louisville, and wideouts Christian Kirk and Josh Reynolds had big games. Reynolds caught 11 passes for 177 yards and Kirk caught 10 for 84 -- the only time A&M has had two players with 10 or more catches in the same game since joining the Southeastern Conference in 2012.
That same trio picked up right where they left off last Saturday at Mississippi State when Hubenak replaced Trevor Knight, who injured his throwing shoulder and will miss the rest of the regular season. In just over a half of work, Hubenak threw for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Kirk had six catches for 135 yards and Reynolds added three receptions for 71 yards. Each had a touchdown as A&M, which trailed by 21 when Hubenak took over, twice pulled within a touchdown in the 35-28 loss.
A&M will need more help from its receivers as the offense tries to operate without Knight, who rushed for 583 yards and 10 touchdowns. Knight’s ability to run has played a big role in giving the Aggies a strong ground game and overall balance on offense. Running backs Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford have added a combined 968 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns as A&M (7-2, 4-2) has run the ball 52 percent of the time for 2,110 yards. The Aggies have passed for 2,262 yards.
A&M was just as balanced last season, running it 51 percent of the time, but against Louisville the Hubenak-led Aggies leaned more on the pass, throwing 48 times to 39 rushes.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said the Aggies will still use the zone read that Knight excelled at, but instead of Hubenak running after the fake handoff, he might deliver a short throw.
There will be at least one more tweak.
“The receivers have to become more involved in the running game,” Mazzone said.
That’s OK with Kirk.
“Us as a receiver group is definitely going to have to step up this week,” Kirk said. “We’re definitely going to have to help Jake out, and we’re ready for the challenge.”
More production from juniors Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones would help.
The Aggies have been trying to get Noil and Seals-Jones more involved as the season has progressed, but with Seals-Jones hampered by injuries and Noil missing a pair of games because of a suspension and an injury, they’ve combined for just 384 yards and one touchdown on 25 catches. By comparison, Kirk and Reynolds have combined for 1,261 yards and 14 TDs on 96 catches.
Mazzone isn’t giving up on Noil and Seals-Jones, however.
“I’m excited about both those guys,” Mazzone said. “And to be honest, it might not [show up] in the box scores, but watching the film, those two guys had one of the better games they’ve had last Saturday. In fact, that whole receivers group played well.”
Noil reportedly had his best training camp this season after a troubled sophomore year that ended with a suspension for the Music City Bowl and this year’s season opener. Since his return, he’s managed only 12 catches for 164 yards and a touchdown.
He missed the South Carolina game with an injury and took one of the hardest hits of the season when leveled on a punt return against Alabama, a helmet-to-helmet blow that A&M coaches thought should have been a penalty.
“A lot of people wouldn’t have gotten up from that, but he ran off the field,” A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said.
Noil didn’t catch a pass at Alabama and only one for 12 yards in the following week’s 52-10 victory over New Mexico State. But against Mississippi State, Noil caught three passes for 36 yards, his best production against an FBS team this year. He showed flashes of the ability he displayed as a freshman when he caught 46 passes for 583 yards and five TDs.
“I thought Saturday he made some crucial plays for us,” Sumlin said. “On a crossing route, he made a really smart play to get out of bounds and get a first down. We want him to be more dynamic. We missed some throws [to him] early in game.”
Seals-Jones has 13 catches for 220 yards without a touchdown this season. The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder had nine catches for 128 yards in the first three games before suffering an ankle injury against Arkansas that caused him to miss two games. He’s made three catches since returning and didn’t have a reception against Mississippi State.
“I don’t know that Ricky has been back completely,” Sumlin said. “He’s been off and on and has come out of games the last couple weeks. I think he’s finally feeling better.”
After the last three games, Seals-Jones has needed to take off Sunday, Monday and sometimes even Tuesday to fully recover.
“An ankle injury for a guy playing that position or guys who are quick-twitch guys, whether it’s [defensive end Myles Garrett] or him, it could be a real hindrance,” Sumlin said. “But he’s fighting his way back.”
Seals-Jones had a solid season last year with 49 catches for 465 yards and four touchdowns. He had four catches for 57 yards in this season’s opener against UCLA but hasn’t matched either of those totals since.
Mazzone sees a big finish for both Seals-Jones and Noil.
“I’m really looking to those guys coming in and having a bigger impact on what we’re doing and take some of the balls away from Josh and Christian,” Mazzone said.
A&M’s top four receivers haven’t been 100-percent healthy since the SEC opener at Auburn when each had at least two catches, combining for 217 yards on 17 catches and two scores in a 29-16 victory.
“From a production standpoint overall, Josh and Christian are playing at a high level,” Sumlin said. “Christian has five touchdowns in the last two games (three via punt returns). There’s only one football.”
With Noil healthy, A&M can use him to create mismatches by lining him up alone on one side of the formation.
“He still demands double coverage just like Josh,” Sumlin said. “What that does is it creates more space to the three-receiver side.”
So while he might not be catching, he’s contributing.
“From that standpoint, [Noil’s] done a really, really good job this year of playing without the ball, being a really, really good blocker,” Sumlin said.
Noil, of course, wants the football thrown his way more.
“As I tell him every week, his time is going to come,” Sumlin said. “That’s part of the growth process and that’s part of him being consistent. The more consistency he shows, the more he’ll be rewarded with production, and he’s done that.”