ATLANTA — Pro-style. Not spread.
Slow. Not fast.
Fullbacks and tight ends. Not empty sets and four-wides.
And finally, says Jimbo Fisher, tough. Not soft.
Texas A&M football is changing, square in the midst of a metamorphosis under its new, $75 million head coach, and the focus, in the most simplistic of terms, is manning up in the biggest of the big-boy conferences. “Man don’t think tough, man don’t live tough. Man don’t think he’s tough, man ain’t going to play tough,” Fisher said, encircled by a group of reporters in a dimly lit hotel room.
This is Fisher’s first Southeastern Conference media days, but it feels like old hat. “Welcome back to the SEC,” media days moderator Kevin Trainor told Fisher as the coach completed his news conference in the primary media room. Oh, yes, Fisher isn’t new to this league. He’s actually spent more seasons in the SEC (13) than in the Atlantic Coast Conference (11), he points out to media members.
He knows this league just as well as anyone, having spent six years at Auburn and another seven at LSU. He tutored quarterbacks and coordinated offenses in a conference known for its bruising style, and he now takes over a program that, some might say, did not have what it took to keep up.
Maybe that’s why Fisher mentioned the words “physical” or “tough” 35 times during his 30-minute address in the main room, and then dozens more as he paraded around various media-filled corners of the Omni Hotel and College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. This is the SEC’s temporarily relocated media day hub, 150 miles from the traditional setting of the Birmingham suburbs, where it returns next year.
The Mercedes-Benz Stadium, shimmering new host of the SEC championship game, sits a few blocks away, a place in which Fisher was hired to reach. He knows he doesn’t have 10 years—the length of his contract—to figure it out. The timetable is “now,” he said.
He made clear Monday his plan, revealing what’s No. 1 on his to-do list in College Station: Make the Aggies tougher. But how? “Practice that way. Live that way. Work out that way. Think that way,” Fisher says.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky’s sixth-year head coach, has seen this movie before. He watched its up close while serving as Fisher’s defensive coordinator in the early days at Florida State, and he’s still got what he calls “vivid” memories of Fisher’s strong directives then. “Starts with his attitude and toughness,” Stoops says. “You can see that with his demeanor. He’s so demanding, demands perfection. He’s very hard and very tough.”
Fisher has started the process of making Texas A&M look more like its SEC brethren. He’s beefing up the Aggies, overhauling Kevin Sumlin’s fast-paced scheme into a more methodical pro-style set, recruiting and signing a 240-pound running back and working the transfer market to land a 250-pound tight end. He moved a 235-pound linebacker to fullback because, well, he didn’t have any fullbacks on the spread-leaning roster he inherited.
He’s replacing small, quick bodies with big bruisers, and he provides an example of this from his early days at LSU, when he used a 280-pound tight end as an H-back. Yes, that might happen in College Station, too, he says. And prepare for more running, a lot more, tailback Trayveon Williams claims. “As a pro-style (offense), you’ve got to establish the run. This year it’s going to be more important.”
Establishing the run. Fullbacks. Tight ends and nearly 300-pound H-backs. What’s happening in Aggieland? In their seventh year in this league, its seems Texas A&M is finally being SEC-fied. The last time defensive lineman Kingsley Keke saw this many fullbacks in a practice, he was in high school. “It was a little weird at first,” he laughs.
Fisher’s A&M offense will flash some spread principles, like any unit in 2018, and that’s especially the case with influence from offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey, who spent the last five seasons as coordinator at Memphis for spread gurus Justin Fuente and Mike Norvell. Still, Fisher laments, “There are times you’ve got to be physical and run the football. I think it helps the defense.”
The Aggies have struggled in those two areas in their half-dozen years in the SEC, which has contributed to an uninspiring conference record (25–23). They’ve finished in the top 40 nationally in rushing just once since 2012, and their rushing defense has ranked no higher than 71st over that same time frame. Fisher is out to flip those scripts, starting with an offense that one of his closest friends says attacks you like no other.
“There’s a rhyme and reason for everything. He sets things up,” Stoops said. “Doesn’t take long when you watch his film that you know he has a good understanding of what they’re doing defensively, the way he sets it up and attacks.”
Fisher’s new run-centric mentality will “force” the Aggies to be more physical than ever, Williams says. And if it doesn’t, A&M’s Fourth Quarter program will. Fisher has implemented the multi-stage, hour-long conditioning event in College Station, one modeled after what Nick Saban and Tommy Moffitt began at LSU in 2000. It’s all an effort in building a physical and tough brand of football that the Aggies have lacked.
So what are Fisher’s thoughts on his team’s physicality entering camp? He doesn’t know, he says, but he won’t have to wait long to find out. Texas A&M hosts Clemson in Week 2 and plays at Alabama later in September.
“We’ll find out where we’re at,” he said, “really quickly.”