The Texas A&M defense is facing one of the more interesting patterns in college football this season.
Mike Elko’s defense has faced three true freshman quarterbacks this season, and the Aggies will face another on Saturday against South Carolina. Ryan Hillinski has been the starting signal caller for the Gamecocks since the second game of the season, and managed to claim a victory over then-No. 3 Georgia in Athens in mid-October.
Since then South Carolina has lost three of its last four games, with the only victory coming against a 2-5 Vanderbilt program.
A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said he didn’t realize the Aggies will face their fourth freshman quarterback on Saturday.
“You’ll see more and more of it,” Fisher said. “I think you’ll force kids to play, and [highly] recruited guys are going to play. I don’t think it’s something that is out-of-the-ordinary anymore.”
Despite the Gamecocks’ struggle over the last month, they are not lacking the talent to compete with the A&M defense.
Wide receiver Bryan Edwards is a staple in the South Carolina offense, and recently became the Gamecocks’ all-time leader in receiving yards. This season, the senior has posted 816 yards and six touchdowns.
“[Edwards] is big, long, physical, can catch the underneath ball and run with it, can catch the ball over the top, [and] he’s a punt return guy,” Fisher said. “He’ll be a great pro.”
Veteran wideout Shi Smith also returns to action after missing the last two contests with a hamstring injury. The junior leads the team in receiving yards behind Edwards with 408 and a pair of scores.
After facing three running teams in between bye weeks, A&M’s defense shifts its focus in defending against the pass for the first time since facing Alabama. Since facing the Crimson Tide, the Aggies’ statistics against the pass has risen to 24th in the nation, allowing just 193 yards per game in the air.
Defensive back Keldrick Carper said he has already taken a head start in preparing for Saturday.
“I really have just dedicated more time in watching whole clips of who they are as an offense,” Carper said. “Edwards is a very talented receiver, he’s tough. They use him in a couple of different ways when they give him the ball in the pass game, and they’re a very physical run team.”
South Carolina has not been as successful on the ground as in the air, but the Gamecocks aren’t lacking in dynamic rushers.
Running backs Tevin Feaster and Rico Dowdle have shared reps in the backfield, combining for 1,091 yards and nine touchdowns. Mon Denson has also played in a reserve role with 232 yards and three scores.
A&M’s defense has seen improvement against air-raid teams since last season, and has found a good rotation in the defensive secondary. The Aggies’ turnover rate has also seen a sharp rise over the past five games of the season too.
Elko’s defense has forced an interception in each of the last five contests, with eight different defensive players recording a pick in 2019. The defense currently ranks 20th in the country with 10 picks, and 14th in pass efficiency defense.
A&M faces South Carolina in its home finale at Kyle Field on Saturday, Nov. 16. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m., and the game will be televised on SEC Network.