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Texas A&M's QB race takes center stage as fall camp opens

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Texas A&M football opens fall camp this week with typical concerns.

D.J. Durkin takes over at defensive coordinator for Mike Elko. A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher has said don’t expect much to change. The system is in place and there are playmakers at every level. The unit shouldn’t miss a beat, but Elko was a steady force for four seasons, which is partially why one of the nation’s highest-paid assistants is now Duke’s head coach. Fisher is rightfully optimistic, but there’s cause for doubt until Durkin and co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Tyler Santucci oversee a championship unit.

The defense also has to break in six new starters as does the offense. That doesn’t seem daunting because A&M has its most quality depth in more than two decades after four straight talent-laden recruiting classes. That’s the way top 10 programs roll, you replace All-Americans with in-waiting All-Americans. Yet, until those first-year starters prove themselves in the country’s best conference, there will be anxiety. That’s especially true at quarterback as everyone wants to know who is going to be Fisher’s guy.

The development of the defense and offensive line are critical, as is the team’s ability to throw deep, but that takes a backseat to whether Haynes King or Max Johnson is the starting quarterback. And even when Fisher makes that decision, it’s not over. The winner has to prove he can take the program where it hasn’t been.

We saw firsthand last year that strong quarterback play wins big games and championships. Zach Calzada, who took over after King was hurt, had possibly the game of his life against Alabama, but he wasn’t a champtionship-caliber quarterback. Other Aggies didn’t have great seasons, but Calzada plays the position that matters most.

Georgia had a modern-record 15 players drafted and one of the best defenses in recent time. But the Bulldogs don’t win a national championship if quarterback Stetson Bennett doesn’t play well in critical moments against Alabama. And the Crimson Tide didn’t have a great team, but it did have a great quarterback in Bryce Young. No one would have been surprised if Alabama would have beaten Georgia for the title. The Crimson Tide is most people’s pick to win it all again this year in part because of Young, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.

The Aggies can’t go into Alabama on Oct. 8 and win with an average performance at quarterback. They might not even win at South Carolina, Auburn or Mississippi State if the quarterback doesn’t step up, either, but it’s especially so at Alabama.

King was expected to be the guy last year, inheriting a top 10 team with 15 returning starters, four of them preseason All-Americans. But King suffered a season-ending injury in the second series of the second game and the rest of the year was pretty much a bust other than Alabama. Zach Calzada will always have his 41-38 victory over the Crimson Tide, but the rest of the year was far from a championship effort as A&M lost four games.

The Aggies were outplayed at quarterback in every loss last year. Calzada was an easy fall guy, but others also underachieved. That’s also when you need your quarterback to be at this best.

King had a reputation in high school of being that kind of guy who puts a team on his back and he looked good in a small sample last year. A&M also saw firsthand what Johnson can do as he rallied LSU for a 27-24 victory that was basically just for pride and Johnson showed plenty considering the way things unraveled in Baton Rouge last year. Add to the mix true freshman Conner Weigman, a five-star recruit who was the state’s fifth-ranked recruit in the class of 2022, and A&M has his most talented quarterback room since Fisher arrived.

A&M’s quarterback play will be much better than last year, but all those other concerns are just as important. That’s what fall camp is all about. The focus will be on who is under center, but there are also other pressing issues.

Robert Cessna’s email address is robert.cessna@theeagle.com.

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