Photo by Texas A&M Athletics (@AggieFootball)
By Tucker Harlin
KNOXVILLE, Tenn- No. 19 Tennessee (4-1, 1-1) is set to take on Texas A&M (4-2, 2-1) Saturday in Neyland Stadium.
The history between the Vols and Aggies is a brief one. The programs are 2-2 against one another, and they have never met in the same location more than once. The Vols’ two wins were in bowls before the Aggies joined the SEC, and the Aggies have won both matchups against the Vols since they joined the SEC.
The last time these two met, the Tennessee football program was at its lowest point. The Aggies won 34-13 in Neyland back in 2020 on a cold day in mid-December in front of a crowd that was probably at 15% capacity. This day also saw the birth of the Jeremy Pruitt investigation, undoubtedly the darkest moment in Tennessee football history.
The start for the Aggies’ campaign in 2023 has been respectable. They have a pair of wins by more than 40 points against New Mexico and ULM under their belt. In the SEC, the Aggies started with a 27-10 win over a rebuilding Auburn team, and a 34-22 win in Dallas over a struggling Arkansas squad. The Aggies suffered a 48-33 loss at Miami in the second week, and last week they lost a physical battle 26-20 at home against Alabama.
If there is one redeeming quality from the Aggies’ 5-7 season in 2022, it is the fact that the transfer portal was not heavily utilized when the going got rough.
Offensively, the running back position is the only area where the Aggies have had to develop young players to start the season. Amari Daniels and Le’Veon Moss have been splitting carries in the backfield all season, producing nearly identical numbers.
As for the one accompanying Daniels and Moss in the backfield, it has been a revolving door. Haynes King transferred out after a rough season in 2022, so Connor Weigman won the job this season. However, Weigman suffered a season-ending foot injury in the Auburn game, so Max Johnson is back in the starting role after suffering a season-ending injury last year.
There has not been a drop off from Weigman to Johnson. In fact, at the point in the Auburn game when Weigman went down, the Aggies only led by a field goal before the lead ballooned to 17.
Johnson’s top two targets are Evan Stewart and Ainias Smith. Smith suffered a season-ending injury in the Arkansas game last year, but he has returned to his dangerous form. Stewart ended up as the Aggies’ lead receiver in 2022. Stewart had over 100 receiving yards in the Aggies’ first two games against New Mexico and Miami, but he has not eclipsed 100 yards in a game since.
In the trenches, the Aggies are made of seasoned veterans and coveted freshmen. Center Bryce Foster has made his return this season after redshirting in 2022 due to an injury. On the right side, guard Layden Robinson has started every game over the last season and a half, and tackle Chase Bisontis came to College Station as the seventh-ranked tackle in the class of 2023. On the left, guard Mark Nabou has started every game this year after he redshirted his freshman season, and Trey Zuhn has started at tackle in the absence of Reuben Fatheree.
The offensive front is stout, but it pales in comparison to what the Aggie defensive front has accomplished this year.
The edges are manned by Fadil Diggs and Shemar Turner. Both contributed heavily last season, and they are wreaking all kinds of havoc this season. Inside, the Aggies are fielding McKinnley Jackson and Walter Nolen. Nolen was the consensus No. 1 recruit coming out of high school, and he moved to Powell High School on the north end of Knoxville his senior year. Jackson has not matched Nolen’s production this year, but it is safe to say this will be the nastiest front Tennessee has faced this season.
Behind the front, the Aggies have a trio of stingy linebackers in Edgerrin Cooper, Chris Russell, and Taurean York. Cooper and Russell had over 60 tackles each and combined for over 12 tackles for loss in 2022. Russell’s production has been slow to start 2023, but Cooper leads the team in tackles and sacks with 41 and six. York is a freshman but is already making an impact with 32 tackles, second most on the team behind Cooper.
Similar to the front seven, the secondary fields season veterans. Nickel Bryce Anderson is in his first year as a starter, and he forced two turnovers in the loss to Alabama last week. Tyreek Chappell and Josh DeBerry occupy the corner position. Chappell led the team in passes broken up in 2022 with eight, and DeBerry has seven just halfway through the season.
Demani Richardson is back for the Aggies at strong safety. Richardson had a team-high 73 tackles in 2022, and he leads the secondary with 25 this season. Jacoby Matthews has stepped in at free safety for the injured Jardin Gilbert. Matthews was a depth piece last year and was expected to be this year, so he is having to grow up fast in Gilbert’s frequent absence.
The Aggies have a pair of veterans handling kicking and punting in Randy Bond and Nik Constantinou. Bond already has one more miss this season than he did in 2022, and the range of 40 to 49 yards has been particularly concerning as he is one for six there. Constantinou finished 2022 on the All-SEC Second Team, and right now he is averaging 43 yards per punt.
Receiver Ainias Smith is the punt returner for the Aggies this year, and he already returned one punt for a touchdown in the Arkansas game. Running back Reuben Owens will be the one returning kickoffs for the Aggies.