COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- So Trevor Knight gets to face Alabama once again.
While his first meeting with the Crimson Tide was a much-discussed storyline this week, it’s important to understand that Knight is not the same quarterback he was when he faced Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.
But what is Knight now? He has led Texas A&M to a 6-0 record and has been a key reason why the Aggies have been able to pull out wins, but he hasn’t been perfect after transferring into the program from Oklahoma.
“Every week he gets a little bit better,” Texas A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. “He obviously is a really good athlete, he has a lot of skills, and I think what Trevor is working hard on is to be a quarterback that's athletic and not just an athlete that happens to play quarterback.”
Mazzone and head coach Kevin Sumlin say they’re happy with how the senior is progressing, but it’s clear they want him to continue improving. Before the No. 6 Aggies go to Tuscaloosa to face No. 1 Alabama on Saturday, here’s a breakdown of areas in which Knight is succeeding and struggling so far in 2016:
What he does well
• He wins -- A reporter earlier this season asked Sumlin what Knight does that doesn’t show up in the box score, since Knight’s stats weren’t particularly impressive but his play on the field seemed to suggest he was a capable quarterback. Sumlin’s response: “He wins.”
While it might have been tongue-in-cheek, it’s true: Knight is 17-4 in his career in games he starts. Regardless of how his performances appear aesthetically or in that stat line, he usually winds up on the winning side (and wins actually do show up in the box score).
• He runs the ball -- Knight leads all SEC quarterbacks and is third nationally among FBS quarterbacks in rushing yards (502) and has the nation’s highest yards per rush average for quarterbacks (7.72). No player in the SEC -- regardless of position -- has rushed for more touchdowns this season than Knight.
The zone-read has been the biggest source of production for Knight and the Aggies in the run game. Six of Knight’s nine touchdown runs have come on zone-read plays and more than half of his rushing yards (289) have come on those plays (additionally, 450 of freshman running back Trayveon Williams' 704 rushing yards have been on zone-read plays).
• He has been clutch -- Knight’s raw QBR of 85.7 in the fourth quarter and overtime of games is second best in the SEC behind only Alabama’s Jalen Hurts (97.2). He hasn’t committed a single turnover in the fourth quarter and overtime and he averages 9.78 yards per rush in those periods.
• He’s a leader -- If there was one thing the Aggies sorely needed entering this season, it was leadership. Knight provided it from the moment he arrived. “The way that he blended in with our guys and kind of stepped into the role of what I felt every football team needs and what we needed at the point,” Mazzone said. “We needed a leader at the position. He's a very comfortable person, and it doesn't matter where he is. It doesn't matter if he's talking to a [boardroom] of CEOs or he's talking to his receivers, or any place around it. I like that about him. He's got a lot of confidence in who he is, and he's a very grounded young man. He's just been a lot of fun to be around.”
What he has struggled with
• Accuracy -- Knight's 53.5 percent completion rate ranks 60th nationally among the 66 Power 5-level starting quarterbacks. Mazzone attributes some of that to the volume of deep passes Texas A&M throws, saying the Aggies throw more passes down the field than Mazzone’s offenses typically have because of the immense receiver talent they have.
There’s some truth there -- 16.3 percent of Knight’s attempts go for more than 20 yards downfield. That number was around 13.1 percent for UCLA quarterbacks in Mazzone’s four seasons in Westwood and 14 percent the two seasons Mazzone was at Arizona State. However, the current rate ranks in the middle of the pack (seventh) among SEC quarterbacks. Mazzone said Knight’s completion percentage ideally would be “between 63 and 68 percent.”
• Turnovers -- Knight has six turnovers in six games (five interceptions and one fumble lost). The interception total is tied for ninth in the SEC, and he has thrown three in the Aggies' past two games, against South Carolina and Tennessee. It's an issue he wrestled with at Oklahoma as well. Said Mazzone: "I kind of like my guys to have a little gunslinger in 'em. And you know what? When you're a gunslinger, every now and then you get wounded.”
• Blitzes -- When Knight is blitzed (meaning defenses bring five or more pass-rushers) his completion percentage is a meager 33.3 percent (17 completions in 51 attempts), the lowest such rate in the SEC. Two of his five interceptions have been thrown on blitzes.
• Third-down passing -- This one becomes particularly important when the Aggies are trying to move the chains late to close out a game with a lead, something they struggled to do against UCLA and Tennessee as both came back from double-digit deficits in the fourth quarter to force overtime. Knight’s completion percentage on third down is 43.6 percent, second worst in the SEC. And while his overall late-game performances have been good when factoring in his rushing, when it comes to third-down passes in the fourth quarter and overtime, he’s 1-for-7 (14.3 percent).