No. 10 Texas A&M took two big hits when top receiver Jhamon Ausbon and starting linebacker Anthony Hines opted out of the season before Saturday’s opener against Vanderbilt.
The Aggies are certainly disappointed to be without two of their top players in this coronavirus-impacted season. But coach Jimbo Fisher believes his team can absorb the loss because of its strong veteran leadership, starting with quarterback Kellen Mond.
Fisher has been impressed with how the senior has handled the choices of his teammates.
“His demeanor, his ideas with the team, the way he’s played, his personality, his influence on guys, the way he has pushed guys, it’s been exactly the same,” Fisher said. “When Jhamon elected to do that I think what you saw was the maturity out of Kellen, you didn’t see anything different. I’m sure inside it hurt him and I know it did but ... he (focused on) the responsibility he has to this program and to his other teammates.”
Mond will begin his fourth season as a starter on Saturday, entering the game where the Aggies are favored by 30 points with 37 games under his belt. He enters the season ranked third in school history in yards passing (7,379) and touchdown passes (52) and needs just 633 yards passing and 16 TD passes to become Texas A&M’s all-time leader in those categories.
Mond has liked the way his young receivers have stepped up with Ausbon opting out and fellow starting receiver Camron Buckley sustaining a season-ending knee injury in camp.
“Our chemistry and knowledge together and understanding where receivers like the ball and understanding what they can do has definitely grown with them,” Mond said. “Everything isn’t perfect right now, but I really like where we’re at right now and the way receivers are making plays.”
While Mond is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the nation, the Commodores will start a quarterback who has never thrown a pass in an FBS game.
Coach Derek Mason wouldn’t say this week who will start for him, but Mason’s options include freshmen Ken Seals and Mike Wright and junior college transfers Danny Clark and Jeremy Moussa. If Mason goes with Seals or Wright, it will be just the third time since freshman eligibility was restored in 1972 that a true freshman will start a Southeastern Conference opener.
Regardless of who starts under center, Mason guaranteed one thing.
“It’s going to look different than definitely what we looked like in 2019,” he said.
Looking at what Vandy did last season is a waste of time because Mason changed his coordinators, hiring Todd Fitch to oversee the offense and Ted Roof on defense.
Fitch has to work with a new starting quarterback and replace Ke’Shawn Vaughn who was a third-round draft pick by Tampa Bay. His leading receiver is Cam Johnson, the only returning player with more than 15 catches last season (30 for 316 yards).
Mason has given few clues on what the Commodores will look like saying only that they will attack wherever they can. Mason said Fitch made the offense “turn-key” for the Commodores, which will allow them to get young, talented players on the field.
“If you’re a play-maker and you’ve got a specific skill, this offense is built for you,” Mason said.
The crowd at Kyle Field on Saturday will be limited to about 25% of the 102,733-seat capacity because of the coronavirus. Fisher knows it will be a very different atmosphere at the fourth-largest stadium in college football.
“We can’t depend on the crowd and — I don’t mean this in a bad way — (but) you should never depend on the crowd,” Fisher said. “That’s just a bonus. You’ve got to depend on yourself, your own attitude, your own demeanor, to create the atmosphere for yourself as a player. You can’t rely on them to get you there.”
Six different Commodores have opted out this season, the latest being starting linebacker Feleti Afemui. The others include kicker Oren Milstein and four offensive linemen.
At least linebacker Dimitri Moore changed his mind, coming back after leading Vanderbilt in tackles last season. But the Commodores switched defensive tackle Drew Birchmeier, a senior with 22 consecutive starts, to left guard to provide depth and experience.
An injury will keep linebacker Elijah McAllister out until midseason, while injuries will keep starting cornerback B.J. Anderson and safety Brendon Harris out of at least the opener.
Mason said linebacker Michael Owusu currently is in quarantine. “We miss Michael right now,” Mason said.
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker contributed to this report