With Mike Elko, Texas A&M football may finally live up to its potential

Oct 14, 2023; Durham, North Carolina, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Elko runs out before the first half of the game against North Carolina State Wolfpack at Wallace Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 14, 2023; Durham, North Carolina, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Elko runs out before the first half of the game against North Carolina State Wolfpack at Wallace Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports /

The hiring of Mike Elko, and subsequent personnel decisions, paint a picture of a Texas A&M football program that is ready to live up to its ample potential.

The Texas A&M football program has gotten a bad rap for a while, mainly due to its lack of high-level success despite the abundant resources in College Station. The team hasn’t been elite consistently since the 90s heydey of R.C. Slocum, achieving just one special season under Jimbo Fisher (2020) and one under Kevin Sumlin (2012), but a lack of success does not equal a lack of potential.

A&M has underperformed as a program, but they are not Nebraska. The idea has risen around the country, and even in Texas, that the Aggies just can’t win at a high level.

The idea that Texas A&M football can’t win is shortsighted and reactionary, and frankly, it just outright ignores the facts of what it takes to win in college football.

So, what does it take?

Well, first and foremost, it takes a strong leader, and A&M has found theirs in Mike Elko. He’s been a head coach for two seasons, and in those two at Duke, he won 16 games (At Duke, that’s an impressive number).

Before that, his first defensive coordinator gig came at Notre Dame. He took over a unit that, under Brian VanGorder, had been ranked just third from the bottom in the FBS, and immediately improved it to 31st in 2017.

It was an impressive enough job that Jimbo Fisher brought Elko to College Station to do the same job. Elko’s defense improved every year, going from 47th nationally in 2018, to 39th in 2019, 29th in 2020, and then 3rd in 2021.

At Notre Dame and A&M, Elko proved he can coach ball. At Duke, he proved he could lead a program.

Another core factor in a program’s potential is, obviously, recruiting and proximity to great prospects. Recruiting, even in the portal era, remains the lifeblood of college football, and while

Elko is not the juggernaut recruiter that Fisher was, but he has already begun reinforcing that part of the program’s infrastructure, hiring Duke’s Derek Miller to be the Aggie’s Director of Recruiting.

The Aggies have also brought in cornerbacks coach Ishmael Aristide, who has a reputation as a lights-out recruiter.

Texas A&M has long been known as one of the richest programs in the sport, and it’s clear that Elko is focused on hiring a staff that can build relationships and capitalize on the resources in College Station. While sure, there may be a dropoff in recruiting from the Fisher regime, there is an obvious effort to minimize that dropoff by taking an all-sides approach to recruiting.

It is evident, early on, that Elko will build a staff of coaches who complement his strengths and fill in the gaps where his weaknesses lie.

That, of course, brings us to Wednesday’s news that Elko has found his offensive coordinator in the form of former Kansas State quarterback, Heisman Trophy candidate, and play-caller Collin Klein. It’s a move that has drawn rave reviews not just in College Station, but around the country.

As Graham Harmon of Gig ’em Gazette writes:

"Klein is a young guy and innovative mind; those who have paid attention to his offenses over the past couple of years have seen his ability to mold the system to fit the strengths of his players."

This is something that was severely lacking under Fisher:

"With Klein being under Elko, however, he will have much more freedom to adapt however he sees fit. Klein is a guy who does more with less; for Texas A&M football fans who have too often seen the converse over the last few years, a mind like that will be refreshing to have heading up that side of the ball."

The best coaches are the ones who are adaptable, with the best example being Alabama’s Nick Saban. When his historic run in Tuscaloosa began, the Crimson Tide were a pro-style, run-heavy team who won on elite defense and simply asked its quarterbacks to not make mistakes.

However, as the sport has changed, so has Alabama. The defenses are still great, but they’ve become units that bend but don’t break. They give up yards between the 20s but mitigate the big plays from dual-threat quarterbacks. Offensively, they’ve changed with the sport too. Tide quarterbacks are now Tua, Bryce Young, and Jalen Milroe. Alabama doesn’t win despite its quarterback play, they win because of it.

Meanwhile, at A&M, Jimbo Fisher had been running an offense in recent seasons that strongly resembles the offense he ran at LSU in the early part of this century, and even at Auburn in the last century.

He even hired Bobby Petrino, only to maintain the offensive status quo as it has been for decades.

In Klein, Elko is hiring an adaptable mind to run his offense, and while, sure, he has a long coaching career behind him, it can’t be ignored that he likely learned a lot from his three years in A&M.

Elko’s success at A&M remains to be seen. He hasn’t even coached a game yet in his current tenure.

It is, however, clear that there is a plan in place to build on what has worked in College Station, while not repeating the mistakes of the past. The Aggies are pointed in a clear direction, where Elko has the unified support of Texas A&M brass, recruiting is emphasized, and coaching will be tailored around the players on the roster, not the ego of the play callers.

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A&M has all the resources and all the potential you could ask for in college football. Under Elko, they may finally live up to it.