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September 23, 2013Texas A&M's defense had its best performance of the season Saturday against SMU, but the level of competition steps up a few notches this Saturday in Fayetteville when the Aggies face off with old foe Arkansas.
In A&M's 56-17 obliteration of the Razorbacks last year at Kyle Field, the Aggies gave up 515 yards of offense. This year, under new coach Bret Bielema, Arkansas' offense emphasizes something that has given the Aggies fits so far this year: a power running game.
Aware that A&M would be facing a team whose front line averages 318 pounds and has two good running backs in Alex Collins (481 yards rushing; first player in SEC history to start his career with three consecutive 100-plus yard games) and Jonathan Williams (418 yards and 3 TDs), defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said there would be "a few" changes to the depth chart for this weekend's game. Those changes leave the Aggies with an athletic but inexperienced linebacker corps, a stabilized secondary and a pair of big freshmen defensive tackles in the two deep.
Among the changes:
Nate Askew starts at SAM; Shaan Washington becomes his backup:
Askew was very active against SMU Saturday night, picking up six tackles, a sack, a pass deflection and another quarterback hurry. Even though he's inexperienced, he's already racked up 10 tackles and a pair of tackles for loss this season. He provides not only speed, but more size than former starter Tommy Sanders, who this week is third on the depth chart at MIKE. Askew is definitely the better physical matchup for A&M against Arkansas. Washington, a true freshman, has also made plays in limited opportunities: he has nine tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a key fumble recovery against Alabama. He's made enough plays to earn time on the field in conference play.
Darian Claiborne remains the starter at MIKE:
Snyder said Claiborne essentially figured out the middle linebacker position in about a week, as he was moved there for the SMU game after Donnie Baggs struggled. He picked up five tackles last night and more than held his own. He might be a little undersized for the position, but he's very athletic and has found his way to the football against every opponent A&M has faced to this point.
Jordan Mastrogiovanni, a true freshman who brings some size at 235 pounds, is listed as the backup. He didn't see the field much against SMU, but Arkansas brings an offense that he's a better fit to defend.
Donnie Baggs moves to WILL, backing up Steven Jenkins:
Baggs was very effective last year as the fourth linebacker, playing both outside linebacker positions mostly on passing downs. He was named the starter at MIKE for this year last fall and, though he performed well in practice and scrimmages, he didn't bring the same performances to the game. He endured a similar struggle in high school, where he was a dominant outside linebacker but struggled mightily when he was moved inside. If he returns to his 2012 role, the Aggie defense should be better for it.
Deshazor Everett stays at safety; Tramain Jacobs starts at corner:
Everett got a lot of praise for his willingness to move from cornerback to safety last week, and he contributed seven tackles and a touchdown against SMU. But his performance went beyond that; he appeared to give fellow safety Howard Matthews a boost of confidence, as Matthews played more aggressively in picking up five tackles and a pair of pass breakups. Jacobs had 10 tackles Saturday night as SMU put the ball up 69 times, and made some big solo plays. He also missed a few tackles and gave up a touchdown pass in the second half, but the Aggies are more solid as a unit with him on the field and Everett at safety than they are with Everett at corner and any other safety combination. Jacobs is not the liability he was in 2012, but continued improvement over the next month would certainly help the defense as a whole down the stretch.
Isaiah Golden and Hardreck Walker in the two deep at DT:
Golden, as he was last week, is backing up Kirby Ennis while Walker replaces Ivan Robinson in backing up Alonzo Williams. Golden deserves to be in the two deep and could well earn some playing time next to Ennis this week; he's both strong and productive -- he's tied for second among defensive linemen in tackles and second on the team in tackles for loss in limited minutes. He's the kind of physical player A&M will need to hold up Arkansas at the point of attack.
Ivan Robinson backed up Williams last week, but Walker -- like Golden -- brings more bulk to the table. The 15 pounds (at least) he has over Robinson could make a real difference against the rushing game. He'll have to perform at a higher level than he has so far, but the premise behind the move is sound.
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