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March 27, 2012

Defensive tackle a position in flux

Now that 2012's signing day has come and gone, Texas A&M knows for sure who it will be going into SEC play with. Aggieyell.com will look at the 2012 team, position by position, as spring practice approaches. The latest in the series: defensive tackle.

Losses from last year: Eddie Brown, Stephen Barrera (retired), Ben Compton (moved back to offense)
Players on scholarship: 6
Players taking part in spring practice: 3
Overall talent level: TBD
Overall experience level: Pretty low. Jonathan Mathis and Kirby Ennis have experience on the inside, but Shayvion Hatten and Gavin Stansbury have never played a down there.
Overview: This was supposed to be the year of the Blinn tackle, with LaMarc Strahan and Logan David adding size and muscle in the middle of the Aggies' defensive line.

So much for that idea.

Instead, the Aggies are going to spend the spring and most of the fall looking for a 4-3 combination that works, with two experienced players and a few that will be newcomers. If A&M is to compete in a league where subtle consists of a draw play up the gut instead of just smashing it between the tackles, finding those two players will be more than a little important.

The probable starters:

Senior Jonathan Mathis:
• 2 tackles, .5 tackles for loss in 3 games last season (41 tackles and 3.5 TFL in 2010) before a knee injury ended his year. Returns with a medical redshirt.
• Greatest assets: Strong enough to take on and defeat interior blockers; brings needed experience to the front line
• The bottom line: Two years ago, the Aggies turned to Mathis in a pinch and he solidified the defensive tackle position in Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme. Now, the Aggies are hoping he's sufficiently recovered from his injury to provide size (6'2", 300 lbs.) and leadership to the defensive line this year in Mark Snyder's 4-3. A lot rides on his ability to do so.

Redshirt junior Kirby Ennis:
• 11 tackles, 2 TFL and 1.5 sacks in 13 games in 2011
• Greatest assets: Quicker than most offensive linemen across from him, allowing him to gain leverage
• The bottom line: Ennis was outstanding in fall camp last year, then his play tailed after a strong start versus SMU. He will have to give the Aggies a lot more than he did in spot duty last year, and playing in a 4-3 should benefit him. In a 3-4, the 6'4", 295 to 300-lb. Ennis could get worn down quickly; with more one-on-ones in the new alignment, his ability to make plays should increase.

The Supporting Cast:

Redshirt freshman Shayvion Hatten
• Redshirted in 2011
• Greatest assets: Extremely strong; looks much bigger than his listed 6'4", 286 lbs. and likely will be when the season starts. Has the potential to be a powerful interior lineman.
• The bottom line: Hatten only had one year as a defensive lineman and no experience at all on the inside when fall camp begin last year, and it showed. He frequently played too high and was slow of the snap, catching the wrath of then-defensive line coach Terrell Williams. But you also saw that he was "country strong", pushing around offensive linemen when he got things right. A substantial progression from Hatten will get him into the rotation and be a big boost in trying to solidify the tackle positions.

Redshirt sophomore Gavin Stansbury
• 15 tackles (7 solo), 3.5 TFL, 1 sack and 2 force fumbles in 13 games at defensive end in 2011
• Greatest assets: Plenty of room to grow; quickness caused occasional matchup problems last year.
• The bottom line: Stansbury was still very much the learner last season, but got a lot of on the job training and improved as the year went on. Playing at 6'4", 265 lbs. last year, Stansbury has broad shoulders and looks like he has plenty of room to grow. Either he or Ivan Robinson will be moved inside and will see playing time, so A&M hopes his maturation process continues in 2012.

True freshman Edmund Ray
• Tallied 109 tackles and was first team All-State in Missouri in 2011
• Greatest assets: Massive at 6'5", 290, and fast for his size.
• The bottom line: The closest thing A&M had to a surprise signee in 2012, Ray may also be one of the most important. He dominated opponents in high school, either abusing them with the bull rush or blowing right past them off the snap. He won't find the going to be so easy in the SEC, but he's got the strength and size to contribute quickly at a position where you don't see many true freshmen.

True freshman Polo Manukainiu
• 43 tackles and 1.5 sacks at Euless Trinity in 2011
• Greatest assets: Strong enough to engage blockers, stand them up and then shed them to get to the ball carrier.
• The bottom line: Manukainiu is another guy who almost looks slender at 6'5", 255 lbs. Though he might need a year of strength training at the college level to truly be ready for the SEC, the lack of depth here might push his timetable up.



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