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December 6, 2013

Aggies D likely still in transition in '14

The good news for 2014 is that Texas A&M returns virtually everyone from the 2013 defense, including a incoming crop of freshman that will be added to a very strong 2013 class.

The bad news is that 2014 sets up to be something of a transition year as the Aggies will still be playing a number of underclassmen throughout the length and breadth of the depth chart.

Even so, the Aggies should be better next season for a number of reasons, most of them having to do an increased talent level that will add size and speed to the two deep and most particularly in the front seven. The Aggies did not get good play from their experienced players on defense but were slow to make moves until the last game of the season against Missouri. Next year needs to be a different story. It's instructive that freshmen like Isaiah Golden, Daeshon Hall, and Jay Arnold had nearly as many tackles for loss (8.5) as upperclassmen Gavin Stansbury, Julien Obioha, and Alonzo Williams (10.5) who played far more snaps. Hall saw increasing amounts of playing time as the season went on and despite being undersized displayed a great first step and change of direction which enabled him to be a playmaker. Golden wore down at times due to his youth but he had several moments where he reestablished the line of scrimmage. Arnold is physical, has great hands, and is athletic.

One of the things that I noticed in covering the SEC this season is that most programs, even the ones that weren't upper echelon programs (like Arkansas), went two deep plus in the defensive line. Upperclassmen started where possible and even freshmen found themselves on the field quite a bit, especially at Auburn where three youngsters go significant playing time. They kept them from getting worn down and also enabled them to wear down offensive linemen (who rarely get substituted) later in games. A&M really never adopted this strategy until the Missouri game and even though they lost had their best defensive showing of the year by far against a quality opponent, keeping the team in the game while the offense struggled.

But more importantly, the 2013 recruiting class needs to compete with the upperclassmen and make everyone better. If the upperclassmen can retain their starting positions, then you can rotate in the youngsters which could include members of the 2014 recruiting class like Myles Garrett. However, if the youngsters are better, then they need to start but a rotation system needs to be implemented to keep everyone fresh and motivated. Their technique needs to be better as well, whether it's staying low, using their hands, attacking shoulders, or playing their assignments versus the quarterback run game.

Most of all, A&M needs to find a pass rusher to replace the production of Damontre Moore. Hall should be that guy and Garrett is physically mature enough to be playing on passing downs. The Aggies can't continue to play the equivalent of two strongside ends most of the time although in fairness to Obioha he was coming off of off season surgery. But by doing these things, A&M should be better and have the potential to move into the middle of the SEC rankings on defense with teams like Ole Miss (woefully undersized) and Vanderbilt.

In terms of the linebacking corps, it's apparent from statements made by defensive coordinator Mark Snyder that he would like freshman Jordan Mastrogiovanni to take over the middle from another freshman, Darian Claiborne. Freshman Shaan Washington backed up at Sam this season and he would compete with the returning Donnie Baggs for that spot. Claiborne is considered to be slightly undersized to work the middle but he held up okay this season considering that he didn't get a lot of protection from the front four, was physical, and led the team in tackles and tackles for loss. However, most SEC teams feature more length at the outside backer position and Mastrogiovanni looked very good outside against Missouri. Washington and Mastrogiovanni are 6 foot 3, are active, play smart football, and both will be 230 pounds plus after an off season in the weight room. Theoretically, they can hold up against tight ends and use their length in coverage and to cover ground. If Mastrogiovanni is given first crack in the middle, one thing A&M needs to ascertain very quickly is whether or not he is the guy there. This season, there needs to be a sense of urgency in finding out who can play and can't play so that the defense finds the continuity that it lacked due to so many lineup changes.

In the secondary, the safety position underachieved for most of the season and the Aggies started four different players back there with the final starting duo being Clay Honeycutt and Howard Matthews. Against Missouri, Matthews was used as an in the box safety while Honeycutt played deeper as the Aggies typically use a three deep look. However, A&M's best safety was Deshazor Everett but he was required to play corner as the Aggies couldn't find anyone outside of DeVante Harris to play the other spot. If the Aggies can find another corner to play opposite Harris (who played better as the season went on and became more physical while maintaining his ability to turn and run with receivers), that would give them some flexibility. In addition, Everett is a better safety than corner due to his awareness and physical play. He would come closer to filling the role played by Steven Terrell in 2012 than anyone else on the roster.

Right now, the Aggies are slated to go with Noel Ellis as the nickel back. However, Ellis, Tavares Garner, and Victor Davis were all brought into the 2013 class but only Ellis played. If either Garner or Davis could step up, that would help A&M out immensely in getting their best personnel on the field. If Honeycutt plays for the most part like he did against Missouri, then he'll probably retain the free safety spot. Kameron Miles was injured this season and could make a run at the free safety spot (which he played in high school) but it's a lot of ask of a guy who didn't play last season. Floyd Raven was in and out of the lineup and has played some nickel in his career. He's less of a coverage guy and more of a physical presence like Toney Hurd was and if he is limited to playing the short zones he might could well there. It would help them out tremendously to find any sort of a pass rush that wouldn't expose their mistakes so often in coverage, especially against downfield routes like wheel routes which plagued them in almost every game.

Overall, the challenge for the 2014 unit is to find a two deep (particularly up front) that makes plays and to play and coach with the sense of urgency that characterized the 2012 season. Veterans were allowed far too many games to fail before the youngsters were trotted out there. That was understandable while A&M was making a run at national title or BCS bowl game; afterwards it was puzzling. Unlike the 2013 campaign, the A&M staff will have far more pieces in place to have a quality starting defense that can stop the run and put more pressure on the passer. A&M will still lack size and experience at key positions such as three technique tackle, rush end, Will linebacker, cornerback, and free safety. Even so, teams like Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, and Auburn found ways to field average SEC caliber defenses in 2013 with youngsters playing key roles (mostly as backups) and the Aggies should have the same opportunity in 2014 while keeping eye toward becoming an elite defense by 2015.


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