Grown-up defense aids Aggies rise

IRVING, Texas -- A little less than a year ago, Tim DeRuyter signed up to coach Texas A&M's defense. When he got to College Station he saw a young unit, albeit one full of playmakers. He saw the worst defense in the Big 12, one that let opponents ring up almost 34 points a game and one that gave up an average of more than 425 yards each time it stepped on the field.

Worst of all, he saw a defense with a glass jaw.

"When adversity hit them, they struggled, which is very stereotypical of young football players," DeRuyter said. "They don't understand, 'Hey, there's going to be some give and take in a game.'"

Said defensive tackle Lucas Patterson: "We were immature as a team. When things started to go bad, we kind of went in the tank. We were expecting, 'Oh, here we go again.'"

Opponents scored 40 points against the Aggies five times. Twice, Texas A&M gave up at least 60.

"There was a time where they were, I don't want to say embarrassed to be a defensive player, but they'd been beaten down a little bit," DeRuyter said. "So when I first came in here, there was that attitude of let's just try to slow someone down."

Said senior linebacker Michael Hodges: "We needed something new. We were coming off a season that none of us were pleased with, and so when you get an opportunity to do something new, you've got to jump all over it ... the best way to do that is to buy in to what coaches have."

Enter DeRuyter and his 3-4 defense that better fit the Aggies personnel.

"It really paid off on Day 1 of spring ball," Hodges said. "You trust a guy like him and he keeps delivering, the next promise he brings forward you're going to give it a shot, and sure enough, that one pays off.

"We bought in fully from the beginning because we had nothing to lose."

The Aggies defense looked dominant at times early against Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana Tech and Florida International, but that was, well, Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana Tech and Florida International.

Dates with offenses like Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Missouri meant the adversity had arrived. With it, three losses.

"If you want to play at a championship level, then you better play with your chin out there saying, 'Bring it on,'" DeRuyter said.

A year ago, Texas A&M sat at 3-3, and did it in the exact same way as in 2010. A 3-0 start preceded a three-game losing streak that brought them down to earth. The Aggies finished 6-7 in 2009 and looked headed for a similar finish once again.

Not this team.

"The big game was Oklahoma. We had some situations where we were backed up and had to make plays, and our kids did," DeRuyter said.

Three times, the Aggies stuffed Oklahoma's physical offense at the goal line, igniting the Kyle Field crowd. In 2009, the Aggies left Owen Field in Norman as 65-10 losers. This time, they were 33-19 winners who left to chants of "Wrecking Crew."

"I think our kids started feeling, 'Hey, if we can do this to Oklahoma, who laid one on us the year before, it doesn't matter who lines up against us, we can compete with anybody when we play well,'" DeRuyter said.

It continued with a physical 9-6 win over Nebraska two weeks later before beating arch rival Texas in Austin and finishing as Big 12 South co-champions. Now, with a win against LSU in the Cotton Bowl on Friday, the Aggies will have their first 10-win season since 1998.

How? By turning the team's biggest weakness into one of its strengths in just one season.