Dallas Colleges: Mark Snyder
That is probably more true at safety than any other position. It’s a spot the Aggies have found challenges when trying to maintain or add talent and depth, with the latest hurdle coming recently as spring practice opened.
The loss of safety Kameron Miles, whom the Aggies announced officially on Thursday had been dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons, isn’t cause for panic because as head coach Kevin Sumlin pointed out, Miles didn’t see the field at all last season.
Safety is certainly a position where they need to see on-field improvement, both from the 2013 contributors who are returning this season (Clay Honeycutt, Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven) and the new bodies that could step in.
So while Miles -- an ESPN 300 recruit who signed in the 2013 class -- didn’t play (he redshirted after missing all of preseason training camp recovering from a knee injury), he certainly was a candidate to do so this season. Losing him is impactful, especially considering his potential and the rough end to Class of 2014 recruiting at the position.
Texas A&M had an ESPN 300 safety committed to them for months in Dylan Sumner-Gardner, but he switched his commitment to Boise State in early January after former secondary coach Marcel Yates left his post in Aggieland to accept the defensive coordinator position at Boise State. Even before Sumner-Gardner’s switch, the Aggies were still trying to add another safety to the 2014 recruiting class.
The loss made finding a safety even more urgent in the class. The Aggies long recruited ESPN 300 safety Steven Parker II (who signed with Oklahoma) and made a late run at ESPN 300 safety Mattrell McGraw (who signed with Oregon), not to mention other ESPN 300 prospects whom they recruited earlier in the process but decided on other programs.
The Aggies were able to land a safety late in the 2014 recruiting cycle when three-star athlete Donovan Wilson (Shreveport, La./Woodlawn) committed four days before national signing day and inked a letter of intent with the Aggies. He will enroll at Texas A&M for the fall semester, but whether he will be able to have an impact this fall is unknown until he arrives on campus.
Texas A&M has commitments from two elite safeties in the 2015 recruiting class in ESPN Junior 300 prospects Justin Dunning and Larry Pryor Jr., but that has no bearing on this fall.
What is known is that the Aggies need the three who played the most last season to improve and for others to contribute. One name Sumlin mentioned on Thursday was junior safety Devonta Burns, a 6-foot, 214-pounder who contributed mostly on special teams last season.
“Devonta Burns is having a really, really good camp,” Sumlin said. “He’s been around here a long time and really was a good special teams player for us from game three, four, five, on. It’s about time for him to start showing up and he has. You’ve got three guys back there [Honeycutt, Matthews and Raven] who have played a lot, not always well, but have played and are experienced and need to step up. I think Devonta is right in the mix with the other three guys.”
The Aggies also have the services of 6-3, 213-pound sophomore Jonathan Wiggins, a 2013 signee who saw most of his time on special teams last season. Beyond him, the options consist of mostly walk-ons such as Sam Moeller (last year’s 12th Man) or perhaps even someone like Shane Huhn, a transfer from UTEP who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules.
Another potential option is using the secondary’s best player, senior cornerback Deshazor Everett, at safety. Everett has flip-flopped between cornerback and safety before, including on certain occasions last season when the Aggies needed the help. However, it appears that Everett is working exclusively at cornerback, and Sumlin said he doesn’t anticipate that changing, at least “Not right now.”
Everett said last week that he has seen improvement from the safety returnees, especially Matthews.
“He’s a different player now,” Everett said of Matthews. “He’s not lagging around or doing it his way. He’s playing hard, he’s going hard every play, he’s being vocal. That’s what we need at the back end from the safeties, because they have to communicate to everybody on the defense. He’s definitely changed.”
“Floyd is definitely understanding the defense more, and Clay has always been a smart player. With the new coaching change and the way we’re running it, it’s set up so that you can always make plays and always be in the right position, and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”
The Aggies’ secondary also have new blood in the form of Joseph, the former Nebraska secondary coach. The reviews for Joseph have been positive thus far, including from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who called Joseph a “technician” and “fundamentalist.”
Everett also has noticed his new position coach’s impact thus far.
“He’s a real vocal coach and he wants you to do it exactly the way he wants you to do it, and there’s no other way about it,” Everett said. “If you’re not going to do it his way, you’re not going to play, so you have to adjust to that and you have to go out there and do it his way.”
If Joseph has it his way, there will be more answers than questions at safety come August. Fortunately for the Aggies, three weeks remain in spring practice to find some.
The Aggies' postseason destination will hinge on the results of the next two weeks. So could Johnny Manziel's Heisman Trophy candidacy and the chances of several other individuals, such as receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews, to snag other awards.
If those things are to be attained, the Aggies have a simple task: Win.
Two wins and who knows? The No. 12 Aggies (8-2) could find themselves sneaking into the Allstate Sugar Bowl. A loss either week certainly knocks them out of the BCS conversation. Getting to a game of that caliber would be significant for the Aggies, who haven't been to a BCS bowl since 1998.
"We've got to handle them one at a time but everybody understands where we are," Sumlin said. "We're going to have to play well against both these teams and we'll have to play well this week to go into Tiger Stadium and win."
Where the Aggies are is a good place, considering what has led up to this point. They had hopes of contending for the SEC West title and possibly getting to Atlanta, but losses to Alabama and Auburn derailed those. A struggling defense that allowed a combined 1,183 yards to those two teams made it a question if the Aggies would be able to finish how they wanted to -- by winning out.
That still remains a question, as the unit allowed 299 rushing yards to Mississippi State. The defense has shown some improvement since facing Auburn, but is still not to the level it was playing at a year ago, when the Aggies closed out the season with six straight victories.
LSU will be a test, as it is a revamped team offensively. And it's good at running the ball, an area the Aggies struggle to defend.
"They have a very big offensive line and four really good tailbacks," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "Obviously Jeremy [Hill] is the lead dog. He's a very hard runner and you see that on film. We told the kids that he will try to concuss you the best he can. He's that kind of runner. So we've got a challenge in front of us with their running game, no doubt."
At this point last season, the Aggies were all the rage, coming off the road upset of No. 1 Alabama and in the homestretch of Manziel's magical year. This year, the record is the same as it was 10 games into last fall, but having not defeated a ranked team yet this season, the dynamic is different. Part of that is last year's finish, which raised outside expectations coming into this season.
But if the Aggies can finish strong, beat two ranked teams on the road and snag some individual hardware in the process, it would be another step forward for a program trying to establish a presence long term in its new league.
"Up and down," Snyder said when asked to assess Jenkins' season. "I think he's coming on a little bit [lately]."
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Jenkins has started the last eight games for the Aggies (he missed the first two, the result of a suspension for violations of Texas A&M athletic department rules and regulations) and is second on the team in tackles with 69, while also tied for second in tackles for loss (five). He has been productive, though not necessarily always consistent. When he's at his best, he might be the best defensive player the Aggies have.
Jenkins has kept a positive outlook and consistent approach throughout this season.
"You have to keep trying to get better every week," Jenkins said. "Everyone has their highs and lows, a good day and a bad day. You just have to keep a positive attitude moving forward and try to get better each week."
Knowing there were a lot of young players and newcomers among the A&M linebackers, Jenkins wanted to step into more of a leadership role. Teammates have noticed his effort in that area.
"He wasn’t a very vocal guy at the beginning of the year, but he’s really opened up and he’s been a great leader for us in the linebacker unit," senior linebacker Nate Askew said. "On the backend, everybody talks and everybody communicates, and that’s the most important thing. We need to communicate."
Snyder said he has noticed Jenkins getting tired toward the ends of games recently and he might start working in true freshman Jordan Mastrogiovanni into the lineup more at middle linebacker while sliding starting middle linebacker Darian Claiborne back to his natural position of weakside linebacker, which is usually manned by Jenkins. That would enable Jenkins to get a breather and be fresher for the fourth quarter of games.
Now in his third year in Aggieland after transferring from Coffeyville Community College, Jenkins is continuing to work and trying to improve. He’s also making an impact. Jenkins had an interception return for a touchdown in Texas A&M's thrilling win at Ole Miss in 2012 and has had a plethora of big-time hits or tackles for loss accumulated over the last two seasons.
When it comes to his setback that kept him on the sideline to start the season, Jenkins said he "definitely took some life lessons and learned from it." If the Aggies are going to finish the way they hope to, winning their final two games later this month at LSU and at Missouri, Jenkins and the linebackers probably have to play a key role in that.
The senior simply wants to push forward, play well and have fun while doing so.
"I'm just trying to lead by example for the younger guys, trying to bring energy to the field so we can have some Aggie swag," Jenkins said with a smile. "Just have fun on the field. We do make mistakes but move on from it. ... Just have fun and go out there and try to win."
Two weeks ago, when the Aggies hosted Vanderbilt, they came up with seven sacks in a 56-24 win over the Commodores.
Last week against UTEP, the Aggies picked up two more sacks in a 57-7 victory. Suddenly, a team that struggled to get near the quarterback is showing signs of being able to do it with consistency.
"We've been able to turn it up a little bit," head coach Kevin Sumlin said.
One of the key figures in the Aggies' recent improvement is junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury. In the last two weeks, Stansbury has been a force, picking up a combined 16 tackles and three sacks, two of which came against Vanderbilt.
Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder felt like that game could be a turning point for Stansbury.
"He's got a different look in his eye," Snyder said. "He comes in here to meetings and he's bouncing around, having a game like that is really going to be good for his confidence too. Everybody needs that game."
The Aggies were efficient at getting to the quarterback last season behind the strength of defensive end Damontre Moore, who led the team with 12.5 sacks. Moore declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft and is now with the New York Giants.
Moore’s departure left a void in the production, and throughout the season, the Aggies have rotated players in and out of the lineup, with the primary three being Stansbury, sophomore Julien Obioha and true freshman Daeshon Hall. Each has had their ups and downs this season, but Stansbury's strong play as of late has been noticeable.
Hall and Obioha have also both picked up tackles for losses in each of the last two games, so it seems like the defensive ends are finding their groove.
Sumlin points out that just because the Aggies weren't racking up sacks, it doesn't mean they weren't getting a pass rush. They were struggling in other areas as well.
"I think early in the year, we had guys get loose, but because we were taking some other chances, we had no contain on the other side," Sumlin said. "So the quarterback flushes out the back door. Or we've got pressure here and we didn't hold our gaps in the middle and the quarterback just runs up the field. So the pressure has been there but the quarterback has escaped a bunch in the first part of the year.
"I think we've been a lot more sound in what we're doing and guys understand that 'Hey, just running to the quarterback isn't going to get it. These guys have a plan too.' They're going to take off and go somewhere. You need to maintain your gap structure, even in the pass rush. And I think that's really, really helped us."
Stansbury started the season off on a bad note, missing the first two games after being suspended for violating athletic department rules and regulations. He said he has played that much harder to "make up for it" and that he's working on continuing to develop. His three sacks are currently tied for the team lead.
"My thing is, I feel like I'm getting better but I need to improve every week," Stansbury said. "It's not a satisfying thing but it's getting better every week."
Stansbury said the intensity has been dialed up and that has led to the defensive line’s resurgence.
"Emotion and effort," he said. "Swarming to the ball. Just trying to get there. Everybody's playing with intensity and going off each other."
The No. 15 Aggies will have to continue that if they hope to keep having success when they host Mississippi State on Saturday at Kyle Field. They'll face a talented dual-threat quarterback in Dak Prescott.
As for Stansbury, much like Moore a year ago, Snyder thinks things might finally be clicking for his new star pass-rusher.
"I don't remember what game it was for Damontre last year but he had one of those games ... where he kind of turned it on and the ball started rolling for him," Snyder said. "Hopefully the same thing happens for Gavin."
Port Allen (La.) High School coach Guy Blanchard learned this firsthand when Claiborne was in his program. Blanchard remembers an eager Claiborne, who played linebacker on the Port Allen varsity team in the final seven games of his freshman season, approaching Blanchard in the offseason and telling him that he could play quarterback. Blanchard dismissed the idea until he saw Claiborne launch a football 60 yards. Eventually, Claiborne wound up playing both linebacker and quarterback and became proficient at both.
"The kid has a motor," Blanchard said. "He just doesn't quit."
Claiborne has started the last six games for the Aggies at middle linebacker. During preseason training camp, it became clear that he would play a role, but few could have predicted he'd become a starter – and at a different position than he was recruited to play. In his first few months on campus, he practiced at weakside linebacker.
But after the Aggies yielded 568 yards and 49 points to Alabama on Sept. 14, Claiborne progressed from reserve linebacker and special-teams contributor to the starter at a position he wasn't pegged to play.
The 6-foot, 225-pound Claiborne made the transition in a week and has progressed ever since. He's now second on the team in tackles (61), leads the Aggies in tackles for loss (six), has an interception and 1.5 sacks. Last week against UTEP, Claiborne led the team in tackles and forced a fumble.
"It's been extremely crucial," head coach Kevin Sumlin said of Claiborne's play. "You sit there and you have a true freshman mike linebacker and a true freshman nose guard (Isaiah Golden), you worry a little bit. The opponent reads the program, too, so there's no hiding that. They're going to try to figure out where they are. Those guys know that. It's been valuable with Darian going really since Arkansas and Isaiah Golden going the last couple of weeks, getting a lot of playing time."
Blanchard said that at Port Allen, Claiborne always was a quick learner with a high football IQ. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has seen that firsthand. When the Aggies' defeated Ole Miss last month, Snyder said Claiborne made an adjustment that Snyder asked for quickly and it resulted in an interception.
"One thing about Darian is that he is so coachable," Snyder said. "Early in the game we had some things going where he was to push [to the] weak [side] and we didn't quite get there. You would get him on the sidelines and tell him, ‘Darian, if you push weak you are going to have an interception.’ Sure enough, the very next series he intercepted the football. That, to me, tells me that it is coming. He is getting it. I think Darian's going to be a good football player."
Snyder calls him the "voice" or the "mouthpiece" of the Aggies' front seven. That's quite a bit of responsibility for a true freshman.
While Blanchard is excited to see what Claiborne has done this season, he's more excited about what's to come.
"If you think what he's doing now is good, stay tuned," Blanchard said. "You're only witnessing the tip of the iceberg."
On the field, it has been the statistically the worst in the SEC in total defense, yards per play, rushing defense and near the bottom in several other categories. The national rankings in many areas have been in the 100s. As a result, the unit has taken a heap of criticism, especially when compared with the team's high-powered offense which puts up points in bunches.
For once, the defense was a source of positive discussion.
"I feel like we finally put together a complete game," senior linebacker Nate Askew said. "There weren’t a lot of blown coverages or assignments gap-wise. That was the biggest thing and having fun out there."
The sack totals were particularly eye-opening because Texas A&M had been one of the country's worst in generating a pass rush before Saturday. The Aggies had seven sacks total entering Saturday's game, but matched the season tally in one day.
The reason? More blitz calls from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who said he finally felt comfortable dialing up more pressure. As the defense continued to see players go in and out of the lineup all season for various reasons (suspensions, injuries, inept play), it was a challenge to get a group of 11 players that Snyder felt he could trust to be in the right place in the right time, especially considering how much youth is on that side of the ball (11 freshmen exist in the two-deep depth chart).
But as players begin to settle into their roles and get more comfortable, especially in the secondary, Snyder is beginning to feel more comfortable taking risks. The group back there on Saturday – cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris along with safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven – were the projected four starters at the beginning of the year but have rarely been on the field together for one reason or another.
"We need to stay healthy and keep the young DBs coming along and learning," Snyder said. "There is a degree of difficulty for the back end to do some of the things we do and to have those guys all in place helped a lot."
It also helped that Vanderbilt's starting quarterback on Saturday, Patton Robinette, was a freshman making his first career start, though Snyder said the game plan appeared to be the same as the previous week when the Commodores beat Georgia. Considering that Texas A&M struggled to stop virtually everybody this season, including FCS team Sam Houston State and Rice, whom it gave up 306 rushing yards to in the season opener, any positive sign is a good one for the Aggies.
So is Saturday's performance reason for optimism with the A&M defense or will they simply revert back to previous ways moving forward? It might be hard to tell this week, because the No. 12 Aggies host a struggling nonconference opponent in UTEP (1-6). Should the Aggies repeat what they did on Saturday for a second straight week, however, they could build some momentum to take into the home stretch of their conference slate as they finish up the year against Mississippi State, LSU and Missouri.
If the Aggies can stay healthy and keep the personnel consistent on that side of the ball, Snyder can continue to be aggressive in his calls. That aggressiveness was one trait of the 2012 A&M defense, which was surprisingly good despite question marks on the defensive line, about depth in general and was a key part to Texas A&M's inaugural 11-2 campaign in the SEC.
With an open date following Saturday's game before the final three conference games -- the final two of which are on the road -- the defense will need to continue to improve if the Aggies have hopes of winning the remainder of their games.
"I think at this point what happens is for them to have some success Saturday I thought was important and hopefully we were better," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We were not great by any means and hopefully because of some success, particularly by the young guys and some success as a defense, we'll continue to get better and gain some confidence from that because that's going to be important moving forward."
When it's intact, the defense can perform: Well, it's not completely intact as the Aggies were minus two starting defensive tackles (Alonzo Williams, left foot, and Kirby Ennis, who's done for the year with a torn ACL), but there was enough personnel on the field that defensive coordinator Mark Snyder was comfortable with. So, he he dialed up blitzes. The results were positive: seven sacks, 95 rushing yards allowed, 329 total yards allowed and three turnovers.
Johnny Manziel can get it done without running: His ability to run is one of Manziel's signature traits, but he ran four only times on Saturday, partially to avoid taking too much contact on his injured throwing shoulder. The result was still pretty good: 25-of-35 passing for 305 yards and four touchdowns in basically two-plus quarters. He had one interception, but otherwise had a stellar day.
Changes aren't a bad thing: There were some lineup changes on defense and for the most part, they worked out well. True freshman Noel Ellis played well in his time at nickelback. Donnie Baggs hadn't started since Sept. 14 but did well in his return to the starting lineup on Saturday. And on offense, the offensive line saw some shifting because of an injured Cedric Ogbuehi. Jarvis Harrison moved from left guard to left tackle, Jake Matthews from left tackle to right tackle, and Garrett Gramling stepped in at left guard. Overall, it was hard to tell there was much of a difference as the unit performed well.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Just like it has been all season, the attention going into Saturday was on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Was he going to play, or would he sit? How was his shoulder? As he often has this year, Johnny provided a lot of drama.
But the real story from the Aggies' 56-24 win over Vanderbilt at Kyle Field was the performance of the A&M defense. A unit that came into the game ranked 118th in total defense, and was in the bottom 20 nationally in most major defensive statistical categories, put together what was easily one of its best performances of the season.
After taking a gut punch from Auburn last week to the tune of 45 points and 615 yards (379 rushing), any positive sign is acceptable at this point.
"We need an example to show us how we should play, and now we have an example," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "We can always go back to the Vandy tape. This type of production we expect from the defense, and this is the standard that we expect from our defense. So, it was good to have a game like this."
There was an energy there that didn't seem to exist consistently in recent weeks for the Aggies' D. Howard Matthews (14 tackles, one interception return for a touchdown) played probably his best game of the season. The pass rush was relentless, led by Gavin Stansbury's two sacks, and the 12 tackles for loss. The unit matched its season total for sacks with seven against the Commodores and held an opponent to under 100 yards rushing for just the second time this season. It finally looked like the unit defensive coordinator Mark Snyder envisioned he'd have coming into the season.
"I dialed it up," Snyder said of what generated the consistent pass rush. "We pressured a lot more than we have pressured because we finally could. We felt like we finally got to the point where all the pieces were in place. We had practiced together, and I felt comfortable calling some pressures because everybody knew where they were supposed to be."
Much of that came from a few noteworthy personnel moves. True freshman cornerback Noel Ellis got plenty of time in place of Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel cornerback. Junior linebacker Donnie Baggs, who hasn't started since Sept. 14 against Alabama, got the starting nod at strongside linebacker. True freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall didn't start but saw heavy playing time rotating with starting ends Stansbury and Obioha. Starting defensive tackle Alonzo Williams missed the game with a foot injury, and junior Ivan Robinson replaced him.
The Commodores' best weapon -- receiver Jordan Matthews -- had a solid day (eight catches, 92 yards), but his longest reception was 21 yards. The biggest play came from Jonathan Krause on a 44-yard reception in the first half. Matthews, to his credit, became the SEC's career receiving yards leader with 3,172.
If the Aggies can build on this performance, the outlook for the rest of the season is bright.
Although the defense showed well, most eyes were on Manziel in the early going. For a guy with an injured throwing shoulder, it sure didn't seem to affect him. He completed his first 10 passes and led the Aggies to four consecutive touchdown drives to start the game.
Coach Kevin Sumlin was tight-lipped about Manziel's status all week leading up to the game, calling the Heisman Trophy winner "hopeful." He never budged from that statement but said Saturday that he wasn't playing coy and that Manziel was truly a game-time decision as he tried to recover from the shoulder injury he suffered last week.
Manziel began throwing Wednesday and participated in 11-on-11 drills Friday and even woke up Saturday with soreness. But he said there was no keeping him off the field.
"In my mind, I was always going to play," Manziel said. "It would take a lot to keep me off the field and away from these guys. They count on me, and they expect me to be there."
He completed 25 of 35 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. He ran much less than he usually does because it wasn't in the game plan, mostly to protect him from further injury.
Although Manziel was able to make every throw necessary to put the Aggies' offense in the right position, he got plenty of support from the running game as the Aggies combined for 189 yards, led by Trey Williams' 65 and Brandon Williams' 61.
It was far from a clean win. The Aggies committed five turnovers and allowed the game to get closer than it had to in the first half. But it's something they can build off of as they approach the homestretch.
"It's been a little frustrating as of late with some games a little closer than we wanted," Manziel said. "We felt we've played pretty good all around, but we just need to continue to get better. That's the thing. We're not where we were last year in every aspect of our game, but we have a coaching staff that won't quit until we're where we need to be."
The struggles are significant. The Aggies rank near the bottom of the FBS in most defensive statistical categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the five teams that have allowed more yards per game than the Aggies -- New Mexico State, Idaho, California, Nevada and Indiana -- have a combined record of 8-27.
Texas A&M is fortunate enough to have a 5-2 record (2-2 in the SEC). It certainly helps to have one of the nation's most high-powered offenses and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Johnny Manziel).
For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff, it has been a challenge from the start of the season. Suspensions, injuries and ineffectiveness are all to blame.
The Aggies currently have 11 freshmen in their defensive two-deep depth chart. Two true freshmen (defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne) are starting. The four defensive line first-team spots include Golden and two sophomores. At linebacker, a former receiver who moved to linebacker this offseason (Nate Askew) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Of the seven linebackers on the Aggies' two-deep, only one (Steven Jenkins) started a full season at the position before this year.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin's first signing class that was completely under his watch had 32 members, 18 of whom were on defense. Of those 18, a dozen have already played this season.
But how did the Aggies get to this point, playing this many freshmen and newcomers? There are some juniors and seniors on the field, but there aren't nearly as many as there were a year ago when the Aggies went 11-2 in their debut season in the SEC.
In 2012, the Aggies were fortunate to have the benefit of some good leaders on defense and others who were productive. At linebacker, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart both provided leadership and production. Along the defensive line, Spencer Nealy made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle effectively despite not having the ideal size for the position. Steven Terrell was a steady and heady player at free safety. All four of those players were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. So was Dustin Harris, who didn't always start but played plenty at cornerback and was the team's primary punt returner.
One defensive player still remains from that 2009 class: defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who started last season and this year but suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 28 against Arkansas. But last year's A&M starting defense was more than half made up of what turned out to be a solid recruiting class on the defensive side of the ball.
So to understand why A&M is in the position it is now, take a look at the recruiting classes on defense since then:
- In 2010, the Aggies signed seven defensive players and two more that were offensive players but eventually moved to defense. Defensive end Damontre Moore turned out to be a star, but declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. For a team that's lacking in its pass rush (only three FBS teams have fewer sacks than Texas A&M's seven this season) a guy like that could help. Of the remainders in that class, three are starting: Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel back, Gavin Stansbury at defensive end and Askew, who was recruited and spent his first three years at receiver, at strongside linebacker. Two others (defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and quarterback Clay Honeycutt, who's now a reserve safety) are playing but not starting. Nehemiah Hicks was considered to be either a defensive end or tight end and became a tight end. The other two players in the defensive class are no longer on the team.
- The 2011 class -- the final class signed by former head coach Mike Sherman -- brought 13 defensive players. Deshazor Everett, a cornerback with ability to play safety, is currently the defense's best player. Safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven and linebacker Steven Jenkins also emerged as starters out of that group. One of the big fish landed late in that class, defensive end Brandon Alexander, has rarely played. He's now getting some playing time at tight end. Linebacker Donnie Baggs entered this season as the starting middle linebacker but is now a reserve. Tyrell Taylor is rotating at defensive end. The rest of the group hasn't made any impact at all. Five players in that group are no longer with the program.
- The 2012 class, the first one Sumlin signed after essentially two months on the job, had some holdovers that committed to the program under Sherman. It is a mixed bag. Four of those players are starting as either true sophomores (Julien Obioha at defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle and De'Vante Harris at cornerback) or in one case, a senior (cornerback Tramain Jacobs, who was a junior college transfer). Defensive end Tyrone Taylor, brother of Tyrell, gets some playing time at defensive end. Edward Pope, who was a receiver/defensive back, is playing receiver for the Aggies. A car accident took away one member from that class -- defensive tackle Polo Manukainiu, who died in a crash in July and is being honored by the team every week this season. A spinal injury took away another member, linebacker Michael Richardson, who played as a freshman. He had successful surgery and was fortunate to not suffer any major physical issues, but is no longer playing football. Defensive back Kenneth Marshall, though on the team, was not part of the 105-man roster during preseason training camp. Linebacker Jordan Richmond transferred to Navarro College in the offseason and one player in the class, defensive tackle Edmund Ray, never made it to campus because of qualifying issues.
But in its 45-41 home loss to the Tigers on Saturday, Texas A&M took a step back in a few areas. The rushing yardage the Aggies allowed (379) was a season high. Auburn converted 50 percent of its third downs (7-of-14), and Alabama was the only other team to reach that rate (3-of-6). And the total yards A&M allowed was a season high (615).
Through seven games, this is the reality of the Texas A&M defense. While there are flashes of good, there is a lot of bad. Anyone waiting to see if this becomes a "good" defense might be left waiting for the remainder of the season. For every step forward, like the fact the defense forced four consecutive punts on Saturday, there seems to be a step or two back, like allowing 21 points in each of the past two fourth quarters.
In most major statistical categories, the Aggies rank near the bottom nationally. They are in the bottom 20 in total yards allowed per game (118th), rushing yards allowed per game (112th), passing yards allowed per game (103rd), first downs per game (113th), yards per carry (118th) and yards per play (115th).
It has had trouble generating a pass rush (Texas A&M's seven sacks this season are tied for 114th nationally) and has allowed 39 plays of 20 yards or more, which puts it at 105th. Other statistics, like points-per-drive (2.56, 110th), average yards allowed per drive (38.1, 114th) and the percentage of drives teams score touchdowns against the Aggies (33.3 percent, 109th) are also near the bottom.
The question of whether 41 points -- the defense's total on Saturday -- should be enough to win a football game has been raised recently in Aggieland. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder makes no bones about it.
"You should win a game if you score 40 points, period," Snyder said. "I understand the game's changed. It's hard to be a DC nowadays. It's extremely tough. I get that. But that's what the challenge is about."
Head coach Kevin Sumlin had a different retort.
"One more point than the opponent should be enough to win the game, regardless of the situation," Sumlin said. "We know where we are now as a team. So our offense understands that, our team understands that, and our job is to win or lose as a football team. So if you're deficient in one area, you understand that as a coach. You try to get that area better, but your goal is to win the game no matter what. Just like if we were deficient on offense, then it would be our defense's job to [surrender] one point less than whatever we could score."
Twice this season the Aggies have scored more than 40 points and lost -- Saturday and on Sept. 14 when they scored 42 and fell to Alabama. In fact, they've scored more than 40 points in every single game this season so that's not asking too much for this high-powered offense, which is averaging 46.9 per game.
But it appears that if Texas A&M wants to continue to win moving forward, it might have to be closer to its average or the 50-point mark (which it had surpassed twice earlier this season).
The Aggies have spent the bulk of the season with 11 freshmen in their two-deep depth chart, including two who are now starting. Having the same 11 guys on the field for back-to-back games has been a challenge.
The unit is also missing leadership. Last season, Texas A&M had the good fortune of seniors like linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart and defensive tackle Spencer Nealy, as well as junior Damontre Moore. With all of those guys gone, there's something missing that comes with the experience those players had. For instance, Snyder alluded to the fact that someone like Porter or Stewart could come off the field after a defensive series and tell the coaching staff what tendencies they were seeing from the offense or suggest playcalls. That's not happening this season with a young group of players, many of whom are simply just trying to do their job.
"It's more of us talking than it is them," Snyder said.
Snyder still sounds optimistic. He said the number of missed assignments they have has come down from the start of the season to now. As a unit, they're focusing on being opportunistic, meaning having a good third-down percentage and creating turnovers. Interestingly, those are two areas where the Aggies aren't in the bottom 20 or 25 nationally.
Their 41.1 percent rate of allowing third down conversions isn't ideal (80th) and not as good as last season (32.4 percent), but it could be worse. And the Aggies are doing well on turnover margin, tied for 39th with a plus-three in that department (12 takeaways to nine giveaways). Perhaps the biggest change for the Aggies is on third-and-5 or fewer, where they've allow 62.5 percent conversions (vs. 44.6 percent last year).
The players, for their part, are trying to stay positive mentally and focus on their next opponent.
"We're positive," sophomore cornerback De'Vante Harris said. "We're going to keep working, keep grinding....I have all types of faith in my team, my defensive squad, my coaches, everybody. We're just going to stay positive and stay hungry."
The basic numbers, which are well-documented, aren't good. The Aggies are 113th in total defense nationally (474.3 yards allowed per game) and 104th in rushing defense (201.17) while allowing 32 points per game.
But for all the criticism the Texas A&M defense endured this season, and for Saturday's performance in particular, there are recent signs of progress for the much-maligned unit. In Texas A&M's last two games the defense got key stops late to help the Aggies secure victory. Against Arkansas on Sept. 28, the Razorbacks pulled to within five points of Texas A&M on three separate occasions in the second half. The Aggies' defense responded with a stop each time.
On Saturday against Ole Miss, after allowing three consecutive touchdown drives and four Rebels touchdowns in a stretch of five second-half possessions, the unit buckled down when it had to, forcing a three-and-out on the Rebels' final possession late in the fourth quarter. That got the ball back to the offense, which drove downfield and set up a game-winning field goal attempt for Josh Lambo.
"The kids had a lot of belief," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said of the fourth-quarter stop. "We knew we needed a stop, especially the way our offense was playing. I thought the kids did a good job. They adjusted, checked to the formation. I believe they were trying to go four vertical and we kind of took that away and were able to get off the field."
In fact, Snyder said he was pleased with several aspects of the Aggies' performance on Saturday. The first half was a solid one for the group, as they allowed just 10 points on five Ole Miss possessions. Through three quarters, the unit forced three punts, a turnover on downs and an interception in eight possessions. Though they allowed 297 yards in the first three quarters, it translated to just 17 points for the Rebels at that time.
But the fourth quarter became a different story. The Rebels had three consecutive touchdown drives and 165 yards in the quarter. Ole Miss ate up large chunks of yardage, hitting plays 21, 21, 19 and 50 yards, respectively. They succeeded on too many of what Snyder calls "explosive plays."
"Coach Snyder always talks about 'Let's not give up explosives, because if we don't give up explosives against a lot of teams, we can shut down a lot of teams,'" sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "Monday he pulls up the stats and shows us how we do and he showed us that our explosives were way too high and if we take away all of our explosives and big plays and critical errors, we would have held Ole Miss to about 250 or 260 yards, which is a good game for a defense. We just need to eliminate big plays."
Texas A&M has certainly had its fair share of issues when it comes to allowing big plays. This season, the Aggies have allowed 10 or more yards on 22.5 percent of plays it's faced, which ranks 105th in the nation.
Youth and inexperience continues to factor into the Aggies' success, or lack thereof, defensively. With 11 freshmen on the defensive two-deep depth chart, there are some issues that are a byproduct of players simply not having enough playing time. But because the talent level of those freshmen is high and other factors, including injuries, the Aggies are having to endure those growing pains.
And it has been rare that the Aggies have had consistency in its starting defensive personnel from week to week.
On Saturday, the Aggies had to finish the game minus their best defensive player, Deshazor Everett, because of an injury sustained in the first half. His status for this Saturday's game against Auburn is uncertain, though it wouldn't be surprising to see him suit up since he tried to make an effort to get back into the Ole Miss game. They were already without starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury. That meant the Aggies were operating without two of their better defensive players in crunch time on Saturday.
Even with those issues, one of the most important areas to head coach Kevin Sumlin and his coaching staff hasn't been as bad as the other aforementioned statistics. The Aggies are allowing third-down conversions 39.5 percent of the time (72nd nationally). It isn't quite as good as last season (32.4 percent, 16th) but it hasn't been as bleak as some of the other areas.
The key for the Aggies moving forward is improving in that area and taking what they did in the first three quarters or the final drive against Ole Miss -- or in the aforementioned instances at Arkansas -- and making it happen for four quarters.
"That's the key, consistency," Snyder said. "It was a little bit different game this week. I thought we played pretty decent for about three quarters. Then in the fourth quarter, we were just bad, period. We had been pretty good in the second half. That's what we keep talking to these guys about, consistency. Let's play an entire game."
They also have to get better at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, something the Aggies have struggled mightily at doing this season. Their five sacks tie them for 118th in the country.
"The one thing I challenged our guys with is we have to get some pass rush," Snyder said. " I understand it's difficult with the type of offenses that we're facing...[but] we need to generate some pass rush without me having to make a [blitz] call to generate that pass rush."
Senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said the group simply needs to continue to work at it all of these things.
"It's just timing," Hurd said. "We just have to keep working on our timing, fitting our gaps and just becoming a sound defense. Do all the little things right and the big picture will be better in the end if we do the little things right in the beginning."
Despite some of the injuries, defensive struggles, early-season attention (both positive and negative), sitting at 5-1 and No. 7 in the country is a pretty good place to be.
Many preseason questions have been answered. Will quarterback Johnny Manziel's offseason affect his play or affect the team? The answer is a resounding "no," and Manziel has been arguably the best player in college football through the first half of the season.
How will the Aggies' offense run with a new offensive coordinator, Clarence McKinney? So far, pretty smoothly. The Aggies haven't missed a beat in the transition from former offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury to McKinney as the playcaller. They're No. 3 in the nation in total offense, No. 4 in scoring offense and No. 2 in the all-important third-down conversion category. Mike Evans has emerged as one of the nation's best receivers and the running game has been strong.
Will the defense come along quickly? This one hasn't netted a positive answer. The Aggies have been one of the worst defensive teams in the country statistically, ranking 113th in yards allowed per game (474.3) and 104th against the run, though they have been middle of the pack on third downs (72nd). Youth, inexperience and ever-shifting personnel have made the job a challenging one in Year 2 for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder after an impressive first year in Aggieland when the Aggies' D outperformed expectations and operated with limited depth in 2012.
That being said, the Aggies have still won and lost only to the No. 1 team in the country, Alabama, by seven points. Certainly, they'd like to be undefeated, but if they continue to win in the second half of the season, a bright outlook lay ahead for Texas A&M.
Offensive MVP: Johnny Manziel
Anybody wondering if Manziel would have a "sophomore slump" or that his eventful offseason would affect him can forget about it. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner has looked even better this season, completing 73.2 percent of his passes for 1,835 yards and 14 touchdowns while rushing for 438 yards and five scores. He's focused on passing more, but is still as dangerous as ever with his feet and delivers in the clutch.
Defensive MVP: Deshazor Everett
If Everett could play every position on defense, you'd have to think the Aggies would utilize him as such. As it is, he has been terrific at both cornerback and safety, playing the first five games with a cast from a broken thumb suffered in preseason camp. He has 33 tackles, two tackles for loss, two interceptions, two pass breakups, a fumble recovery and two defensive touchdowns.
So when the Aggies discovered that senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis had a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that would require season-ending surgery, it was a blow. Ennis started most of last season, was a starter this year and his absence mean more youth is injected into a lineup already full of it.
The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Golden has the kind of frame you look for in an SEC defensive tackle, he's just lean on playing experience with just four career games under his belt since signing with A&M in February.
"It doesn't matter how comfortable I am with it, it matters how comfortable he is," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "It's not the NFL, I can't call Bob Stoops and trade a guy. We've got who we've got."
The coaches like what they've seen from Golden so far. An ESPN 300 recruit from Carthage (Texas) High School, Golden showed enough during preseason training camp to crack the two-deep depth chart along with another true freshman defensive tackle, Hardreck Walker.
But with Ennis out for the remainder of this season, that means the Aggies' young defensive tackles will have to grow up in a hurry. Golden will start next to Alonzo Williams, a sophomore who has been a key player for the Aggies' up front this year. Walker and junior Ivan Robinson will figure into defensive tackle rotation as well.
Another ESPN 300 signee from the 2013 class, defensive tackle Justin Manning, is getting an increase in repetitions at practice. While it doesn't appear he'll see playing time just yet, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that the Aggies are an injury away from having no choice but to put Manning into the rotation.
Golden brings size and is "very athletic and a natural playmaker," according to sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha.
"He's a very physical kid," Snyder said of Golden. "He's very capable of playing in this league. He's going to be a really good player someday. I actually sat in [defensive line coach] Terry [Price's] meeting [on Monday] in the back of the room like a fly on the wall and he seems excited, which he should be. It's part of college football.
Sumlin said Tuesday that his ideal scenario with freshmen is to have them in a backup role for a season then allow them the chance to become starters for the remaining three years of their careers. But it doesn't always work like that, especially when injuries come into play.
Golden has had a lot to handle already this season. Last month, he had to deal with the unexpected death of his two-month old daughter and missed the Alabama game shortly thereafter. He has appeared in all four of the Aggies' other games, and now a new challenge awaits him.
"Isaiah has been through a lot this season," Sumlin said. "He missed a week with the death of his child. He came on early on and played some good football for us. He's settled back down and emotionally it's been a pretty up-and-down situation for him this year.
"Last week we talked a little bit about where he was. Kirby's situation came to light and now he knows he has to go as a regular guy. Sometimes, different guys react differently. I'd be surprised if Isaiah doesn't do very, very well from here on out."
Williams, who seems to be a cagey veteran compared to the others even though he's just a sophomore, sees time at nose tackle when the Aggies' go to personnel packages of three defensive linemen, and that will continue, Snyder said. But Williams and Golden will be the go-to guys in four down linemen sets moving forward.
Obioha, who started 12 games for the Aggies as a true freshman at defensive end last year, said he told Golden to come to him with any questions since he understands what it's like to be a teenager facing SEC offensive linemen.
"I went through this last year," Obioha said. "There wasn't an injury, I earned my spot, but I was out there 18, 19 years old. I was just telling him, 'Man if you have any questions, come talk to me. I know exactly what you're going through.'"
For a run defense that is last in the SEC and 108th in the country, allowing 214.8 rushing yards per game, it's not the ideal situation. But it's the hand the Aggies' have been dealt and it's an opportunity recruits dream of when they're being recruited by a program.
"We hope guys come to play," Snyder said. "They get their opportunity now. I was pleased with what I saw [in practice] ... I think Isaiah's excited, I really do."
The outside linebacker, who spent his first three seasons playing receiver, is still working to improve and master his new position, which he switched to during the offseason.
"He's catching the ball better on defense and he's already scored more touchdowns [on defense than he did on offense] since I've been here," Sumlin said with a laugh. "I give him a hard time about that, but he doesn't think that's funny, by the way."
Jokes aside, Sumlin is right. Askew spent limited time as a receiver in 2012, Sumlin's first as head coach at Texas A&M. He finished the season with just three catches for 10 yards, appearing in 10 games. His only career offensive touchdown came as a sophomore in 2011 under former head coach Mike Sherman.
Having a 6-foot-4, 230-pound athlete who possesses speed and a vertical jump better than 40 inches standing on the sidelines didn't make sense to Sumlin, and for whatever reason, receiver wasn't working out for Askew. So Sumlin approached Askew this offseason with the idea of moving him to linebacker for his senior season.
"I didn't know what to think, honestly," Askew recalled thinking. "Linebacker? I don't know about this. I've never played defense before. I don't know how this is going to go."
Sumlin's message was that Askew could help on defense.
"He just told me I was an athlete and for whatever reason, things weren't working out at receiver position but he wanted to get his best guys on the field," Askew said. "He said he believed that I can contribute somewhere and he tried to figure out that place and he thought maybe linebacker would be the best position for me."
What sold Askew on the idea was spending practice time at outside linebacker and having some success as a pass rusher during spring football.
"I just went into it with an open mind. I was like, 'OK, I can't knock anything until I try it,'" Askew said. "So I thought I'd give it a try and see how it goes. I got out there the first practice and I actually liked it. ...[In the first practice] they had me pass rushing. I was able to use my speed off the edge and get around [Cedric Ogubehi] and Jake [Matthews] a few times and after that, I guess you could say it's like golfing. Hitting that first great ball draws you back into the game. That's what it did. I made that first pass rush and I thought, 'I can do this.'"
In the first five games, Askew has shown flashes of playmaking ability. Of his 14 tackles, three are tackles for loss, including a sack. In addition to his interception against Sam Houston State, he also has a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry.
On Sept. 28, he made his first career defensive start against Arkansas and he's listed as the starter on the Aggies' depth chart in advance of their road game at Ole Miss on Saturday.
"I think he's embraced it; he's playing with confidence," Sumlin said. "Has he made some mistakes? Sure. But he's moving along that way and I think the biggest positive is that he is helping us as a team [at linebacker] more than he was helping us at wide receiver."
The fact that Askew has contributed as much as he has is a testament to his athleticism and ability to adapt but also is a sign of the ever-shifting personnel on the Aggies' defense, which has struggled throughout the season and is 112th in yards allowed per game. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder & Co. are trying to find the best combination of players as youth and inexperience permeates the depth chart.
Askew is continuing to work at his craft. Former all-conference Aggies linebacker Sean Porter has been a significant resource for him. They used to be roommates and Porter also played strongside linebacker, which is what Askew is playing. Askew's desire for improvement is much like the Aggies' defense as a whole right now.
"Me and Sean had conversations for two hours on the phone just talking about the linebacker position, different things that came up at practice and how do you approach this and approach that," Askew said. "Since he perfected his craft so well at the 'Sam' position and I play the same position, I thought maybe I could pick his brain and do that."
Ennis, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound senior, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against Arkansas on Sept. 28 and will have season-ending surgery, head coach Kevin Sumlin said on Tuesday.
The Aggies' run defense is last in the SEC, allowing 214.8 yards per game. The unit has struggled as a result of the combination of shifting personnel, as well as youth and inexperience on the depth chart. Now the Aggies must turn to a true freshman to take Ennis' place: Carthage (Texas) High School product Isaiah Golden.
Golden, who has appeared in four of the Aggies' five games this season, will make his first career start Saturday at Ole Miss. The ESPN 300 recruit, who signed with the Aggies in February, has 11 tackles and two tackles for loss to his credit so far this season.
He'll start next to sophomore Alonzo Williams, who has started all five games at the other defensive tackle position. True freshman Hardreck Walker and junior Ivan Robinson will also be a part of the defensive tackle rotation moving forward.
Ennis is a four-year letterman who started in 11 games in 2012. He appeared in four games this season, recording six tackles, a half tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry.
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