Dallas Colleges: Tyrone Taylor
Through the first seven games of the 2013 season, Texas A&M's defense recorded only seven sacks. Needless to say, the Aggies' pass rush needed quite a bit of help.
Thanks to a huge boost in a win over Vanderbilt, the Aggies finished the season much better than they started it, collecting 14 sacks in the final six games, including seven against the Commodores.
The pass rush comes from a multitude of positions but perhaps none more crucial than defensive end. And that's where one of the intriguing battles of spring football will ensue.
Everyone that was on the Texas A&M two-deep depth chart at defensive end is back this season. Consider that there are defensive ends on the way in the summer via the Aggies' 2014 recruiting class, and it stands to reason that the competition will be plentiful.
He'll be a senior this season and seemed to hit his stride in the second half of 2013. He'll need to carry that momentum into the spring.
Another experienced player returning is Julien Obioha, who started as a true freshman and a sophomore. Obioha started 12 of 13 games in 2012. Last season, the soon-to-be-junior started 11 of the Aggies' 13 games. Obioha led the Aggies' defensive linemen in tackles-for-loss with five and also had one sack. He has two seasons of experience in the SEC, which is valuable, but the Aggies are hoping to see increased production from the veteran.
After Stansbury and Obioha, youth is served. Jay Arnold and Daeshon Hall, both of whom earned playing time as true freshmen, could be a factor. Hall appeared in all 13 games and showed flashes of his potential, compiling three tackles for loss and recording an interception. Playing at 245 pounds last season, the 6-foot-6 Hall could stand to bulk up even more this offseason if his role is going to expand. The coaching staff certainly has high hopes for the athletic Hall.
Arnold, who appeared in nine games last season, earned a start in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Duke and also played significant time against Missouri in the regular-season finale. Arnold was productive in his limited time, garnering two sacks and three tackles for loss. Physically, Arnold was much more college ready (6-4, 275) and that can only help him moving forward. The fact that he received increased playing time late in the season suggests he has a chance to make an impact moving forward, so it'll be worth watching how much work he receives this spring.
The Taylor twins, Tyrell Taylor and Tyrone Taylor, are also back. Tyrone, who will be a sophomore, appeared in 10 games in 2013, compiling three tackles for loss and a sack. Tyrell, who will be a senior, appeared in only two and registered a half-sack.
The Aggies need all the pass rush help they can get this fall if they're going to improve on the struggling defense they had in 2013. Each of the above players will not only have to show improvement this spring and this fall, they'll have to attempt to fend off the incoming recruits, namely five-star defensive end Myles Garrett (6-5, 255), for playing time.
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.
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