NCF Nation: Jay Arnold

Texas A&M's biggest question mark coming into this season -- even more so than its quarterback -- revolved around its defense and whether it could show significant improvement after a brutal 2013 campaign.

One game into the 2014 season, there is sufficient reason for optimism in several areas the Aggies struggled a year ago.

[+] EnlargeMyles Garrett and Dylan Thompson
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M's defense, including true freshman Myles Garrett, showed significant improvement from 2013 in its season-opening win, harassing South Carolina QB Dylan Thompson all night.
Overshadowed by the record-breaking starting debut of sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill was the fact that the Aggies showed signs of progress on defense in their 52-28 dismantling of South Carolina on Thursday.

The most noticeable difference was the Aggies’ ability to rush the passer. A sore spot last season (the Aggies had only seven sacks in their first seven games in 2013), Texas A&M showcased its increased depth and athleticism on the edge and harassed South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson to the tune of six quarterback hurries and three sacks.

One of those sacks and two of those hurries came courtesy of the Aggies’ prized 2014 recruit, true freshman Myles Garrett.

“Myles can run with the best of them,” junior defensive end Julien Obioha said.

At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, Garrett showed why he was pursued by most major programs in the country. He displayed strength, athleticism and determination that made him a factor in his collegiate debut.

He wasn’t alone. Defensive ends Daeshon Hall and Jay Arnold and defensive tackle Hardreck Walker also recorded hurries, while linebackers Donnie Baggs and A.J. Hilliard got sacks of their own.

Texas A&M’s much-maligned run defense held up well, too, though it got some assistance. Standout running back Mike Davis played sparingly because of a rib injury, and the Aggies’ put up points at a pace that forced South Carolina to abandon the running game to some extent.

Still, when the Gamecocks did run the ball, they were largely ineffective, averaging only three yards per carry and finishing with 67 yards on 22 attempts.

“I think we just came out and showed that we can stop the run against an experienced offensive line, one of the best offensive lines in the country,” Obioha said. “They have a great group of backs. Mike Davis couldn't play that much [Thursday], but we came out and stopped the run against a very good offense."

The night wasn’t without its flaws. Thompson beat the Aggies’ secondary deep for two long first-half touchdown passes of 69 and 46 yards, and in both cases there were errors in Texas A&M's young secondary that contributed to the big plays.

“We had a safety jump a route and get the first touchdown open and didn't get any help for [cornerback] Deshazor [Everett] and then [we had] a bust [in coverage],” Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said. “Those two big plays really kind of changed the complexion of the first half and it was a different ballgame because of two plays.”

But one encouraging sign for the secondary was the play of true freshman safety Armani Watts, who recorded an interception and two pass breakups. Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder stressed multiple times this offseason that the Aggies needed upgraded safety play, and Watts showed signs Thursday that he might be the one to help provide it.

It wasn’t a perfect night, but given the lack of outsider expectations and last season’s forgettable performances, 2014 has already given the Aggies reason to believe this year will be better.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Silence isn't a word typically synonymous with a stadium hosting more than 86,000 rabid fans, particularly at Kyle Field, where Texas A&M is known to hold a tremendous home-field advantage.

But silence is a key word in describing some of the growing pains the Aggies had to go through in their season-opening win against Rice on Saturday, as they played 16 true freshmen, 11 of which were defensive players.

A&M coach Kevin Sumlin illustrated that point thusly:

"We had a couple situations where a couple guys actually froze up out there and wouldn't even open their mouths and couldn't get lined up," Sumlin said after Saturday's 52-31 victory. "The D-line said they couldn't hear and then one of them admitted to me "Coach, I just didn't say anything. I was just standing there.'"

Not exactly what a coach is looking to hear from defensive players, particularly when facing a no-huddle offense. Communication, especially in those situations, is key for a defense.

[+] EnlargeRicky Seals-Jones
AP Photo/Eric GayFreshman wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones made an impact in his college debut, hauling in a 71-yard touchdown pass.
But that was the position the Aggies were put in, missing eight players to start the game, six on defense -- including five defensive players who were listed as starters on the week's depth chart -- because of suspensions. There were true freshmen playing in every defensive position group, plus some at receiver. That doesn't include a handful of redshirt freshmen and junior college players who were making their debuts as well.

The Aggies coaches did what they could to prepare their newcomers, but some lessons are only learned the hard way.

"It's like anything else," Sumlin said. "As a coach, you try to prepare guys for all situations, but until the live bullets are flying, you don't know. It'll get better as it goes on, but I think the experience that we gained from today will help us down the road, a bunch. Particularly [in the front seven] because that's where most of the guys are gone."

The struggles were clear. As the defense tried to find its footing, Rice showed the ability to move the ball with ease. The Owls finished the game with 509 total offensive yards, including 306 rushing. The last time they gave up that many offensive yards was in their marathon battle against Louisiana Tech last October (615) and they haven't allowed that many rushing yards since a 66-28 drubbing at the hands of Oklahoma on Nov. 8, 2008.

True freshman played on the defensive line (Jay Arnold, Isaiah Golden, Daeshon Hall and Hardreck Walker), at linebacker (Darian Claiborne, Jordan Mastrogiovanni, Shaan Washington) and defensive back (Noel Ellis, Tavares Garner, Alex Sezer Jr. and Jonathan Wiggins).

"There's no way to duplicate the tempo and the emotion [of a game]," Sumlin said on Tuesday. "You know what you're doing, but the pressure to perform in that environment can be very, very difficult on a young guy, and that's what experience is all about."

Offensively, the Aggies were much better off. Even though Matt Joeckel made his first career start at quarterback, he's a junior who has spent more than a year practicing in the offense and he had at least seen some game time. Center Mike Matthews, who received high praise from Sumlin on Tuesday, also played in games and traveled with the team last season.

The true freshmen who saw the field for the first time on offense were all receivers: Ricky Seals-Jones, Jeremy Tabuyo, LaQuvionte Gonzalez and Ja'Quay Williams. But because there were more experienced players surrounding them on Saturday, not to mention Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel entered the game in the third quarter, the transition was smoother for the Aggies' offense.

In total, 21 newcomers saw the field for Texas A&M on Saturday, many in significant roles. Plenty will log significant time this Saturday against Sam Houston State, as four players received two-game suspensions and won't be back until Sept. 14 against Alabama. With a signing class of 31 players in February, there was no question the Aggies were going to need some of the newcomers to contribute. By being forced to play so many in the first game, Sumlin feels like it could be a positive later in the season.

"[It's] a real, real learning experience," Sumlin said. "I think for those guys, that's going to pay dividends for us down the road."

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