SEC: Spencer Nealy

Why A&M has so much youth on defense

October, 25, 2013
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The words "youth" and "inexperience" are frequently used to describe the Texas A&M defense this season.

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.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M wrapped up spring football on Saturday with the annual Maroon and White game. After 15 practices, there's plenty to take away, but here's five things we learned during the Aggies' spring:

Now that we've looked at five underclassmen's big shoes that have to be filled in the SEC East, it's time to check out five underclassmen leaving big holes for their respective teams in the SEC West:

  • Alvin Bailey, OG, Arkansas: Bailey's decision to turn pro early was a bit of a surprise, and he leaves a pretty big hole along the offensive line. He turned into a solid player for the Razorbacks, even though Arkansas' line struggled throughout the year. But the loss of Bailey means the Hogs will be down both starting guards next year. At this point, no one is quite sure who will step up to be the next big guard for Arkansas, but rising junior Luke Charpentier will have the first shot. He was in the three-man rotation at guard last year and has a lot of upside. With what this staff likes to do with the offensive line, anyone could emerge, so keep an eye on the offensive line signees in the 2013 class.
  • [+] EnlargeAlabama's Geno Smith
    Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsDefensive back Geno Smith was a key contributor late last season for Alabama.
    Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn: Losing Lemonier was a big hit to Auburn's defense, but it wasn't a surprise at all. Now, the Tigers will have to turn to seniors Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae. Ford had a strong 2012 season after returning from injury, while Eguae spent the season rotating in and out. Both have good experience, but Lemonier was a very special player up front. If the Tigers can keep current commit Carl Lawson, he will definitely get his shot at Lemonier's old spot and would certainly be in the rotation for playing time this fall.
  • Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama: He was arguably the nation's best cover corner by season's end, and losing him will hurt Alabama's secondary, which gave up big plays at times in 2012. There are still some talented bodies in the secondary, but losing Milliner's shutdown ability will hurt. He only grabbed two interceptions on the season, but he defended 22 passes, which tied for first nationally. Geno Smith will get a crack at Milliner's spot, after playing in 13 games last season with two starts. He made strides as a cover man as the season went on and added some much-needed bulk, but the pressure will be on him to make a real jump in Year 2.
  • Kevin Minter, LB, LSU: Minter was all over the field for the Tigers in 2012. He had a true breakout year with his team-high 130 tackles (55 solo) and 15 tackles for loss. He also tacked on four sacks and defended six passes. Losing all those defensive linemen will hurt, but replacing Minter at Mike linebacker will be very tough because of how versatile he was. Ronnie Feist and Trey Granier, both true freshmen, were behind Minter on the depth chart last fall. Feist played in five games, registering three tackles. Both will have the chance to take Minter's spot, but neither has much experience at all.
  • Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M: Losing left tackle Luke Joeckel was tough for the Aggies, but having Jake Matthews coming back helped soften the blow. Losing Moore is a major loss for A&M's defense. Not only is A&M's best defensive player (team-high 85 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks) but the Aggies are also losing Spencer Nealy up front. Tyrell Taylor backed up Moore, playing in 11 games and registering a sack. Julien Obioha also started 12 games up front, but grabbed just one sack on the year. There are young bodies to throw out up front, but any team would have a real problem replacing Moore's production.
It's time for teams to focus on the future. That means replacing all of those holes left by departing seniors and underclassmen.

But which exiting players will be toughest to replace in 2013? ESPN NFL Insider KC Joyner tackled that exact question earlier this week Insider.

When it came to the SEC, Texas A&M's loss of defensive end Damontre Moore and Mississippi State's loss of cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay were chosen as the toughest voids to fill in the SEC this fall.

As far as Moore goes, he was easily the best defender for the Aggies and ended the season as one of the top overall players in the country. He was a game-changer with his speed, strength and versatility and the Aggies will have to replace 21 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks.

Replacing Moore's talent and playmaking skills would be tough for any team, but it makes it that much harder for the Aggies to mask the loss of Moore because of all the other defenders leaving with him. Senior linebackers Sean Porter, Jonathan Stewart and Steven Jenkins will all be gone, and so will senior defensive linemen Spencer Nealy and Jonathan Mathis. That's a lot of missing bodies. As Joyner points out, the Aggies will be losing 23.5 of its 31 total sacks from this past season.

For Mississippi State, the Bulldogs are losing both starting cornerbacks, who at one time were considered the best corner duo in the country. Banks, who had a tremendous career at Mississippi State, won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2012 as the top defensive back, while Slay led the team with five interceptions.

While both struggled in the second half of the season, Joyner has them on because Banks' big-play ability will be missed and Slay coverage skills will be missed. While Banks garnered all of the attention -- and the Thorpe Award -- Slay was a better cover man in 2012. Joyner writes that in nine games against BCS teams, Slay allowed 5.5 yards per attempt with two interceptions, while Banks allowed 11.5 YPA with no interceptions.

Couple that with losing senior Corey Broomfield in the defensive backfield, and the Bulldogs have a lot of work to do in the secondary in 2013.

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M put the finishing touches on a double-digit win season and Johnny Manziel made his final case for the Heisman Trophy as the Aggies coasted by Missouri 59-29 Saturday at Kyle Field.

The win makes Texas A&M 10-2 on the season (6-2 SEC), marking the first time since 1998 that the Aggies have finished a season with at least 10 wins. Let's take a look at the notable happenings from the night:

It was over when: The clock hit triple zeroes at halftime. The Aggies started fast and didn't look back, jumping out to a 42-0 lead at the 3:33 mark in the second quarter. Missouri scored once before the half and added 22 points in the second half, but it was all for naught as A&M's lead was already insurmountable.

Game ball goes to: Manziel. He was his usual productive self on Saturday, completing 32-of-44 passes for 372 yards and three touchdowns with one interception while running 12 times for 67 yards and two touchdowns. He became the SEC's single-season total yardage record-holder, eclipsing Cam Newton's mark of 4,327 (Manziel finished with 4,600 for the season, breaking Newton's mark in two fewer games).

Key stat: 12-of-16. The Aggies' third-down conversion rate. All season, Texas A&M has called third down the "money down", and the Aggies have earned their money in that area on both sides of the ball. They converted their first 12 attempts on offense Saturday, which was a big reason why they took their commanding lead. They converted 75 percent of their third downs and were pretty good defending them on defense too (5-of-14, 35.7 percent).

Unsung hero of the game: Spencer Nealy. All season long, the senior defensive tackle has done dirty work for the Aggies, taking on double teams after switching positions from defensive end prior to the season. He shined in that role, and Saturday was the best example of that, when he was disruptive to Missouri quarterback Corbin Berkstresser and the Tigers' offensive backfield. Nealy finished with seven tackles, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry and a pass breakup.

Best call: A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin applied a nice touch late in the game, allowing Manziel to come in for a play so that he could leave the field and get an ovation from the 87,222 in attendance. Manziel gave the "Gig 'em" thumbs up to the crowd as he exited. It was a nice moment and a fitting end to what has been a memorable season for the redshirt freshman quarterback and the Aggies.

What it means: The Aggies' first SEC regular season is in the books and it's safe to say that they've arrived. With 10 wins, they exceeded expectations and they have a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate (front runner even?) in Manziel. Texas A&M will go to a quality bowl game, likely either the Capital One Bowl, Cotton Bowl or possibly a BCS bowl, depending on how things shake out in the season's final weekend.

For Missouri, it means the Tigers will not go bowling, as they finish 5-7 (2-6 in the SEC). There were high expectations coming into the season and it's a disappointing end for the Tigers, who were without starting quarterback James Franklin on Saturday because of a concussion suffered last week.