We’ve looked at the offense, where you could argue some of the best players in A&M’s history will be playing this fall. But now it’s time to look at the defense. Everybody knows that A&M has issues in the front seven, but how bad are they really? Let’s take a look, starting with the defensive line.
Damontre Moore makes the move from linebacker to defensive end this season.
On the field
Looking at the numbers of the A&M defensive line is problematic because of a major scheme shift this season. For one, under Tim DeRuyter’s 3-4 scheme, the defensive line was mostly charged with plugging the run gaps and occupying space to make room for the linebackers. That’s why of A&M’s 51 sacks a season ago, the most in the country, less than half (14 to be exact) came from the defensive line. However, another 11.5 sacks came from two players who will be on the defensive line this season in Damontre Moore (8.5) and Caleb Russell (3). That’s the good news, the bad news is that this year the defensive line will be without Tony Jerod-Eddie in the middle. He accounted for five sacks and seven tackles for loss a season ago.
This season, the defensive line will be focused more on getting vertical up the field and being a force in the passing game, so expect to see the sack numbers go up on the defensive line. One player who I would really keep an eye on for a numbers boost in Spencer Nealy, who will be playing strong side defensive end this season, a position better suited to his skill set than defensive tackle. Aggie fans are also hoping for a big year out of sophomore Brandon Alexander, who will see time at both defensive end spots. Alexander came in as an extremely raw player, but has the physical tools to be an elite defensive end.
The ability to rush the passer though isn’t the major concern for this A&M defense. The issue is whether or not they can stop the run. Last year, the Aggies ranked in the top 15 in the nation in run defense, 12th to be exact. But is that really an indication of their ability to stop the run, or more of an indictment on their lack of ability to stop the pass? (The Aggies were 109th against the pass last year.) The other factor is that very few teams in the Big 12 are what you would call power running teams, the lone exception being Kansas State who the Aggies did force into the air. The Big 12 did have one spread rushing team a season ago that absolutely gashed the A&M defense for over 300 yards on the ground, and that team followed the Aggies to the SEC. They’ll see James Franklin and Henry Josey again to close the season when Missouri travels back to Kyle Field for a third straight year.
So, coming to a point. We don’t really know what the A&M defense is going to do against a true power running team like LSU or even against a pro-style team like Alabama. The Aggies have some experience on the interior of the defensive line, but the problem is that they have absolutely no depth. The previously mentioned teams, and the spread rushing teams like Missouri and Mississippi State are probably going to be able to wear down the A&M defense over four quarters.
On the sideline
One thing that isn’t going to change with the coaching turnover is the aggressiveness. Tim DeRuyter liked to blitz often, and so will Mark Snyder. While the Aggies led the nation in sacks a year ago, South Florida was fourth, and where the Aggies finished 12th against the run the Bulls finished 15th. South Florida was considerably better against the pass however at 83rd. All of that seems to indicate a similar approach to the game even with different schemes. Stop the run, and put pressure on the quarterback to try to force mistakes.
Spencer Nealy could have a breakout season at defensive end.
Mistakes are what A&M is going to need this year because they’re certain to make plenty of them on their own on defense. We’ll get to the secondary later, but with the lack of experience that group has it’s hard to measure what to expect from them.
Overall, I actually think the defensive line will have a better season than many expect. (Granted, that’s not saying much.) However, expecting them to be able to stop a power ground attack like LSU’s is probably asking too much. They should do just fine against the spread passing teams like Arkansas and Ole Miss, and it’s really up to the linebackers on how they’ll do against spread running teams like Missouri and Mississippi State.