The Texas A&M football team had one of the worst defenses in the nation in 2013. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin must find a way to improve the play of the defense in 2014 if the Aggies are to compete for an SEC title.
The 2013 Texas A&M defense ranked No. 109 out of the 123 teams in FBS in total yards allowed. The Aggies had the worst rushing defense and worst overall defense in the SEC. Their pass defense ranked No. 12 out of 14 teams in the SEC.
The Aggies were able to cover up for their defense with an offense that ranked No. 1 in the SEC in scoring at 44.2 points per game and No. 1 in total yardage at 538.4 yards per game. With Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans moving on to the NFL in 2014, the offense is expected to take a step back.
The defense will have to improve in order to make up for some offensive deficiencies and to keep the Aggies' competitive in games against the elite teams in the SEC. Texas A&M will not be able to simply outscore its opponents in 2014.
There are only so many things a coach can do to improve his team during the offseason. Sumlin and his staff need to be meticulous in their offseason preparations when it comes to defense because there is little room for error in 2014.
Analyze and Execute
The Aggies open up their season on the road against South Carolina on August 28. The defense is going to have to jump right in and swim in the deep end of the pool against the Gamecocks' smashmouth running game.
The most effective way for Sumlin and his staff to improve the defense outside of instituting more practices, is to identify the strengths of each defensive player and put those players in an ideal situation to succeed. Since NCAA rules prohibit any practices until August, Sumlin will have to spend his time analyzing the games from 2013 and 2014 spring practice videos in order to decide how to best deploy the talent on defense.
In the 2013 game against Alabama the Aggies started Donnie Baggs at middle linebacker and Clay Honeycutt at free safety. The Aggies allowed multiple long pass plays and gave up 334 yards passing.
Honeycutt could not keep up with the Alabama wide receivers and was beaten deep on multiple occasions. Baggs was unable to get off of blocks and was smothered by the Crimson Tide offensive linemen. He finished the game with only two solo tackles and five total as the Aggies allowed 234 yards rushing.
The Aggies benched Baggs and Honeycutt before the next game. They started true freshman Darian Claiborne at middle linebacker and moved cornerback Deshazor Everett to free safety. The defense stopped being such a sieve and actually began to get some stops before injuries and suspensions curtailed its progress in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
The staff will not have the luxury of allowing an inept linebacker to start three games before moving him in 2014. The offense will not be good enough to cover up for those coaching lapses.
Claiborne started nine games at middle linebacker and ended up leading the team in tackles in the regular season with 89. He showed tremendous instincts and was a natural in the middle.
The coaches want to move him to weak-side linebacker in 2014 and start sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni in the middle. They need to be positive that Mastrogiovanni is a better option in the middle than Claiborne because they cannot afford to make a mistake at that position two years in a row.
The new NCAA practice rules should help in this endeavor. The Aggies coaches will be able to observe summer workouts, when in the past they were unable to have face-to-face contact with players. The coaches will have a longer window to watch the players develop and decide who should play where.
Improving the Profile
Ever since Sumlin arrived in Aggieland he has attempted to get bigger and better athletes on the defensive side of the ball. And he has done a great job of it, recruiting consecutive top 10 classes to A&M.
Now it is the job of the athletes to take advantage of the strength and conditioning program that is available at A&M and to become bigger and faster. The Aggies had 10 freshmen who were on the two-deep and played in 2014.
All 10 of them need to get bigger and stronger. This was especially true at linebacker. Claiborne played middle linebacker last year at under 220 pounds. That is simply too light to be an effective linebacker in the SEC.
When the Aggies played Mississippi State, Claiborne met Bulldog quarterback Dak Prescott in the hole on multiple occasions only to have the 6'2", 230-pound athlete run over him for a nice gain.
The Aggies need to get bigger and stronger on the defense line. Daeshon Hall was a 6'6", 243-pound defensive end in 2014 who resembled a basketball power-forward more than a football player.
He needs to get his weight closer to 260 pounds in 2014 so he can hold the edge better against the run. The same holds true for rising sophomore defensive linemen Jay Arnold and Hardreck Walker. Both could stand to add some strength.
The Aggies defense should be slightly improved in 2014 due simply to the natural maturation of all the freshmen who will be sophomores. However, those rising sophomores have to put in the work in the weight room and on the practice field in order to bring about those improvements.
Rising sophomore nose guard Isaiah Golden is strong enough to play in the SEC. He missed spring practice due to personal issues, but has been reinstated.
He needs to work on getting back into football shape. Golden's weakness on the field has been his lack of technique. He needs to learn how to better split the double-team.
If the front seven on the Aggies defense show up for the fall as a bigger and stronger group, then they will be an improved defense in 2014.
Sumlin can only do so much during the offseason to improve the team. He can make sure the right pieces are in the right places, and encourage those pieces to be more SEC-ready in 2014 than they were in 2013.