The Texas A&M football team needs to have better play from its defense in 2014.
The Aggies defense will be improved in 2014, but it is still too young and thin in certain positions to take a huge step forward. The 2013 Texas A&M defense was one of the worst in the nation, allowing 475.8 yards per game to rank No. 109 in the NCAA.
They have to improve in 2014 if they want to compete for an SEC title.
In those three classes, the Aggies have brought in 17 defensive linemen, 10 linebackers and 13 defensive backs. Attrition has led to nine of those players leaving the program. That means that Sumlin has recruited 31 of the defensive players currently on the roster.
He is doing his best to improve the defensive talent in the program. You win games in the SEC by winning the battle in the trenches. That means you need to have elite defensive linemen and be three-deep on the lines.
The attrition has hurt the linebacker position the most.
The Aggies lost Jordan Richmond and Darian Claiborne to dismissal from the team and Michael Richardson to injury. Claiborne was a potential four-year starter who led the Aggies in tackles during the regular season in 2013 with 89. No one is going to hit on 100 percent of his recruits, so every player you lose to issues off the field hurts you.
The Aggies need to improve on defense in 2014, but their lack of depth at certain positions will hold them back.
Defensive Line Is Strong
Sumlin and defensive line coach Terry Price have done a good job of bringing in SEC talent on the defensive line. The 14 defensive linemen whom they have brought in should offer the Aggies a quality rotation along the line in 2014.
Nothing is set in stone yet, but if the Aggies were to play tomorrow the starting defensive line would be Julien Obioha at strong-side defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle, Hardreck Walker at nose guard and Daeshon Hall at weak-side defensive end.
The second-team defensive line would be Qualen Cunningham at strong-side defensive end, Justin Manning at defensive tackle, Zaycoven Henderson at nose guard and Myles Garrett at weak-side end.
The third-team defensive line would be Jarrett Johnson at strong-side end, Jay Arnold at defensive tackle, Ivan Robinson at nose guard and Darrell Jackson at weak-side defensive end.
The fact that the Aggie coaches can feel confident with a 10-man rotation on the defensive line speaks volumes about their recruiting at the position. When you consider that they lost two starters in Gavin Stansbury and Isaiah Golden during the offseason, it is apparent that the Aggie coaches have done a tremendous job of creating depth on the defensive line.
In 2013, the Texas A&M defense registered 21 total sacks. As a unit, the defensive line contributed 10.5 sacks along with 25 tackles for loss.
The defensive line has to be better in 2014, particularly at putting pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. With Hall, Garrett, Cunningham and Jackson at defensive end, the Aggies should have a more consistent pass rush in 2014.
The Aggies defense allowed 5.4 yards per rush in 2013, which was very poor. With the added depth and experience along the defensive line in 2014, it should be able to lower that number by at least a yard per game.
Realistic expectations for the defensive line as a unit in 2014 are 17 total sacks, 35 tackles for loss and allowing 4.4 yards per carry on defense.
Depth Is Still Not There at Linebacker
The Aggies' linebackers were run over for the most part in 2013. They simply did not have the size nor the experience to hold up against SEC running games.
The linebackers on the 2014 defense are physically bigger, but it remains to be seen if they will be better than the 2013 unit. The loss of Claiborne was big because he had the best instincts of any linebacker on the Aggies roster.
The first-team linebackers today would be Shaan Washington on the strong side, Jordan Mastrogiovanni in the middle and A.J. Hilliard on the weak side. All three starters are linebackers who have not proven much in an Aggie uniform.
Washington showed some natural pass-rushing abilities as a true freshman in 2013 with three sacks. Hilliard sat out the year after he transferred from TCU. Mastrogiovanni was solid in coverage but struggled against the run as a freshman.
Who will lead the Texas A&M defense in tackles in 2014?
The second-team unit will be Donnie Baggs at strong-side outside linebacker, Reggie Chevis at middle linebacker and Tommy Sanders at weak-side outside linebacker. Baggs and Sanders were too small to be effective defenders against the run in 2013.
Chevis redshirted in 2013 and will see action in short-yardage situations in 2014. Sanders and Baggs will have to prove that they can be effective linebackers in the SEC in 2014.
True freshmen Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker may find their way into the rotation if they can learn the defense.
The Aggies do not have any proven playmakers returning at linebacker. That is not a good place to be at in the SEC, where championships are won with elite front sevens on defense.
In 2013, the Aggie linebackers contributed 28.5 tackles for loss and seven total sacks. The 2014 numbers should be better for the linebackers because they will have a better defensive line in front of them.
Realistic expectations for the linebackers in 2014 will be 30 tackles for loss and 10 sacks as a unit.
Questions Remain at Safety
The 2013 season was marked by atrocious play at safety in the Aggies' secondary. The 2014 team returns all four starters from the 2013 secondary, and the Aggies need to see a significant improvement in play at the safety position if they want to win football games.
The starting secondary for the Aggies will be Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris at cornerback, with Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven at the two safety spots.
Everett is a senior, and this will be his fourth year starting at cornerback. He has spent time as a starter at safety also. He is the Aggies' best defensive player and should compete for All-SEC honors in 2014.
Harris is a three-year starter at cornerback. He needs to make the transition from an inconsistent, young player to the veteran playmaker the Aggies expect him to be as a junior. Harris has missed some practice time with a health issue.
Kevin Sumlin announced today that CB De'Vante Harris is out indefinitely due to a freak urinary tract injury. Been in hospital. ETA unknown.— Gabe Bock (@GabeBock) August 10, 2014
Raven and Matthews both played poorly at safety in 2013. Matthews was particularly bad in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Duke. He struggled all season to cover the wheel route out of the backfield.
Improved play from the defensive line should help the safety play in 2014. If the Aggies' front seven can control the run, the safeties will not be asked to crash down as much and will not be as susceptible to play-action fakes.
The second-team defensive backs will be Victor Davis and Noel Ellis at corner, with Jonathan Wiggins and Clay Honeycutt at safety. Honeycutt started a few games at safety in 2013 and struggled immensely. Ideally, the Aggies will not be put in a position where they have to start him in 2014.
Nick Harvey, Donovan Wilson and Armani Watts are true freshmen who may fit into the equation at safety. Harvey has seen practice time at both safety and cornerback. He will not redshirt and will see playing time in 2014.
Whether Wilson or Watts breaks into the rotation depends on their understanding of the defense. If the safeties in the two-deep remain healthy, Aggie fans should expect either Wilson or Watts to redshirt.
Devonta Burns and Noel Ellis will battle it out for the starting spot at the nickel. Burns has been seeing the most time with the first team when the defense goes to the nickel.
The Aggies' defensive backs intercepted nine passes and had 2.5 sacks in 2013. Realistic expectations for the unit in 2014 are 12 interceptions and three sacks.
The Aggies defense allowed 475.8 yards and 32.2 points per game in 2013.
Realistic expectations for the 2014 unit would be to allow 390 yards and 25 points per game. That would make it one of the top 60 defenses in the nation.
The defense should be able to accomplish that goal by being stronger against the run and cutting down on coverage busts in the secondary. An improved pass rush should result in more turnovers created and fewer total plays for A&M opponents.
The Aggies will not have a great defense in 2014, but the unit should be good enough to help the team win games instead of being the liability it was in 2013.