Without a doubt, 2016 is now a make-or-break year for Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin. After being the surprise of college football in 2012, the Aggies have been on a steady decline. A&M has yet to win an SEC West title under Sumlin and has an 11-13 conference record since 2013.
What's more is that A&M lost two former blue-chip quarterbacks, Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, to transfer in the past month. But the one thing Sumlin has done well during his time at College Station is recruit. Several verbal commits and top targets will be on display this weekend during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl (Saturday, Jan. 9 at noon ET on NBC) and Under Armour All-America Game (Saturday, Jan. 2 at noon ET on ESPN2).
Not surprisingly, there's a heavy defensive lean in this year's group. Which players do Aggies fans need to watch closely?
Brandon Jones, Safety, Under Armour All-American Game
Brandon Jones, a 5-star prospect, took a visit to Texas A&M this month, according to ESPN.com. National recruiting analyst Greg Powers said on the Scout Recruiting Show (via SI.com) the feeling is Jones will choose between the Aggies and Texas. So even though A&M and Texas no longer compete on the gridiron, they're still battling it out for top in-state recruits.
But Jones isn't just a top in-state recruit. He's the No. 1 safety prospect in the country. With A&M's secondary two-deep beginning to turn into a group of juniors and seniors, now's the time for Sumlin and Co. to reload in the back end of the defense.
If A&M goes with a defense-heavy class for 2016, Jones could headline it. Now, the only thing left would be to get the results. The talent is there, and so is the coaching with the addition of defensive coordinator John Chavis.
Jeffrey McCulloch, Linebacker, Under Armour All-American Game
Jeffrey McCulloch's recruitment is more wide open than that of Jones. Texas has been recruiting McCulloch hard for a long time, per William Wilkerson of Scout.com, and on Dec. 13th, McCulloch released his top five schools. However, just Sunday, McCulloch said he will not be making his commitment during the Under Armour All-American Game:
The 4-star outside linebacker made a couple of visits to Notre Dame and Stanford, and has been to Texas A&M unofficially. Though A&M has been under a microscope lately because of transfers and decommitments, the Aggies coaching staff is doing its best to reassure McCulloch. Per GigEm247's Taylor Hamm, "McCulloch and his family spoke to multiple members of the A&M staff recently and were reassured the recent transfer news in College Station would have no impact on the future of the Aggie defense under John Chavis."
If A&M is going to reel in the athletic linebacker on national signing day, Chavis will have played a big role in it.
Justin Madubuike, Defensive End, U.S. Army All-American Game
If Texas A&M fans want to get a glimpse at a player who will succeed Myles Garrett at edge-rusher, take a gander at Justin Madubuike. The 4-star recruit from McKinney North High School has been committed to A&M since mid-September and is, currently, the highlight of the Aggies' 2016 class.
A high effort player. He is one who plays with maximum effort on each and every snap. He plays inside at defensive tackle in a 4-3, and despite being a bit undersized for that position he is able to control the line of scrimmage and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Causes disruption with his penetration. Has the edge rush ability once he moves out to d-end. He has strong hands to shed blocks if he gets locked up. Plays low and gap sound.
A&M has done an excellent job of recruiting edge-rushers in recent years. That string of success should continue with Madubuike.
Mark Jackson Jr., Defensive End, U.S. Army All-American Game
Speaking of defensive ends, Aggies fans should pay attention to Mark Jackson Jr. The Cibolo Steele HS product has also been committed to A&M since May. He's smaller than Madubuike, and plays end and outside linebacker, but he's a heck of an athlete. As noted by David Flores of USA Today, Jackson began his high school career as a basketball player before moving to football.
With his speed off the edge, Jackson and Madubuike could make a formidable duo for years to come. "They have a great defensive system, an emphasis on pass-rushing defensive ends, and I think it’s a really good fit for me," Jackson told Flores.
Charles Oliver, Cornerback, U.S. Army All-American Game
Texas A&M is doing a nice job of recruiting players for the secondary. At 6'1" and 182 pounds, Charles Oliver is a lengthy athlete who does a little bit of everything at the high school level. At college, though, he projects as a defensive back. From a size standpoint, he could match up well on the outside with some of the bigger, better receivers in the SEC.
As Billy Liucci of TexAgs noted at the time of Oliver's commitment, Chavis handpicked the 4-star product, which should tell you what A&M thinks of Oliver.
De'Vante Harris was the best corner A&M had, but he's a senior and didn't have the rangy size Oliver does. Of all the big pieces A&M is trying to put together on defense, Oliver could be among the more valuable.
Ross Blacklock, Defensive Tackle, U.S. Army All-American Bowl
A&M has recruited key edge-rushers, but the coaching staff has also done a nice job getting powerful inside players on campus—namely Daylon Mack. The addition of 4-star defensive tackle Ross Blacklock would be yet another victory on the D-line if the Aggies can land him.
Like Mack, Blacklock is already a "big ol' boy" at a listed weight of 326 pounds. His strength would be a perfect complementary piece to the edge-rushing capabilities of Garrett and newcomers such as Madubuike and Jackson.
Say this for Sumlin, Chavis and Co.: They know how to recruit defensive linemen. But since A&M continues to play poorly against the run—an instant negative in the SEC West—loading up on the interior of the defensive line is a must.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports unless noted otherwise.