Spring Camp Guide - Defensive Line

Spring practice starts this week which marks the official start of the 2011 football season. Aggie Websider's Jeffrey Jennings takes a look at what to expect from the defensive line position and the players to keep an eye on this spring.

The 2010 defensive line proved to be an essential part of the success and resurrection of the Wrecking Crew. Laying the foundation in the trenches, the group was excellent in getting off of blocks and gaining quick penetration, they excelled in plugging holes against the run, and were highly effective in opening pass rush lanes for Tim DeRuyter's attacking 3-4 scheme. Their efforts were evident on the field, and on the stats page, as the he unit was steady throughout last seasons turnaround, and instrumental in the Aggie's impressive six game win-streak, jumping from 11th to1st in conference run defense (90th to 30th nationally) from 2009 to 2010, 6th to 2nd in tackles for loss (41st-31st nationally), 12th to 5th in total defense (105th to 55th nationally), and 11th to 4th in pass efficiency defense (81st to 29th nationally).

That said, while the group was custom made for the more finesse Big XII, the unit lacked the prototypical, space-eating, 3-4 nose tackle, and it bit them against the big boys of the SEC, in LSU. If A&M had that (and one more true MLB), that game would have gone a little differently. However, reality was the Ag's didn't have those components, and the Tigers had their way between the tackles, running at will, opening up the play-action pass and gashing a normally sound secondary.

A&M has addressed the aforementioned nose tackle issue, with an enormous and ultra-athletic Blinn product, Lemarc Strahan, and will infuse a whole host of ready linemen from the 2010 class. With those pieces in place, the Aggie's defensive line will go three deep, with a very high level of talent and experience (five players with extensive playing time return, three of which are proven starters) when the Aggies kickoff the 2011 season. In the meantime there is work to do, as they set to replace the ability, wisdom, and non-stop motor of Lucas Patterson, and not only elevate their individual games, but find their chemistry, and most effective rotations. Those efforts will be aided by one of the most intense areas of competition on the team this spring.

Probable Starter: Nose Tackle

Most assume LeMarc Strahan will walk right into the starter job upon arrival but he will be competing with a talented and savvy veteran in Eddie Brown. One thing that is safe to say is the 350-plus pound Strahan brings something to the table that the Aggie's desperately need (as LSU exposed) and that is a true block occupying, run-plugging behemoth as the 3-4's centerpiece. LeMarc isn't just huge, he is extremely athletic, explosive, and fast for his size. If he is in condition and displays a steady motor, for the second year in a row, Brown will likely be taken over by a top echelon defensive line product out of Blinn, and the A&M defensive front is going to be a force to be reckoned with (his talent flanked by Tony Jerod-Eddie and Jonathan Mathis). Having an ideal nose that can occupy two blockers is going to be a huge service to the run defense, blitzing linebacking corps, and overall defensive performance.


Until Strahan arrives this summer, Eddie Brown will lead the group at the position this spring. Brown is very explosive off the ball, uses his hands well in getting off blocks, and follows with excellent speed (he was clocked at 4.79 when he was at 288, "Can I get an Amen or a Foliaki?" - he's now a little under 300). Eddie also possesses the relentless requisite motor required to be a consistent force up front, and while his numbers were diminished a bit in 2010 as he relinquished his starting status midway through the year, he was still productive in the rotation as a one-two punch with Jonathan Mathis and made one of the unsung plays of the year. During the Nebraska game it was Brown, who came in and annihilated the center, blowing his blocker into the backfield so forcefully and fast that he essentially took his own quarterback, Taylor Martinez, out of the game. Like most seniors, especially ones with the work ethic of Eddie Brown, expect a fine spring showing and offseason, and a player that at worst, will give A&M a starting quality nose tackle off the bench in 2011.

Also providing high quality depth while lining up over center will be the once highly sought after Brandon Jackson, a young man from Shreveport, Louisiana, who came to A&M over offers like Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas, and Alabama. Jackson is quick off the snap and has good technique and balance in block shedding. Another attribute that is going to help make him a good one, is that unique, nasty, Louisiana defensive tackle attitude. He still needs to put on some size, but is getting close, will get extensive reps in spring, and will likely make up some serious ground in his climb up the depth chart and in a bid for significant playing time this season. Andrew Wolridge, who actually turned in a strong spring a year ago rounds out the depth chart as a capable option at nose.

Locked in at Starter: Left Defensive End

In his junior season, Tony Jerod-Eddie put it all together and had a brilliant year. Finally maturing, and inserting a consistent motor in his game, he came out of the blocks strong early in the year and carried it throughout the season. He was a perfect compliment to Patterson on the left edge, and served as an integral part of the resurging Wrecking Crew's success. His numbers don't tell the tale but Tony was a difference maker against the run and in freeing up the lanes for linebackers around him to fly in, pressure quarterbacks, and make stops. Jerod-Eddie possesses great size, athleticism, agility, and technique. He injured his foot against Texas and just came back for the LSU game, now healthy and gearing up for his senior year, anticipate TJE to continue his momentum as he seeks to cap off a solid career in maroon and raise his stock for what will be an inevitable NFL bid.

Probable Starter: Right Defensive End

Last summer, the staff put Blinn product (and Houston native) Jonathan Mathis at nose tackle, in a move to get the best three on the field, and unsurprisingly, he showed his worth early, quickly taking to the position and working his way into the rotation with Eddie Brown, before taking over as starter at the midway point of the season. Other than LSU, where his 290 pounds just wasn't enough to cut it, he excelled in anchoring the line throughout the season. Like his counterpart Jerod-Eddie, he is a beast in run support, gets off his blocks efficiently, penetrates, pushes himself to the ball and can easily occupy blockers and open pass rush lanes as well. Given his size, quickness, and athleticism, and the fact it's his natural position, Mathis should raise his considerable game off the edge but has work to do the next few weeks, re-acclimating to end, and developing chemistry with the unit. It also bears mentioning that the juco transfer will be entering his senior season, so he has the added dynamic of urgency, and raised NFL stock potential to provide additional motivation.

Defensive End Depth

Spencer Nealy is easy to root for. He's not a refined player, but is a hard worker, and high octane, madman on the field. Providing a slightly sleeker, change-up option, he totaled 20 stops last season out of the rotation, including a five tackle effort against the Longhorns and made one of the games key plays. With Texas eyeing the Aggie endzone late in the game, Nealy read the quarterback perfectly, and batted a potential tying ball, leading to a Von Miller interception to seal the victory. He is explosive off the ball, has good hand technique, and a motor he doesn't even bother turning off until he goes to bed. His energy is infectious, and he is so disruptive off the bench you almost hate to see him reeled in, but his near-feral style can hinder him at times, and harnessing his intensity will go a long ways in improving his game. Spencer has been working intensely this off-season, and having played in all 26 games the last two years, he's worth keeping an eye on as a player poised to turn a corner this spring.

Dubbed "Miracle" by his tutors, Ben Bass is great story. After grades forced him off the team, he attended junior college, and earned no less than a perfect 4.0 to work his way back onto the team. Equally impressive, was that after about a year out of the program he entered fall camp and hit the ground running, physically and mentally (not surprisingly given his situation played every snap like it was his last). Sometimes to get the most out of a man you take away all he has. Bass, who once held offers from OU, Nebraska and Arkansas, could have folded against those odds, but he stiffened, grew up, and put it all together. Ben is a perfect compliment, opposite Spencer Nealy, and the athletic duo are an effective pass rushing combination in the defensive line rotation. Look for more hard work, and gained ground out of the talented end as he readies for his senior season.

Two young men who arrived last August, are set to make their move are Gavin Stansbury and Ivan Robinson. Both reportedly, have Coach Williams excited about having a well-rounded and solid three deep rotation. Stansbury was close to stepping in early, and as Williams told us, had he not injured his foot midway through fall camp, he'd have been in the rotation before conference play started. With that in mind, it's no surprise that even in a crowded field, the highly talented redshirt freshman will be a significant part of the rotation, but the next few weeks will go a long ways in telling just how much of a mark he'll make in 2011. Robinson is another highly talented defensive line product out of Louisiana, that plays with that nasty cajun attitude up front. Ivan fires off the ball, has great power and hands in getting off of blockers, as well as a non-stop motor, and speed for relentless pursuit. He was impressive in August, and early reports are that he has had a productive offseason, but like Stansbury, this spring will be the true indicator of just how far along the developmental curve Robinson finds himself.

Also poised to make a jump this offseason is Stephen Barrera. Some may recall he found himself back on the defensive line last spring and had made big strides at camps end, actually having worked his way into the two deep before a season ending hip injury cut his bid short. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise as he burned his redshirt his freshmen year in 2009 (as the Aggie's desperately sought to find a left tackle on offense). Now with a developmental year back, and a chance to catch his breath, look for the sophomore to go full boar this spring as he sets up his final three years as yet another high quality, big bodied defensive end. Finally, Kirby Ennis, is yet another strong option at end and will look to reassert himself into the crowd. He showed promise as a true freshman in 2009 before going down with a knee injury against Georgia. He has added good size and tools but coming off of a knee surgery, that obviously hindered him last season. He has looked good in the "Junction Workouts" and the next few weeks will spell a lot for his current and future standing in the pack. Joining the fold in August will be Shayvion Hatten, who will likely redshirt, given the stage of his development and the overall depth.

Defenisve Line Overall

This off-season, an A&M defensive front, that provided constant and consistent pressure against the run and the pass in 2010, will no doubt grow with another year of experience, a large infusion of talent, and very low attrition. Boasting more talent and depth than any Aggie line in recent history, the group is going to be flat out nasty in 2011, doing their part in what should be an elite run defense, opening up pass rushing lanes for a defense that will rely more on a collective pass rushing approach in the absence of Von Miller, in effort to take more pressure off the secondary. That said, they have work to do this spring, and throughout the off-season, developing and refining high caliber talent, and finding the optimal mix for each rotation, but the collective efforts will be propelled by extremely intense competition.

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