Fall Camp Preview - Defensive Line

The Aggie Websider continues to get you ready for the 2011 season with a position-by-position look at the Texas A&M football team. Special contributor Jeffrey Jennings breaks down the defensive line position. Can the unit overcome the graduation of Lucas Patterson?

Texas A&M's defensive line did a tremendous job in 2010, disrupting offensive fronts and setting the groundwork for the resurrection of the Wrecking Crew. They were great 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 aggressive attacking 3-4 scheme. Their efforts were evident on the field and on the stats page, as A&M jumped from 11th to1st in conference run defense (90th to 30th nationally), 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). Obviously, the linebacking corps and defensive backs had a large hand in that success as well.

The efforts up front will be crucial, as the defense looks to replace All-American Von Miller, with an even greater team approach to it's pass rushing. The good news, is even though they lose senior end Lucas Patterson, the unit is more talented at starter, and goes three deep, with a very high level of talent and experience (five linemen with extensive playing time return, three of which are proven starters).

This spring the defensive line was dominant and the strongest unit on the team. They not only looked to be in great shape, but obviously took a cue from the LSU game and added quality mass in their lower bodies, with improved overall strength. It was evident the gains were made across the unit, and not just a few individuals. In the next few weeks, look for the efforts to continue as the strongest unit on the team, sets to anchor a defense that promises to be improved overall, despite the losses.

Locked in at Starter: Left Defensive End

Perhaps it was seeing the success of former DeSoto and Aggie teammate Von Miller that inspired him, but last season, a motivated Tony Jerod-Eddie had his breakout season, flipping the switch on his motor, which had been the only thing lacking in the talented lineman's consistency. Coming off of a year that saw him serve as an integral part Wrecking Crew's rebirth, he has also stepped up as the hard nosed leader of a defense that finally has it's swagger back, and is looking to continue living up to it's storied past. Possessing great size, athleticism, agility, and technique, Tony was also served well by the new 3-4 system, as he is the prototypical end in the odd front. His numbers don't tell the tale, but Tony was a difference maker against the run and in freeing up the blitzing lanes. Jerod-Eddie has built on the success of last year, putting together an extremely successful off-season, including a great spring that saw him win his share of battles against some very talented A&M offensive lineman, including Luke Joeckel (epic daily battles that serve both young men well). In fact, with what he has shown, #83 will likely be in contention for all-conference honors and no doubt will be playing for NFL money as he seeks to cap off his career in maroon and white. Without a doubt, he and his unit are going to be a dominant group in most of their contests this year.

Probable Starter: Nose Tackle

In updating Eddie Brown's profile, there honestly isn't a whole lot to add, for a guy that brings his lunch pale to work, and has proved a steady force up front, going on four years now. While Tony Jerod-Eddie took a few seasons to find himself, Eddie Brown has simply progressed and elevated his play every season and off-season, as an anchor on the defensive line. While he isn't the giant 330 plus pound, space eater type at nose tackle that A&M will need (once in the SEC), 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). He is solid against the run and very effective when pass rushing. As alluded to, he 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 (more a testament to Jonathan Mathis than a knock on Eddie), he was still productive in the rotation as a one-two punch 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, and essentially took his own quarterback, Taylor Martinez, out of the game. With a another productive spring and a little extra fire and motivation, as he readies for his senior season, Eddie Brown will be a solid member of the best defensive line A&M has fielded in well over a decade.

Probable Starter: Right Defensive End

There is some conjecture and debate on whether Jonathan Mathis will stick at right end and give A&M it's best as a starting three lineman as starters, or that slide back to nose tackle if one of several promising candidates step up at end. As of this writing, Mathis is at end, and as mentioned, this gives A&M its strongest unit. The Blinn product shook things up early last season, working his way into a heavy rotation at nose, before unseating three-year starter Eddie Brown. Other than LSU, where his 290 pounds (he's bulked up this off-season) just wasn't enough to cut it, he excelled in the middle. 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 open blitz lanes. Given his size, quickness, and athleticism, and the fact it's his natural position, Mathis will raise his considerable game off the edge. Mathis had a tremendous spring and enters his senior season with great urgency in raising his NFL stock, and a strong shot at garnering all conference honors. Again, I doubt he'll slide back to the middle, as Brown has it covered and he is more natural at end, but the emergence of any of host of talented upstarts could change the dynamic, and will be well worth keeping an eye on in the next few weeks.

Defensive End Depth

The battle for depth on the defensive line will be extremely important, for this season and for the next, as the Aggies will lose four of the six deep to graduation, and will turn to a promising but young crop to keep the fire going.

Sometimes to get the most out of a man, it takes losing all he has. After a year out of the program due to grades, Ben Bass needed a miracle academic performance in junior college to earn his way back onto the squad, and he did just that with a perfect 4.0. What's more is he was equally impressive in fall camp last year (having been out of action for so long). 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. He had a solid season as a backup in the rotation, and continued his hard work, with a strong spring. With young talent (Ivan Robinson, Stephen Barrera, and Gavin Stansburry), making a hard push for the second team in fall camp, it's safe to say the hard working Bass won't give up his spot without a fight, and it will be a battle worth following.

Sophomore Ivan Robinson seemed to flip a switch at the midway point of spring ball, and has furthered his efforts throughout the off-season. With a year of Coach Kennedy's S&C under his belt, he looks to have added good lean mass and strength you like to see in a second year player. The highly talented defensive line product hails from Louisiana, and plays with that nasty Cajun attitude up front. He 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. Ivan will push very hard for a number-two spot at one of the defensive end spots, and has a good shot at nailing one down.

Gavin Stansbury was talented enough to make his mark early as freshman last season, but an injury cut his aspirations short. According to Coach Williams, had he not injured his foot midway through fall camp, he'd have been in the rotation before conference play started. Having recovered from that setback, Gavin looked to make his mark in spring but this time, a knee injury knocked him out and he'll just be getting back into action in fall camp. Obviously health is the key, and if he can stay on the field, has the tools to be a significant part of the rotation. Many are looking forward to seeing where the red-shirt freshman Louisiana lineman shakes out at camps end. At worst, he is one of several components that give Coach Williams a three deep rotation, but he has the tools to find himself on much stronger footing.

Spencer Nealy has played in all 26 games since he's arrived at A&M. He would have a hard time standing up to a well disciplined ground game every down, but he is perfectly suited for passing downs in the Big XII. At 6-5 272, Nealy is slightly sleeker, change-up option, that is extremely explosive off the snap, has good hand technique, and a motor with a broken kill switch. Quite honestly he's not a refined player, but is a high-octane, hard working, madman on the field. 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. In 2010, he totaled 20 stops 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 end zone 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 an intense worker off the field but had a quiet spring as he was given a long look at tight end. Entering his junior year, keep an eye on the young man to take it up another notch the next few weeks, and stake his claim for playing time as highly talented up and comers, crowd the six-deep. Rhontae Scales made good progress at the right tackle spot on offense, but in a search for a deeper rotation, the mammoth lineman will at least get a look on defense.

Nose Tackle Depth

Kirby Ennis couldn't have timed his emergence at nose tackle any better. The Ags would like to play Jonathan Mathis at end and promising Louisiana newcomer Brandon Jackson will miss the year (and perhaps more) with a back injury. Ennis had spun down to defensive end from linebacker and showed great promise as a true freshman until he tore his ACL against Georgia. He red-shirted in 2010, while getting healthy and developing. Last winter, Kirby came on like a house of fire in the "Junction Workouts" and carried it into spring as one of the top performers in camp. Over 300 pounds, he is athletic, has good burst, speed, and was extremely disruptive up the middle (despite needing some fine tuning in his technique). Look for his continued growth the next few weeks. He will be solid in the rotation with Eddie Brown, but if push comes to shove Mathis will slide back over to nose, having been the starter there in 2010.

Stephen Barrera arrived at A&M in 2009, with lofty expectations as a savior on a team desperate to find a left tackle on offense. However, a few games into the season, it was clear that prayer was unanswered. Barrera found himself on defense the following spring, and the athletic, big man progressed well throughout the off-season. In fact, he had worked his way into the two-deep, seriously pushing Tony Jerod-Eddie, before a major injury cut his bid short. Now healthy, Barrera has the talent, strength, and overall ability to be a force up front on the edges, or even at nose. A big question mark will be his shoulder, which hindered him in spring ball (had it operated on in fall 2010). However, since then, Stephen has been a pleasant surprise in the off-season, and look for him to emerge as a big figure in the 2011 rotation. If his shoulder is holding up, Barrera will likely emerge as one of the new faces on the defensive line.

Shayvion Hatten has already turned heads this summer, but will likely redshirt given the overall depth. His early development is extremely important as he will be one of the young faces called on to reload the defensive front in 2012. Hatten will arrive with a great head start in his size, as he is currently 6-5, 275 and has a frame that will easily fill out to 300 or more, with top notch strength and conditioning. The Daingerfield product has an impressive wingspan, excellent footwork, a quick burst, and will be a future difference maker, well worth following the next few weeks.

Defensive Line Overall

While providing consistent pressure against the run and pass last season, the defensive line looks much improved as they head into 2011. They have very low attrition, enjoy a large infusion of talent, added obvious size and strength, and another year of experience seemed evident as they got the best of an extremely talented offensive line throughout spring. In addition, they will be a huge factor in a solid run defense, paving the way for a collective pass rushing approach in the absence of Von Miller. If this season promises to be as special on the field as it does on paper, the strongest defensive line A&M has fielded in over a decade will be a big reason for the success.

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