After a spring camp spent licking their wounds, a highly talented stable of defensive backs return to action and they are set to have an outstanding season. Last year they lent their hand to a resurrected Wrecking Crew that went from 12th to 5th in total defense (105th to 55th nationally) and 11th to 4th in pass efficiency defense (81st to 29th nationally). With not attrition, another year and a wealth of experience under their belts, as well as what promises to be much-improved safety play, they are no doubt set to take another collective step forward. The unit will be further aided by a strong front seven, getting consistent pressure in the second year of Coach DeRuyter’s system, and will also get a giant shot in the arm as a busload of extremely talented newcomers is set to make their mark, loading the secondary pipeline.
At long last, the unit will boast quality, talent, and numbers across the board, entering the season as a team-strength rather than a question mark as in previous seasons. Cornerback will have extremely deep in quality in 2011, but will face a serious reload heading into 2012, so the progress of newcomers in camp and this season will be vital. Safety has been thin the past few seasons but like corner, will see an infusion of some very promising newcomers this off-season, several of which seem primed to instantly shore of depth and raise the bar for talent significantly. In this piece, we’ll take a look at the field of veterans, players set to make their move, and the new faces that look to sure up the unit, for the near future.
Locked in at Starter: Left Cornerback
Due to injury, Terrence Frederick missed his second spring camp in a row, but it won’t hamper one of the Aggies most solid defenders. A technically superb, highly talented physical lockdown corner, Frederick simply doesn’t let his receiver play him. The fourth year starter also excels in run support, and is sound in the system, serving as another coach on the field. His attributes are only matched by his work ethic, and he will no doubt enter fall camp as a man on a mission as he readies to make his senior season his finest, and perhaps finally earning himself All Big 12 Honors.
Locked in at Starter: Right Cornerback
Like Frederick, Coryell Judie’s absence in spring won’t affect his senior campaign. Judie has the look and style of a protypical NFL corner. He’ll lend his physically imposing style of play in locking down his side of the field, and continue to shine in run support. Served well by his epic battles with Jeff Fuller, the young man excels in press coverage, and has good ball skills downfield (four interceptions last season). Judie is also essential as a special teams contributor, consistently turning in big returns, including several for touchdowns in key situations last season. If he stays healthy, Judie should have a brilliant year locking down his side of the field and quite possibly setting himself up as a fairly early round NFL draft pick.
Probable Starter: Strong Safety
Perhaps sensing an upcoming push from new faces at safety and being challenged by his coaches, Trent Hunter has clearly put in the work this off-season in preparing for his final year. The work hasn’t just been noticeable to observers but to teammates and the staff, namely Coach Sherman, who recognized him as the most improved player on defense following spring camp. Hunter not only has shown the effort on the field, but in the weight room and looks to have added some good weight. Trent is solid in coverage and looks much better in run support. In addition to the extra effort, Hunter will be aided by his knowledge of the system, as he’s essentially been the quarterback of the defense for the last three years. It seems competition is serving this area well before camp has even started, and the fact it’s his last year provides even more motivation.
Probable Starter: Free Safety
Finally with surgery and appropriate recovery time, Steve Campbell returns to the lineup healthy for the first time in about a year and a half. A healthy Campbell gives A&M a huge boost at safety, as he has high draft pick potential. Even less than 100% on a foot injury, he still clocked a sub 4.4 forty time, and is not only of the rosters fastest, but one of the most athletic players as well. With the nagging foot injury hopefully behind him, he has a great nose for the ball and uses his tremendous acceleration to come downhill in run support as a headhunter and a sound tackler. As much as he loves contact, he is also sound in coverage; breaking on passes from his safety spot and is effective in contesting jump balls downfield. Despite the injury, the physical safety has logged ample time on the field, in the system, and should be freer to play more instinctively this year. Now healthy and confident, expect a breakout year from the talented junior.
Depth Right CB
Dustin Harris made the most of the extra reps this spring, turning in a very good overall effort. Relatively speaking, he looks to have added some good weight but is never going to be the physical corner type. Harris put his height, speed, agility, hips, and athletic ability into action as a ball-hawking cover man out of the nickel last season. He made four interceptions (returning them for 117 yards), including a simply amazing and crucial pick against Texas in Austin. Look for the playmaking corner to continue elevating his game for his junior year, and to raise his stock amongst what should be a wide-open battle to reload corner following the season.
Depth Left CB
Also missing spring camp was Lionel Smith, who made his move up the A&M roster last off-season, as one of the most improved players. He is a very physical corner, with tremendous one-on-one coverage, and he shows a real knack for reading quarterbacks and breaking on passes, as well as timing and coming down with jump-balls on a consistent basis. While he was relatively silent last season, he has challenged Jeff Fuller on a consistent basis. While backing Terrence Frederick, he will battle Dustin Harris for that third (nickel) corner spot, as he enters his senior season.
Further Corner Depth
Toney Hurd Jr. spent his first year, applying his physical style of play to safety last year (given the need for depth there). He also brings a palpable air of on-field intensity, competition, and a healthy nastiness in his attitude and play, relishing the chance to line up on the island. His style is deceptive given his size but he does a great job with Jeff Fuller (he’s good against the big targets that can’t dart around him and he can knock off the route) and it’s safe to say he made the most of opportunity as a top performer this spring. He has positioned himself well as a quality depth option, looking to earn playing time (be it in a nickel or dime role) and in the future battle for the two open starting spots in the off-season. That is a ways off but Hurd, is great in coverage and run support. His intense style, coupled with his considerable attributes, will no doubt elevate his play the next few weeks.
Desmond Gardiner had a good showing last year, in his first spring, racking up a lot of picks, showing strong hands (not just catching-wise, but the actual strength to rip the ball out of the hands of receivers like Jeff Fuller), and took solid steps forward in general. Gardiner has good speed, technique, and is solid in man and zone coverage. He is physical at the line, and also has a good vertical when attacking the ball in the air. Cracking this current lineup is a tall task, but Desmond will no doubt seek to raise his play and position himself for this season and the aforementioned 2012 battle.
Joining the A&M cornerback ranks this summer will be two highly talented and physical Louisiana signees from the 2011 class, Floyd Raven and Deshvor Everett. Raven has good height and looks good currently, but with time is going to fill out to match his extremely physical style of play. He also possesses a good football IQ and flat out next level ability and athleticism. It’s a pretty stacked position this year but look for Raven to elbow his way into the mix in short order, and despite where he shakes out for 2011, will likely be a favorite to grab one of the job openings next spring. Everett is a versatile talent that can play corner or safety, but if this summer’s workouts are any indication, he’ll get his first look at corner. He has very good football speed, is solid in coverage and has great ball skills. In addition, as could be inferred from his safety ability, is physical and an excellent tackler. He’ll likely red-shirt, develop and push for time in spring, but he’s another tremendous get for the Aggies and well worth tracking in fall camp.
Strong Safety Depth
Johntel Franklin, is a premium juco transfer, who joined the team in January and provide immediate depth at strong safety. Arriving with great size, (around the 210 mark), Franklin has three years to play three. He is very physical, and great in run support, but also possesses good hips and is sound in coverage as well. A smart player, coaches love what he brings to the table, and are really trying to get the most out of him, knowing how vital his presence will be to the two deep in 2011. He has an eight-month head start and we’ll see how far along the learning curve he is over the next few weeks.
Free Safety Depth
Like Steve Campbell, Steven Terrell has consistently turned in sub 4.4, forty times, has great athleticism but he needs to improve in run support. The hard working free safety looks to have turned a corner in his development this off-season and will be a strong option off the bench. Continued improvement in fall camp for Steven should be expected.
Further Safety Depth
Widely regarded as one of the best athletes in the state out of last years recruiting class, Howard Mathews is a special talent well suited for safety, and already looks the part. He is a quick study, has great speed, hard hitting and tackling ability, as well as great coverage and ball skills. What is more, like former Clear Springs and current Aggie teammate, Donnie Baggs, he is well coached and appears primed to make an impact as a true freshman in the relatively early going. Keep close tabs on this ultra-talented youngster the next few weeks and throughout the season.
Devonta Burns will look to make his mark during his first fall camp session. He has great size and speed, and the hard hitter is good in taking angles and general run support. It will be interesting to see how Burns looks in coverage at this level, and how quick he takes to picking up the system.
As mentioned Louisiana native, Deshavor Everett could play corner or safety and though he’ll likely begin at corner, he bears mentioning as an option here. Louis Swope is not very stout but is a talented young DB that got a lot of work in spring and did well for himself. Also benefiting from the time in spring was Clay Honeycutt. Both are smart ball players who know where to be and can make plays. Toney Hurd Jr. who was detailed in the corner section has experience at safety and provides emergency depth at there if needed.
Overall Position AnalysisThe A&M will boast talent and numbers at both corner and safety. Both position areas will take a big step forward, in regards to starters and depth. They face no attrition, will be further benefited by a talented front seven and the simple fact they are in the second year of Coach DeRuyter’s system will pay big dividends. Early off-season returns look good, but the next few weeks will provide a much clearer picture on where the unit stands, in regards to health and which of the promising newcomers are set to push their way into the rotation early.