Spring Preview Guide 2012 - Defensive Line

The Texas Aggie football program begins a new era on Saturday when head coach Kevin Sumlin opens up his first spring practice on Saturday. Aggie Websider previews the team by position. Today we look at the defensive line, a position effected by the graduation of four seniors.

Every week this season, the games will be won and lost in the trenches. It's half the appeal of the SEC to true football fans. Nothing fancy, just an old school fight in the trenches, and whoever wins this battle will likely win the game. Offensively, A&M will go in right away and hold their own. Defensively, it's not so clear. The defensive line situation is not dire by any stretch, and if the group can stay relatively healthy they will have a good showing in year one. However, depth and experience are an issue, and potential difference makers need to start emerging in the next month, to set a foundation for new defensive coordinator Mark Snyder.

Snyder's 4-3 scheme will take pressure off of the nose tackle, a spot that would have struggled mightily had A&M continued to run a 3-4 (given they lacked two or even one prototypical 320 pound-type to anchor the line). The new base will allow two near-300 pounders to work together instead, and their goal will be to get up-field, disrupt the run game, pressure the quarterback at times, occupy blockers and allow some the linebackers to finish the job. On the edges, one end spot will feature a slightly bigger bodied defensive end rotation and the other will employ a slightly sleeker pass-rushing defensive end, who will also play the run, or drop back into coverage when needed (not much different than a "Joker" but with his hand on the ground).

The Aggies have talented options, but it bears repeating, depth will be a concern, and several young prospects stepping it up in spring camp would go a long way towards alleviating concerns, and more practically setting a firm defensive foundation.

Defensive Tackle

With the painful 2011 season behind them, fans and coaches can only look at Jonathan Mathis and his season-ending knee injury as a blessing in disguise. He's an easy favorite to lock down one of the two starting tackle spots, and will continue to be a disruptive force there. Upon arrival in 2010, the juco-product, out of Blinn, shook things up early, actually unseating productive four-year lineman Eddie Brown a starter. Last season, early excitement for the three, playmaking starters on the defensive front faded fast, as Mathis tore his ACL in pre-conference action. Jonathan 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, look for the senior to lead things on the defensive front, as he seeks to prove himself in the SEC, and his final push to show his NFL worth.

I'm going all in on Shayvion Hatten winning the job for the other tackle spot. Hatten's early showing had him primed to burn his shirt, but an injury kept him out, and he spent the year recovering, developing his skill set, and body (he's filled out to 6'5 300 from 275 in just eight months). The Daingerfield product has an impressive wingspan, excellent footwork, a quick burst, and will be a future difference maker. Further, he plays nasty and will be a perfect interior lineman in Coach Snyder's aggressive, attacking front. Keep a close eye on this young man in spring, as he is an essential key that must step up in this thin area of need.

Kirby Ennis had a brilliant off-season in 2011; coming off of a redshirt year he spent healing from an ACL tear. His emergence was a welcome surprise at the time, but he fell off the map during the season, only racking up five tackles, and none against significant opposition. With refined conditioning and his knee back to 100%, he should push for starter again this spring and will need to, for his sake and that of the team. A spun down linebacker, he'll be aided by his athleticism, burst, speed, wingspan, and much improved technique.

Though ideally a strong defensive end in Snyder's defense given his size, the situation dictates sophomore Ivan Robinson round out the two deep at tackle. Like Ennis, he came on strong last off-season, but failed to make a dent in the rotation. That could obviously change with the numbers at tackle, and despite his size, his burst, use of hands, relentless motor, and Cajun-nastiness could make him a strong option on passing downs, and serviceable against the run. Needless to say, this spring will spell a lot, as to just where Ivan is, and how he fairs in practice against as salty an offensive line as he'll see this year.

Athletic and mammoth Rhontae Scales enters his second off-season on defense and adds to the paper-thin depth. He'll be joined in August by crucial, late recruiting get Ed Ray. Ray will arrive close to the part physically and like Scales should at least be able to function as decent run stuffers, who can occupy blockers, and open blitzing lanes on passing downs. I personally would feel better with Ben Compton, now at center, still on this side of the ball, as he did an excellent job at nose for a true freshman in 2011. That still could happen at some point, but entering spring, this is where it stands.

Weak Defensive End

While the roles inside switch a tad, a slightly more extreme change is the "Joker" spot essentially becoming the weak defensive end in this base, and guys like Demontre Moore, Brandon Alexander, Caleb Russell, and possibly Shaun Ward now lining up with their hands on the ground versus in a two point stance as outside linebackers. The difference isn't that dramatic, other than that, and the primary role will still remain, aggressive pass rushing, run contain, and occasionally dropping into coverage.

The leader of this pack will be Demontre Moore, who like a young Von Miller, found himself moving sideways, if not backwards, with off-field choices, before putting it together and excelling on the field. Moore isn't completely out of the woods yet, but he appears well on his way, with extremely high upside, as a disruptive, game changing force, with a lot of flash off the edge. A sophomore in 2011, he put together a highly productive year off the edge (despite a slow off-season), with 72 tackles (41 solo), and 21 for loss of 70 yards (14 solo TFL), including 9 sacks (8 solo), and 2 hurries. In addition to his size, speed, and burst, he also has the added dimension of an extremely long reach which has served him well in getting off of blocks and in batting down balls and disrupting (or at least discouraging) screens. With focus and a strong motor Demontre can undoubtedly emerge as a well respected, and even a potential standout SEC defender, wreaking absolute havoc off of the edge, but this spring will provide a clearer picture as to his mental readiness and dedication at this stage.

His primary backup in the rotation will be Brandon Alexander, who will bring is speed, considerable pass-rushing skill set, and run stopping ability off the edge. He is quick off the ball, has impressive technique, and versatile moves for his stage of development. He uses his hands well when rushing, and in picking his way through the traffic against the run. Brandon plays with good pad level (impressive given his height), and has a large wingspan for batting balls, and grabbing running backs. Dropping back in coverage will need work, but the young man has a strong shot of making an early impact. Alexander only saw action in four games last season but his production is about to shoot through the roof. Watch this young man closely, as to how much beef he's added to his substantial 6'6" frame, and how he fairs in his first spring camp against two all-everything offensive tackles.

Walk-on Caleb Russell stepped up to the plate in a big way this past spring, consistently causing problems for talented left tackle Luke Joeckel. His season wasn't as flashy (27 tackles, 4 assisted TFL) but he is a steady contributing option off the bench. Russell will bring a good burst off the ball, and a tenacious motor in pass rushing and run stopping. Shaun Ward will remain at linebacker, and given the crowd at WDE, he'll probably remain there. However, his skill set could see him work his way into this pack, so he bears mentioning here as well.

Strong Defensive End

Spencer Nealy has played in all 39 games since he's arrived at A&M, and his production doubled in 2011 (45 tackles, 19 solo, 10 TFL, 6 solo, 2 sacks, 1 solo). Nealy is explosive off the snap, uses his hands well, but his biggest asset is a motor that runs on "bat-guano craziness". The latter sees him as a slightly feral player, but that weakness is also his strength, and if it changes it hurts hit game. Unrefined perhaps, but the wildman, who once humorously carried a "10 yard restraining order from Mike Sherman", will bring his pass rushing and nose for the ball to the strong end spot, and he's put on some mass for the job. Readying for his senior year, it's a foregone conclusion this passionate young man is all in on his efforts this off-season.

Gavin Stansbury has been talented enough to surge into the two-deep the past two off-seasons but a foot injury and a knee injury derailed him from hitting his stride each time. He saw action and recorded tackles in most games last season, but the time for his breakout is now, as he battles Nealy for starter at the strong defensive end spot. If the Louisianimal can stay healthy, this will be a very interesting battle this month, as both young men will be pushed hard by talented junior right tackle, Jake Mathews. Regardless who shakes out as starter, both will see plenty of reps in this rotation.

Ivan Robinson, who was detailed in the defensive tackle section, may also be in this rotation, in fact should be, but as mentioned, the interior need demands his services at the moment.

Summer Arrivals

The defensive end spots will see further reinforcement this summer from promising newcomers Polo Manukainiu, Michael Richardson, Julian Obioha, and Alonzo Williams. But relying on true freshmen to fill holes along the defensive line is a very risky proposition, especially in the physical SEC. We'll take a closer look at these young men and their skill sets on the eve of Fall Camp.

Defensive Line Overall

The new 4-3 defensive alignment will see some changes up front for the Aggies, but the real story is whom they have to work with. Entering the SEC is not an ideal time to work through shaky defensive line personnel, but Coach Sumlin and his new staff must play the hand they are dealt. With some good fortune on the injury front, and some strong development of inexperienced up-starts, the condition can greatly improve. However, as of now, a very green interior line rotation will be led by Jonathan Mathis (the only member who has logged significant starts), strong end will be shared by Spencer Nealy and Gavin Stansbury (one of which has logged respectable game time), and weak defensive end actually highlights the pack, with potential playmakers Demontre Moore and Brandon Alexander. This area is only arguably second to the quarterback battle in terms of importance, I'd argue it's first given the fact whoever shakes out amongst that strong field will have the Aggies in good hands, while the defensive line is much more uncertain. Regardless, focus the defensive line, as their development is absolutely crucial the next few weeks and throughout August.

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