Without question, even with all that is going on around them, defensive line talk has eclipsed just about all Aggie football conversation, and it's understandable. Games are won and lost up front in the SEC, and the depth demanded for those battles, is nowhere near what it needs to be, particularly on the interior line.
That's not to say they there isn't talent or playmakers, but the two deep, especially the starters, must remain healthy, providing an optimal situation for younger (undersized and inexperienced) players, to minimize their snaps this season. That said, the cumulative physical nature of the league is frankly going to make that tough, with weekly battles against teams whose primary aim is to grind teams down up front.
Last season, Texas A&M's defense was feast or famine, as they led the Big XII in sacks, but were 106th in pass defense. This year, the Aggie's will look to a more consistent, yet still aggressive approach. Mark Snyder's 4-3 scheme will take pressure off of the nose tackle, employing two tackles, both with the goal of getting up-field, disrupting the run game, get to the quarterback when they can, occupy blockers, and allow some talented linebackers to swarm in and 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 end, which will also play the run.
We'll examine the young men who will hold the line in A&M's first round of SEC battles up front.
It's hard to imagine where A&M would be had Jonathan Mathis not gone down with a season ending injury, in early in 2011 schedule, and if the NCAA hadn't granted him a medical redshirt to give him a full senior year. Mathis isn't wasting the second chance either, with a work ethic that matches his ability. He's made great strides to get back over the off-season. Possessing a combination of size, quickness, and athleticism, he first made a big impression on this team in 2010, actually unseating productive three-year starter Eddie Brown early that season. Kirby Ennis manning the nose, will free Mathis as the three-technique to showcase his abilities, as a lineman who excels in getting off his blocks, and quickly penetrating into the backfield, be it run-stuffing or pass-rushing. The senior will clearly be the leader up front, as he looks to do his part to make plays, solidify what is widely considered a team weakness, and prove his worth in a final push to raise his stock for his NFL bid.
Kirby Ennis' role in this offense won't see him racking up tons of sacks, or takedowns for that matter, as he's the biggest, of the tackles, and will likely man the nose. However, he'll be extremely effective in run-plugging, and occupying blockers, opening up blitzing lanes for Coach Snyder's talented and speedy line-backing corps. As mentioned in spring, Ennis came off of a great off-season in 2011, but failed to meet expectation or really produce much at all for that matter. Kirby has once again put together an excellent spring, and was easily the best lineman out there. He'll benefit with two excellent wingmen next to him, in Jonathan Mathis and Spencer Nealy. He's extremely quick off the snap and follows with his athleticism, burst, speed, wingspan, and several years worth of much improved technique. Look for a strong August and continued growth from Kirby, and pray for his continued health. It's vital that A&M veterans remain healthy up-front, so true freshmen aren't forced to pull more snaps than necessary.
If Mathis and Ennis can stay injury-free, the second part of the equation comes into play, which is Shayvion Hatten coming online to a reasonable extent. Hopes were, the red-shirt freshman would start seeing the light-bulb in spring, and alleviate some anxiety over the defensive tackle depth chart. After all, he tore it up last August, and would have burned his redshirt, had injury not stopped his momentum. However, while he did take a step forward in spring, it wasn't the leap needed to push to the front of the pack. Still, he has filled out a lot, stands at about 6'5 300, and the Dangerfield product brings an explosive quick burst, excellent feet, long reach, and a nasty disposition to the table. No doubt the fiery, Coach Price, will not let Hatton take a snap off and will drain every drop of potential out of the young man, as he tries to ready him for the brutal trench wars of the SEC. Keep a close eye on this young man, as he must take some big steps in August to help sure up the two deep at tackle.
Ivan Robinson is bit undersized, but he's pound-for-pound one of the strongest players on the team. Ideally, Robinson would be thriving on the edge in splitting time with Spencer Nealy, but in 2012, the situation dictates his presence on the inside as a critical member of this rotation. Like Ennis, he came on strong last off-season, but failed to make a dent in the rotation. That will 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. He did some good things in spring, but needs to keep it going through August to help solidify this two deep to a reasonable extent.
Rhontae Scales concludes his second off-season on defense this August, and adds to the paper-thin depth, but is honestly a very limited weapon. Scales is very sluggish off the snap, and while proper technique could make him a solid space eater, he plays way too high, and is to date a relative non-factor. I personally would feel better with Ben Compton back on this side of the ball, as he did a solid job at nose as a true freshman in 2011. That still could happen at some point, but entering fall camp, this is where it stands.
Weak-side 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, lining up with their hands on the ground versus in a two-point stance as outside linebackers. The primary role will remain, aggressive pass rushing, run contain, and occasionally dropping into coverage.
It was the best of pass-rushing. It was the worst of pass-rushing. It was the age of focus. It was the age of off-field distraction. Alright, I'll stop there, but "The Tale of Two Damontre's" has been obvious for a while. Damontre Moore's potential has often been on display, but a lack of focus has kept him from being a consistent playmaking defensive end that defensive coordinators fear. He looked to have turned a corner at the end of his sophomore season in 2011, putting up 72 tackles (41 solo), 21 for loss of 70 yards (14 solo TFL), nine sacks (8 solo), and two QB hurries. However, instead of carrying it through spring, coaches saw more of the hot and cold pattern. Again his upside is huge as a disruptive, game changing force. He has a lot of flash off the edge with very long arms he can utilize in batting down balls, disrupting screens, and getting his hands on ball carriers. In observing spring scrimmages, switching from Joker to an end with his hand on the ground was not an issue in the least with Moore, and his body has really filled out nicely. Keep a close eye on Moore in August, as his progress will no doubt affect the defense and the team. For the best, or for the worst, we'll soon see.
Brandon Alexander also put some good size on his frame, and while he needs to add more, he's in good position to contribute this season. Alexander brings so much to the table physically. He fires off the snap, follows with excellent acceleration, and speed. Brandon plays with good pad level (impressive given his height), has sound moves and technique with strong pass-rushing and run stopping ability off the edge. Further, Alexander utilizes his long wingspan well. He only saw action in four games last season as Damontre Moore's primary back-up. His production is about to shoot through the roof. The pair should make a pretty salty one-two punch, from rush end.
Caleb Russell stepped up to the plate in a big way last off-season, consistently causing problems for talented left tackle Luke Joeckel. However, his season wasn't as productive (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.
Strong Defensive End
Spencer Nealy is not all-world. He's not even the best on the line, and frankly gives up talent to players behind him on the depth chart. However, it's a testament to him getting it done, through consistent hard work, passion beyond measure, heart, and a fevered intensity, that once earned him a humorous "10-yard restraining order" from Mike Sherman. Nealy also provides a vital role of lighting a fire under teammates, who frankly, need to step it up. No doubt, qualities coaches love in a player, as a guy who can keep his boys on task and motivated on the field. It must be noted that he isn't void of talent. A player doesn't double his production like he did in 2011 (45 tackles, 19 solo, 10 TFL, 6 solo, 2 sacks, 1 solo) on passion alone. He also turned in an excellent spring in preparing himself to set the edge in the new even front of the 4-3. Nealy is explosive off the snap, uses his hands well, but his biggest asset is a motor, which has a "broken kill-switch" and runs on "bat-guano craziness". Truth be told it's probably not the only thing with a screw loose, but he or his coaches wouldn't have it any other way. Usually coaches try and reel in a player so feral, but it would crush his game, so coaches unlock the cell and turn him loose. SEC, meet Spencer Nealy.
Gavin Stansbury is kind of a man stuck in the middle, not quite quick enough for the edge, but too small for the inside. Ideally, if he had the size now, he and Ivan Robinson would switch spots, but for now he'll set the edge, backing Spencer Nealy. Stansbury is a talented upstart, but it looks like Nealy will hold onto his starting job, barring a major surge from Gavin. He's surged 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. Last season, the Louisiana native recorded tackles in most games, but should see a dramatic increase in playing time and production. Both young men will no doubt, benefit from being pushed on the other side by Jake Mathews, and each other for that matter.
Further Defensive Line Depth
At least one, if not two, newcomers could likely be called on to step in the rotation during the season. It's almost not a matter of if, but when. The hope is that the two-deep at each spot can remain relatively healthy and intact so they can work their way in slowly. If these guys are out there for about ten snaps, it's workable, but carrying a full share at this stage of development is asking a lot, and stretching the defense really thin.
Polo Manukainiu has quickly surprised his teammates this summer, already checking in at 270 pounds. He started practice bolstering strong defensive end depth behind Spencer Nealy and Gavin Stansbury, but this week began working out with the interior linemen. As David Sandhop noted this summer, "he is doing well in the weight room . . . but most observers are surprised with his quickness and overall athletic ability."
California native Alonzo Williams has looked good in limited summer workouts, but at under 270 pounds he'll need to play in short spurts against the bigger SEC teams as he doesn't have the mass needed upon arrival to hold up to the SEC pounding for an extended period on the field. Julian Obioha stands at 6'3, 255, and has "an incredible work ethic in the weight room, and is extremely strong for his size" according to Sandhop's report. The team is in better shape at the defensive end spots, so he'll need to have an extraordinary fall camp to earn significant playing time in the rotation, but we'll know a lot more about these new arrivals over the next few weeks.
Defensive Line Overall
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. Stay tuned closely to the progression of this unit during fall camp.
2012 Fall Camp Guide - Defensive Line
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