Wow…where do you start with the defensive performance? Let's start with the facts. The Aggie defense surrendered 509 yard of total offense to the Owls. But even more surprising is 306 yards of that came on the ground, and most of that total was just old-fashioned power running between the tackles. I didn't go back to the record books, but I think it's safe to say that an Aggie defense has rarely given up three bills on the ground to any offensive unit on Kyle Field, much less to one whose line averages less than 285 pounds.
Naturally, the two most asked questions I've heard in the past 24 hours is why did it happen, and can it be easily corrected. Let's discuss the why part and there's several components here. First, the team's best and most experienced interior defensive lineman, Kirby Ennis, was out serving a one-game suspension. Second, a majority of Ennis' replacements were true freshmen seeing their first collegiate action of their careers.
But the third reason is a little more complicated. Despite getting pummeled by a physical Rice ground game, the A&M defense remained with five defensive backs throughout the game whether in a 3-3-5 or a 4-2-5. In the three-man front, 280-pound Alonzo Williams played the nose tackle while a rotation of Julien Obioha (255 lbs.), Tyrell Taylor (230 lbs.), Tyrone Taylor (240 lbs.), and Daeshon Hall (240 lbs.) manned the defensive end positions. That's an average of 250 lbs. across the front with undersized 220-230 lb. linebackers rounding out the front six. Even with a four-man front, the front six is still somewhat undersized with size coming primarily from the inexperienced true freshmen.
These were the packages that the A&M defense practiced throughout the fall camp. A base 4-3 run defense was rarely utilized in practice as the unit worked against primarily four-wide receiver sets from the Aggie offense. It will be interesting to see what adjustments Coach Snyder implements for Alabama and other physical teams on the A&M's SEC schedule.
So can Saturday's performance be corrected? Well, Ennis will be back for the Sam Houston game. That will help immediately. Remember, Ennis was in the middle of the line that did a pretty good job in Tuscaloosa last season and he brings well over 300 pounds to the defensive front. Big-bodied true freshmen Isaiah Golden, Hardreck Walker, and Jay Arnold should start to settle in, and at least one should separate from the pack and develop into a consistent playmaker. There's too much talent there for this not to happen. Last year's best linebacker, Steven Jenkins, has one more game to sit out, but he'll bring experienced firepower at linebacker while freshmen Darian Claiborne and Jordan Mastrogiovanni showed enough potential on Saturday to think they will see short term improvement with a few more snaps in September.
Also, you saw a significant improvement in the second half when Deshazor Everett returned from suspension and immediately shut down his side of the field which allowed more help over the top for Tremaine Jacobs. As a result, he looked better and that allowed the linebackers and safeties to key more on the Rice run game. Everett's return reflected just how much one top player can affect the performance of the unit as a whole. Add another starting cornerback, starting senior linebacker, and fourth year defensive end to the rotation, and there's compelling reasons why the defensive unit will be much improved by Alabama…although lack of live action from Harris, Stansbury, and Jenkins is somewhat concerning heading into September 14.
And finally, Coach Snyder proved last season that he will optimize the performance of his defense. It was obvious he was experimenting with many combinations and many schemes to see what he has with some of these young players. As we get closer to Alabama with veterans coming back to the field, it's natural to think Snyder will simplify his packages and will have his rotation set and ready to go.
It makes for a good story and a plausible storyline that gives A&M fans hope for what must be significant improvement going forward. But with what seems like a never-ending supply of player suspensions, you have to wonder will this time off for quite a few key members of this defense have a negative impact on this young unit as the biggest game in Kyle Field history looms just 12 days away.
Defensive Line C-
In the first half, there didn't seem to be enough beef in the front line to neutralize the power running game of Rice. The three-man front of Alonzo Williams and the two Taylor brothers simply didn't have the numbers or bulk to neutralize the frontline. Snyder eventually went more to a 4-2-5 in non-passing downs and it helped to a degree. A&M can get by with Williams as a tackle in a four-man front, but as a nose guard in a three-man front? I don't see it. By the same token, I can see the Taylor brothers as at end in a four-man front.
While Isaiah Golden and Hardreck Walker had their ups and downs on Saturday, the two most encouraging performances by the newcomers came from Daeshon Hall and Jay Arnold. Hall had a great tackle for loss with his beaten man holding him every step of the way. Everybody is talking about Arnold's fourth down penetration and disruption on the fourth down stop, rightfully so. But he did the same thing on a sweep play that was bottled up, and he was in on another couple of plays. Arnold can be this year's Spencer Nealy with more natural talent.
The starting trio of Donnie Baggs, Tommy Sanders, and Nate Askew did not overly impress in the early going. The concern with Sanders is size, and you'd like to see more size at Baggs' position. Well, Darian Claiborne and Jordan Mastrogiovanni provide that size and speed. I thought Claiborne had a very solid first game that included a critical third down stop behind the line that forced a much-needed punt. I like Mastrogiovanni's physical attributes and playmaking instincts. He didn't finish a couple of plays, but that will come with a few more snaps. Askew showed some promise in the spring, but he seems to have plateaued this fall. Actually, true freshman Shaan Washington looked quicker and more instinctive than the senior. I think there's some young talent to work with, but from top-to-bottom there are still some talent and depth issues. Some of that should go away with Jenkins' return, but any injuries and this group could be a concern.
Defensive Backs B-
I thought the defensive backs looked very pedestrian in the first half, both in pass coverage and run support. With A&M's two best man cover corners on the bench suspended, the coverage was loose and conservative. I was expecting more physical run support from Howard Matthews which is supposed to be his strong suite. Clay Honeycutt is a gamer and made a few nice plays, but you'd like to see a little more length and athleticism at the position.
I thought the storyline was Deshazor Everett. When he returned in the second half, Rice went right at him on a deep ball and he was all over it. The game changed at that point in favor of the Aggies. Tremaine Jacobs got more help from the safeties over the top and he played with more confidence. Basically, Rice's passing game halted at that point and they were more predictable with the run and the defense keyed on that….all from the play of one elite defender. That was the story of the game when you strip away all of the Johnny soap opera talk.
OVERALL DEFENSIVE GRADE C-
OVERALL SPECIAL TEAMS A-
The longest running mystery for Texas Aggie football has been the struggle to find a strong-legged punter that could flip the field consistently. Despite allocating more scholarships than most D-1 teams on special teams, A&M suffered through years of small, weak punters who kicked low and short, praying for a good roll to get a 40 yard net. So you could understand some misty-eyed Aggies in the stands on Saturday when Drew Kaser boomed not one but two lasers over 60 yards…high, towering blasts that turned over. It was beautiful for A&M fans to watch. By the same token, seeing a less than 100% Taylor Bertolet (hernia surgery) make all seven extra points and a 40+ yard field goal was icing on the cake even if he barely snuck it over the cross bar. His kickoffs were generally short, but that should improve as he moves toward full health. All in all, it was a good day for the special teams although returns were definitely an issue with a fumble and a return to the six yard-line. That kept special teams from receiving an A-plus.
Hop's Rice Game Analysis - Defense
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