No unit on the team this fall will play a more critical role than the defensive line in determining whether the 2007 Aggies make the improvements necessary for this team to take the Big XII conference crown. Bottom line: the Ags simply have to get more pressure on the opponent's quarterback. At no point last season was the effectiveness of a solid pass rush more evident than in the Texas game, when the defense successfully hurried, harassed, sacked, and physically pounded Colt McCoy. The result? A lot less pressure on the secondary, and a grand total of seven points for the Horns' offense.
The good news is this year's defensive line has the potential to be downright scary. And it starts at defensive end with senior Chris Harrington, who made enormous strides in his game last fall, racking up 11.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. As the season wore on, Harrington found himself in the opposing backfield more and more often. By the time the game in Austin rolled around, he had become quite a force to reckon with.
Coming out of spring drills, the two-deep chart shows Cyril Obiozor starting at the other end, but don't be surprised to see a heavy dose of Michael Bennett as well. Bennett has terrific quickness off the end, and his pass rush skills improved literally week to week as last season wore on. Bennett also combines some serious power with those quick feet. Aggie fans everywhere will remember how his hit on Colt McCoy sent the Longhorn QB flying like he'd been shot from a cannon.
Sophomore Paul Freeney and redshirt freshman Lucas Patterson will provide additional depth at the defensive end position, but they both lack experience. Freeney, who has impressed coaches with his speed, saw some action in three games last fall. Patterson is a 6'5" 300-pounder who drew admiration from his teammates during spring drills and will battle for playing time this fall.
"Patterson is another young guy that we're asking a lot and hoping for a lot from," said A&M defensive coordinator Gary Darnell, "but I think he's got a chance to have some success there."
The interior line play starts with senior Red Bryant. Prior to a season-ending injury last fall, Bryant was the defensive line anchor, making life tough on opposing running backs while also batting down five passes, recording 2.5 sacks, and sealing an incredible come-from-behind victory over Oklahoma State by blocking an O.T. extra-point attempt.
Alongside Bryant on the interior line is 6-foot-3, 315 pound run-stuffer extraordinaire Henry Smith, a senior who notched 22 tackles last season. Junior Chris Smith also returns, another solid run-stopper who recorded 9 tackles while seeing action in every game last fall.
"(Chris Smith) has gained some weight and he's really enjoying football," Darnell said. "He's able to spend the time and enjoy football this year."
Everyone will recognize the name Kellen Heard, who unfortunately drew about as much attention to himself for personal foul penalties as he did for his 13 tackles and 2.5 sacks during his freshman campaign. Heard is a monster at 6-foot-6 and 331 pounds, and was highly recruited by the University of Miami, who recognized the young man's potential as a devastating force on the defensive front. Look for Heard to see a lot more playing time this fall, and for opposing running backs to be the worse off for it.
Depth could be a legitimate concern at the defensive tackle position this season—one of the reasons Chris Smith was moved from end to tackle. The arrival of junior college transfer David Tufuga could provide some help in that respect, but Tufuga's arrival, which hinges on the NCAA clearing house is uncertain at this point.
Despite depth concerns at tackle, the defensive line returns enough talent with enough experience to make it a serious problem for opposing offenses. And we should see a more evolved defense across this board this fall, now that the team will be in its second season of Gary Darnell's 4-2-5 system.
"(The defense) is much more enhanced this year, pretty much night and day," said A&M head coach Dennis Franchione. "Just like when we went from year one to year two (as a team), that's what it is as a defense here in year two (under Darnell). The communication, the understanding, the experience you gain in a year is so valuable."
Darnell simplified things as much as possible when he arrived last year, and that included limiting the variety of ways in which the defense went after the opposition. Blitzes were often a rarity, and the defense often failed to get any serious pressure on the opposing quarterback.
Toward the end of last season, however, the guys up front started getting their hands on the QB a little more often, and the results were obvious. Although the defense only recorded one sack against Oklahoma quarterback Paul Thompson, they successfully hurried him into only three completions for the entire game. The sack-meter ticked up a bit against Nebraska, as Aggie defenders put quarterback Zac Taylor on the ground four times. And the constant pressure on Colt McCoy resulted in a couple of sacks and three interceptions, as well as several hurries that resulted in incompletions in the season finale.
Look for that trend to continue in 2007.
"We had a lot of bad things happen to us in blitzes last year," Darnell said. "Now there's more trust and the confidence level is there. Blitzing is all about timing. If you're a man cover team, you'd better have a heck of a pass rush. Now that our rush is better, because our guys are older, faster, stronger, it opens it up to be more sound and be more aggressive with your blitz package."
With another year under its belt, some terrific senior leadership from guys like Harrington, Bryant and Henry Smith, plus the emerging talent of Michael Bennett and sophomore Kellen Heard, this defensive line has the potential to wreak havoc in the offensive backfield, taking some pressure off the secondary in the process, and providing an already dominant ball-control offense even more chances to eat the clock to bits.
Countdown 2007: Defensive Line
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