While the units we've covered so far–defensive line and linebacker–expect to see noticeable improvement from 2006, the position at which this 2007 Aggie defense is likely to show the greatest measure of improvement over last season will be at safety. Despite facing some of the nation's most successful passing offenses during the 2006 regular season, it wasn't until the Holiday Bowl that the Aggie secondary was exposed, to some degree, for its lack of speed and athleticism. This year's safety unit should have plenty of both.
The Aggies lose Melvin Bullitt, who despite not being the speediest at his position, was a big part of the defensive turnaround last year, contributing 26 solo stops, 7.5 for loss, and 7 pass breakups to go with one interception. But Bullitt's leadership and experience may have been as valuable as his physical skills, if not more so. This fall's starters, however, will bring not only increased speed, and skill, to the safety slots, but also the benefit of having a year behind them in Darnell's 4-2-5 scheme.
Junior Alton Dixon will move into the starting role at strong safety, after gaining valuable experience while seeing action in 13 games last season. Dixon, who posted ten tackles in a backup role last fall, is a hard hitter who brings intensity and speed to his position. Dixon will be backed up by Chevar Bryson, a converted cornerback who will contribute to the increased speed of this year's unit. Bryson saw action in 12 games last fall, posting five of his six tackles on special teams. Veteran Stephen Hodge will likely provide some additional depth at strong safety, after seeing action in 11 games last season.
Sophomore Jordan Pugh has coaches and fans alike excited about his ascension to starter at the "WHIP" position. Put simply, Pugh has it all. Another converted cornerback, Pugh is a gritty, intelligent player with speed, agility, and hips apparently mounted on a swivel. One of the top three cornerbacks in the state coming out of high school, Pugh was heavily recruited by Texas, Nebraska, Alabama, LSU, and Tennessee. He gained valuable experience last fall, playing in all 13 games, and together with Dixon, will make what is likely the most noticeable difference in this year's secondary.
Without question, the leader of this safety unit will be junior Devin Gregg, who returns at the free safety slot after starting all 13 games at that position last season. Gregg was the third leading tackler on the defense with an impressive 64 stops. With 34 stops against the rush and the 30 against the pass, Gregg was an equal-opportunity playmaker.
He has a nose for the football, grabbing a couple of fumble recoveries and interceptions, and was involved in some of last season's most crucial plays, as he plugged the gap on a critical third down against Kansas, enabling the Ags to get the ball back and drive for the winning score. He also intercepted a pass against Army at the A&M four yard line, one of two picks he grabbed in that contest. The other was immediately followed up by McGee's flea-flicker touchdown strike to Chad Schroeder. Redshirt freshman Demaurier Thompson will back up Gregg at the free safety spot, along with another redshirt frosh, Kenny Brown, who drew some positive attention from coaches during the spring.
Darnell is justifiably excited about this year's new faces in new places. "Jordan Pugh has come back there and helped us and made a huge difference. Kenny Brown can grow and help us more and more and Devin Gregg has shown us that some things like route recognition, which was a problem for him last year, isn't a problem for him now."
Overall, this year's safety position, despite losing two starters and being rather youthful, looks to be faster, more athletic, and more physical than last year's unit, which should address some deficiencies that were made painfully clear last December in San Diego. This is a speedy group of athletes who bring valuable experience from last season to the table, despite playing mostly in backup roles. And as the defense continues to evolve in its second year of the 4-2-5, the safeties will have more opportunities to showcase their ability as Darnell installs some new formations and blitz packages which will offer the defense more opportunities to pressure the quarterback, an aspect of the defense that started to show improvement late last season, and should blossom this fall.
"The whole concept of using 5 DB's is you can use them from anywhere, whether it's LB, safety, or corners," Darnell said. "I think all defenses have a threat of a strong safety blitz, but I think with five DB's the way we do, you have to at least have a threat of all five DB's coming at you."
On a defense that expects to see continued development at every position, the safeties will almost certainly earn the "most improved" designation for 2007, offering this team a healthy dose of the speed and athleticism it was missing last fall.
Countdown 2007: Safeties
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