Can DeRuyter Bring Defense Back to Aggieland?

For over 25 years from 1975 through the turn of the century, Texas A&M football was defined by defense. From all-Americans Lester Hayes and Pat Thomas in the 1970's to the Wrecking Crew era in the 1980's and 1990's that featured dominant linebackers Johnny Holland, Aaron Wallace, John Roper, Quentin Coryatt, and Lombardi winner Dat Nguyen to name a few, an aggressive defense was the trademark.

For over 25 years from 1975 through the turn of the century, Texas A&M football was defined by defense. From all-Americans Lester Hayes and Pat Thomas in the 1970's to the Wrecking Crew era in the 1980's and 1990's that featured dominant linebackers Johnny Holland, Aaron Wallace, John Roper, Quentin Coryatt, and Lombardi winner Dat Nguyen to name a few, an aggressive and dominant defense was the trademark of Aggie football. However, the defense disappeared shortly after Ty Warren and Sammy Davis were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft after the 2002 season. In fact, Texas A&M hasn't produced a defensive first round draft pick since.

The revered Wrecking Crew moniker, embraced with passion by the Aggie fan base, has been mothballed for over eight years now. That happens when a perennial Top 10 defense plunges in the collegiate rankings and finds itself near the bottom of Division I football. Under long-time head coach R.C. Slocum (1989-2002), Texas A&M's defensive units never finished below No. 35 in the country in his 14 seasons and frequently finished in the nation's Top 10. When Dennis Franchione took the reins of the program in College Station in 2003, the defense immediately dropped to No. 96 in the country and languished as a second tier unit for the remainder of his five years in Aggieland.

The situation hasn't improved with the arrival of head coach Mike Sherman. The Aggies have given up nearly 450 yards a game over the past two seasons which translates to one of the five worst defenses in college football.

Sherman knew he couldn't survive with such porous defenses, so he scrapped the 4-3 scheme, accepted the retirement notice of defensive coordinator Joe Kines, and began his search for an established young defensive coordinator with a successful track record of slowing down spread offenses in the 3-4 alignment. It just so happens that Texas A&M flourished in the 1980's and 1990's with four aggressive linebackers on the field with speed to burn. Sherman was there to see it and practice against it as an offensive assistant under Slocum in the 1990's. Coincidence? I don't think so.

His defensive coordinator search took him to Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy where Tim DeRuyter had been directing his cadets to stymie many of the high-powered spread offenses in the Mountain West Conference with his 3-4 base defense. Sherman was particularly impressed with DeRuyter's ability to slow down the nation's No. 1 offense as the Falcons defeated the University of Houston 47-20 in the 2009 Armed Forces Bowl. For the season, Air Force's defense ranked No. 11 nationally giving up 288 yards per contest. It was a fit, so DeRuyter took his 3-4 expertise to College Station this spring to resurrect the dusty Wrecking Crew name and, if you believe what Texas A&M's two biggest stars are saying, Aggie fans will see dividends early and often.

"He has so much knowledge about the 3-4 and defense as a whole," preseason Big 12 defensive MVP Von Miller said recently at the Big 12 media day event. "We're blessed to learn from him. He's a 3-4 wizard."

It's not simply his knowledge that has Miller and his defensive teammates excited to learn from DeRuyter, but also his ability to communicate and translate that knowledge into teaching young defensive players.

"You never question what he's doing because he'll show you and tell you why this way is the best way and the reasons why it's the only way to do it," Miller said. "And he backs it up with his experience and confidence in what he teaches. He has so much information about the game."

And it's not just the defensive players that are providing glowing reviews of Texas A&M's newest defensive coordinator. Jerrod Johnson has had to practice against DeRuyter's 3-4 defense in the offseason and he sees a big difference in what he has to face on a daily basis on the practice field.

"The defense has so many options this year. It's a new age approach where the defense makes changes on the snap to confuse the quarterback," Johnson said last week at Big 12 media days. "It has given our defensive players more confidence and you can see it. I'll admit, the defense gave us a little more trouble this spring than usual."

With a combined 10-15 record in his first two seasons at the helm, Sherman will need the defense under DeRuyter to give 2010 opponents a little more trouble especially against the gunslinging offenses that have emerged in the Big 12 in recent years. While the Aggie faithful have shown patience in the past two years as Sherman initiated the rebuilding project left in the wake of the Franchione regime, the natives are getting restless for victories, and many are expecting a breakout season that will include 8-9 wins (and some Aggies want more) on a schedule that includes four preseason nationally ranked teams - Arkansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas.

The Texas A&M offense has become a juggernaut in short order, ranking No. 5 nationally last season in total yardage. However, all signs point to A&M's defensive performance as the primary indicator of 2010 success. National statistics show that BCS conference teams have a hard time winning eight games fielding a sub-par, second tier defense. In 2009, only Arkansas (#89) and Stanford (#90) managed to tally eight victories (both 8-5) with a total defense that ranked below No. 75 in the nation. As far as hitting the nine win plateau, Cincinnati (#67) and Georgia Tech (#54) were the only BCS conference teams to get there with lower than a Top 50 defense. That's a scary thought for Aggie fans that have seen the former Wrecking Crew defense stumble to rankings of No. 114 in 2008 and No. 105 in 2009.

Statistics don't lie and the message is clear. If Texas A&M fans are expecting an eight win campaign in 2010, the defense will need to improve some 30-plus spots in the national rankings. For the Aggies to have a nine-plus win season in 2010, Coach DeRuyter will need to flash that wizardry that Von Miller mentioned to drastically improve and mold the young Aggie defense into a Top 50 unit.

But there is hope in Aggieland for an improved defense with the arrival of DeRuyter and his new brand of defense that was successful at the Air Force Academy. He will also inherit a defense with greater team speed than in years past and a defense that is a year older and a year wiser. In 2009, lack of depth and talent forced Sherman to play as many as eight inexperienced true freshmen from a talented 2009 recruiting class. That core group of defenders has had a year in the program and a rigorous offseason, and with Von Miller returning for his senior season as a preseason all-American and the emergence of several playmakers in an improved secondary, the Aggies may finally start seeing the light at the end of a long eight year tunnel…and Aggie fans have made it clear they expect to see that light in 2010.


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