Fall Camp Guide 2010: Defensive Line

New defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter's attacking 3-4 defensive system, and the players he has to run it, looks very promising. Obviously, it all starts up front and while momentarily thin, the Aggies have a strong batch of reinforcements taking the field for the first time this August.

It is not a well-kept secret, to win games you have to have defense. No matter how prolific your offense is, they must have help. No team proved that better than Texas A&M last year, but with that said, the stars seem to be aligning for the Ags' this season. New defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter's attacking 3-4 defensive system, and the players he has to run it, looks very promising. Obviously, it all starts up front and while momentarily thin, the Aggies have a strong batch of reinforcements taking the field for the first time this August. Their performance over the next few weeks, will tell a lot about where the Aggies will find themselves on the defensive line, and as a collective defense.

On the eve of fall camp, the defensive front is fairly similar to where the Ags' were at wide receiver last season at this time, in regards to having a handful of sound veterans, and being dependent on newcomers to round out and support the position area. However, like that unit, given the candidates and early reports, one is pretty optimistic that enough guys will shake out to make a pretty salty group. Currently A&M has very strong candidates starting (RE-Eddie Brown, NT-Lucas Patterson, LE- Tony Jerod Eddie), thin but serviceable depth from current players (bright spots with Spencer Neally and Kirby Ennis). However, they will need a couple of the incoming batch of defensive lineman (of which at least two look really promising, Jonathan Mathis and Ivan Robinson), to step up to the plate in fall camp and reach the potential of what could be solid and safely deep unit. (That's not counting at least three other players who are not world-beaters but at worst serviceable off the bench.) I honestly believe this group is going to end up being very solid this season and though currently uncertain, depth won't be as much an issue as many tend to think.

In this piece, we'll take a close look at who the Aggies will be counting on to lay the groundwork up front, for the success of a defense that looks to reawaken as a defensive power, and one that needs to step up and compliment the offense (to a reasonable extent) and do it's part in A&M Football's return to prominence. Please keep in mind as you read this that while they players are listed positionaly where they are entering camp, this staff is not hesitant to move players around there will likely be a lot of fluidity along the line during camp.

Nose Tackle

A year ago, Lucas Patterson spent most of his fall camp, in a well-documented experiment on the other side of the ball at left tackle. When it didn't pan out, he was moved back to defensive tackle and never missed a beat, immediately locking down his spot (starting all 13 games for the Ags', making 23 tackles -13 solo, with one TFL and a recovered fumble). This spring he began at strong end, before moving to nose tackle about a week into drills, and instantly excelled. The young man has always been a steady contributor, but he was quite honestly one of the best out there this spring. He found his natural spot at NT, and dominated there, consistently disrupting the run game and getting to the quarterback as well, garnering daily praise from coaches and teammates. Patterson is a very solid plug in the trenches, bringing a healthy combination of power and nastiness, to complement his athleticism and tenacious-motor. He will be a great run stopper, effective in opening pass rushing lanes, and he'll be able to slip through to the backfield and get to the quarterback on occasion as well.

In a move for more depth options, promising offensive lineman, Rhontae Scales was moved to defensive line. I initially wasn't sure about the switch, but the more I think about it, I can really see it working out. Scales is mammoth, and has excellent agility and quickness for his size. Though he's surprisingly nimble and light on his feet, once he gets going, he's had issues in getting off the snap on offense. The plus is that may have been an issue of information overload, and his concerns and assignments will be much simpler at nose tackle, allowing the young man a strong chance here. If so, he'll be a great run-plugger and should open up nice pass rushing lanes. He definitely has the athletic ability, and quickness to slide off defenders and break into the backfield, as well as the strength to occupy and potentially overcome blockers. If Scales proves coachable, and can get off the ball, he could excel here eventually. That said, Rhontae will also have to learn the finer points, like hand technique, and playing with good pad level and leverage. If he can get a grasp on it, he could be a good one down the line, and a capable backup for now, if not he may soon find himself back on the offensive line bolstering the depth there.

Andrew Wolridge was moved from linebacker to a situational role at defensive tackle last season as an interior pass rushing specialist. He has good burst, pad level, leg drive and motor to follow, but a lot of that is cancelled, because of his short reach limiting his handwork. He initially was getting a look at FB this off-season, but the latest news is that he is back on the DL adding to NT depth. Wolridge got his share of reps with the first team, and had a solid showing this spring. Andrew has good moves, has put on some good weight and plays with a strong motor. He's not going to rack up a lot of sacks, but he is slippery enough to break into the backfield periodically, and the hard hitter is capable against the run as well. Coach Sherman stated in April, that he was close to securing the second team job. He may lose that status if Eddie Brown or Jonathan Mathis move to nose (or if Rhontae Scales proves one of the August surprises) but for now it appears he is the primary second option off the bench (despite what the depth chart says, he's the only relatively proven one listed behind Patterson) and he's up to the task. While limited in his ability to shed blockers, he has added a lot of good weight, has great lower body strength, and can definitely fill the role up front primarily needed by this defense (opening pass rushing lanes).

Brandon Jackson is an interior defensive lineman from Shreveport, Louisiana. This highly sought after young man also received offers from Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas and Alabama. Jackson fires off the ball, maintains great balance, and technique in getting off blocks, and is strong against the run. He's apparently lost a lot of weight (down from 290 to about 250) so it's likely, until the strength and condition puts good weight on him, he may flip spots with fellow newcomer and mammoth Jonathan Mathis (who seems more a fit at nose but is currently listed as an end) as Jackson also has some experience playing off the edge. Another potential candidate, is Navasota native Jarvis Harrison. He is a 2010 signee, not talked about much, but checks in at an enormous 6-4, 330 pounds and if not given a look on the offensive line first, will likely be at nose tackle.

Left Defensive End

Tony Jerod-Eddie, like Eddie Brown, will enter his third season on campus as a junior in the fall of 2010. Following a year on campus TJE (as he's often referred to in order to avoid confusion with his Eddie counterpart) added a lot of size, strength, and established himself in the starting rotation that spring. He carried that into the 2009 season and started the first five games, then dislocated his left elbow and the job went to the talented and surging Brown. In the course of those five early starts and the other eight games as a vital backing DT, he earned 23 tackles (7 solo, 2 tackles for loss, including one sack for nine yards), one batted ball, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick. The enormous youngster is a solid run stuffer, and his footwork and athleticism aid him well in pressuring opposing quarterbacks. He has a good initial burst, and a requisite on field mean streak. His ability to step in and contribute as a true freshman, as well as his continued development to date is a testament to both his work ethic and talent. He is quick off the ball but his surge was really limited last year with that weakened elbow (effective hand technique can be just as important as leg drive and he was still effective but obviously hindered last season). TJE also has a knack for reading quarterbacks and batting down balls at the line of scrimmage. Tony didn't have a spectacular camp, but did a nice job, and appears to have earned the starting job at the left rush end spot, with Eddie Brown now listed as starter on the opposite edge. Now healthy he has the potential to be a playmaker off the edge but needs to keep his motor going non-stop every play, if he wants to get there.

Highly touted Stephen Barrera finds himself back home on the defensive line heading into the 2010 season. The young Aggie legacy was projected to play on the offensive line and was given a big push to do just that last season. Filling A&M's gaping hole at left tackle was asking a lot of the freshman, who's previous experience was primarily on defense, and while he showed promise, he wasn't quite up to the task that soon. A very disruptive force in high school, Barrera now works to get his defensive game on par with division one football, and he has the physical attributes, intelligence, and work ethic to do just that. He is quick off the ball, has a great reach, uses his hands well, and plays with excellent balance and footwork. Stephen has relatively good speed, arrived with excellent size and strength a year ago, and has only added to and refined that. He was force fed this spring to come on line quickly, so he should be an interesting one to follow this August, as he looks to give the Aggies quality depth at the moment and lay the groundwork for himself to take over here in the near future.

Looking to reassert himself in the fray after missing spring is Kirby Ennis. A disruptive defensive lineman in high school, he looked promising as a true freshman last season (in on 13 tackles in 12 games as a backup) before injuring his knee against Georgia. Now coming off of surgery and having filled out significantly (up to about 280 now), Ennis will push depth at either end spot. He has a good frame, footwork, hand technique, and is an athletic big man who was moved to DT from DE last off-season in a move to find a more disruptive pass rusher on the interior. Now back on the edge, with a valuable year of experience as a true freshman under his belt, and much more physically imposing, Ennis's return will immediately shore up the depth on his side of the line along with Barrera.

Another player who will be duking it out for a backup role will be Michael Ebbitt who went from being just "a body" to having an impressive showing in spring camp, and establishing some footing for himself on the depth chart. The California native is a hard worker, has good size and strength, and uses power and good hand technique in coming off the edge. Gavin Stansbury is a member of the promising Louisiana defensive line trio A&M landed in 2010. The young man has a great potential, a good frame, and while he has put on some good weight, will likely red-shirt as he fills out and learns the ropes. The disruptive young lineman fires off the ball, and plays with good pad level and leverage. He is good against the run, possesses a nice set of pass rush moves, and he has nice speed to continue his pursuit in the backfield. Stansbury's contribution will likely be at least a year away, but like all promising newcomers at a position of need, he'll be well worth following this August. After his second try at tight end, K.J. Williams found himself at DE last August. He's a very athletic, rangy body but has yet to find a position or a niche. He has good speed and quickness but his lack of bottom heaviness is a hindrance. He looked to be much more physically stout in the spring game, but the junior he still has a ways to go in his development to be an every down 3-4 end.

Right Defensive End

Eddie Brown returns from a post-season injury that kept him out of spring, as he enters his third season on campus and on the field in 2010. Last fall fans witnessed him approach his stride as he wrested the job from Tony Jerod-Eddie at about the midway point of the season, starting the last eight games and racking up 33 tackles (23 unassisted, including 7 tackles for a loss of 40 yards, 4 sacks-32 yards), and now that coaches have wisely decided to put him beside Lucas Patterson (rather than sharing reps at NT). The move gives A&M three big, high quality starters along the defensive front. He is very quick off the ball and follows it up with a great combination of speed and size (at 288 Brown was clocked at an amazing 4.79. . . he's now up to 295) and like any successful defensive tackle, the requisite motor that doesn't quit. Now healthy, and chomping at the bit to get back to work this August, Brown looks to take the next steps towards reaching his potential and being a truly disruptive force up front for the Aggies'. With his wealth of experience kicking in, look for some big on-field growth from this hard working Aggie in 2010.

Coach Sherman and his staff did a fine job of, not only signing much needed reinforcements, but infusing another level of talent in the defensive trenches with the 2010 class of recruits. Enter Jonathan Mathis, a four-star defensive lineman, from a highly-successful, JUCO National Champion- Blinn College program. Mathis is massive, strong and quick. He has a great knack for block shedding and or pushing his way to the ball. While he's the first to admit that his pass rushing needs work, he is a beast in run support and will be likewise apt in opening pass rush lanes. The young man is also very versatile, which is a very nice asset for him and a team that is in need of quality depth across the line. Due to the hard-workers anticipated readiness (physically and mentally), he actually is listed as the second option on the right edge, ahead of Spencer Nealy. It is impressive the coaches think that much of him at the moment, but he'll definitely have a chore to stay in front of the talented sophomore. As mentioned, it's also very possible that the big man soon slides over to back Lucas Patterson at the nose.

Following a relatively quiet but very promising freshman year in which Spencer Nealy played in all 13 games, and had 19 tackles (11 solo, three of those for loss, including one sack for a 12 yard loss) backing Matt Moss. The potential-playmaker, followed that with a great spring and is set to have a big career for the Aggies'. From early in the 2009 fall camp, it was obvious observing him that he's got great physical tools, including a tremendous burst off the ball, sound technique and hand placement, intensity and motor, and a great football IQ , which he came by honestly. I had a conversation with Coach Sherman about him early last season and he mentioned, that in addition to his physical attributes and technique, he is also a very heady ball player, just like his old man (former San Antonio Spur Ed Nealy). He has been behind the eight ball with his size early on but despite that, he played a lot as a true freshman and does nothing less than consistently make plays. He is up to 270 now, and his production off the edge is going to be very good, as he gives a nice change of pace to bull rushing Eddie Brown.

Yet another highly talented Louisiana defensive line product in A&M's 2010 class is Ivan Robinson. He could well grow into the nose spot down the line but for now is perfect as a 3-4 defensive end, and that's where coaches want him for now, given his ridiculous speed per size (260, runs a 4.7, ran a leg his high schools track relay, teammates consider him the fastest lineman on campus, and actually runs conditioning drills with the receivers). Ivan fires off the ball, has great power, a non stop motor, and uses his aforementioned speed very well in pursuit. Extremely intense on and off the field, he was also an extremely disruptive defender racking up 96 tackles as a Junior (10 TFL) and 94 as a Senior (21 TFL, 9 sacks). Robinson has a great reach and uses his hands well but needs to work on his consistent pad level (staying low and playing with leverage). That said the freshman should be a good one, and has a chance to be an immediate disruptive force and asset for the Aggie defense.

A pleasant summer surprise was news that Ben Bass got his academics together and was back on the team. A highly heralded down lineman (who's offer list included OU, Nebraska, Arkansas), Ben's athleticism had A&M coaches move him around a bit from OL, to TE in 2008, before finding his best spot on the defensive line in the spring of 2009. He was doing well there before grades forced him off track. He is big, physical, quick, has good speed, and is a perfect defensive end in the 3-4. The jury is out in regards to what kind of shape he is in currently, but I'm optimistic as he took the challenge to get his grades in order, staying in town to do so at Blinn. I'm very proud of him for taking care of that, and it's good to have the talented young man back on the squad.

Defensive Line Overall

As I said in my spring preview, it is important to realize that this isn't going to be a group of disruptive pass rushers, every down. There are no Nadamukong Suh-playmaking types, but honestly with most teams, there rarely are. However, they are very capable and tenacious linemen, with nonstop motors, doing grunt trench-work, occupying blockers and opening up the myriad of pass rushing lanes, that DeRuyter's highly disruptive system thrives on. That's not to say they won't be able to slip through to the backfield from time to time and get a few sacks and TFL's for themselves (especially with a difference maker like Von Miller being moved around, drawing double teams and opening windows of opportunity in those created mismatches). Rest assured though, they will be a very effective unit against the pass, and they will also be stout enough run-pluggers, at least to the extent that the pass happy Big XII dictates. Provided that depth works out, and judging by the above candidates it looks sound, this group should set up this defense very well in 2010.

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