It is not a well-kept secret. To win games, you have to have defense. No matter how prolific your offense, they must have help and no team proved that better than A&M last year. 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, and proved to be a menace for one of the nations most prolific offenses all off-season long. Obviously, it all starts up front, and while not bursting at the seams with depth, the Aggies have strong contenders backing each spot and should be in relatively good shape here. In fact, it's fairly reminiscent of where the Aggies were at wide receiver last season, in regards to having a handful of sound veterans, and being dependent on newcomers to round out and support the position area. Like that group, they appear to have stepped up to the plate and should be a strong backing unit, especially as the year wears on (as several are highly talented younger players, who will come along with time). I honestly believe this unit is going to be sound this season, and depth won't be as much an issue as many tend to think. That's not out of blind optimism, rather the talent off the bench, and the role they need to fill.
In addition, given what this system needs, the defensive front has actually exceeded my expectations this off-season. While playmaking defensive linemen are ideal, they are rare, and for this scheme the Aggies really needed players who could simply occupy blockers and open up the myriad of pass rushing lanes that DeRuyter looks to exploit. However, after following this group closely, it's apparent that A&M has several starters not only fully capable in that role, but with the ability to find their way into the backfield consistently, and make plenty of plays on their own, be it against the pass or the run.
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), doing it's part in Texas A&M Football's return to prominence.
Last fall we witnessed Eddie Brown 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). His 2009 momentum was cut short, as he suffered an injury, which kept him out of spring ball. Most expected a healthy Brown, who returned in August, to be hungry and chomping at the bit to get back to work, and take his game from simply being solid up front to being a truly disruptive force up front for the Aggies' and he didn't disappoint. Eddie is extremely quick and powerful out of the blocks, and he follows with strong hands, shucking blockers well, and using his spin move, speed (he was clocked at 4.79 when he was at 288…he's now up to 295), and motor to be a consistent and disruptive force, always getting a solid push, bringing pressure up the middle, and making stops in the backfield. Coaches wisely decided to put Lucas Patterson at end (rather than sharing reps with Eddie at NT), and the move gives A&M it's three best lineman starting along the defensive front. With his wealth of experience kicking in, and his natural fit at nose tackle, 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 by 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. 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. Due to the hard-workers anticipated readiness (physically and mentally), and the coaches expectations of him as an immediate contributor, Mathis was actually listed by the staff as the second option on the right edge, before he was even cleared academically, prior to camp kicking off. After a little over a week of practice, the versatile lineman didn't disappoint, and was moved to nose tackle in a great move for Mathis and the team. Coaches felt it was the quickest way to get him on field this season, and it is very beneficial for A&M, as it affords coaches to put Lucas Patterson at defensive end (where DeRuyter says he is more natural and as mentioned puts the three best at starter). After his first few sessions acclimating to nose, he appeared much more comfortable and explosive. He has a great knack for block shedding and or pushing his way to the ball, is massive, strong, quick for his size, very active, and flat out makes plays. As DeRuyter said, he gotten better everyday and will provide significant contribution, while helping rotate Eddie Brown in. (A big focus this season is keeping the defensive lineman fresh).
Further Nose Tackle Depth
Of course if injuries become an issue at nose tackle, Lucas Patterson will likely slide back over but as for ordinary support, A&M's two primary options currently are Andrew Wolridge and Brandon Jackson.
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. While he has decent moves, and plays with a strong motor, Wolridge won't rack up a lot of sacks, but he can occupy blockers, and the hard hitter is also capable against the run. Coach Sherman stated in April, that he was close to securing the second team job, however with Eddie Brown and Jonathan Mathis doing so well at nose, he's a third or fourth option (as the only relatively proven backup) and will be 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 fill the role up front primarily needed by this defense.
Brandon Jackson, the highly sought after young man from Shreveport, Louisiana, 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. Just how soon Jackson steps into the fray is unknown, but he had a productive camp. He is extremely athletic and plays with the attitude and fire you like to see up front. While Mike Sherman was pleased with what he was seeing from Jackson early on from the impressive newcomer, he seemed to have peaked a bit about the midway point of camp because he was relying too much on basically what was his only move (a very effective power swim move), but in the last few sessions. The young man has a solid future for the Ags' and could do well off the bench in spots, but he needs some development and growth before he is a guy that can be plugged in without much drop off.
Tony Jerod-Eddie, like Eddie Brown, will enter his third season as a junior in the fall of 2010. TJE established himself in the starting rotation following his first season, and carried that into the 2009 season, when he started the first five games (before dislocating his elbow and losing the job to a surging Eddie Brown). In the course of those five early starts, and the other eight games as a vital backing defensive tackle, he earned 23 tackles (7 solo, 2 TFL, including one sack for nine yards), one batted ball, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick. The enormous lineman is a solid run stuffer, and his footwork and athleticism aid him well in pressuring opposing quarterbacks. He has the requisite on-field mean streak, and a good initial burst which looked even quicker this August, but his surge was really limited last year, with that weakened elbow (hand technique is just about as important as leg drive and he was still effective though obviously hindered last season). 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. Tony also has a knack for reading quarterbacks and batting down balls at the line of scrimmage. He didn't have a spectacular spring camp, but did a nice job, and has earned the starting job at the left end spot. His motor has been the only real knock on his game but Coach DeRuyter assuaged this to an extent in Monday's press conference, when he stated that he feels much better about the defensive line situation, and that with the additional lineman we now have, they can play TJE out of a rotation where they feel he is a much better player. With Tony going full out on every down, and not having to pace himself because he's playing every snap, I can see him having a great year as a consistent and disruptive force in the backfield.
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). In 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 and continued those efforts through August, and boasting the best camp (and off-season as whole) of any defensive lineman on the squad. Patterson is a very solid 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 power or slip through to the backfield as well. The anti-Haynesworthian young man, is willing to play wherever he needs to helps the team. What's more is he's dominated at both nose and end, consistently disrupting the run game, and pressuring the quarterback as well, garnering daily praise from coaches and teammates. Both Mathis stepping up at nose tackle, and Patterson's versatility, are huge assets to the team and staff, providing flexibility and allowing them to get the best three on the field starting (rather than Lucas and Eddie Brown trading reps at NT). DeRuyter recently mentioned that in addition to that benefit, 3-4 DE is actually where Lucas's projects and is a more natural fit for him. Look for the senior to follow a phenomenal off-season with a huge year up front for the Aggies, and quite possibly work his way into All Big XII honors and potentially the NFL. (I'm not being overly optimistic here, he's been that consistently disruptive.)
Defensive End Depth
Spencer Nealy had a quiet but promising freshman year, playing in all 13 games, with 19 tackles (11 solo, three of those for loss, including one sack for a 12 yard loss) while backing Matt Moss. He followed that with a solid spring and is going to have a good 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, great hand technique, and motor. He's a smart player but if can just needs harness his energy and intensity and focus on his assignments he's going to be a good one. Nealy was behind the eight ball with his size last season but is regarded as a weight room warrior amongst the team and is up to 270 now, which is pretty close to where he needs to be and should aid him significantly this season. As a backing end, he provides a nice change of pace from the bigger bodies that are starting. I can see this role fitting him well this season, until he starts really hitting his stride.
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 on the edge. With a valuable year of experience as a true freshman under his belt, and much more physically imposing now, Ennis is solid and his return helps shore up depth at end. He seemed to lack some of his usual explosion and quickness at times in camp but it's understandable given that he's just eight or so months back form knee surgery, and I'm not honestly not overly concerned about it as he still looked sound and at worst will be a player that can come off the bench and occupy blockers. Again he'll provide quality depth, and provided he stays healthy will get better as the year goes on.
A pleasant summer surprise was news that Ben Bass got his academics together and was back on the team. The coaches demanded perfection in the classroom and he gave it to them as he worked his way back into the program with a 4.0. I'm very proud of him for taking care of that, and it was blessing for the team having the talented young man back on the squad, and adding much needed defensive end depth. A highly heralded down lineman (who's offer list once 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 the aforementioned grades issue forced him off track. Bass is big, physical, quick, has good speed, and is a natural fit as a defensive end in the 3-4. Not surprisingly given the work he put in off the field, he is not taking this second chance for granted. As they saying goes, sometimes the best way to get the most out of a man is by taking everything away from him. Observing him in fall camp, he was playing every down and every practice set as if it was his last, and wile he seemed to have peeked midway through camp, he showed improvement in the last few sessions as he looked much more sound with finer points, like his hand work and block shedding. Like Nealy, he'll see plenty of time in the defensive end rotation as a strong option off the bench.
Yet another highly talented Louisiana defensive line product in A&M's 2010 class is Ivan Robinson. He could very 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 at the moment, 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 ran conditioning drills with the receivers this summer). Ivan fires off the ball, has great power, a non stop motor, and uses his aforementioned speed 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). He proved to be an impressive newcomer, an immediate and disruptive force and asset for the Aggie defense early on, and plays with the fiery attitude you like to see in a defensive lineman. He still has some developing to do and the bull rusher needs polish up on rush techniques, but will be a good option here and there this season, until he can fully get up to speed (unless he redshirts).
This off-season, Michael Ebbitt 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. Ebbitt had a quiet camp but continued his spring momentum, and looked impressive in spots. He's not going to be a playmaker, but he is a tenacious plugger in there, and though consistency will hold him out of the two deep, he has shown enough flashes to prove that he can get the job done in spots.
Future Defensive Ends
Highly touted Stephen Barrera found himself back home on the defensive line in the spring and according to Tim DeRuyter, was making strides in August, having worked his way into the two deep at defensive end. However his campaign has been cut short by a season ending hip injury. I'm sure the young Aggie legacy is disappointed (you have to feel for him after all the work he's put in to get to this point) but while I hesitate to call an injury a blessing in disguise (especially given that A&M can definitely put to use all available talented defensive lineman), after having to play before he was ready (due to the desperate situation at left tackle in 2010), he will now have time to get his feet firmly under him at the position, and be able to go full boar on the defensive line for his remaining three years of eligibility. Gavin Stansbury, a member of the promising Louisianna defensive line trio A&M landed in 2010, was likely to redshirt this season and the decision was made easier by an injury suffered midway through camp.
Defensive Line Overall
The three starters on A&M's defensive front are not only capable of opening pass rushing lanes for their new attacking 3-4 system, but have also proved themselves capable of slipping or powering their way into opposing backfields (especially with a difference maker like Von Miller being moved around, drawing double teams and opening windows of opportunity in those created mismatches). 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. 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.
Fall Season Guide 2010 - Defensive Line
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