UCLA Offense vs. Texas A&M Defense
You might have heard quite a bit this offseason about Texas A&M's vaunted pass rush, and for good reason, which we'll get to in a bit.
But that hype tends to cover up that, by and large, the Aggie defense last year was mediocre at best, and in some aspects actively bad.
The issue for Texas A&M all year was stopping the run. The Aggies were very bad, even worse than UCLA, if you can believe it. A&M allowed a full five yards per rush on the ground (99th in the country), and if anything, that was a positive step from previous years. In 2014, the Aggies allowed 5.2 yards per rush, and in 2013, 5.4. At this pace, A&M might have a solid run defense again by 2020.
New defensive coordinator John Chavis did have a positive impact, but it wasn't quite as significant as it needed to be, so the Aggies go into 2016 with questions still left to answer on the defensive side of the ball.
Chavis, for his part, runs a 4-3 base defense, but he really made a name for himself with his effective use of sub-packages at LSU, including a killer nickel package that helped make LSU one of the most fearsome defenses in the country a few seasons ago. Chavis, while not particularly blitz-happy, really focuses on penetration with his defensive line which can, if the defense isn't disciplined enough and linebacker play isn't steady enough, lead to bigger gains in the running game. On the flip side, that penetrate-first philosophy also leads to a good amount of tackles for loss and sacks.
The defensive line is where it all starts for Chavis and his defense, and any conversation about Texas A&M's defensive personnel has to start with the tandem of defensive ends, senior Daeshon Hall (6'6, 270) and junior Myles Garrett (6'5, 270). The two combined for 34 tackles for loss last year, including 19.5 sacks. Hall is a very good player, but Garrett is the freak of the two, with the size of a three-technique and the speed and quickness of a guy 30 pounds lighter. He's one of the premier pass rushers in college football for very good reason. The two are especially long, as well, which makes them much tougher to deal with for offensive tackles.
Neither Hall or Garrett is any great shakes as a run defender, or at least that was the case last year. Reportedly, Garrett especially has put on strength to become a better run defender, but we'll wait and see if he's made real progress. Teams made a bit of a living last year running right at Garrett.
At the defensive tackle spots, the Aggies have another pair of big bodies in junior Zaycoven Henderson (6'2, 300) and senior Hardreck Walker (6'2, 290). Henderson played considerably last year, but Walker was used more sparingly after a pretty big sophomore campaign. The two are expected to help shore up an interior that was porous at times last year. Daylon Mack (6'1, 320), the big-time sophomore defensive tackle, should rotate in liberally, and Kingsley Keke (6'3, 310) will also work into the interior rotation. On the ends, junior Qualen Cunningham (6'3, 240), junior Jarrett Johnson (6'3, 260), and sophomore James Lockhart (6'3, 260) will factor into the rotation as well, but none of them are the physical marvels that Hall and Garrett are.
The Aggies have had a bit of a tumultuous offseason at linebacker, with junior linebacker Josh Walker being suspended after an arrest for domestic assault. Walker was in the mix to start this year, and his loss does throw off the depth chart a bit. At middle linebacker, Texas A&M will start Otaro Alaka (6'3, 240), the sophomore linebacker who had to take a medical redshirt last year after dislocating an elbow and tearing his labrum in the opener. He starred as a freshman, though, starting several games and looking like a potential star to close out the year in the Liberty Bowl, so A&M has high hopes for him. He'll be backed up by senior Claude George (6'2, 240)
At outside linebacker, the Aggies have some experience with senior Shaan Washington (6'3, 240), who started every game last season. He was the second leading tackler on the team and plays with good physicality. Sophomore Richard Moore (6'1, 218) will start on the other side, and he's a potential disruptor after a promising freshman campaign. Behind Washington and Moore, sophomores Cullen Gillaspia (6'2, 230) and Dwaine Thomas (6'2, 225) figure to get most of the time.
The linebacker corps has good size, but struggled a bit in pursuit last year. The hope is that a healthy Alaka and the continued growth of Moore could help the defense get a little better sideline to sideline in the running game.
The secondary is led by stud junior safety Armani Watts (5'11, 200). Watts led the team in tackles last year by an absurd margin, recording 126 with the next closest (Washington) at 81. He's a good cover safety, and he also had to play a big role in run support last year as well. The hope for Texas A&M is that he tackles far fewer guys this year, as it generally doesn't mean good things for your run defense when your safety is your leading tackler. He'll be joined at safety by senior Justin Evans (6'1, 200), who's a big hitter that transferred in from junior college before last year. Those two provide a real stabilizing force at safety.
Old friend and not at all a safety but, in fact, a picture-perfect beautiful corner Priest Willis (6'2, 200) will start for the Aggies at cornerback. Willis, now a redshirt junior, is finally getting his opportunity to shine, and it should be interesting to see how he fares. He's drawn decent reviews this offseason, but we saw enough of him at corner at UCLA to have some trepidation about how he'll do. Opposite him, junior Nick Harvey (5'10, 185) looks like he'll get the nod, and he also doesn't have starting experience. He was the first corner off the bench last year, though.
Like we said above, the Aggies will often go with a nickel package under Chavis, and when they do, junior Donovan Wilson (6'1, 206) will be the guy. He started seven games at nickel last year, and was effective in that role. He brings a little more size than is typical at nickel, and can certainly be used in the box to help with the run as well.
There are some talented bodies in the depth chart for the secondary, but most of them are unproven, with freshmen Roney Elam (6'2, 180) and Larry Pryor (6'0, 205) factoring prominently into the depth, to go along with sophomore Deshawn Capers-Smith (6'0, 190).
UCLA, for its part, is breaking in a new offensive scheme behind offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu, and it remains to be seen how it'll fare come game time. He certainly has some pieces to work with, though.
First among those pieces is sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen. Rosen is fresh off one of the best seasons ever for a true freshman quarterback and expectations are very high for him. He'll need to find some receiving targets he's comfortable with, though, as three of his four top targets from a year ago are busy trying to make NFL teams at the moment. UCLA has plenty of options in the receiving corps, but none emerged significantly during fall camp. Expect a few familiar names like Eldridge Massington, Kenny Walker, and Darren Andrews to get some early playing time, but don't be surprised if a player like freshman Theo Howard ends up seizing the top job. Howard was very impressive in fall camp, and presents a dangerous combination of speed, quickness, and playmaking ability. Converted DB Ishmael Adams has looked like a real weapon in practice and will have a big impact on UCLA's offense, with Polamalu trying to get the ball in his hands.
Of course, Rosen will also need to be protected, and he has, arguably, two of the best tackles in the Pac-12 to protect him from the edge rush in senior left tackle Conor McDermott and redshirt sophomore right tackle Kolton Miller. The two 6'8+ behemoths form an excellent tandem and should provide Rosen with plenty of protection from edge rush this year. The issue is more on the interior. UCLA lost three starting linemen from last year, all of whom started at one point or another on the interior last year. UCLA gets Scott Quessenberry back at center after he sat out a year, and he should provide some stability, but there are question marks at the guard spots with Kenny Lacy and Poasi Moala the starters with little depth behind them.
If the offensive line can reliably open up holes, UCLA, even without Paul Perkins, has the running backs to take advantage. Sotonye Jamabo, the sophomore star, figures to be the starter, but UCLA really didn't have a bad choice to make, with junior Nate Starks and sophomore Bolu Olorunfunmi both looking like starter-level talents this offseason. That three-headed monster should cause fits for many defenses this year.
The Bruins are also debuting some pro-style elements, which means more tight end and fullback usage. Nate Iese will start at tight end, and he looked like he might have the inside track at being one of Rosen's favorite passing targets this year. At fullback, with Cameron Griffin most likely out after suffering a concussion, Ainuu Taua will likely get the start, and it should be very interesting to see what kind of tenacity the former defensive tackle brings to the table on offense. He was a lot of fun to watch in the offseason.
We were tempted to opt for a UCLA advantage here, but there are a few key things that prevent us from doing so. First, A&M's strength on the defensive line could pose some issues for UCLA's offensive line. You have to figure that Garrett and Hall will provide a very tough test for even UCLA's excellent tackles, and the Aggies have a lot of bulk up front to cause issues for UCLA on the interior.
Second, we really just don't know what we're going to get from Polamalu and his offense. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just an unknown. If UCLA were running the same scheme from last year, we'd probably give the advantage to UCLA even without great depth on the offensive line, but it's hard to do that here. This will be Polamalu's first real game as the designer of an offense and play caller, and that could come with some growing pains.
As far as the match-ups go, this is an obvious game where UCLA should look to run the ball first. Until Texas A&M can prove it's a much better run defense than it has shown the last few years, UCLA should pound the ball. It'll be a real test of the interior of the line, and the philosophy of the new pro-style scheme, to see if they're able to run the ball without spreading out the defense, which is how Noel Mazzone ran the ball at UCLA. If they can, it'll be a great sign for the rest of the season, particularly on those dreaded third-and-shorts that have caused the Bruins so many issues.
McDermott and Miller are going to have to play well -- there's just no other way to say it. The Bruins are going to have to pass at some point, and the two long-armed tackles are going to have to hold off their long-armed and athletic counterparts on the defensive side of the ball. We're reasonably confident they will have some success, but we're also pretty confident that Garrett or Hall is going to break through a time or two.
A&M has some weaknesses at corner that can be exploited. Willis, who is not a safety but in fact a corner, never looked comfortable at UCLA, and really struggled covering in space. Finding a way to isolate him in coverage and match him up against speed would be ideal, and probably something the UCLA coaches, intimately familiar with his limitations, have considered.
The big key will be running the ball, though, and that's going to depend on the interior of the offensive line, in large part. If the Bruins can run it, they should dominate this side of the matchup, and a good rushing performance against this team would be a very good sign for the rest of the season.