Texas A&M Football: Have the Aggies Turned the Corner on Defense?

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Oct 8, 2016; College Station, TX, USA; The Texas A&M Aggies defense celebrates a turnover against the Tennessee Volunteers at Kyle Field. The Aggies defeat the Volunteers 45-38 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas A&M football team’s defense ain’t what she used to be – and hasn’t been for some time. Could help be on the way in the form of the 2017 recruiting class?

The 2017 Recruiting Class may just give the Aggies the missing pieces to return their defense to glory. To judge where the team might be going, we have to go back a ways. A long ways.

Got A Story For Ya, Ags

When Jackie Sherrill first came to College Station in 1982, he worked with his defensive coordinator R.C. Slocum to instill a defensive ethos that would dominate the state of Texas for twenty years. It was called the Wrecking Crew, and it led Texas A&M to one of its Golden Eras.

That era included multiple conference championships and a string of wins over arch-rival Texas Longhorns. It truly was one of the best times to be an Aggie fan.

Unfortunately for Aggie football fans, that Wrecking Crew mentality was gone by the time Sloculm, who had replaced Sherrill as head coach in 1989, finished his time as the A&M head coach in 2002. Since then, the team’s defense has not been the same. They’ve simply lost that toughness that those team’s in the ’80s were known for.

Make no mistake, there were quality players from time to time. Vonn Miller stands out as being pretty good. Still, the critical mass needed to meet the standard of the Wrecking Crew never really materialized. The memories of what was had Aggies everywhere yearning for more.

Apr 5, 2014; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers defensive coordinator John Chavis (R) argues with an official during the 2014 spring game at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Apr 5, 2014; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers defensive coordinator John Chavis (R) argues with an official during the 2014 spring game at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Enter The Chief

Then, some hope. After three years of struggling to make do, Kevin Sumlin fired Mark Snyder in order to bring in The Chief, John Chavis, for the 2015 season. Chavis is possibly the most successful defensive coordinator the SEC has had in the last half century.

In six seasons at LSU from 2009 to 2014 here’s where the Tigers’ ranked in total defense: 26, 12, 2, 8, 15, 9. During that span LSU managed a top 40 offense just once, averaging well below 80th in the country in total offense. Not only was his defense good. It was on the field a lot.

His challenge was to improve the talent on the defensive side of the ball and pair it with Sumlin’s high-octane offense. For two seasons, Chavis made significant improvements to the defense, to the point that there were chants of “Wrecking Crew” heard this past season. As the season wore on, they were proved premature as the defense was not able to maintain its high level of performance in the last third of the season.

In large part, depth was a key contributor – specifically at linebacker where large SEC offensive lines and running games were able to bowl over a unit that didn’t have the size or numbers to withstand the onslaught.

Texas A&M football

Oct 8, 2016; College Station, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies linebacker Otaro Alaka (42) in action during the game against the Tennessee Volunteers at Kyle Field. The Aggies defeat the Volunteers 45-38 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Turning Point?

This is where the 2017 Recruiting Class comes in. Specifically the linebackers: Anthony Hines III, Santino Marchiol and Devondrick Johnson. Those three come in with the pedigree to completely change the dynamic of Chavis’ defense. They are all highly touted and extremely talented. And in the case of Hines and Marchiol, already on campus and ready to participate in Spring Football.

This group joins Ontario Alaka and the other returning linebackers to give The Chief the horses to try to keep up in the brutal SEC West. To be fair, there were a lot of qualifiers in there. This is recruiting after all. A top prospect setting foot on campus is in fact still a new kid on the block in a much deeper pool. There is no way to tell which players will pour themselves into their craft and which will get left alone at a bar.

The good news, though, is in the quality and quantity. This isn’t just one good linebacker. This is three good to great linebackers all coming in at the same time. While freshman, all will come in hungry to contribute.

Time to take the next step

There were times last year where Alaka, Shaan Washington and Richard Moore were in fact good enough to be what the Aggie defense needed. Washington is out of eligibility, but Alaka and Moore return enough experience that if others can step up, the overall quality of the unit will improve.

The addition of Ron Cooper to coach defensive backs is also very important. He brings recruiting moxie and a track record of coaching up players of all skill levels. His experience with Chavis is also very important. He’ll be working with the secondary, rather than directly with the linebackers. Still, more tenacity and proven coaching talent can only be a good thing.

But, as many have said, Jimmies and Joes always beat Xs and Os. Getting the linebackers on campus and up to speed is the most likely change this defense needs to move closer and closer to being elite once again.

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Oct 8, 2016; College Station, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies defensive lineman Myles Garrett (15) in action during the game against the Tennessee Volunteers at Kyle Field. The Aggies defeat the Volunteers 45-38 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Challenge Accepted

The challenge, unfortunately, is that it may not be enough. The defensive line is losing a Top 5 NFL Draft pick in Myles Garrett and likely Second Round pick in Daeshon Hall. The linebackers and interior linemen are going to need to step up their game in a big way.

The SEC is all about the line of scrimmage, especially as it relates to a running game. If the linebackers are in fact improved, that should give the defense a better chance to be better on a more consistent basis. If nothing else, the defense will continue to improve, which is absolutely necessary if the Aggies are going to rise above the middle of the pack in the SEC.

Stopping the running game is undoubtedly the priority when it comes to the new linebackers. The Aggies surrendered 21 rushing touchdowns last season and were repeatedly gashed on the ground. They were behind a certain burnt orange Big 12 team in run defense, it was that bad.

It seemed like last year’s unit was out of gas come November. The addition of fresh bodies, plus the increased roll of other young players like Dwaine Thomas and Tyrel Dodson should go a long way. Honestly, if they tackled better a year ago things wouldn’t have been so bad. Hines is a proven tackler. The Aggies need him to make the jump to the next level quickly.

One recruiting class can’t make all your defensive problems disappear. That’s just too optimistic. However, it’s too soon to say that the Aggies won’t make significant strides on defense in 2017.

*** Stats from Sports Reference and CFBstats.com***

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