It was a busy offseason in College Station, as Texas A&M and coach Kevin Sumlin made the defense a top priority after this unit has struggled mightily through three years in the SEC.
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John Chavis was hired away from LSU, and the veteran coordinator is tasked with fixing a defense that allowed 36.6 points per game in SEC contests last season.
Scoring points won’t be a problem for the Aggies. However, improving in the win column means Texas A&M has to take a step forward on defense.
Allen could be a breakout star
If his freshman season is any indication, quarterback Kyle Allen will develop into one of the top passers in the SEC this year. Thrust into the starting ineup in November, Allen threw three touchdown passes against Missouri and four against Auburn and West Virginia. Allen, an Arizona native, will try to continue that momentum in the season-opener against Arizona State.
Still, Allen must stave off a challenge from highly touted freshman Kyler Murray — assuming Murray doesn’t sign a professional baseball contract (he has publicly stated he’s bypassing the MLB Draft). Whoever emerges has an array of talented receivers to target. Sophomore Speedy Noil is the deep threat his name would suggest, while junior Josh Reynolds set a school record with 13 touchdown catches.
The Aggies must run more effectively, though. More production is desperately needed from running backs Tra Carson and Brandon Williams (who might also play some cornerback), who are running behind an offensive line that didn’t meet A&M’s typical standards in 2014. The Aggies allowed 27 sacks and failed too often to convert short-yardage situations. Enter former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen, who will coordinate the running game and coach the offensive line. He’s stressed better technique and a more aggressive mentality.
Can John Chavis be a defensive savior?
Frustrated from two years of inept defensive play, coach Kevin Sumlin convinced John Chavis, one of the nation’s most respected defensive coordinators, to leave LSU and come to College Station. The move cost A&M $1.7 million per season, but if Chavis can rejuvenate the once-proud "Wrecking Crew," that price tag will look like a bargain.
Athletic pass-rushing ends are of utmost importance in Chavis’ scheme, and he has them. Myles Garrett set an SEC freshman record with 11.5 sacks and projects to be even better in 2015. The Aggies believe they will be able to apply pressure from the other end, too. Junior Daeshon Hall has bulked up to 260 pounds and seems primed for a breakout year. Senior tackle Alonzo Williams is effective against the run but desperately needs help inside.
The linebacker position has been especially moribund the past two seasons, but there are some signs of improvement. Sophomore Otaro Alaka showed steady improvement and was named Defensive MVP of the Liberty Bowl. However, injuries have been a recurring problem. Junior college transfer Claude George had a strong showing in the spring at middle linebacker and figures to upgrade A&M’s run defense immediately.
The Aggies also need to improve their pass defense. Senior cornerback De’Vante Harris has started since his freshman season, but he’s also been inconsistent. He may flourish in Chavis’ aggressive press coverage scheme. A&M is in better shape at safety. Armani Watts aims to build on a solid true freshman season in which he grabbed three picks. Junior college transfer Justin Evans drew raves in the spring.
Tale of two kickers
Punter is an area of strength. Drew Kaser, a Ray Guy Award finalist, is among the best in the country. Placekicking is another matter. Taylor Bertolet has great range but questionable accuracy. He’s converted just 4-of-12 field goal attempts between 30 and 49 yards and has missed 10 extra points.
Texas A&M’s 2015 outlook
The Aggies have learned they can go only so far in the SEC without a strong defense. Therefore, they’re counting on Chavis to rebuild a unit that ranked 102nd in the nation and last in the SEC in total defense in 2014. Chavis has young talent with which to work but obviously faces a tall task. The Aggies have a high-scoring offense loaded with big-play threats, so they can be a serious contender in the SEC with a respectable defense. How quickly can Chavis deliver?