COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M’s final football game of 2013 ended with a wild celebration and put an exclamation point on the Aggies’ 21-point comeback to beat Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta.
The victory was A&M’s ninth of the season. However, lost among the postgame confetti was more evidence of a nagging trend – the Aggies allowed 48 points and 661 total yards to the Blue Devils, a middle-of-the-road offense, on the national scene. A&M needed to score 52 points, 10 more than its season average, to beat Duke, a double-digit underdog.
There is no doubt that this year’s version of A&M’s offense will undergo growing pains, with the Aggies in search of a new quarterback and a big-play receiver to replace Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans, who formed one of the best tandems in college football the past two seasons.
But has the Aggies’ defense, which used 10 freshmen a year ago, grown up? Has the unit matured enough to stop the run in the rush-oriented SEC and limit the big plays? Since last season, A&M has added the top-ranked defensive recruit in the country in Myles Garrett. So, for the Aggies, there is reason to hope their defense could see better days this fall.
“Defensively, we’ve got a whole lot of depth,” A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said,“but we’ve got a whole lot of youth.”
A&M will know immediately what sort of defense it possesses, since the Aggies open the season Aug. 28 at South Carolina, winners of their past 18 home games. For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, the first preseason practice, set for Aug. 1, can’t come quickly enough.
Cornerback Deshazor Everett, who could be A&M’s top defender, was musing on Twitter last month about how oddsmakers established his team as a 25-1 choice to win the SEC title. He thought the odds were out of whack with the Aggies’ high preseason expectations.
“A lot of people sleep on us,” Everett said.
But most folks who witnessed the Aggies’ defense last season wonder if it’s capable of stopping anyone.
The statistics were ugly last year. A&M was 109th in the country in total defense, allowing an average of 475.8 yards per game. Only three schools from the five power conferences ranked lower than A&M – Illinois, Indiana and California.
The Aggies were last in the SEC and 110th nationally in rushing defense, bending for 222.3 yards per game. The defense, with 21 sacks, was ineffective in rushing the passer. The one thing the Aggies did well was coming up with big plays. They had 17 interceptions, returning four for touchdowns, including Toney Hurd’s 55-yarder in the bowl game that gave A&M its winning score.
In most games last season, the Aggies could rely on its potent offense to outscore the opposition. A&M led the SEC in scoring (43.6 points per game), passing (350.9 yards) and total offense (538.2).
The Aggies return seven starters on defense, but two of the starters they lost were potential young stars in linebacker Darian Caliborne and tackle Isaiah Golden. Sumlin kicked them off the squad because of multiple arrests. Claiborne came within six tackles last season of breaking Dat Nguyen’s school freshman record of 94 stops, while Golden started six games.
Sumlin and Snyder will be able to build around Garrett, the dynamic defensive end. Thirteen other underclassmen should be in the two-deep roster.
If they grow up quickly, maybe A&M’s defense won’t face a repeat of 2013.