Position Battles: Defensive Line

The A&M defense is coming off its worst season in recent history. Normally, a season that places you dead last statistically in the SEC would be cause for some turnover in the coaching staff. However, no one was fired. The only turnover that happened was voluntary with secondary coach Marcel Yates accepting the defensive coordinator position at his alma mater, Boise St. Coach Sumlin then went out and snagged one of the best secondary coaches available in former Nebraska secondary coach Joseph Terry. So why weren’t there major changes? Shouldn’t the defensive coaches be accountable for such an awful defensive showing? Well, cooler heads prevailed and coach Sumlin knew that building an elite defense takes time, depth, and senior leadership.

In 2012, the coaching staff arrived to a defensive unit that had remained largely intact for several years. Linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter anchored the middle and are now in the NFL. Spencer Nealy was a force at defensive tackle and Damontre Moore gave the Aggies an elite pass rush in his junior year and final season. All these pieces were crucial to the Aggies stunning the SEC with an 11-2 season highlighted by the upset of Alabama and crushing Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. None of that could have been accomplished without the steady and consistent play of our seniors. But with the departure of those seniors and junior Damontre Moore, the depth that A&M lacked was horribly exposed. At certain points in 2013, Coach Snyder looked out onto the field and saw 8 freshmen looking back at him. That experience will pay dividends soon, but the growing pains were very evident in 2013 and will still be there in 2014.

The SEC prides itself on one area above all else, the defensive line. Alabama, LSU, and Florida consistently turn out top talent to the NFL draft. And over the past decade, these few programs have distinguished themselves from the rest of the league, and consequently the rest of the nation. Today, Maroon Report will focus in on the battles going on for the defensive end, defensive tackle, and RUSH positions.

Defensive End
At defensive end there is a wide open battle competing for the one spot available. All could figure into the rotation at some point next season including the incoming true freshman.

Gavin Stansbury – the redshirt senior enters his 5th year with the program and started most games in 2013. He recorded 47 tackles and 3 sacks in 2013. When healthy, he is a consistent player that the coaches can count on.
Julian Obioha – the junior arrived at A&M in 2012 and immediately worked his way into a starting spot notching 1 sack and 25 tackles. He further improved in 2013 replacing Damontre Moore at the RUSH position. He tallied 38 tackles but still only 1 sack. With playmakers emerging at the RUSH position, A&M should be able to move him back to defensive end in 2014, his natural position.
Jay Arnold – the sophomore played sparingly in 4 games last season but emerged in the Missouri game with a huge 2 sack, 3 tackle game. This showing vaulted him into an increased role during the bowl game and he shined there as well. A&M will be smart to use him more in 2014 as he has a knack for getting to the ball and making plays. He is even drawing comparisons to the beloved Spencer Nealy.
Tyrone Taylor – after redshirting in 2012, Taylor earned some playing time in 2013 notching 13 tackles and 1 sack. Right now in spring camp, several defensive linemen are sidelined with offseason injuries. “We just want [them] to be completely healthy, which is giving the Taylors a lot of reps because we don’t know what they can do,” Sumlin said. “It’s time for the Taylors to show what they can do and we’re giving them every opportunity.”
Jarrett Johnson – the 3-star freshman comes in with the 2014 class and could be one of the few players on the defensive side that redshirts. He committed early to A&M (6/03/13) and has never wavered during his recruitment.

Defensive Tackle
The coaches will be looking to fill two spots at defensive tackle this year. A&M’s inability to stop the run up the middle has left this position wide open as well. Furthermore, Isaiah Golden, who played in every game last season and started most, is facing an indefinite suspension from his offseason arrest. It will be interesting to see who emerges in spring practice and if Golden actually returns to the team.

Ivan Robinson – the redshirt senior has been injury plagued throughout his A&M career. Earlier this month he was sidelined with an Achilles injury that could cause him to hang up his cleats. This is a major loss to the A&M defensive line, as many figured he would start next season.
Alonzo Williams – last season, the junior notched 26 tackles and 3 sacks in 11 games played. He backed up Robinson last year and should see a more increased role in 2014.
Justin Manning – a consensus 4-star recruit and top 100 player nationally, the coaching staff surprisingly redshirted him in 2013. But he has had a strong spring camp so far and has earned praise from Sumlin, “[Manning] showed some twitch that he had in high school. He lost some weight; when he got here he was out of shape. He has come on.”
Isaiah Golden – as mentioned before, Golden is currently suspended. However, he was a major contributor in the 2013 season and would figure back into the rotation immediately if he takes care of his personal and legal issues.
Hardreck Walker – another 4-star defensive tackle signee in 2013, Walker saw limited action last season. In all, he notched 5 tackles in 8 games played. An offseason in Larry Jackson’s strength and conditioning program should do him well and we could see an increased role with the sophomore.
Zaycoven Henderson – the true freshman and early enrollee was a late recruiting win over Texas in 2014. Throughout spring camp the message has been the same from Sumlin, “Henderson continues to impress.” He is one of the few players that Sumlin has raved about and could be a major contributor this coming season.
Deshawn Washington – the highly touted 2014 recruit and states top defensive tackle will arrive this summer and could earn playing time this season. This should largely depend on if Golden works his way back into the lineup or not. If Golden does return, then the coaches may look to redshirt Washington in 2014.

RUSH
A&M had several years of elite rushers during the Von Miller and Damontre Moore days. But as mentioned earlier, there was simply no one that could even come close to replicating that pressure in 2013. We could see a new face emerge in 2014 at this position.

Tyrell Taylor – a senior and older brother to Tyrone, Tyrell only played in the first two games last season. Although he is getting lots of looks during spring camp due to the other players’ injuries, Tyrell is not expected to contribute in his final season at A&M.
Daeshon Hall – a 4-star recruit from the 2013 class, Hall made appearances in every game last season and had 29 tackles, 1 interception, and 3 TFL last year. He is fast and could one day be an elite pass rusher but he desperately needs to put on some weight. He played at 245 lbs last year and needs to get that up if he wants to be a factor against the SEC lineman.
Qualen Cunningham – a high priority target out of Arizona, Qualen committed to the Aggies over UCLA, USC, Oregon, and Notre Dame. He is a 4-star recruit and top 100 prospect in the 2014 class. He will arrive this summer and could figure into the rotation his freshman year. But like Daeshon, he will need to get his weight up. He checked in at 220 lbs his senior year of high school.
ImageMyles Garrett – The prize of the 2014 class, Myles Garrett is the #2 player nationally according to rivals and has drawn comparisons to Jadaveon Clowney. After attending one of his basketball games, Sumlin said he “looks like batman” with his shirt off. The guy committed to A&M while holding a sledgehammer as pictured and should prove to be the answer to all of A&M’s blitzing problems. In high school, he amassed 34 sacks, 172 tackles, and 3 forced fumbles.

Sumlin and staff have a huge undertaking with the defensive line. Not only are several players out during spring camp with various injuries, but two possible starters in Ivan Robinson and Isaiah Golden could be out permanently. This uncertainty will most likely yield another very green defensive line, especially at the defensive tackle position. Players need to step up this season, but the coaching staff also needs to do a better job of rotating in fresh bodies throughout the game. If there is a clear lack of depth and playmakers at the defensive tackle position, the coaching staff could look to move from a 4-3 defense to a 3-3-5 this season. Look for A&M to make a step in the right direction in 2014, but maybe not a big step.

Prediction:
Defensive End: Gavin Stansbury
Defensive Tackle: Alonzo Williams
Defensive Tackle: Justin Manning
RUSH: Myles Garrett

 

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