- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Texas A&M senior Nate Askew scored his first career defensive touchdown on Sept. 7, it was a big moment.
The outside linebacker, who spent his first three seasons playing receiver, is still working to improve and master his new position, which he switched to during the offseason.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin, who prompted the move, likes to joke with Askew about his 30-yard interception return for a touchdown against Sam Houston State.
"He's catching the ball better on defense and he's already scored more touchdowns [on defense than he did on offense] since I've been here," Sumlin said with a laugh. "I give him a hard time about that, but he doesn't think that's funny, by the way."
Jokes aside, Sumlin is right. Askew spent limited time as a receiver in 2012, Sumlin's first as head coach at Texas A&M. He finished the season with just three catches for 10 yards, appearing in 10 games. His only career offensive touchdown came as a sophomore in 2011 under former head coach Mike Sherman.
Having a 6-foot-4, 230-pound athlete who possesses speed and a vertical jump better than 40 inches standing on the sidelines didn't make sense to Sumlin, and for whatever reason, receiver wasn't working out for Askew. So Sumlin approached Askew this offseason with the idea of moving him to linebacker for his senior season.
"I didn't know what to think, honestly," Askew recalled thinking. "Linebacker? I don't know about this. I've never played defense before. I don't know how this is going to go."
Sumlin's message was that Askew could help on defense.
"He just told me I was an athlete and for whatever reason, things weren't working out at receiver position but he wanted to get his best guys on the field," Askew said. "He said he believed that I can contribute somewhere and he tried to figure out that place and he thought maybe linebacker would be the best position for me."
What sold Askew on the idea was spending practice time at outside linebacker and having some success as a pass rusher during spring football.
"I just went into it with an open mind. I was like, 'OK, I can't knock anything until I try it,'" Askew said. "So I thought I'd give it a try and see how it goes. I got out there the first practice and I actually liked it. ...[In the first practice] they had me pass rushing. I was able to use my speed off the edge and get around [Cedric Ogubehi] and Jake [Matthews] a few times and after that, I guess you could say it's like golfing. Hitting that first great ball draws you back into the game. That's what it did. I made that first pass rush and I thought, 'I can do this.'"
In the first five games, Askew has shown flashes of playmaking ability. Of his 14 tackles, three are tackles for loss, including a sack. In addition to his interception against Sam Houston State, he also has a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry.
On Sept. 28, he made his first career defensive start against Arkansas and he's listed as the starter on the Aggies' depth chart in advance of their road game at Ole Miss on Saturday.
"I think he's embraced it; he's playing with confidence," Sumlin said. "Has he made some mistakes? Sure. But he's moving along that way and I think the biggest positive is that he is helping us as a team [at linebacker] more than he was helping us at wide receiver."
The fact that Askew has contributed as much as he has is a testament to his athleticism and ability to adapt but also is a sign of the ever-shifting personnel on the Aggies' defense, which has struggled throughout the season and is 112th in yards allowed per game. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder & Co. are trying to find the best combination of players as youth and inexperience permeates the depth chart.
Askew is continuing to work at his craft. Former all-conference Aggies linebacker Sean Porter has been a significant resource for him. They used to be roommates and Porter also played strongside linebacker, which is what Askew is playing. Askew's desire for improvement is much like the Aggies' defense as a whole right now.
"Me and Sean had conversations for two hours on the phone just talking about the linebacker position, different things that came up at practice and how do you approach this and approach that," Askew said. "Since he perfected his craft so well at the 'Sam' position and I play the same position, I thought maybe I could pick his brain and do that."
5dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
6dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf