COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Going into the 2012 season, Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder could take some comfort in the fact that the Aggies' defense had experienced upperclassmen in key spots.
Two starting linebackers, both of whom emerged as leaders for the 11-2 Aggies, were seniors (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart). So was the starting free safety (Steven Terrell) and one defensive tackle (Spencer Nealy). The player who emerged as the team's leader in several statistical categories was a junior and third-year letterman, Damontre Moore.
With all of those players gone, the Aggies are hunting for new leaders on their defense. Interestingly, it may come from the part of the defense that was the youngest last season: the secondary.
"Coming into the spring, we basically have been trying to find our new leaders," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "Vocal leaders, people that lead by example. We have a couple of people that are falling into that role. Donnie Baggs, Howard Matthews, Deshazor Everett and I've also been one of the people that are trying to step into this new role. We're trying to find new leaders for the defense and for the team next year."
Baggs is the first team middle linebacker -- the same position Stewart was in last year -- so his emergence is key. The new blood replacing the other departed seniors, and Moore, are all young or inexperienced or both.
Matthews, who started the Aggies' last four games at strong safety and played in 12, has probably made the biggest transformation. At the start of last season, he wasn't even on the two-deep. By season's end, he became a key player and this spring, Snyder and defensive backs coach Marcel Yates are looking to him to help others, like junior Floyd Raven, who has moved to free safety from cornerback.
"[The difference is] night and day," Yates said of Matthews. "We didn't even have any clue if he was going to start, play for us, or what. Him being a guy that came on toward the end of the season, he's been doing a great job for us."
The fact that the secondary only lost one starter -- Terrell -- also helps Yates and the defense establish some consistency on the back end.
"It's really a big difference for me because I didn't know what I had last year," Yates said. "I didn't know those guys as far as in the game. Now I know what they can do. With Howard, Floyd, Toney Hurd, [De'Vante] Harris, Otis [Jacobs], we have some guys that we know exactly what they can do in a game."
And the Aggies do return defensive players with experience. Senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, senior linebacker Steven Jenkins and sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha -- all of which were starters last season -- will be back. But injuries have sidelined them this spring.
"They're over on the side injured right now," Snyder said. "Donnie's done a pretty good job; I think he's done a really good job of getting us lined up, being a leader. Toney Hurd is pretty vocal, playing with a lot of energy. So we're getting a little bit of leadership, but not a ton of it."