Texas A&M Aggies: Mike Sherman

Why A&M has so much youth on defense

October, 25, 2013
10/25/13
11:45
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The words "youth" and "inexperience" are frequently used to describe the Texas A&M defense this season.

The struggles are significant. The Aggies rank near the bottom of the FBS in most defensive statistical categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the five teams that have allowed more yards per game than the Aggies -- New Mexico State, Idaho, California, Nevada and Indiana -- have a combined record of 8-27.

Texas A&M is fortunate enough to have a 5-2 record (2-2 in the SEC). It certainly helps to have one of the nation's most high-powered offenses and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Johnny Manziel).

For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff, it has been a challenge from the start of the season. Suspensions, injuries and ineffectiveness are all to blame.

The Aggies currently have 11 freshmen in their defensive two-deep depth chart. Two true freshmen (defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne) are starting. The four defensive line first-team spots include Golden and two sophomores. At linebacker, a former receiver who moved to linebacker this offseason (Nate Askew) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Of the seven linebackers on the Aggies' two-deep, only one (Steven Jenkins) started a full season at the position before this year.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin's first signing class that was completely under his watch had 32 members, 18 of whom were on defense. Of those 18, a dozen have already played this season.

But how did the Aggies get to this point, playing this many freshmen and newcomers? There are some juniors and seniors on the field, but there aren't nearly as many as there were a year ago when the Aggies went 11-2 in their debut season in the SEC.

In 2012, the Aggies were fortunate to have the benefit of some good leaders on defense and others who were productive. At linebacker, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart both provided leadership and production. Along the defensive line, Spencer Nealy made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle effectively despite not having the ideal size for the position. Steven Terrell was a steady and heady player at free safety. All four of those players were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. So was Dustin Harris, who didn't always start but played plenty at cornerback and was the team's primary punt returner.

One defensive player still remains from that 2009 class: defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who started last season and this year but suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 28 against Arkansas. But last year's A&M starting defense was more than half made up of what turned out to be a solid recruiting class on the defensive side of the ball.

So to understand why A&M is in the position it is now, take a look at the recruiting classes on defense since then:
  • In 2010, the Aggies signed seven defensive players and two more that were offensive players but eventually moved to defense. Defensive end Damontre Moore turned out to be a star, but declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. For a team that's lacking in its pass rush (only three FBS teams have fewer sacks than Texas A&M's seven this season) a guy like that could help. Of the remainders in that class, three are starting: Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel back, Gavin Stansbury at defensive end and Askew, who was recruited and spent his first three years at receiver, at strongside linebacker. Two others (defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and quarterback Clay Honeycutt, who's now a reserve safety) are playing but not starting. Nehemiah Hicks was considered to be either a defensive end or tight end and became a tight end. The other two players in the defensive class are no longer on the team.
  • The 2011 class -- the final class signed by former head coach Mike Sherman -- brought 13 defensive players. Deshazor Everett, a cornerback with ability to play safety, is currently the defense's best player. Safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven and linebacker Steven Jenkins also emerged as starters out of that group. One of the big fish landed late in that class, defensive end Brandon Alexander, has rarely played. He's now getting some playing time at tight end. Linebacker Donnie Baggs entered this season as the starting middle linebacker but is now a reserve. Tyrell Taylor is rotating at defensive end. The rest of the group hasn't made any impact at all. Five players in that group are no longer with the program.
  • The 2012 class, the first one Sumlin signed after essentially two months on the job, had some holdovers that committed to the program under Sherman. It is a mixed bag. Four of those players are starting as either true sophomores (Julien Obioha at defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle and De'Vante Harris at cornerback) or in one case, a senior (cornerback Tramain Jacobs, who was a junior college transfer). Defensive end Tyrone Taylor, brother of Tyrell, gets some playing time at defensive end. Edward Pope, who was a receiver/defensive back, is playing receiver for the Aggies. A car accident took away one member from that class -- defensive tackle Polo Manukainiu, who died in a crash in July and is being honored by the team every week this season. A spinal injury took away another member, linebacker Michael Richardson, who played as a freshman. He had successful surgery and was fortunate to not suffer any major physical issues, but is no longer playing football. Defensive back Kenneth Marshall, though on the team, was not part of the 105-man roster during preseason training camp. Linebacker Jordan Richmond transferred to Navarro College in the offseason and one player in the class, defensive tackle Edmund Ray, never made it to campus because of qualifying issues.

Instant analysis: Texas A&M 41, OU 13

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
10:46
PM ET


ARLINGTON, Texas -- Another Cotton Bowl, another bad loss for the Big 12. Excluding current SEC member Missouri's win back in 2008, the Big 12 has lost the Cotton Bowl to an SEC opponent in eight consecutive seasons. Johnny Football put on a show after a month away and showed zero signs of rust and a zillion signs of being an endless source of frustration for Oklahoma's defense.

The Big 12 finished 4-5 in its nine bowl games, and the SEC improved to 4-3 in its bowl games. Let's take a look at some instant analysis for Texas A&M's 41-13 blowout win over the Sooners.

It was over when: Facing a fourth-and-5 late in the third quarter, Manziel hit Ryan Swope over the middle on a short slant. Swope shed a tackler and raced 33 yards to put the Aggies up, 34-13. That capped a run of three Oklahoma three-and-outs to begin the second half and spelled doom for the Sooners.

Game ball goes to: Johnny Manziel. I mean, who else? He broke the Cotton Bowl record for total yards with 516 and accounted for four touchdowns. It could have even been five, too, if not for Malcome Kennedy's bobbling a pass in the end zone that was eventually intercepted by Oklahoma's Javon Harris.

Stat of the game: Oklahoma averaged 4.8 yards per play. Texas A&M averaged 9.6 yards per play. It was really that simple in this one. Johnny Football made the Aggies dangerous on what seemed like every snap. Oklahoma's offense played well in the first half, but it rarely looked easy, and Texas A&M prevented the Sooners from breaking big plays. It also clamped down in the red zone.

Unsung hero of the game: Texas A&M's offensive line. Get a good, long look at Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews serving as bookends on this line. They might be gone soon, cashing big-time checks as NFL first-round picks. Mike Sherman had well-chronicled struggles, but the offensive line guru left some big beef for Manziel and the Aggies offense to operate behind. It showed tonight. Oklahoma rarely blitzed, for fear of Manziel running loose in the second level, but he had all day to throw and little pressure on most snaps.

What Texas A&M learned: Heisman jinx, December distractions, coaching changes, whatever. It all seemed pretty irrelevant in this game. Johnny Football looked like his usual self, if not better. He broke loose for 47 rushing yards on Texas A&M's opening drive and didn't slow down from there. Kliff Kingsbury checked out as Texas A&M's offensive coordinator, but Clarence McKinney had a solid performance in his debut as play-caller. Manziel insisted he wasn't distracted and that the whirlwind of awards and television appearances after winning the Heisman hadn't changed him. His performance validated those claims.

What Oklahoma learned: Just like Kansas State and Notre Dame, the Sooners were incapable of beating the elite teams in college football this year. A 10-3 season isn't bad, but it's not good enough at Oklahoma. The Sooners might not have even been happy going 1-2 in those losses, but 0-3 will leave a very bitter taste in their mouths thinking back on a season that was very average by the Sooners' sky-high standards. Any notion that it had a formula for stopping or even slowing down the Johnny Football train went out the window. He had his way with the Sooner defense, which tackled poorly, too.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- A year ago at this time, Texas A&M football was at an important crossroads.

The program sought out a new head coach, having dismissed Mike Sherman, who went 25-25 in four seasons there. The crosshairs in the process appeared to be set on Houston's Kevin Sumlin, who went 35-17 through four seasons in Houston and lifted the Cougars high into the national rankings in both 2009 and 2011.

[+] EnlargeMike Sherman
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesAt this time last season, Texas A&M was looking for a head coach after firing Mike Sherman.
The Aggies were coming off a 6-6 year (which would become 7-6 after a win over Northwestern in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas), one that had high preseason expectations, including a top-10 ranking. A year that was supposed to be filled with success was instead marred with second-half collapses and a wondering about where things were headed. With the transition from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference on tap, the leadership felt a new direction was needed. Sumlin was eventually tabbed to lead the Aggies into the SEC -- and since then, things have drastically changed.

The last 365 days, give or take a few, have been transformative for the program. Sumlin has injected an energy and swagger into the program that has fueled the Aggies' 10-2 season. After graduating a top-10, first-round pick at quarterback (Ryan Tannehill), a redshirt freshman named Johnny Manziel has stepped in and shattered records and become a Heisman Trophy candidate. Texas A&M is ranked in the top 10 (No. 9) and the recruiting momentum that the Aggies are building is strong, as they're quickly becoming a premier destination for recruits by offering the combination of quality facilities, college football's premier conference and a chance to win in that conference.

What a difference a year makes.

Some of the things the Aggies accomplished this season seemed like pipe dreams at the start of the year. A potential Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback? Going into fall camp, Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury had not even named a starter at the position, with redshirt sophomores Jameill Showers and Matt Joeckel battling Manziel.

Even for the quarterback himself, often called by his nickname, "Johnny Football," it's a little unbelievable.

"It’s crazy," he said "It’s so surreal for me to even be mentioned in the same category or in the same sentence as the Heisman Trophy. It would be a dream come true for me to even go to New York and sit down, after years and years of watching guys that I looked up to get dressed up and sit on the front row and hope that their name is called. So for me, it would be a dream come true and something that I would cherish forever."

While Manziel has played a major role in the Aggies' success, so has the leadership of the team -- and not just Sumlin and the coaching staff, but the senior class of players. Guys like linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, safety Steven Terrell, defensive tackle Spencer Nealy, center Patrick Lewis, receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu and cornerback/return specialist Dustin Harris have been a big reason the Aggies are a top-10 team this year.

For starters, Sumlin said, they bought in to what the new coaching staff was selling and the idea that they could be successful in the SEC, despite what others said.

"It really was just guys having faith; belief without proof," Sumlin said. "Coming into the year, we really didn't care what everybody else's expectations were ... I think that what these seniors have done is to really set the tone for how to do things away from Saturday. There was a big change in that type of culture."

Sherman said something interesting in his final news conference as the Aggies' coach, after flatly stating that he felt he didn't deserved to be fired.

"I feel like the program is definitely headed in the right direction and I hope the next coach appreciates the opportunity he's going to get to work with these players," he said.

Though some changes fueled this signature season, the first since 1998 in which the Aggies have won 10 games, it turns out Sherman was right.

While many had questions about what could be for the Aggies in the SEC, the players were confident. When asked after the final game of the season whether he could have imagined the season turning out the way it has, Porter took it a step further, demonstrating the confidence the team carried throughout the year.

"It's not as good as I thought it could be," Porter said. "Like Jonathan said, we thought we were going to win all of our games. We truthfully thought that. A lot of people were giving us crap about it at the beginning of the season. I remember going into SEC media day and all those guys in there were looking at me like we were going to be some kind of doormat or something, but this entire time we've had a lot of confidence, and we have confidence in the type of players that we have. I've said it since the beginning of the season: We have the same caliber of athletes as anybody does in the nation. I think this was a great season for us to come out and prove that, and A&M is just going to go up from here."

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