Better or worse? Previewing Texas A&M's defense in 2019
Editor’s note: After previewing every SEC East defense last week, this is the 7th and final in a series examining the SEC West.
Last season, the Aggies were a decent pass defense from contending in the SEC West. Even with the porous way in which they defended the pass, Texas A&M still managed to put together a good enough defensive unit to land second in the division standings behind only Alabama.
But replacing 6 players in the front seven will be a tall task for head coach Jimbo Fisher in his second season. So youth, it would appear, will have its opportunities beginning with the 2019 season. And that might not be a bad thing considering the stellar classes Fisher has pulled in the past couple of years.
For sure, youth will be served on defense in 2019. How quickly that young talent matures will be the key to how well the Aggies do in the highly competitive SEC West.
Here’s a closer look at each defensive category and an early prediction on how it will ultimately compare to that of last season’s, for better or worse.
Pressuring the QB: Worse
Five of the Aggies’ top 6 sack leaders were seniors last year. They compiled 25 of the 37 sacks. It would take quite a leap of faith to believe that the youngsters could come in and duplicate or exceed those numbers. And we nearly did.
That’s because the Aggies were only fifth in the SEC in sacks last year, meaning there is some wiggle room for improvement. Add to that an ever-improving Justin Madubuike and you have the beginnings of things that could be.
Still, Madubuike can’t do it all. His 5.5 sacks last season were impressive and he only figures to get better. But he’ll need help from fellow linemen Tyree Johnson, Jayden Peevy and TD Moton to name a few. If healthy, Michael Clemons could still play up to his potential, and mountain man DeMarvin Leal (6-4, 325) is a 5-star incoming freshman who could make an instant impact.
Run defense: Worse
I only say this because how could it be better? The Aggies ranked 2nd in the SEC and 3rd nationally against the run last year, allowing only 95.23 yards per game. It would take a monumental effort to equal or better that mark given all the new faces up front.
But those new faces are very talented. How fast they mature will answer a lot of questions. Bobby Brown and JUCO transfer Mohamed Diallo are gifted but untested in the middle. They’ll need to be a force at plugging things up if the Aggies hope to come close to equaling last season’s impressive numbers.
But it’s really at linebacker where the biggest questions remain. Again, there is talent, but for the most part, it’s untested. Buddy Johnson had a good spring and will be called upon for leadership, as will Anthony Hines.
Passing defense: Better
There’s nowhere to go but up. Last season, Texas A&M gave up an average of 253.2 passing yards. The Aggies ranked 12th in the SEC, with only Ole Miss (261.7) and Missouri (262) allowing more.
The secondary can only get better. They should be much improved at the corners where Debione Renfro and Myles Jones look to shore up a position badly in need of it. Leon O’Neal Jr. (No. 9 in cover photo above) is a big hitter at safety who played well this spring.
Yes, signs were there this spring that enough strides have been made that the secondary could actually become a strength in 2019. That would be a welcomed switch after the Aggies gave up 3,291 passing yards last season.
Special teams: Worse
The Aggies were very good on special teams last season. They led the SEC in kickoff returns, holding opponents to a 21.6-yard average, which ranked 9th nationally. Kicker Braden Mann sent 57 of his 80 kickoffs for touchbacks. And we don’t even need to delve into his punting skills. Suffice to say the returning All-American led the nation.
In addition, the Aggies ranked 5th in opponents’ punt returns. So there isn’t a lot of room for improvement, other than a year of experience for Mann.
It’s not that the special teams don’t appear to be solid, it’s the level of excellence A&M established last season that has me believing it won’t be able to duplicate such heights this season.
But only by a slight margin. Remember, if you exclude the 72 points LSU scored in the 7 OT thriller, the Aggies only allowed 21.4 points per game in their other 12 games last season. The secondary looks vastly improved. Only time will tell if that strength overcomes a perceived rebuilding year up front. The Aggies will be good defensively. How good depends on maturity from the younger and less experienced talent.