Better or worse? Previewing Texas A&M's defense in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 7th in a series previewing every SEC West team’s defense. The SEC East series starts Monday, with Florida.
All things are relative, and when you talk about the Texas A&M defense, the same holds true.
The Aggies haven’t exactly reminded us of the feared Wrecking Crew of years past since joining the SEC in 2012. In fact, far from it. Texas A&M ranked last in the conference in average yards allowed per game in the 2013 (475.8) and 2014 (450.8) seasons.
Since then there has been measurable improvement but not to the extent that defense has ever been a strong point against SEC offenses.
So when I tell you that last season the Aggies gave up fewer yards on average per game than any other Texas A&M squad since becoming members of the SEC, just take it at face value. The Aggies allowed an average of 340.2 yards per game for the 2019 season.
That continues a trend started by head coach Jimbo Fisher, who brought in DC Mike Elko for the 2018 season. His Aggies defense that first year yielded 348.4 yards per game, which at that point were the fewest allowed since joining the conference.
Point is, things are looking up defensively. Sure its best effort since 2012 still didn’t rank among the top half of the 14 teams in the SEC. The Aggies ranked 8th in total defense last year. Again, just remember face value and know that things are slowly trending towards better days defensively.
With that in mind we take a closer look at specific areas of the Texas A&M defense for 2020 to see if the Aggies are going to be better or worse than last year.
Pressuring QB: Better
This one has been a real head-scratcher when you consider that from 2014-17 the Aggies were one of the premier teams in the country at getting to opposing QBs, including leading the SEC with 43 sacks in 2017.
Those days have quickly become a distant memory. The Aggies tumbled to 8th in the SEC with just 29 sacks, the fewest since recording only 21 in 2013. Trending the wrong way, Elko and the Aggies must improve on that number if they want to compete for top conference honors in 2020.
It would seem the good news is that there’s nowhere to go but up. But is that in fact the case? For starters, the Aggies must replace their leader in sacks. Justin Madubuike (5.5 sacks in 2019) took his talents to the NFL.
That leaves big asks for young talented sophomore DeMarvin Leal and veterans Tyree Johnson (4.0 sacks in 2019) and Michael Clemons. How they, and others, answer the bell will go a long way in answering this question and in determining the success of the 2020 season.
While I’m not overly optimistic, still it wouldn’t take a giant leap to better last year’s numbers either.
Run defense: Better
Though it dropped off somewhat from the previous year, the Aggies’ run defense was still better than average. Only the 2 Mississippi teams topped the 200-yard rushing mark last season. But they were 2 of the top 3 rushing teams in the SEC last year, so that stat isn’t quite as alarming at first glance.
In fact, a far more impressive stat found the Aggies stuffing 5 opponents last season under 100 yards rushing, including SEC foes Arkansas (98) and Georgia (97). The Aggies gave up a total of 1,699 yards rushing last season, a total that landed them in the middle of the SEC pack against the run.
But if experience is a factor, they should be better in 2020 with a plethora of returning starters on the line and at linebacker. In fact, all 4 of the Aggies’ top tacklers return, and 7 of the top 8 are back.
That should bode well for a run defense that looks to return to the 2018 form, a year in which the Aggies ranked 2nd in the conference while giving up just 1,238 yards on the ground for the season (95.2 yard average per game).
Pass defense: Better
Now it gets interesting. Since joining the SEC, the Aggies’ secondary has been cause for great concern. In 6 of the first 7 years as an SEC team, the Aggies gave up more than 3,000 yards passing.
However, last season marked just the 2nd time since 2012 that Texas A&M actually allowed fewer than 3,000 passing yards for a season, yielding 2,724. Look for that trend to continue. It’s a veteran group back there that should compare to the 2015 group that gave up just 2,162 yards through the air and ranked 3rd in the SEC.
This unit is growing up before our very eyes and I have little doubt that 2020 could be the year the Aggies’ secondary finally lifts the stigma off its collective shoulders and shines through as an overall strength on defense.
Special teams: Worse
Look away, this isn’t going to be pretty. But seriously, how can you expect to replace the nation’s leading punter? An All-American who set national records, punters like Braden Mann don’t come along that often. Averaging 51 yards per punt as a junior, and 47 last season, Mann was a weapon.
So where does that leave heir-apparent punter Nik Constantinou? Well, yes, he has gigantic shoes to fill. But if we’re looking on the bright side, consider his only punt so far at the college level. It was last November in a game with UTSA. The freshman unleashed a 57-yard boot on the Roadrunners.
Not a bad start.
Yes, the defense has to do a better job of taking the ball away. Among SEC teams, only Vanderbilt came up with fewer turnovers (11) than the 14 that Texas A&M mustered.
Still, overall the Aggies appear to be headed for a big season defensively. Certainly by the standards set by Texas A&M defenses of the recent past.
Also consider that Texas A&M does not face Clemson’s vaunted offense this season. Add to that the addition of Vanderbilt on the 2020 schedule as the rotating SEC East opponent, replacing Georgia.
That should make things a little easier for an Aggies defense that very well could be the best we’ve seen in years.