Editor’s note: This concludes our preview series of every SEC West defense. Coming Monday: The SEC East, beginning with Florida.

Mike Elko’s defenses just keep getting better and better. As head coach Jimbo Fisher continues to recruit quality athletes, Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator continues to coach ’em up. Over 3 seasons under Elko’s guidance, the Aggies have seen steady improvement from their defensive unit, culminating in the 2020 season in which they led the SEC in total defense, yielding a conference-low 317.3 yards per game.

That’s an improvement over the 340.2 allowed during the 2019 season, and slightly better than the 348.4 yards per game the Aggies allowed in 2018, Elko’s first season in College Station after coming over from Notre Dame.

Yes, 2020 was a banner year for a defense that allowed the fewest total passing yards (2,253) and 2nd-fewest total rushing yards (920) in the SEC. They can’t do much better than that … or can they? If Elko’s track record continues at its current pace, the answer is yes. And with 9 of the team’s top 10 tacklers returning in 2021, the prospect of an even better defense than last year’s is real.

Let’s take a closer look at how the 2021 Texas A&M defense might stack up against last year’s. Will it be better or worse?

Pressuring the quarterback: Better

While improving the defense overall during his 3-year tenure, sacking the quarterback hasn’t exactly been a priority in Elko’s scheme. In fact, as the defense got better and better, the number of sacks became fewer and fewer. Texas A&M recorded 37 sacks in Elko’s first season, down from 43 the previous year. In 2019, The Aggies got to the opposing quarterback just 29 times, and last season only 28 times. Granted that was done in only a 10-game season against SEC offenses, but it’s still a far cry from back in the day when Landis Durham led an Aggies defense to an SEC-best 43 sacks in 2017.

That’s not to say opposing signal-callers can breathe a sigh of relief when facing Texas A&M in 2021. In fact, the opposite is true. That’s because 2 of the Aggies’ top 3 sackers return. And so does linebacker Aaron Hansford, who recorded 3 sacks a year ago. He’s 1 of 8 players returning who were credited with sacks in 2020.

Team sack leader Bobby Brown III (5.5) must be replaced, but redshirt senior DEs Michael Clemons (4.0) and Tyree Johnson (4.0) are veteran performers certainly capable of picking up the slack. But those won’t be the only Aggies looking to make their way to opposing backfields. Another defensive end, DeMarvin Leal is poised to have the kind of year everyone expected from the 5-star recruit. He flashed signs of it during a brilliant sophomore year in 2020 with 7.0 tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks, and added a team-high 8 QB hurries.

In the bigger picture, whether the Aggies are better or worse at pressuring the quarterback shouldn’t be a big concern given the short 3-year history of Elko’s overall defensive improvements at Texas A&M. But factoring in a veteran bunch coupled with a consistent system under Elko, and it would be easy to see how the Aggies could be better at getting to the quarterback in 2021.

Run defense: Worse

It’s going to be very difficult to equal or better last year’s numbers. In the SEC, only Georgia (72.3) gave up fewer yardage on the ground than the Aggies (92.0). Just 2 teams rushed for more than 110 yards against the Aggies in 2020. Arkansas (222) was the first to do so, on Halloween night, and Auburn (196) gouged the Aggies for a season-high 6.53-yard average per carry. The Aggies limited South Carolina to 50 yards on the ground, stuffed LSU (36 yards rushing) and Tennessee (24 yards rushing) and held Mississippi State to minus-2 yards rushing.

Those are numbers championship defenses put forth, and titles are what the Aggies had in mind when they brought Fisher over from FSU.

Run-stoppers Hansford, Leal and DT Jayden Peavey, a 5th-year senior, are back with another year of experience, and that’s bad news for opposing ball carriers. The trio combined for 120 tackles.

The Aggies could conceivably put together another outstanding season against the run and still not match what the 2020 team did. No team in the SEC gave up fewer rushing touchdowns (6). But this year’s version could and should come very close to it. With all that depth and experience, it isn’t entirely out of the question

Pass defense: Better

If you want to talk about Elko and his influence on the defense, this is the area in which to do so. Elko inherited a pass defense that was 12th in the league, and though they slipped to 13th a year later, Elko worked his magic over the past 2 seasons. Moving up to 6th in the SEC in pass defense in 2019, Texas A&M rose all the way to the top of the heap last season fielding a team that allowed a league-low 225.3 yards passing per game in 2020. Nearly a worst-to-first jump in just 2 seasons.

That’s impressive, and as with pressuring the quarterback and run defense, it will be more than a simple task to equal or better those numbers. But if anyone can do it, Elko along with an experienced secondary, can.

Veteran safeties Demani Richardson and Leon O’Neal, Jr. lead the way. Both have shown steady improvement over the years and look to continue that trend in 2021. Jaylon Jones burst onto the scene in 2020 at a corner. As a freshman, the 5-star recruit led the team with 6 pass breakups.

The secondary is poised to have another elite year, and what a difference. It seems like only yesterday that this was the weak link in the defense.

Overall: Better

It’s unwise to bet against Elko. Not after what he’s been able to accomplish with the defense over the past 3 years. Experience, depth and coaching consistency. That’s a recipe for success. How much better can the defense be in 2021? Frankly, not much. But as any coach will tell you, there’s always room for improvement. If that holds true this season, Texas A&M will have an elite defense, the best in many years.

Did I hear someone say, “Wrecking Crew?”