Better or worse? Previewing Texas A&M’s defense in 2022
Nervous optimism isn’t anything new to Texas A&M football. The 2022 season will be no different when the Aggies take the field with a new defensive coordinator. DJ Durkin comes to College Station after DC stints at Florida (2013-14), Michigan (2015), and the past 2 years at Ole Miss.
Last season, Durkin’s defense at Ole Miss ranked 11th in the SEC. That doesn’t sound like much, but consider it was the program’s best finish since ranking 9th in 2015. His defenses at Florida ranked 2nd and 5th in the conference, while his lone year in Ann Arbor produced the conference’s 2nd-best defense.
So, given the talent with which to work, it would appear, on paper at least, that the Aggies should at the very least maintain the distinction of being one of the top defenses in the SEC.
The Aggies were stout on defense last season, allowing 15.9 points per game. That was nearly a TD improvement over the 2020 defense that gave up 21.7 points per game.
Though Durkin inherits a ton of talent, it doesn’t mean there aren’t areas of concern. Beginning with a defensive line that loses Tyree Johnson, DeMarvin Leal and Michael Clemmons, 3 of the top-10 sack leaders in the SEC. In addition, Durkin must replace the Aggies’ leading tackler in linebacker Aaron Hansford, as well as Leon O’Neal, a leader in the secondary.
So, will the defense be improved in 2022 or will the loss of talent be too much for Durkin and the Aggies to overcome? Here’s a breakdown of what we might expect to see from the Texas A&M defense as the 2022 season approaches.
Pressuring the QB: Worse
This would seem like a no-brainer given the fact that the Aggies’ top 4 sack leaders are gone. Johnson, Leal, Clemons and Jayden Peevy combined for 26 of A&M’s 39 sacks last season. Johnson and Leal recorded 8.5 each while Clemons added another 7.
How do you replace those numbers? Well, you get breakout seasons from some young talent like Shemar Turner, a 6-4, 285-pound wrecker, McKinley Jackson, Fadil Diggs, and Tunmise Adeleye.
Turner came up with 1.5 sacks as a freshman last year, so we know the 5-star recruit has the ability if given the chance. He’ll get it next season and the potential for a big season is there.
But that’s all the Aggies have right now; potential, and a lot of it.
Run defense: Worse
There’s room for improvement. Though the Aggies were fairly good against the run a year ago, they still ranked only 6th in the SEC, which is their lowest in the conference since finishing 9th in 2017.
They were good when it mattered, though. The Aggies only allowed 6 rushing TDs — 2nd-fewest in the SEC.
Can they improve without Hansford? That seems to be the big question.
All the pressure appears to be on the shoulders of 2021 All-SEC Freshman Team standout Edgerrin Cooper to help pick up the slack. Fifth on the team last season in solo tackles (37) and tied for 5th in total tackles (58), Cooper has a year of experience and is expected to be a leader in just his sophomore year.
Again, there’s a lot of potential with an opportunity to improve on last year’s numbers. But it may take one more year for the young talent to become dominant. Until then, the Aggies could be just slightly worse against the run in 2022.
Pass defense: Better
It’s hard to imagine the Aggies could be much better against the pass in 2022 than what they were last year. Opponents managed just 192.7 passing yards per game in 2021. That was good enough for 3rd-lowest in the SEC behind only Georgia (189.1) and South Carolina (180.8).
A&M only surrendered 13 TD passes, too, after allowing 19 each in 2019 and 2020.
A veteran group returns with more than enough talent and experience to discourage the opposition from challenging them on a regular basis.
Antonio Johnson is poised to become a household name in 2022. The team leader in solo tackles (53) and second in total tackles (79), Johnson has a nose for the football and will excel in whatever role he plays in Durkin’s scheme.
But Johnson is just one of many veterans in the secondary. Fourth-year starter Demani Richardson decided to come back for one more year and his experience will be invaluable to this talented group.
Tyreek Chappell doesn’t have the experience as some of the others, but he turned in a sensational freshman season in 2021. Leading the team with 9 pass breakups, Chappell will give QBs cause to think twice about challenging him in 2022. He’ll only get better with time.
Special teams: Worse
Following in the footsteps of Braden Mann, Texas A&M punter Nik Constantinou led the SEC in punting. The rising junior averaged 46.6 yards per punt in 2021. And that’s why the projection is worse, rather than better, because there’s really nowhere to go but down.
It won’t be a significant fall, but since at least 2009 only 1 punter has repeated as the SEC leader. Florida’s Johny Townsend did so in 2016 and 2017. And even then, Townsend wasn’t quite as good the 2nd year.
So, while the projection is that Constantinou won’t be as good as last season, it doesn’t mean he won’t be among the conference’s best.
Make no mistake, the Aggies’ defense will be very, very good next season, and potentially the conference’s best again in the years that follow. But there are just too many variables, including a new DC, to deem this team better than last year’s.
Of course, if the young talent develops ahead of schedule, and Durkin meshes with his troops, this could be a special season defensively for Texas A&M.
Nervous optimism, the Aggies have been here before.