Time to shift our preview of Texas A&M to the defensive side.
Jedd Fisch’s first test as new OC of the Bruins will require him to mount a successful offensive gameplan against one of the more proven vets of the SEC defensive circuit: John Chavis. Last year the Bruins struggled for 3 quarters before getting their act together in the 4th, in what ended up being one of the best offensive outputs of the season. Don’t think about that fact too hard, it will hurt your brain.
John Chavis tends to run his defense out of a base 4-3 alignment, but like every other team these days, is flexible in the alignment. That means you might also see the Aggies in a nickel package, or even Chavis’s special “mustang” package, where he puts out 6 defensive backs to go with 3 defensive linemen and 2 linebackers. So flexibility is the name of the game with Chavis.
Chavis was brought in to turn around what had been a woeful Aggie defense, and to some extent he has done that. Chavis took an Aggie defense that was ranked 87th and 63rd in the years before his arrival and brought them up to 27th in 2015 and 36th last year. Not a bad turnaround, although not as good as it could have been considering the talent level. Last year’s Aggie defense was very adept at getting big stops, but had issues preventing efficient drives, and gave up too many long plays.
Well, the good news is #1 overall draft pick Myles Garrett and his running mate Daeshon Hall are no longer on the perimeter of this line to cause havoc. The bad news is there’s still some solid pieces along the line that can give the Bruin offensive line fits.
Zaycoven Henderson and Kingsley Keke both return to the middle of the defensive line, giving the Aggies one of the best interiors in the nation. The main backups, Daylon Mack and Justin Madubuike, ensure there won’t be much, if any, drop off when they come in. More than anything else, the Bruin interior, especially Scott Quessenberry, will need to hold their own if the Bruins are to have any shot at offensive success.
On the outside of the line, you’ll have new starters Jarrett Johnson and Qualen Cunningham. Johnson was actually incredibly productive last year, having the same amount of sacks as Daeshon Hall did in half as many snaps, while Cunningham did play a decent amount off the bench. Still, there will be an understandable drop-off in production from this group, and there is a distinct lack of depth behind these two. The Bruins will want to take advantage when either of these starters is off the field, similar to how they were able to achieve success when Garrett came off the field last year.
Otaro Alaka and Tyrel Dodson are returning starters from this unit, which gives the unit some experience at weakside and middle linebacker. Both players were very serviceable for the Aggies, combining for 92 tackles (39 solo) and 8.5 TFLs. The bigger question mark is going to be at strongside linebacker, where the Aggies need to find a replacement for Claude George. George was especially disruptive in the backfield, logging 11.5 TFLs, including 3.5 sacks, so expect a decent drop in havoc from his replacement. As of right now, former walk-on Cullen Gillaspia is listed as the starter, but expect freshman Anthony Hines and junior Riley Garner to also see time at this spot as the Aggies try and find a replacement.
Theoretically, the Aggie secondary should be a strength for the defense. There is a lot of returning experience and a ton of seniors spread throughout the 2-deep. At the same time, this unit struggled a lot last year, especially when it came to giving up big plays.
At cornerback, former Bruin Priest Willis has flourished in John Chavis’s defense, finishing last year with 33 tackles and 8 passes defended, which leads all returning secondary players. He’ll be counted on as the top cornerback now that his counterpart heading into the season, Nick Harvey, has been essentially ruled out for the year after getting knee surgery following a spring camp injury. Replacing him will be sophmore Charles Oliver, who only played in 3 games last year, and the depth behind these two is really lacking in experience. If either guy goes down, expect the Aggie pass defense to have some problems.
The safety situation is a bit more solid. Both Armani Watts and Donovan Wilson return after starting last season, and both men had great 2016 seasons, with both getting at least 5.5 TFLs. Watts in particular is a preseason All-American, and both men will quite literally provide a safety blanket for the Aggie defense while some of the other positions get comfortable.