Reviewing the SEC defensive statistics from 2013, one thing becomes clear: Johnny Manziel was the best player in college football once again. Take nothing away from Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, who is a superb football player with undeniable talent. It is almost impossible not to give the Heisman to an undefeated quarterback heading to the national championship game. However, Manziel was still the better player, even with a 9-4 record.
Winston had the benefit of a stalwart defense that could bail him out. Manziel, on the other hand, was like King Leonidas leading 300 Spartans against 300,000 Persians every Saturday. The Texas A&M Aggies were inconsistent in 2013, leading the league in scoring offense, but finishing dead-last in scoring defense, rushing defense, red-zone defense and total defense. The Aggies were lucky to win most of their games, surrendering 475 total yards per game and allowing teams to average an astounding 222 yards rushing per game.
These statistics certainly give Aggie fans a few gray hairs and some cause for concern upon Manziel’s departure to the NFL. The new quarterback issue has not been settled. Whether it is Kenny Hill, Matt Joeckel or Kyle Allen, none of them are expected to put up Manziel-like numbers. With this realization, the defense must step up.
The SEC is a line of scrimmage league, there is no question. This is where the Aggie defense needs to improve immediately. All four defensive line starters return, including seniors Gavin Stansbury and Ivan Robinson along with junior Julien Obioha. The lessons learned from last year’s campaign will be invaluable in 2014 and in the offseason, they will need to take those lessons and convert them to a better performance.
The SEC is ruled by teams with powerful running games and too often, the Aggie defensive linemen were physically dominated at the point of attack. As a result, the linebackers were often exposed and walled off by offensive guards and tight ends. Running backs shot through these gaps, gaining first downs and extending drives that wore the defense down as the game progressed.
In the spring, the coaching staff will need to impress on these players the importance of shedding blockers and holding their ground. In their losses to Auburn, Alabama and LSU, the Aggies surrendered 379, 234 and 324 yards rushing, respectively. Even the Arkansas Razorbacks and Mississippi State Bulldogs were able to gain 201 and 299 yards on the ground, games where the Aggies simply had to outscore a lesser opponent to win. This cannot happen in 2014.
The secondary returns a wealth of upperclassmen, including seniors Floyd Raven, Howard Matthews and Deshazor Everett. This unit was 12th in the SEC in pass defense last season, but that was a result of the line of scrimmage deficiencies. With a running game established and defensive linemen sealed off, opposing quarterbacks were able to sit back and pick targets rather easily. Once the Aggies establish themselves on the line, this talented group can make more plays and stop the bleeding on third-down conversions, where the Aggies also finished last in the conference.
Depth and talent are not issues in College Station. Kevin Sumlin has built a powerful program. Recruiting has been excellent and the Aggies have proven themselves more than capable after moving to the SEC in 2012. Manziel can be credited for much of this success and now his locker is empty. The offense will have a new look in 2014 and the ability to score 44 points per game might not be there.
This uncertainty definitely puts more pressure on the defense. It is a veteran unit that has endured struggles, but these struggles are not impossible to remedy. Their shortcomings are fundamental ones, rather than lack of size or talent. Once these players adapt to power running schemes and win the battle in the trenches, more often than not, the Aggies will come out on top.
Their first game will be a Thursday night battle on Aug. 28 in Columbia, S.C. The South Carolina Gamecocks are breaking in a new quarterback and sport a powerful running game, so the Aggies will get a taste of what is to come immediately. Hopefully for A&M fans, the defense will put up more of a fight this season and not rely on the offense to bail them out.