Texas A&M: Beyond the Box Score Defensive Preview

Confused?  Catch up with the BTBS Primer.

We are almost caught up in our BTBS preview pieces after losing over a week to MIZZOUEXPANSIONAPALOOZA™, and as we preview Mizzou's second conference opponent of the season, we're flipping the script a bit.  We're starting the Texas A&M preview on the defensive side of the ball because a) their offense is a bit of a known quantity -- their defense will decide if they improve in 2010, and b) my imagination got the best of me, and we're playing a bit of a What If... game today: "What if Mizzou moved to a 3-4 like everybody else?"

And no, that's not just a tease to get people to actually read these posts for once ... that's just an added benefit.

2009

Record: 6-7 (3-5)
F/+: 47th
S&P+: 30th
Scoring Margin: -0.7 per game
Conference Scoring Margin: -4.6 per game
Wins (F/+ Ranking in parentheses): #22 Texas Tech (52-30), #72 Baylor (38-3), #82 Iowa State (35-10), #89 UAB (56-19), #92 Utah State (38-30), #108 New Mexico (41-6)
Losses: #5 Texas (39-49), #10 Oklahoma (10-65), #20 Arkansas (19-47), #34 Georgia (20-44), #38 Oklahoma State (31-36), #79 Colorado (34-35), #90 Kansas State (14-62)

Some teams are unpredictable -- they play well against good teams and poorly against bad teams, and their record ends up making little sense.  Colorado, for instance.  But while Texas A&M had two extreme outlier games (Texas, Kansas State), their averages still made a lot of sense when all was said and done.  They went 1-5 versus Top 70 teams (average score: Opponents 45, A&M 29) and 5-2 versus teams outside of the Top 70 (average score: A&M 37, Opponents 24).  That makes sense.  Of course, it also shows that they probably got a little too much "schedule strength" benefit of the doubt, as very few teams lose games to teams ranked 79th and 90th and still manage a Top 50 ranking.  Regardless, A&M seemed to have enough athleticism on defense that lesser teams were somewhat held in check (again, K-State aside) ... but they just couldn't find anything that even approximated success against good teams.  All the offense in the world isn't going to help you if you can't stop anybody, and if your defensive line gets pushed around.

Coaching

Image via Top Five Sports

Head Coach: Mike Sherman
Record at Texas A&M: 10-15
Career Record: Are we counting Green Bay?  If so, 67-54

Mike Sherman was a curious hire when he was brought aboard to coach the Aggies two years ago.  He was an assistant at Pittsburgh, Tulane, Holy Cross, UCLA and Texas A&M from 1981 to 1996, but he had spent the last 11 years coaching in the NFL.  He was the Green Bay Packers' coach for six years; he won three NFC North titles and two playoff games, but a) he never got all the credit for that (it mostly went to Brett Favre), and b) he was dumped after a disastrous 4-12 campaign in 2005 and spent his next two seasons as an offensive assistant (that is, an assistant on the offensive side of the ball, not an assistant who offends) for the Houston Texans.  His experience at A&M (he was OL coach for seven years) and his experience as a head coach apparently made for a nice combination, even though he had not generated a ton of respect for his tenure with the Packers (fair or not), and he hadn't been on a recruiting trip since probably late-1996.  Plus ... well, it's not like he's the most charismatic guy in the world, so I can't imagine he had the most slam-dunk interview ever.  Just an odd hire.  But sometimes odd hires work out.  Take Jeff Capel at OU.  Or Gerry Faust at Notre Dame.

Hmm.  Wait a second.

Naysaying and fun-poking aside (yeah, I just made "fun-poking" a word/phrase that doesn't mean what it sounds like it means ... deal with it), A&M's offense has very quickly improved under Sherman.  This makes sense -- he has always been an offensive mind (that's football offense, not ... nevermind, I already made that joke), and A&M has plenty of athleticism.  Jerrod Johnson appears to be the real deal, and Christine Michael was a big-time, five-star recruit in high school.  Unfortunately, the defense still leaves plenty to be desired.  It has held A&M back significantly in Sherman's two seasons -- A&M has scored 20 points and lost ten times in his tenure -- and until it improves more than it did in 2009, it will continue to do so.

Because of Texas A&M's athleticism and offensive prowess, Sherman could eventually succeed there.  But not if the defense doesn't carry its weight.

Defense

Overall Ranks

F/+: 75th

S&P+: 65th
Success Rate+: 70th
PPP+: 62nd

Standard Downs S&P+: 88th
Passing Downs S&P+: 44th

Redzone S&P+: 58th

Q1 S&P+: 59th
Q2 S&P+: 61st
Q3 S&P+: 65th
Q4 S&P+: 113th

1st Down S&P+: 78th
2nd Down S&P+: 51st
3rd Down S&P+: 90th

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 86th
Rushing SR+: 78th
Rushing PPP+: 87th

Standard Downs: 97th
Passing Downs: 101st

Redzone: 105th

Adj. Line Yards: 93rd

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 57th
Passing SR+: 68th
Passing PPP+: 53rd

Standard Downs: 75th
Passing Downs: 25th

Redzone: 16th

Adj. Sack Rate: 31st
SD Sack Rate: 92nd
PD Sack Rate: 3rd

Rarely will you see a team's rankings spread this far across the spectrum.  A&M managed to rank third in one category, and worst than 100th in two.  Basically these rankings paint a very clear picture: Von Miller was a revelation, and A&M's passing downs defense was dangerous because of it, but the defensive line got pushed around horribly.  Even though they were solid overall on passing downs (though they were clearly vulnerable to draw plays) -- 101st in Passing Downs Rushing defense), they couldn't get a team to passing downs very often because of the defensive line.  That, and apparently they weren't in very good shape, getting worse in each successive quarter.

Rankings History

Category 2005
Rk
2006
Rk
2007
Rk
2008
Rk
2009
Rk
F/+ N/A* 60 57 113 75
S&P+ 85 60 32 84 65
Success Rate+ 88 73 43 110 70
PPP+ 79 46 25 66 62
Rushing S&P+ 37 79 40 93 86
Passing S&P+ 111 48 27 72 57
Standard Downs S&P+ 78 67 49 83 88
Passing Downs S&P+ 112 23 18 92 44
Adj. Line Yards 27 75 51 83 93
Adj. Sack Rate 39 85 42 74 31
* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season.

We still hear the "Wrecking Crew" nickname occasionally, but it has been a long time since the Aggies have fielded a truly strong defense.  It sure hasn't happened in the last five years.

The causes of the defensive struggle have changed through the years.  The defensive line was a strength in 2005, but the pass defense was terrible.  Then the rushing defense fell apart as the pass defense improved.  The Aggies were strong in limiting big plays in 2007, then they gave up too many in 2008-09.  Sherman took over in 2008, and the defense regressed in every single category; then in 2009, they improved against the pass (thanks to the pass rush), but they failed to improve much against the run.

Credit Sherman for one thing: he's willing to change.  Like the rest of the country seems to be doing, Texas A&M is moving to a 3-4 defense in 2010.  Sherman brought Air Force defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter aboard, and I personally think this is a great hire.  He came to Air Force in 2007, and their Defensive F/+ rankings improved immediately.  After ranking 113th in 2006, they surged to 90th in 2007, 55th in 2008, and a staggering 18th last year.  He is a 3-4 wiz, and if Sherman survives long enough in College Station, DeRuyter's hire could pay huge dividends.  Because of A&M's recruiting base, you have to think that they will be able to bring some pretty strong athletes into the fold, and since the 3-4's intent is to confuse offenses and bring more speed onto the pitch, this could work out very well.

Unless I am forgetting somebody, I am pretty sure Mizzou has faced only one three-man front in the last four seasons -- Navy in last year's Texas Bowl.  In the first nine games of 2010, they will face three: San Diego State, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.  Colorado varies between three and four men on the line as well.  This is actually good -- face it once, and it is a novelty.  Face it more than once, and you start to get a grasp for what you need to do.

Of course, here's where my imagination comes into play.  With everybody else making the switch, I started wondering what would happen if Mizzou did the same.  Mind you, this is in no way a proposal that Mizzou change to a 3-4.  It's just what I would call a thought experiment, if I were pretentious enough to use that term.

Mizzou Running a 3-4

Let's pretend for a moment that Mizzou were to switch to a 3-4 look this year.  What impact would that have, positively or negatively, given the current personnel?  Here is my own personal guess at how things would now look in the front seven.

Defensive End
Aldon Smith (6'5, 260, So.)
Brad Madison (6'4, 265, So.)
Marcus Malbrough (6'5, 255, So.)
Chris Earnhardt (6'5, 270, Jr.)
George White (6'4, 290, So.)
Brayden Burnett (6'3, 255, RSFr.)
Bart Coslet (6'5, 260, Sr.)
Lucas Vincent (6'3, 285, Fr.)
Kony Ealy (6'5, 230, Fr.)

Defensive ends in a 3-4 system need to be bigger, as simple math shows they are more likely to take on more blockers.  They are almost more like one-third tackle, two-thirds end.  Therefore I moved a couple of the smaller ends -- Jacquies Smith (though he's pretty big), Michael Sam -- to outside linebacker.  Kony Ealy is tall enough, and seemingly has a big enough frame, that he would probably stay at end ... and spend his redshirt season eating quite a few sandwiches.

Meanwhile, I moved a few of the smaller tackles -- Chris Earnhardt, George White, Bart Coslet, Lucas Vincent -- to end.  Earnhardt is stuck as a tweener in the 4-3 (not quick enough for end, not big enough for tackle), but could actually find the depth chart again in the 3-4.

This shows you one potential hole in the 'new' scheme: who is the other starting end?  Clearly Aldon Smith would still be one.  He is not quite as big as you like a 3-4 end to be, but he's big/strong enough.  The other spot could go to Madison (who honestly looks like he could hold another 5-10 pounds with no problem), Earnhardt/White, or even Dominique Hamilton )if he were considered quick enough to man the outside) or Jacquies Smith, of course.

Defensive Tackle
Dominique Hamilton (6'6, 300, Jr.)
Terrell Resonno (6'6, 295, Jr.)
Marvin Foster (6'2, 300, RSFr.)
Jimmy Burge (6'2, 295, So.)
Brendan Donaldson (6'2, 295, Jr.)

Problem#2 is likely the biggest issue for teams moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4: you likely need a big space-eater at tackle, and you probably don't have one.  Obviously it's not about just mass, but Mizzou doesn't have a tackle bigger than 300 pounds, and I'd be interested to see how Hamilton (or anybody else) held up.

Outside Linebacker
Jacquies Smith (6'4, 250, Jr.)
Zaviar Gooden (6'2, 230, So.)
Josh Tatum (6'1, 235, Jr.)
Tyler Crane (6'3, 230, Jr.)
Michael Sam (6'3, 240, RSFr.)
Jared Parham (6'2, 220, Fr.)
Darvin Ruise (6'2, 220, Fr.)

While I'd be a little worried about the personnel on the line, adding a fourth linebacker to the fray (and throwing Jacquies into the mix) would be exhilarating.  Mizzou absolutely has the personnel here.  I put Jacquies at OLB because of his athleticism.  He could get stuck as a tweener, of course -- not quite quick enough to play LB, not big enough to play end -- but anybody who saw the moves he made on his fake field goal touchdown against Colorado would have to be optimistic at his chances, either at OLB (in the Von Miller hybrid role) or ILB.

Beyond Smith, there are quite a few other options here.  Zaviar Gooden could benefit significantly, as he could end up in a blitzing role quite often.  Tyler Crane, another tweener, could thrive in a hybrid role as well (since he currently fits the "not big enough for DE, not quick enough for a 4-3 OLB" description).  Either way, I like what I see here.

Inside Linebacker
Will Ebner (6'1, 230, Jr.)
Andrew Gachkar (6'3, 230, Sr.)
Donovan Bonner (6'2, 245, So.)
Luke Lambert (6'3, 235, Sr.)
Andrew Wilson (6'3, 240, RSFr.)
Jeff Gettys (6'3, 235, Sr.)
Adam Burton (6'2, 240, RSFr.)

And of course, I REALLY like what I see here.  Gachkar or Bonner could also be thrown into the mix at OLB, leaving Ebner and Lambert as starters.  Regardless, this move would fit Mizzou's LB personnel to a T ... as long as the line held up.

Here's what the starting lineup could look like in a 3-4.

Carl
Gettis
Aldon
Smith
Dom
Hamilton
Brad
Madison
Kevin
Rutland
Zaviar
Gooden
Andrew
Gachkar
Will
Ebner
Jacquies
Smith
                   
Matt
White
Jasper
Simmons

Again, I'm not advocating for this move, and in actuality, this could just move Mizzou's problems around instead of solving them.  But it was still a fun What If... experiment, no?

Alright, back to A&M.

Defensive Line

2009 Unit Ranking: 65th (9th in the Big 12)

Projected DE Depth Chart
Tony Jerod-Eddie (6'5, 300, Jr., 15.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FR, 1 PBU)
Spencer Nealy (6'5, 245, So., 15.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks)
Kirby Ennis (6'4, 265, So., 7.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks)
Cody Williams (6'4, 270, Sr., 2.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF)
Stephen Barrera (6'5, 302, So.)
Jonathan Mathis (6'3, 292, Jr.)

Projected DT Depth Chart
Lucas Patterson (6'4, 303, Sr., 18.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FR)
Eddie Brown (6'0, 288, Jr., 28.0 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks)
Andrew Wolridge (6'1, 266, So.)

Von Miller's insane success (see stats below) were actually crazy enough that they reflected more on the defensive line than the linebackers.  Really, the DL's rankings should be 10-20 spots lower, the LBs' 10-20 spots higher, but I digress.

A&M faces a lot of the same difficulties that Mizzou faced in my fanciful scenario above.  While the linebackers should take to the new scheme pretty easily, the line could continue to be an issue.  Eddie Brown could be a man without a position (I saw him projected at DT, but he makes more sense at DE to me), and there really isn't any new blood on a line that quite frankly needs some.

Linebackers

2009 Unit Ranking: 64th (9th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Von Miller (6'3, 240, Sr., 39.5 tackles, 21.5 TFL/sacks, 4 FF, 5 PBU)
Garrick Williams (6'2, 230, Jr., 60.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, 8.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF)
Kyle Mangan (6'2, 231, So., 49.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 7 PBU)
Michael Hodges (6'0, 226, Sr., 49.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
Sean Porter (6'2, 213, So., 31.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks)
Jonathan Stewart (6'4, 227, So., 21.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU)
Ricky Cavanaugh (6'2, 225, Jr., 4.0 tackles, 1 FF)
Aaron Arterburn (6'3, 237, So., 4.0 tackles)
Malcolm Johnson (6'2, 211, RSFr.)
Charlie Thomas (6'1, 193, RSFr.)
Jomo McDuff (6'5, 215, RSFr.)
Kody Johnston (6'1, 211, RSFr.)

Even though he was already basically playing a hybrid role last year as an OLB and the team's primary pass rusher, it is just staggering that Von Miller only made 39.5 tackles last year ... and over half of them were for a loss.  I mean that in two different ways: 1) 21.5 tackles for loss is insane for even a part-time linebacker (Aldon Smith had 19.0 TFL, and basically everything he tried to do came behind the line ... plus, his TFL-to-tackle ratio was only 0.350, and 2) can Miller do anything else?  I mean ... anything?  He broke up five passes, presumably while flying after the QB, not dropping into coverage.  Can he cover?  Can he hold up against the run?  I think we're maybe seeing why he didn't go pro last year -- NFL teams don't typically draft 240-pound defensive ends ... and that's really what Miller apparently is, no matter how his position is actually listed.

That said, of course, he's freaking great at the one thing he does, and in a 3-4, where they can send people from anywhere at anytime and they're sending a linebacker on every play, this seems to suit his skill set well.  It's hard to duplicate that level of success, but I could see him doing it.  And in a way that doesn't really improve A&M's defense much, if at all.

The rest of the A&M linebackers: sollid.  They've got decent size (then again, do they have enough size to stand up to run blocking?), and five of them made tackles for loss last year.  They should fit well in this scheme ... and that would help the defense.  It's a broken record here, but stopping the run is key for this team, and I'm really not sure this unit will do any better than last year's, but there's at least comfort in the fact that things probably won't be worse.

Secondary

2009 Unit Ranking: 88th (9th in the Big 12)

Projected CB Depth Chart
Terrence Frederick (5'10, 180, Jr., 53.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 5 PBU)
Dustin Harris (6'0, 168, So., 32.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU)
Lionel Smith (6'0, 186, Jr., 10.0 tackles)
Coryell Judie (5'11, 185, Jr.)
Desmond Gardiner (5'10, 186, RSFr.)
Grant Gunderson (6'2, 184, RSFr.)

Projected S Depth Chart
Trent Hunter (5'10, 187, Jr., 76.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU)
Steven Campbell (6'0, 195, So., 20.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU)
Steven Terrell (5'10, 188, So., 7.0 tackles)
Colton Valencia (5'10, 190, So., 3.0 tackles)
Chris Calfisch (6'3, 207, Sr.)
DeMaruier Thompson (6'1, 192, Sr.)

Now we get to a unit that was super-young last season and struggled when Von Miller didn't get to the quarterback.  Of the returning starters, two were sophomores last year and one was a freshman.  Three of the top four projected safeties were freshmen last year, in fact.  Into the mix comes four-star JUCO cornerback Coryell Judie, who signed with A&M in 2009.  There is plenty of athleticism here, and there are plenty of recruiting stars.  If it's true that you make your biggest leaps in each of your first two years, the secondary could improve quite a bit this year.  It won't really matter if the front seven still can't stop the run, but improvement is still improvement.

Special Teams

2009 Unit Ranking: 83rd (8th in the Big 12)

Place-kicking: 44th
Net Punting: 104th
Net Kicking: 71st
Returns: 84th

Projected Starters
K Randy Bullock (5'9, 210, Jr., 51-for-51 PAT, 12-for-19 FG, Long: 50)
P Ken Wood (5'10, 183, Jr., 30 punts, 38.8 average)
KR Cyrus Gray (5'10, 196, Jr., 27 returns, 23.8 average, 1 TD)
PR Dustin Harris (6'0, 168, So., 16 returns, 7.9 average)

Strangely, at 83rd, this unit ranked about as high as any unit Mizzou will have faced to this point.  Punting was a serious issue -- two returning punters (Ken Wood and Ryan Epperson) failed to flip the field very well -- and returns were extremely hit-or-miss.  Against Mizzou's kick return coverage, Cyrus Gray could have a chance to break one, of course, but consistency wasn't really his thing.

Actually, that goes for the unit as a whole.  Lots of potential here, but not a lot of consistency.  Considering the kicker, punter and kick returner were all sophomores, and the punt returner was a freshman, maybe that was to be expected.  As a whole, A&M was about as young as Mizzou was at a lot of positions, so if you're expecting drastic improvement from Mizzou, maybe you should expect the same from A&M.

Summary

Hey, guess what: it comes down to the run defense.  It was terrible last year, and moving to a 3-4 isn't a natural-born run-stuffing move.  I love the DeRuyter hire, and it will probably pay at least slight immediate dividends.  And hey, with the offense the Aggies could have, any improvement could be tremendous -- they lost two games by five points or less last year and could have gone 8-4 with one extra stop here and there.  But drastic improvement is unlikely until DeRuyter has some better pieces to move around the board.  Miller will likely have a year very similar to last year's, and the linebackers seem custom made to fly around and make plays ... but if the line is bad, they will still be handicapped.

Tomorrow: offense!

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