Sixth-ranked Texas A&M is counting on sheer strength in numbers to improve its porous run defense.
The Aggies had three key defenders miss the first two games and another four miss at least a half. Couple that with graduating six starters from last season’s team and second-year defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has had to play 11 true freshmen. The youth and lack of continuity was most telling against the run as Rice and Sam Houston State combined for 546 rushing yards against the Aggies.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin said all the troubles are fixable. On a 68-yard touchdown run by SHSU’s Timothy Flanders, a safety missed a tackle. On another play, one of those freshmen just went the wrong way.
“We’ve got things that can be corrected,” Sumlin said. “We’ve got to continue to keep coaching.”
It will help even more Saturday against two-time defending champ Alabama that A&M will have all its suspended players back. Returning this week will be junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury, sophomore cornerback De’Vante Harris and senior linebacker Steven Jenkins — all projected starters who all were suspended for Rice and Sam Houston State.
“They’re role-players for us,” said A&M senior safety Toney Hurd Jr. “They’ll come in and make an immediate impact. We’ll be looking forward to them making big plays for us next weekend and helping the defense out to get this W.”
A&M opened the season without senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis and junior safety Floyd Raven Sr., who returned last week, while junior cornerback Deshazor Everett was suspended for the first half of the Rice game and then after he returned he was flagged for a targeting tackle and had to miss the first half of the SHSU game.
“The addition this week of having Jenkins back [will be good],” Sumlin said after the SHSU game. “Kirby told me at halftime he’s a little rusty. He said he’s glad he’s playing. To get those guys all back in the huddle will be a big deal.”
Despite missing so many players, A&M’s managed to come up with two interceptions in each of the first two games, but the Aggies rank 115th in the country in run defense. A&M has allowed six runs of at least 20 yards.
It’s a far cry from last season when A&M was ranked 35th against the run, allowing 139.5 yards per game.
A&M held Alabama to 122 yards on 31 carries last season with its longest run going for 18 yards. That solid defense might have been why facing fourth-and-goal from the A&M 2 with the game on the line, the Crimson Tide opted for a pass that was intercepted by Everett as the Aggies held on for a 29-24 victory.
“I wish we could have run it, just like you, because passing it didn’t work,” said Alabama head coach Nick Saban to a writer. “If we would have run it, you would have been asking me why we didn’t throw it.”
Run or throw Saturday, Sumlin is glad Everett and all the other suspended players are available.
“Everybody sees the difference when Deshazor Everett walks back out there and all of sudden, he’s very very active,” Sumlin said. “The familiarity and the experience factor of those guys coming back is going to help our confidence as a defense and the confidence in our coaches to be able to change the schemes and do some different things instead of being very vanilla, which we have been the last couple of weeks because of our youth.”
Ennis and Jenkins combined for 13 tackles against Alabama last year.
Ennis teamed up with former linebacker Sean Porter to tackle Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron for no gain on first-and-goal from the 6, then Ennis tackled former Alabama running back Eddie Lacy for a 1-yard gain. On third down, McCarron got 3 yards to the 2, setting up Everett’s interception.
A&M’s game against SMU on Sept. 21 will kick off at 6 p.m. and be televised by ESPN2 or ESPNU. The rest of the SEC schedule that day will be: Tennessee at Florida, 2:30 p.m. (CBS), Auburn at LSU, 6:45 p.m. (ESPN), Vanderbilt at UMass, 11 a.m. (ESPNews/ESPN3/ESPNU), North Texas at Georgia, 11:21 a.m. (SEC TV), Arkansas at Rutgers, 2:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU), Colorado State at Alabama, 6 p.m. (ESPN2 or ESPNU), Troy at Mississippi State, 6:30 p.m. (FSN) and Missouri at Indiana, 7 p.m. (Big Ten Network).
SEC players of the week were: Georgia senior quarterback Aaron Murray who was 17-of-23 passing for 309 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-30 victory over South Carolina; Tennessee sophomore defensive back Brian Randolph who had two interceptions and eight tackles in a 52-20 victory over Western Kentucky; LSU junior Odell Beckham Jr. had 331 all-purpose yards (including a 100-yard return of a missed field goal for a touchdown and five catches for 136 yards) in a 56-17 victory over Alabama-Birmingham; Missouri junior defensive end Markus Golden had a 70-yard interception return for a score in a 38-23 victory over Toledo; Kentucky senior offensive guard Kevin Mitchell who had nine knockdown blocks in a 41-7 victory over Miami (Ohio); and Arkansas freshman running back Alex Collins who 24 carries for 172 yards in a 31-21 victory over Samford.