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Alabama Football 2014: Previewing the Texas A&M Defense

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Can an improved defense lead the Aggies to a win over the Crimson Tide?

Jordan Mastrogiovanni (45) leads the A&M defense into Tuscaloosa
Jordan Mastrogiovanni (45) leads the A&M defense into Tuscaloosa
Scott Halleran

Texas A&M reels into Tuscaloosa this weekend after suffering two straight losses - to the top-ranked and third-ranked teams in the country.  It would be foolish, however, to think that dropping two games in a row makes them any less of a threat.  As a matter of fact, I'd argue that A&M is a better overall team than last year's group - which (you may remember) took then #1 Alabama down to the last drive in a 49-42 barnburner.

While this Aggie teams is missing three first-round draft picks from the offense, the teams' production hasn't missed a beat, with negligible differences in points per game and yards per play compared to last year's squad.  However, the Aggies defense, led by third-year coordinator Mark Snyder, has shown vast improvement compared to 2013, when the team finished near the bottom of the SEC in every meaningful defensive stat.

For example, the 2014 Aggies are holding their opponents to nearly ten points per game fewer than last year (22.6 to 32.2), while also shaving nearly a yard less per play (5.46 to 6.36) from their opponents so far this season.  The Aggies are also +8 in turnover margin through the first six games.  While no one would mistake Texas A&M's current defense for an elite squad, they play much better as a unit than last in 2013, which means they will be a dangerous opponent for the Tide.

Underclassmen

Much of the credit for the team's dramatic defensive improvement is owed to four underclassman, who have won starting roles in key spots in the Aggies defense.

First is sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni, the 6'3", 244-lb middle linebacker.  While Mastrogiovanni has been banged up some this season, missing a game against Rice with an ankle injury, he earned his starting job in fall camp and has been a steady performer as the captain and signal caller for the defense.

Next is free safety Armani Watts, a true freshman from Forney, Texas who is fourth on the team in tackles (33).  Watts (5'11", 190 lbs) has an interception, two tackles for loss, and four passes broken up, along with a 93-yard touchdown on a blocked field goal (later called back by penalty).  Watts has the potential to become a really special player for the Aggies by the end of his career.

Redshirt freshman Victor Davis (6'0", 191 lbs) holds down the field cornerback position in the A&M defense.  Davis had to pick up the mantle for sophomore De'Vante Harris, who received a "urinary tract injury" during fall camp.

True freshman Myles Garrett (15) is a dangerous pass rusher.

Finally, true freshman Myles Garrett (6'5", 255 lbs), while technically a backup player, is the starter at A&M's rush end position.  Part of a five-man rotation at defensive end, Garrett's specialty is pass rushing, and while he is tied for fourth on the defense (with Watts) in total tackles (33), he leads the team by a wide margin in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (9).  Garrett's quickness and power make him a handful, and he will be difficult for the Crimson Tide offensive line to block in obvious passing situations.

Secondary Experience

Despite the overall improvement in A&M's defense compared to last season, four of the top six tacklers on the team are defensive backs, which indicates that the opponents' players typically make it past the front seven in the defense before they are stopped.  Fortunately for the Aggies, with the exception of Watts, they have a wealth of experience in the secondary.

Senior Deshazor Everett (6'0", 193 lbs) is the team's leading tackler (47) and a third-year starter.  At the boundary corner position, Everett has an interception, three passes broken up, and 1.5 tackles for loss.  You may remember him as the player who intercepted A.J. McCarron at the goal line with 1:36 remaining to secure the Aggies' 29-24 victory on their last trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium, back in 2012.

Boundary Safety Howard Matthews is another experienced member of the Aggie secondary.  Matthews (6'2", 210 lbs) is a big safety with four years as a starter for A&M.  He finished second on the team in tackles in 2013 and holds the same spot at this point in the season (44).  Howard has four pass break ups and 2.5 tackles for loss in the first six games.

Devonta Burns, a 6'0", 214-lb redshirt junior, plays nickel in the A&M defense, and has seen some action at the safety position.  While Burns is not an every-down player, he still has 32 tackles, a forced fumble and a pass break up so far this year.

Summary

It would be facetious to compare Texas A&M's defense to, say, Ole Miss's.  While the unit is no longer the worst in the conference, it still ranks in the bottom half.  It would be more appropriate to compare them to Arkansas - slightly better at pass defense than the Hogs, but worse at stopping the run.  While A&M has allowed more yardage than the Razorbacks, the Aggies hold their opponents to fewer yards per play.

If you assume then that A&M has a defense that is roughly comparable to Arkansas's, what does that mean for the Crimson Tide on Saturday?  The Aggies have the most prolific offense in the SEC, not to mention that they will get their best receiver and offensive leader - Malcome Kennedy - back after he missed the last two games with a shoulder injury.  Frankly, if the Tide plays like they did at Fayetteville, this one could get ugly in a hurry.  I expect a better overall performance from Alabama this week, but don't be surprised if the Aggie defense can pull off enough stops to give Texas A&M their second straight victory in Tuscaloosa.