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Previewing Alabama vs Texas A&M: The Aggie defense

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The Aggies threw the bank at former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko, and it’s easy to see why.

Louisiana Monroe v Texas A&M
The Aggies defense has gotten a little swagger with the help of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Ever since their inclusion in the Southeastern Conference, the Texas A&M Aggies have been known for their offense. They’ve fielded prolific units on that side of the ball while by most accounts, their defense has floundered despite some solid talent along the defensive line.

After years of withering defensive efforts, former head coach Kevin Sumlin and Aggie boosters set their sights on an establish defensive coordinator with a championship pedigree in the SEC. They poached John Chavis from LSU, and “Chief” brought his brand of aggressive, unconventional defense to College Station. Though there was some improvement overall, the Aggie defense still never struck fear into the hearts of opposing offenses, and the best path to Texas A&M victory remained hope that the offense could out-drag race the competition.

Sumlin’s gone, and his replacement is an offensive head coach who knows the importance of defense. Jimbo Fisher is an offensive aficionado to be sure. But as a student of the Nick Saban school of championship football, he also understands the importance of defense. His Florida State teams were offensively explosive, but they were always backed by the rigid spine of a stingy, aggressive defense loaded with talent.

When Fisher arrived, he immediately went after then-Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko, an upstart coordinator with tenures at Wake Forest and Bowling Green preceding his one-year stay in College Bend. Elko cleaned up the mess that previous Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder made, and installed a 4-2-5 scheme that minimized the talent deficiencies Notre Dame experienced while turning in a solid, well-rounded defense. At talent deficient Wake Forest, Elko turned the Demon Deacons into a fairly ferocious defensive unit using the same tactics. His system has worked before, and there’s no reason to believe that in talent rich College Station, that it won’t work even better there.

The early returns for the Aggies are promising. In the second week of the season, they stifled a usually potent Clemson offense, holding them to 413 total yards and only 115 of those on the ground. They were particularly stingy on third downs, as they allowed Clemson to convert a mere four first downs in 13 attempts in the game.

While Elko hasn’t yet had the ability to recruit players tailored to his system, he is making the most of what they have at the moment.

This week, they will face one of the best offenses in the country as the Alabama Crimson Tide comes to town. Thus far in 2018, the Tide O has shredded every defense they’ve faced, and it hasn’t even been close. In the Tide’s three games to date, Alabama has destroyed the competition within a single half, with starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa hitting the bench before halftime. Alabama can do it all: they can slay defenses through the air with incredible efficiency, and their ground game remains a powerful strength for the team (even when the Tide doesn’t have to use it).

This week’s match-up could be the first true test for both units, as the Aggies represent the best defense the Tide has faced to date, and even Clemson couldn’t boast the offensive firepower that Alabama will wield this Saturday.

Can the Aggies do the unthinkable and find a way to hold Alabama’s high-flying offense in check? Or will they be just another speedbump for a Tide offense under Tagovailoa that appears to be on a road to playoff destiny? Can Alabama continue to come up with answers for every test the Aggies will impose on them this Saturday?

Time will tell. Let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

Elko has undoubtedly has more talent to work with in implementing his scheme at Texas A&M than he had at any of his three previous stops. The state of Texas is a recruiting hotbed, and the Aggies have a bevy of talented, veteran defenders leading the charge for their unit.

Elko runs a 4-2-5 style of defense, and in his iteration, the system leans heavily on a defensive line that is well-schooled in its responsibilities and can execute them flawlessly. Fortunately for him, he has a solid combination up front of veterans and talented underclassmen who are handing their new responsibilities quite well thus far in 2018. It starts in the center with the two tackles, senior Daylon Mack (6-1, 320 pounds), a prototypical nose, and redshirt sophomore Joseph Madubuike (6-3, 300 pounds). Both are quality SEC-caliber big men built to stop the run and crush the pocket in the pass rush. In Elko’s defense, the linemen are one-gappers who are asked to clog up the middle and eliminate running lanes when the ends and Rover force the run back inside. Both men excel at their roles, as Mack has four tackles and a blocked kick on the season while Madubuike has five tackles, a sack, and a quarterback hurry. Mack is spelled by redshirt sophomore T.D. Moton (6-3, 305 pounds), while sophomore Jayden Peevy (6-6, 300 pounds) relieves Madubuike. Both men have recorded a single tackle each this year.

The 4-2-5 that Elko prefers features one edge-setting traditional end, as well as a pass rushing, athletic quick end. The heavy end sets the edge in the run game, while the light end provides an explosive pass rush burst around the edge, usually lining up outside of the tackle and tight end. The heavy end in the Aggie defense is redshirt sophomore Kingsley Keke (6-4, 305 pounds), a dominant player who is powerful and quick. Keke is having quite the year already, as he’s accounted for 11 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and a quarterback hurry. Behind him is true freshman Bobby Brown (6-4, 282 pounds), and Brown has played well in relief, recording four tackles.

The speed end is senior Landis Durham (6-3, 255 pounds), and Durham is asked to a fulfill a role not unlike that of a Jack linebacker for Alabama’s defense. Durham has been active early and has lived in opposing backfields, as he’s been responsible for 10 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and two quarterback hurries. Redshirt freshman Tyree Johnson (6-4, 250 pounds) has provided steady depth, as he already has six tackles and two quarterback hurries on his ledger.

In Elko’s defense, there are only two true linebackers, both of whom play inside at Sam and Mike. The Mike position is held by steady senior Otara Alaka (6-3, 240 pounds), a ferocious hitter who has been one of the better players on the Aggie defensive roster for the last two seasons. Alaka is off to a great start in 2018, as he leads the team in tackles with 16, with 2.5 tackles for loss. Alaka’s back-up in sophomore Braden White (5-11, 220 pounds), and he hasn’t seen much action this season due to Alaka’s durability.

At Sam is lumbering junior Tyrel Dodson (6-2, 242 pounds), a run-stopping force who has helped the Aggies stiffen their rush defense in the early going of 2018. Dodson has 15 tackles. 1.5 tackles for loss, two passes broken up, and a quarterback hurry. Senior Riley Garner (6-3, 220 pounds) steps in to relieve Dodson, though he’s not been called on to do so much through three games.

One of the unique components of Elko’s rendition of the 4-2-5 is that instead of simply adding a fifth defensive back in the form of a nickel, he instead relies on a safety/ linebacker hybrid that can do a little of everything for his defense. The Rover, as the position is called, doesn’t roam as much as the name may indicate. Rather, the Rover plays a role like the traditional Will linebacker role in a 4-3 defense, but with more flexibility in assignment and heavier coverage responsibilities. Unfortunately for the Aggies, they’ve had trouble staffing this critical role in Elko’s defense this season, as the top two contenders for the spot – Ikenna Akeke and Anthony Hines III – have both ended up injured and out for the season. Therefore, the Aggies are using a combination of two young up-and-comers to fill out the roster. Sophomore Buddy Johnson (6-2, 225 pounds) is a promising newcomer to the Aggie defense. After a year playing outside linebacker under Chavis and getting shoved around by bigger blockers, he is now at a more natural position. Johnson is flourishing, as he has five tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss this season. The other player who has seen time at Rover is junior Larry Pryor (6-0, 205 pounds), a converted safety who hits like a linebacker. Pryor has three tackles, a tackle for loss, and an interception this season.

The defensive backfield features an immense amount of talent, and in Elko’s system, several defensive backs should blossom in 2018. The safeties are probably the single most important position group for the Elko 4-2-5 because their play serves as a hinge point for everything else that the defense does. Senior Donovan Wilson (6-1, 207 pounds) holds the free safety position, and he is off to a fast start for the Aggies with 15 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack. He is spelled by physical senior DeShawn Capers-Smith (6-0, 200 pounds), who has seven tackles and a tackle for loss this season. At strong safety, sophomore Derrick Tucker (6-1, 200 pounds) is the starter, and he has 10 tackles and a pass broken up to his credit. Behind him is sophomore Keldrick Carper (6-2, 198 pounds), and Carper has two tackles and two passes broken up.

At the corners, the Aggies start junior Charles Oliver (6-2, 202 pounds) and sophomore Debione Renfro (6-2, 193 pounds) on the edges. Oliver is fast and has great length with solid ball skills. He has nine tackles, three passes broken up, and a quarterback hurry. Renfro is quite solid for his relative youth, and he has five tackles and two passes broken up to date. Oliver is backed up by junior Roney Elam (6-2, 192 pounds), while Renfro is spelled by freakishly tall corner Clifford Chattman (6-5, 195 pounds).

How Texas A&M Will Attack the Alabama Offense

The early returns on the Mike Elko era of the Aggie defense are quite promising despite the small statistical sample set. While their stat line was partially built on the likes of Louisiana Monroe and Northwestern State University, that game with Clemson was a good indicator that the Aggie defense has improved dramatically in just a few months of new leadership.

Let’s look at the rather-limited stats. The Aggies are currently giving up 338 yards per game of total offense, which is respectable considering Alabama’s defense is ceding 302 yards per game. The Aggies even have better defensive numbers against the run than Alabama (aTm is giving up 87 yards a game on the ground; the Tide average 101.3 yards allowed), which is shocking for a team that was awful against the run in previous seasons. Their pass defense is slightly worse than Alabama’s (the Tide allows 201 yards per game to the Aggies’ 251 yards per game), and they allow 15 points per game in the scoring defense category (compared to Bama’s 9.33.) They are pretty good at third-down defense, as they’ve allowed seven conversion in 35 attempts (20 percent), whereas Alabama has allowed 12 conversions in 49 attempts (24.49 percent).

What do these stats mean? At the moment, not much. They do indicate a trend towards improvement for the Aggie defense over past seasons, however, and they indicate that Texas A&M’s defense can hold its own against the likes of Clemson.

Though Alabama has faced some iteration or other of the 4-2-5 in two of the first three weeks of the season, the unit they’ll face this Saturday in Tuscaloosa is a completely different animal. They are really more like a standard 4-3 in alignment, but the flexibility of their personnel allows Elko’s defense to play like a nickel set without giving up anything in run defense.

Elko has made a name for himself as a coordinator at schools that don’t recruit at the level of an Alabama or Georgia, and as a result, his system is not as much based on talent and stellar individual performance but upon the simplicity of the system, every player knowing his role, and execution of the plan. Despite the simplicity of the system for a defense to master, it is tricky enough that it is not easily read by the wiliest of quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Within its simplicity are myriad wrinkles that can be maddening for a signal caller, especially those who depend on RPOs and packaged plays heavily.

In terms of alignment, Elko’s defense is rather straight-forward. There’s a nose and an under 3-technique tackle. There are two ends, one heavy for run defense and one light for the pass rush, and two inside linebackers who flow downhill into the gaps at the snap to clean up anything that leaks past the line. The defensive linemen and two linebackers are responsible for the front six gaps. The tackles are either head-up or shaded on the guards’ outside shoulders. The ends line up wide to attack and put pressure on the edge. The inside linebackers stunt inside the tackles. Elko wants his front six to play like one-gappers who aggressively attack the line of scrimmage and get upfield quickly to be as disruptive as possible. The front four controls the gaps, and the safeties and Rover play off the linebackers who fill gaps that may open in the front.

While it may be easy to assume the Rover is the key to the run-stopping ability of the Elko defense, it really isn’t. The Rover is basically a weakside linebacker who lines up over the tight end but can drop off into coverage, fly to the ball on running plays, or rush the passer on blitz calls. The Rover lines up in a fairly consistent location in this defense, but his roles and assignments can vary widely. The Rover provides the defense with a quicker, more athletic player who can take on the traditional roles of a linebacker with added responsibility in coverage.

The real run-stopping power in Elko’s defense comes from the play of the safeties. He typically uses a 2-high shell in coverage, meaning the two safeties start off at depth from the line of scrimmage. What he does next is what makes his defense effective against the run. Since many teams use RPOs and packaged plays that are dialed in after seeing the defensive alignment just before the snap, Elko has a safety wait until right before the snap to close into the box. This has a couple of effects on the offense. First, it is a rope-a-dope game of cat and mouse. The offensive coordinator usually counts the number of players in the box (or in one side of the box) before the snap and then signals the call into the quarterback (or the quarterback makes the read himself). If OC or QB sees seven in the box, for example, he may elect to use the running play component of the package because there would be an overload of personnel in favor of the offense. If the safeties show a 2-high look, then right before the snap one moves into the box, the perceived advantage for the offense evaporates and the running play will likely fail if the defenders do their jobs.

Elko also uses his safeties in run support in a novel way. While many defenses have their safeties play in “alleys” or use them to mop up cut backs or fill gaps that develop inside, Elko assigns his safeties a specific gap, usually alongside or adjacent to a linebacker. By having an additional player minding the gap, even if the safety is overwhelmed by a larger blocker, Elko effectively closes a gap and forces the run right where he wants it…into the bulk of his defensive line. Safeties seal out the daylight for opposing running games, and even though they are bound to get trucked at times, their mere presence can cause a running back to cut back into a tougher gap, thus limiting the gain.

The safeties are also used a great deal as blitzers, but even that is unique in its application. Quite often, Elko will have one of his safeties blitz from depth behind a linebacker. Imagine a fullback clearing a path for a tailback behind him. That’s exactly what Elko will do with a safety and a linebacker to get the smaller player through the line cleanly where he can make a play with his speed and athleticism. It’s a brilliant strategy for using the strengths of a smaller player without fighting through the weaknesses.

In terms of coverages, Elko takes the most vanilla of college defensive alignments, the 2-high shell, and then runs a wide assortment of looks with those personnel. When he has elite corners, he’ll play a lot of man on the edges. But at most of his recent stops, he’s preferred a 2-high safety shell because it allows him to run the coverages he likes without giving away anything to the offense pre-snap.

The most common coverage Elko’s defenses run is a Cover-4 look out of that 2-high. It gives him the versatility of putting as many as nine defenders in the box without giving up the ability to to cover four verticals on the turn of a dime. The safeties are responsible for reading keys at the snap. If those read keys indicate run, the safeties will fill and fit the run off the linebackers or Rover. However, if the offense shows them a vertical release, they can bracket outside with a corner while the Will and Rover cover the hooks and curls zones underneath while the Mike drops to cover the middle zone.

Elko will also give offenses a little Cover-2 from the 2-high shell as well with the linebackers and Rover dropping into the underneath shallow zones. The corners will try to reroute the vertical wire receivers before handing them off to the deep safeties and squatting down on the outside zones. In that configuration, the corners also serve as outside run defenders since the safeties each have a deep half of the field and are charged with keeping receivers in front of them. Again, the linebackers and Rover man the underneath hook and curl zone, and they can disrupt any vertical routes that the offense may try to start in the middle.

The Aggies may even show Alabama some Cover-6 out of a 2-high, which is basically just Cover-2 to the boundary side and Cover-4 to the field side. This creates a three-deep, three-under zone grid that can be used to protect a defense on blitzes and limit the offense’s ability to get deep or dump to safe routes.

Elko also employs a couple of Cover-3 looks that offer him even more options when dealing with teams that can prolifically pass and run. In the Cover-3 Robber, he’ll have his corners play inside leverage on the outside wide receivers while defending a deep third of the field. One safety rolls to the deep middle to cover the middle third, while the other safety floats into the hook and curl zone just beyond the line of scrimmage. The safety can replace a blitzing linebacker in coverage responsibility (in the hook and curl zone) or a blitzing Rover (in the flats).

The Cover-3 Cloud is described as a Cover-3 with a boundary corner staying low as a flats defender while both safeties roll deep to take responsibility for a deep third of the field. The field corner has responsibility for the remaining third. In theory, this look resembles a Cover-6 at first glance, but it provides three-deep, four-under zone coverage instead of three-deep, three-under coverage. It’s not a coverage that Elko uses when he brings pressure, so it only has limited usefulness. One example of when it could be useful is against an Air Raid type of offense that uses the short passing game as a proxy running game, where the quarterback is getting the ball out on two- or three-step drops.

It’s not unheard of for Elko to toss in a little 1-high with Cover-3 or Cover-1, but in general, he likes to pay his cards close to the vest by providing a generic shell the running a ton of different looks out of it.

Alabama will face a pretty confusing defense this Saturday, as the Aggies represent a unit that can do a little bit of everything at a high level. They can stop the run in several different ways, and they can keep a quarterback guessing and limit the effectiveness of offensive tricks like RPOs and packaged plays. Though Elko is working with Chavis’ talent at this point, he has enough of what he needs to give Alabama a challenge on Saturday afternoon.

The Result

It’s hard to imagine anyone giving Texas A&M much of a chance of stopping Alabama this weekend, but that’s not necessarily based in reality. Alabama has looked great offensively, with a generational talent at quarterback, a seemingly endless array of weapons at receiver, an O line with a high ceiling that is improving every week, and a running game that can truck anybody at a moment’s notice. And the sample size at this point in the season is just too small for anyone to get excited about Texas A&M’s rebuilt D. After all, those who’ve jumped on the Ag bandwagon early have been burned many, many times before.

Schemes are great, and they give players the opportunity to make plays. But at the end of the day, success is about the players. Alabama is loaded on offense, and no one they’ve played has even come close to stopping them. Does Texas A&M have the talent on hand to match what Alabama can, and will, throw at them Saturday afternoon?

That question remains, and in answering it the path of the season’s remainder will be somewhat illuminated. The Aggie defense will attack the Tide offense up front. They’ll make it hard for Alabama to run the ball when it wants to. Against Clemson, they were able to confound the Tigers’ offensive game plan and hold them to a low rushing yard total by clogging the front and making those yards hard to come by. When Clemson elected to put it in the air, they were moderately more successful, but the Aggies proved they were much better equipped to deal with prolific offenses than in the recent past.

Alabama still has a relatively young offense overall, and they’ll have to understand the nature of the Aggie beast and what they are trying to accomplish. There’s little doubt that the Tide can chip away at the aTm defense and make enough big plays to give Bama a chance to win. But that will require Alabama to remain patient offensively, to use the weapons in its arsenal wisely, and to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.

Because of Alabama’s propensity to pass and their ability to execute an air attack, Elko will probably provide a large helping of Cover-3 and Cover-6. There won’t be much man seen Saturday afternoon, as any of the Tide receiving targets can shred the DBs they’ll be facing. Texas A&M is improved, but they simply can’t handle the speed and precision of the Tide’s receiving corps. Therefore, that 2-high shell will be used o keep safeties deep to prevent the big play. In reality, they can’t really stop Alabama for a sustained period of time. What they can hope to do is hold the rope long enough to give their own stellar offense a chance to put points on the board.

One point of interest will be the pass rush. Elko likes to apply pressure through blitzes rather than counting on his front-line defenders to get the job done. When he elects to blitz using defensive backs, will Tagovailoa be able to make those lightning quick reads and exploit them? Just because the defense rotates a linebacker into coverage in the flats doesn’t mean that linebacker can cover the likes of Henry Ruggs or Jaylen Waddle in space. If Tua can get a bead on those blitz tendencies and plan accordingly by getting the ball in the hands of playmakers who have an athleticism advantage, then there could be big plays to be made there.

Tagovailoa is going to be the key to this match-up, as the Aggies’ myriad coverage looks and blitz angles can be confusing to a weathered veteran, let alone a player with a mere three starts beneath his belt. IF Tua can do his typical Tua routine by reading the defenses, checking down, and delivering beautiful passes in stride, then there won’t be much the Aggies can do to stop the Alabama offense.