Texas A&M's biggest question mark coming into this season -- even more so than its quarterback -- revolved around its defense and whether it could show significant improvement after a brutal 2013 campaign.
One game into the 2014 season, there is sufficient reason for optimism in several areas the Aggies struggled a year ago.
Overshadowed by the record-breaking starting debut of sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill was the fact that the Aggies showed signs of progress on defense in their 52-28 dismantling of South Carolina on Thursday.
The most noticeable difference was the Aggies’ ability to rush the passer. A sore spot last season (the Aggies had only seven sacks in their first seven games in 2013), Texas A&M showcased its increased depth and athleticism on the edge and harassed South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson to the tune of six quarterback hurries and three sacks.
One of those sacks and two of those hurries came courtesy of the Aggies’ prized 2014 recruit, true freshman Myles Garrett.
“Myles can run with the best of them,” junior defensive end Julien Obioha said.
At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, Garrett showed why he was pursued by most major programs in the country. He displayed strength, athleticism and determination that made him a factor in his collegiate debut.
Texas A&M’s much-maligned run defense held up well, too, though it got some assistance. Standout running back Mike Davis played sparingly because of a rib injury, and the Aggies’ put up points at a pace that forced South Carolina to abandon the running game to some extent.
Still, when the Gamecocks did run the ball, they were largely ineffective, averaging only three yards per carry and finishing with 67 yards on 22 attempts.
“I think we just came out and showed that we can stop the run against an experienced offensive line, one of the best offensive lines in the country,” Obioha said. “They have a great group of backs. Mike Davis couldn't play that much [Thursday], but we came out and stopped the run against a very good offense."
The night wasn’t without its flaws. Thompson beat the Aggies’ secondary deep for two long first-half touchdown passes of 69 and 46 yards, and in both cases there were errors in Texas A&M's young secondary that contributed to the big plays.
“We had a safety jump a route and get the first touchdown open and didn't get any help for [cornerback] Deshazor [Everett] and then [we had] a bust [in coverage],” Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said. “Those two big plays really kind of changed the complexion of the first half and it was a different ballgame because of two plays.”
But one encouraging sign for the secondary was the play of true freshman safety Armani Watts, who recorded an interception and two pass breakups. Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder stressed multiple times this offseason that the Aggies needed upgraded safety play, and Watts showed signs Thursday that he might be the one to help provide it.
It wasn’t a perfect night, but given the lack of outsider expectations and last season’s forgettable performances, 2014 has already given the Aggies reason to believe this year will be better.