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Forget quarterback; defensive end most important position battle for Texas A&M

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Cubelic: Aggies need to change mindset

SEC Network's Cole Cubelic talks to Paul Finebaum about his first trip to College Station for Texas A&M's spring game.

Like numerous other programs across the country, an offseason quarterback battle is the topic du jour at Texas A&M. Who wins the right to start the season opener vs. UCLA is a popular topic for fans of the Aggies.

What isn't as popular -- but perhaps more important for Texas A&M -- is how things shake out at one of the most important defensive positions: defensive end. While Myles Garrett is busy preparing for potentially being the No. 1 overall selection in the 2017 NFL draft, the Aggies must figure out a succession plan to their former starting defensive ends, Garrett and Daeshon Hall.

The duo combined for 48.5 sacks and 82 tackles for loss during the last three seasons. That type of production is hard to replace, regardless of who succeeds them.

The good news: The Aggies have a pair of veterans with plenty of experience -- Qualen Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson -- on the roster.

The bad news: Defensive end is one area where the Aggies' depth is limited.

Texas A&M went through spring practice with basically three scholarship defensive ends: Cunningham, Johnson and Landis Durham.

Three more defensive ends will arrive in the summer, including ESPN JC 50 prospect Micheal Clemons, who the Aggies are hoping can be an instant-impact player. Clemons, the No. 23 overall junior college prospect and fifth-best juco defensive end, is 6-foot-5, 240 pounds. A pair of high school recruits from the Aggies' 2017 class, Tyree Johnson and Ondario Robinson, will join the defensive end fray.

As it stands currently, there is no player on the roster with Garrett-type talent to succeed him. That type of player is rare. The key will be whether Garrett and Hall's successors can produce the way those two did, or come close to doing so.

Johnson and Cunningham have performed respectably as reserves and haven't been limited to simply mop-up duty; both saw meaningful playing time earlier in games, particularly on first and second downs to give Garrett and Hall a breather before bringing the two starters back on third-down passing plays. With not as many snaps, Johnson matched Hall for second on the team last year with 4.5 sacks.

Regardless, both Cunningham and Johnson will have to make significant strides between now and the end of the offseason, because they haven't yet played to a level that suggests there won't be a significant dropoff. Clemons must reach the potential the Aggies believe he has. If those things happen, perhaps the Aggies can get the kind of production they're looking for.

The Aggies got into this position with a few misses on the recruiting trail at the position in recent years. Their top defensive end recruit in the 2015 class, ESPN 300 prospect James Lockhart, didn't see the field much and transferred out of the program this offseason. One defensive end prospect in the 2016 class, Alton Robinson, got into legal trouble and never made it to campus. Another 2016 prospect who committed to Texas A&M, ESPN 300 prospect Mark Jackson, flipped to Oklahoma late in the process.

The Aggies' top defensive end recruit in that class -- ESPN 300 Justin Madubuike -- redshirted last season and has drawn rave reviews from those inside the program this spring, but he's playing another position. Listed at 292 pounds, Madubuike has moved inside to defensive tackle, where the Aggies have significant quality depth and it appears Madubuike will figure into the regular playing rotation this fall.

Defensive coordinator John Chavis, who prefers to build his defenses around elite defensive ends and cornerbacks, may have to get creative this year. Because replacing his two departed multiyear starters in Garrett and Hall is his toughest task this offseason.