A&M focusing on improving defense

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Last week, we visited the University of Texas and saw how it approached spring practice with a new defensive coordinator and an entirely new defensive package. This week, we visit Texas A&M and look at the issues the Aggies face as they try to rebound from last year's disappointing season and defensive performance.

Texas A&M has a different challenge this spring than Texas. Last year's coaching staff is intact and using the same basic scheme. We will research how coach Dennis Franchione and defensive coordinator Carl Torbush use that to their advantage as they plan their spring.

We will look at issues coaching staffs face when evaluating last year's performance and how they isolate specific problems.

Look Back To Move Forward
Like most staffs, the first thing Texas A&M did at the conclusion of the season was to self-scout every aspect of their defense. They try to figure out what went right, what went wrong and why.

It is also important to evaluate personnel and see if they were capable of doing what was asked of them. This was especially important at A&M because they just finished their first season and their only prior evaluation was done last spring against their own teammates in practice.

Stats Don't Lie
When one looks at the statistics from last year, there is no way to hide the fact that this was the worst defensive performance in Texas A&M history. The Aggies finished the season ranked 116th in scoring defense, giving up 38.8 points per game, and 96th in total defense, giving up 431 yards a game. In two losses, they gave up 59 points and 669 yards to Texas Tech and 77 points and 639 yards to Oklahoma.

What makes these statistics so shocking is that A&M has a proud tradition of great defense. Over the 18 seasons prior to 2003, A&M's average final ranking in NCAA total defense was 13th in the country. Over this same period, the Aggies held opponents to an average of 289 yards a game and about 16 points a game.

Address The Issue
The first question the staff faces is how much do they bring up last year's statistics as they move forward? Torbush makes the right decision in taking the positive approach and not dwelling on the negatives. The players can use the statistics as motivation without hearing it from the coaches. The coaches can use the stats for evaluation.

Only two specific statistics were emphasized this spring. Texas A&M had only 19 sacks last year and forced just 19 turnovers in the 12-game season. These statistics reinforce the need for improvement in those areas.

To Change Or Not -- Evaluating The Staff
When evaluating a season, head coaches are forced to evaluate the staff's performance. This is a critical part of the procedure if a team is going to improve. When asked if he considered making defensive staff changes, Dennis Franchione said "it never entered my mind. The year before at Alabama, we were 10-3 and led the SEC in total defense. We have a great defensive coordinator, and our staff is on the same page." Now that they have a year of experience at A&M, the staff members will use it to their advantage. The coaches now know what to expect from the players and opponents.

Evaluate The Scheme
A&M fans are quick to point out that when Torbush arrived, he abandoned the 3-4 defense that was a tradition in favor of the 4-3. The reality is that A&M uses multiple fronts and coverage schemes and plays many of the same schemes that were used in the past.

After extensive evaluation of last year's scheme, it was decided that only minor adjustments were needed. A&M will use more speed on the field and match up better against certain offensive packages. By keeping the scheme basically the same, the coaches can keep the same terminology and build on last year. With a year's experience, the players should understand the defense better and be able to react and play faster.

Spring Priorities
After self-scouting and evaluation, the staff prioritized goals for the spring. Below, we show them in order and how they are addressed.

1. Speed On The Field
Anyone who watched the Aggies' defense last year realized they needed more team speed. It's no coincidence that last year was the worst statistically in school history and that there won't be any A&M defensive players selected in the NFL draft next weekend. Obviously, speed is addressed in recruiting, but A&M has a plan for the short term.

  • A&M will continue to evaluate players through the spring, but will also try to put players in the right position. The formula is to get safety-type athletes at linebacker and linebacker-type athletes at defensive end.

  • A&M also will benefit from having a year of experience in its new scheme. Less thinking means quicker reacting.

  • A&M will use more susbstitution packages on defense with five or six defensive backs in the game at one time.

  • The impact of four defensive linemen and four defensive backs who were redshirted last year is already evident. The coaches say they have more speed and athleticism than they did a year ago.

    2. Tackling In Space
    Another problem last year was A&M's inability to make tackles. Too much yardage was gained in the open field after the first hit. Starting in the offseason, emphasis was put on football position and body control. In spring drills, Franchione took specific steps by increasing the amount of tackling and emphasized pursuit.

    Every team works on tackling in the spring, but the statistics prove to the players how important it is. The amount of yardage gained after the first hit and lack of forced turnovers last year makes it obvious.

    3. Gap Integrity
    Major breakdowns occurred frequently last year because players did not take care of gap responsibilities. This spring, emphasis was put on discipline and each player being accountable. With staff continuity and better understanding of the scheme, there should be more consistency.

    4. Better Man Coverage
    Last season, A&M played 65 percent zone coverage and 35 percent man coverage. Torbush would love to play more man coverage, but the reality is the Aggies were not very good at it. A&M wants to pressure more, and it must improve on its 19 sacks last year. Better evaluation of players and an emphasis on man coverage and pressure this spring should help.

    Torbush is a well respected and proven defensive coordinator in college football. Everywhere he has coached, he has been known for his multiple and aggressive packages.

    With the entire coaching staff intact, they have a clear idea of what areas they need to focus on this spring. As you can see, his priorities focus on personnel and fundamentals more than scheme. Like all good coaches, he realizes it's not what you play that's important, it's how you play it.

    Bob Davie is an analyst for ESPN and his Football 101 is a weekly feature on ESPN.com during the season. Send in your Football 101 questions for Coach Davie to answer.