COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M’s 2016 defense may be the best defense Kevin Sumlin has had in his coaching career.
On the surface, that doesn’t sound like much – Sumlin has long been thought of as an offensive-minded head coach and never has he had what would be considered an “elite” defense. The highest the Aggies have ranked in his time at Texas A&M was last season, when they were 51st in yards per game allowed.
But after a 2015 season in which they turned in their worst offensive season since joining the SEC -- and the team transitions to a new offensive coordinator and quarterback -- the Aggies could use some help from the defense if they’re going to win games.
On his annual alumni speaking tour this summer, Sumlin made no secret of his confidence in his unit, telling fans the Aggies could be a top-20 or top-15 outfit nationally.
Why is Sumlin so confident? Two main reasons: defensive coordinator John Chavis enters his second season in College Station, and there are several key defensive players returning.
“I think we've got a lot of guys back that are high-level players, NFL-caliber players,” Sumlin said. “That hasn't been the case [in the past].”
The players he’s referring to specifically are defensive ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall and safeties Justin Evans, Armani Watts and Donovan Wilson. Garrett and Hall form what Chavis thinks can be the best defensive end tandem in college football, while Evans, Watts and Wilson bring a wide range of skills that helped the Aggies solidify their secondary and bring a unit that in 2014 ranked 102nd nationally in yards per game up to 51st in 2015.
Chavis last season went as far to compare Wilson to Tyrann Mathieu, who he coached at LSU. Because of Wilson’s ability both in coverage and to tackle and make plays near the line of scrimmage, the Aggies – who are a base 4-3 defense – will not often play three linebackers, as Wilson customarily serving as the fifth defensive back/third linebacker near the line of scrimmage. Chavis said Wilson could play safety, nickel and maybe even another spot.
“You want to get your 11 best players out on the field, and there’s no doubt he’s one of our best 11,” Chavis said.
There’s quality depth on the defensive line behind Garrett and Hall, and Chavis identified five defensive tackles that he feels confident can play on Saturdays. But they’re looking for a sixth. Linebacker and specifically, run defense, has been a weakness in recent years – even under Chavis last season – but playing only two linebackers (likely veterans Otaro Alaka and Shaan Washington) most of the time will help with depth at the position.
Said Sumlin: “Who's the third linebacker? Well, the third linebacker better be pretty damn good to get Donovan Wilson off the field….That's my thought process….The rotation changes drastically when you talk about depth when you're not looking for two or three deep for three guys and instead looking for two or three deep for two guys.”
Chavis said plainly, “We will be improved at linebacker. We’re bigger, stronger, faster.” He cited Alaka and Washington both able to lift more than 400 pounds on the bench press as a sign of improved strength for both.
Whether the Aggies actually turn out to be that caliber of unit remains to be seen. But Sumlin and Chavis feel good about where they are.
“We don’t want to be pretty good,” Chavis said. “We want to be great.”