The first time I experienced fan rage was Thanksgiving of 2009. I'd experienced frustration, sadness, even infuriation, but never the likes of what I experienced Thanksgiving night at Kyle Field. Aggie fans probably remember it well because it was the Lone Star Showdown against Texas on the 10-year anniversary of the Bonfire collapse. The Ags entered as a hopeless underdog against Heisman hopeful Colt McCoy and the Longhorns. But A&M came out and went toe to toe with the national championship contenders and put up over 500 yards of offense against Will Muschamp's vaunted defense. The only problem was with every improbable score A&M made, the Longhorns responded by marching effortlessly down the field with a game-tying or go-ahead score.
My rage boiled over at the end of the second quarter. After Texas fumbled a punt, Jerrod Johnson completed a touchdown to Howard Morrow to tie the game at 21 with a little over one minute left in the half. If the Ags could hold the Longhorns for just one minute, they would head into halftime tied with the then-#3 team in the nation with all of the momentum on their side. It was an underrated Kyle Field moment. I can remember the mood shifting from "Just don't let us get blown out" to "Holy shit, we can beat these guys!" On the anniversary of the greatest tragedy our university has ever faced, Kyle Field churned up some magic once again. I'd put the noise level that night with any of the great Kyle Field moments. Something special was in store that night...
Then A&M had to go on defense.
After the game was tied, Texas drove down the field, to my knowledge basically untouched, and scored a touchdown with seconds left in the first half. The Ags continued their valiant effort but would fall short, 49-39 because A&M's overwhelmingly overmatched defense could not muster up the strength to hold off the Longhorns. That whole season, the Aggie D got taken to the woodshed several times but it was that very night where I found myself feeling sheer hopelessness when they were on the field. With every snap, I did not just hope for a stop, I begged for it, as if only supernatural intervention could save the Aggies. I didn't have that feeling watching the defense again until last season.
[Note: For those who respond "What about 2011?" That season was a horrifying fever dream that's been erased from memory so I don't know what you're talking about when you ask that question.]
To be as kind as humanly possible, the 2013 Aggie defense left the fan base, and I'm sure Mark Snyder as well, in a perpetual state of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. If one were to ask to pinpoint where exactly the problem stood on the defense, a gigantic red circle would be drawn around all eleven positions.
One of the few silver linings from last season was the revelation of how special and extremely fortunate the 2012 Aggie defense came to be. Think of all the factors that fell into place.
1. Damontre Moore finally became the star we hoped he would be.
Before that year, the now-New York Giant defensive end struggled with maturity issues and disappeared from games for long stretches at a time. A very underrated achievement of the Sumlin era thus far was the way he connected with Moore and helped mold him into the leader and All-American he became that year. As 2013 affirmed, the primary contributor to the roller coaster seasons of the Aggie D comes down to having elite pass rushers like Moore and Von Miller that can hide a multitude of weaknesses at other positions on the field. People joke, as they should, about our secondary's befuddlement at covering a wheel route in 2013, but most likely that issue was apparent in the year prior. We just were able to get to the quarterback before the route could develop.
2. No one got hurt!
There's nothing much to say here. The Ags had a first string and nothing else behind them. If there had been one injury to any of the front seven, 2012 may have looked a lot different.
3. Spencer Nealy and Jonathan Stewart took an unexpected leap.
Something clicked for Jonathan Stewart that made him an extremely valuable part of the 2012 defense. And moving Spencer Nearly to defensive tackle for the Alabama game arguably could have been the most important moment of the 2012 season outside of the decision to start the now-backup quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. If you're still wondering what in the hell happened last season on defense, watch Spencer Nealy play defensive tackle, then watch 2013's defensive line.
These two players were considered contributors before the season began but were fan favorites when it was all said and done. Hopefully, a similar leap can be made for seniors like Julien Obioha and Howard Matthews. Obioha was a fine complement to Damontre Moore but last season he showed he was not quite ready to be the #1 pass rusher. But now Daeshon Hall should be in SEC shape after putting in work with Larry Jackson, and in case you've somehow not followed Aggie sports and are reading this article, the #1 defensive recruit in the country, Myles Garrett, will be joining the maroon and white this year. With Hall and Garrett's athleticism, the table is set for Obioha to have a breakout season.
As for Matthews, no one player is looking more for redemption. The arc of the senior's career at A&M has descended from hard-hitting safety to punch line after repeated counts of bad coverage and bad tackling. For every wide-open touchdown pass made against the Ags, there was Howard trailing behind hoping to grab them by the shoe strings. Fortunately for him, no player has proven to be good enough to usurp him, so he will have one final season to turn it all around.
The lack of depth in 2013 forced the coaching staff to baptize quite a few true freshmen under fire, many of which were not physically ready for such competition. With a top-5 recruiting class joining the team, it looks like we'll see even more youth across the Aggie depth chart. The guys we'll see line up on Thursday against South Carolina will more than likely be the guys we'll follow for the next couple of years. The expectations around Aggieland seem to be cautiously optimistic, meaning none of us have a clue what's going to happen. So with many of the fan base taking a wait-and-see approach, what will be the measure of improvement on defense?
Technically, if the Ags rank in the 90s in any defensive category they've improved, but what can be done to show that actual growth and maturation is taking place? While there certainly will be times of frustration and growing pains, here are two basic areas to observe.
THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE
I already gave you your homework assignment in comparing tape of Spencer Nealy and the 2013 D-Line. But really look closely at how much the line gets manhandled against teams like Alabama, Auburn, and even Arkansas. Against the run, the game basically turned into 11-on-7. Either the defensive line was being pushed back into the linebackers or got stuck right where they stood. On many, many run plays, the first touch the running back faced was either from a linebacker or the secondary.
It will be a long, arduous season if this trend continues. The line must be able to earn some victories in the trenches to disrupt the opponent's run game. If the Aggies can show any ability to push back the offensive line, they're going in the right direction.
AGGRESSION IN THE SECONDARY
I'm going completely subjective here. For over a decade, Texas A&M has operated under the bend-but-don't-break mentality on defense. Yes, with the talent on past rosters, this strategy was probably the best fit, but with the new recruiting classes, hopefully this is the year the maroon and white finally breaks away from this mindset.
Throughout all of the last season, it seemed like the secondary gladly allowed every offense to move down the field one 12-yard out at a time. When your defensive line can't get to the quarterback (see section above), you must give yourself the best chance to maintain coverage for as long as possible. Eventually though, some risk must be taken. Enter: Terry Joseph. The former Nebraska defensive secondary coach has had success at every previous destination and is said to bring a more aggressive, man-up style to the defense. If we start seeing the cornerbacks face up on the receivers instead of giving a 10-yard cushion or see some secondary jump on some routes for some bat downs or interceptions, Coach Joseph will be doing his job well.
The A&M coaching staff remains adamant that, despite the loss of key players, this will be the most depth they've ever had on defense. Come Thursday, it will be revealed whether those statements are true. When the lights come on in Columbia, Aggie fans will sit on pins and needles once the defense trots onto the field for the first time. No one is expecting a resurrection of the Wrecking Crew anytime soon, but if big strides can be made this season, we may see something that hasn't been experienced on defense in many years: consistency.