Head coach Kevin Sumlin and the Texas A&M football team begins spring football practice on Monday quietly, thanks to strong seasons from the men's and women's basketball teams and baseball off to an undefeated start. In fact, many Aggies probably had football out of their mind until a Friday afternoon news dump stated that John Chavis was suing both LSU and Texas A&M over his contract buyout from leaving the Tigers. That was enough to bring back a sudden onset of Battered Aggie Syndrome, followed by the relief and joy with realization that John Chavis would be participating in his first practice for Texas A&M some 72 hours later.
For the Aggies, the mission this spring should be a simple one -- get back to the basics. The mix of a young roster along with the turnover of three assistant coaches (four in new positions), together with a new defensive scheme, gives the program an opportunity to re-focus on basic techniques such as tackling, run blocking, and pass coverage, all of which plagued the team in 2014.
Here are three areas that should be the focus of the spring practice period.
Who Emerges from the Defensive Backs?
The position group that will probably benefit the most from John Chavis being hired as Texas A&M's new defensive coordinator is the defensive backs. Gone will be the shaky and improperly-taught zone scheme, which will be replaced with more man coverage that will rely on pure talent at the position. It will be a new lease on life not only for the group, but position coach Terry Joseph as well. Each player should be given an opportunity to earn their job, making it the most competitive position battle ground for the spring. At corner, senior De'Vante Harris will have to earn a starting job over a group of underclassman who are eager to earn playing time. Among that group are Nick Harvey, Victor Davis, Noel Ellis, Tavares Garner, and Alex Sezer. It will be a win if the group can break from spring ball with one solid starter nailed down, with the open competition for the second spot continuing into the fall. At safety, a talented group will be looking to make an early impact on Joseph and Chavis. Like the corner group, there will be two open spots available for three players who contributed in 2014. Armani Watts should look to build on consistency as he is the most talented player at the position, and Devonta Burns will try to transition from his nickel position in 2014 where he started back to safety. Donovan Wilson, who led the team with 9 tackles in the Liberty Bowl, will be sidelined in the spring. Justin Evans, an early enrollee, will look to make an immediate impact and compete alongside Watts and Burns. These three along with Wilson will want to make a good first impression before two talented freshmen safeties arrive in the summer that could push for playing time as well. Simply put, the safety position may be the most talented and deepest position now on the defense after two years of sketchy play.
New Focus on the Ground Game
A strong statement was made by Kevin Sumlin when offensive line coach BJ Anderson was dismissed before the bowl game, and former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen was hired as offensive line coach/run game coordinator. The Aggies must improve their running game in 2015 if they plan to build any offensive consistency at all around their passing game. Christensen will get to begin his Texas A&M tenure with rebuilding an offensive line that will most likely see two new starters on the left side of the line. Right tackle Germain Ifedi returns after flirting with the idea of moving on to the NFL and is expected to be the anchor of the group either at right tackle or right guard. Texas A&M will see a lot more of Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemonor, who may take over the left side of the line at tackle and guard, respectively. Unfortunately, Christensen will be without Mike Matthews this spring at center, causing one lineman to get a crash course at the position. Early reports seem to indicate that it will be Koda Martin taking a majority of the snaps at center. The group will want to build as much consistency together as they can before the fall. Don't forget about the battles at running back as well -- three talented backs in Tra Carson, Brandon Williams and James White will be battling for playing time. Christensen would probably like one of these runners to emerge as a reliable bell cow, something the Aggies didn't have in 2014 until the Liberty Bowl when they gave Carson 25 carries.
Competition at Linebacker
For the first time in recent memory, Texas A&M will enter 2015 with depth at linebacker. Unfortunately, some key guys will be out during the spring, including Otaro Alaka and Shaan Washington. There will also have a new coach, as John Chavis takes over the position himself with Mark Hagen moving to defensive tackle. The group will be led in the fall by Alaka, but until that time, Coach Chavis will be looking for others to step up. A.J. Hilliard made a strong impression in his limited showing against South Carolina, but it is unclear just how much Hilliard will participate in the spring coming off of injury. Josh Walker contributed earlier than expected at middle linebacker, but will see stiff competition for the job going forward with early enrollee Claude George already on campus. The Walker - George battle at middle linebacker may turn out to be the most competitive for the spring. Overall, the group will display athleticism that should please John Chavis and complement his defensive scheme. For the first time in a long time, the group should be strong entering 2015 and a fun group to watch, especially with Chavis leading the way. But the group must get back to the basics -- tackling, taking on blockers, pass coverage in space -- if they want to be the leaders of the Aggie defense in the future. The group certainly has the talent to do so.
Other Position Battles to Watch
There will be two more position battles that should see stiff competition in the spring -- the 2nd defensive tackle spot opposite Alonzo Williams and who will replace Malcome Kennedy in the slot at wide receiver. New defensive tackles coach Mark Hagen will get to make his impact with the group, as Terry Price now concentrates his efforts with the defensive ends. The Aggies have a group of young players that could contribute at defensive tackle, including Zaycoven Henderson, Hardreck Walker, Justin Manning, and redshirt freshman DeShawn Washington. While talented, this group has lacked consistency to warrant extended playing time. Finding a reliable starter will go a long way to solidify the middle of the Aggies' run defense.
At receiver, new assistant coach Aaron Moorehead will be tasked with finding a replacement for departing senior Malcome Kennedy. Early enrollee and true freshman Christian Kirk seems to be a likely replacement, but he will have to earn the job playing alongside a group of receivers desperate for playing time at the position. Senior Sabian Holmes and junior Jeremy Tabuyo might be given a shot at the job as well. Moorehead might also rearrange the group to get Speedy Noil, Ricky Seals-Jones, Josh Reynolds, and Ed Pope all on the field at the same time (Reynolds won't participate in spring ball due to injury). Don't forget about early enrollee Damion Ratley as well.
Overall, it should be fun watching the new coaches get to work with this young and talented team.