At all levels of football, offensive trends come and go. But most coaches cling to one timeless bromide: Defense wins championships.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, one of the nation’s top offensive innovators, does not downplay the significance of stopping power in a team’s title quest. That is why he is excited by the return of three defensive starters to the sixth-ranked Aggies’ lineup for Saturday’s high-stakes showdown at 2:30 p.m. in Kyle Field against No. 1 Alabama in the SEC opener for both schools.
No. 6 A&M (2-0) played its first two games without linebacker Steven Jenkins, defensive end Gavin Stansbury and cornerback De’Vante Harris. All three were suspended by Sumlin for two games for unspecified violations of team rules.
The Aggies also have played four quarters this season without cornerback Deshazor Everett (two half-game suspensions), nose guard Kirby Ennis (one-game suspension for off-season arrest) and defensive end Julien Obioha, who sat out last week’s 65-28 rout of Sam Houston State with an undisclosed ailment.
All six of those players are listed as starters against Alabama (1-0). Their collective return, said Sumlin, should trigger immediate improvement in a unit that ranks 84th or lower among the nation’s 125 FBS schools in total defense (449.5 yards per game), rushing defense (273 yards per game) and scoring defense (29.5 average).
The most troubling statistical area is run defense, where the Aggies rank No. 115 and will face a ground-and-pound Alabama offense. Although optimistic, Sumlin acknowledged having so many key defenders playing together for the first time in game conditions raises concerns about what to expect against the Crimson Tide.
“Certainly, we don’t have all our questions answered,” Sumlin said. “But to get those guys back in the huddle will be a big deal. The addition of Steven Jenkins will be big, not only from an athletic standpoint but from a leadership and experience standpoint. We won’t have to be as vanilla as we have been because of youth.”
But youth remains a constant for the A&M defense. The Aggies list 11 freshmen on their defensive depth chart, including one starter: linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni. Alabama, which returns eight defensive starters from last year’s unit that led the nation in total defense, features only juniors or seniors in its starting lineup.
The Crimson Tide held Virginia Tech to 212 total yards in its season-opening, 35-10 victory on Aug. 31. Alabama heads to College Station ranked among the nation’s top 10 in three defensive categories, including No. 1 in pass efficiency defense (30.6 efficiency rating) and No. 6 in third-down defense after allowing only a 17.6 percent conversion rate to Virginia Tech (3 of 17).
Clearly, the A&M offense — which has averaged 58.5 points per outing and features quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner — is much better than its counterpart at Virginia Tech. But A&M defenders know they cannot be the weak link in Saturday’s chain if the Aggies are to match last year’s 29-24 upset of the Tide.
Among A&M’s returnees to the defensive lineup, only Everett, a third-team selection, made the preseason All-SEC team. Everett, who had a game-clinching fourth-quarter interception in last year’s contest, agreed A&M defenders have much to prove in this contest.
“Yes. Everyone looks at it that way,” Everett said. “What we’re trying to improve on is where our weaknesses are. We can only progress. We have to get better and we will keep getting better.”
Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said his starters were able to “knock a little bit of the rust off” in practice this week and will be fresh-legged for Saturday’s matchup. Like Sumlin, he singled out the return of Jenkins, who made 79 tackles last season, as a key factor for teammates.
“Steven Jenkins played pretty well for us in this game last year,” Snyder said. “To have that confidence out there on the field, that swagger, was permeating through the team [this week] in practice.”
Without question, confidence is high at A&M heading into this one. And it starts at the top, where school President R. Bowen Loftin posted this message Thursday on his Twitter account: “Fellow Ags! After we #BTHObama on Saturday, I ask that you be gracious to our guests as they depart.”
In the Aggie vernacular, “BTHO” means “beat the hell out of.” To actually do that to Bama, A&M coaches said the defense must play its best game thus far this season. Everett predicted the Aggies will.
“There’s a high level of excitement on campus, but it’s definitely making us focus more,” Everett said. “We’re working harder in practice. We’re watching more film. We want to be great out there this Saturday.”
How Texas A&M and Alabama stack up on defense, with the team’s FBS rank in parentheses: