Surrounded by the opulence of Texas A&M’s new locker room at Kyle Field, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder found it difficult to put the place in its proper perspective.
“I couldn’t tell if I was in a locker room, a spaceship, a nightclub or a spa,” Snyder said of the Aggies’ new digs, one of the first completed steps in a $450 million stadium renovation project. “It’s incredible.”
Alas, the champagne-and-caviar trappings still house a defense with statistics better suited for a salvage-yard setting. A&M finished last among SEC teams in scoring defense (32.2 avg.), total defense (475.8 yards per game) and rushing defense (222.3) last season.
Among the projected defensive starters coming out of spring drills, two were dismissed from the team this summer by coach Kevin Sumlin (LB Darian Claiborne, DT Isaiah Golden). A third departed for personal reasons and transferred to Houston, where defensive end Gavin Stansbury will be eligible to play immediately because he has graduated.
All three were returning starters, with Claiborne leading A&M in tackles for losses (7) and forced fumbles (2). Stansbury set the pace in sacks (3).
Snyder understands he is the man charged with making significant defensive strides at a school that built last year’s 9-4 record on the back of an explosive offense. But that unit no longer features three first-round picks in the 2014 NFL Draft: quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, wide receiver Mike Evans and left tackle Jake Matthews.
That shifts more burden of proof for 2014 success to a defense that will feature lots of freshmen. Snyder identified nine newcomers from the high school ranks that he envisions as immediate contributors. Six are slotted to shore up deficiencies in the front seven: LB Otaro Alaka, DE Qualen Cunningham, DE Myles Garrett, DL Zaycoven Henderson, DL Jarrett Johnson and LB Deshawn Washington.
“They’re going to have to play. We need the depth,” said Snyder, who does not rule out the possibility of multiple defensive starters from the 2014 recruiting class. “I don’t want to go through what we went through last year again. That’s not fun.”
The only upside to last year’s dismal defensive digits, Snyder acknowledged, is that they can be used to motivate this year’s team.
“You should have a little chip on your shoulder about that,” Snyder said. “I’ve got pride. I use that.”
So does cornerback Deshazor Everett, the only A&M defender selected to the 2014 preseason All-SEC team. Everett, a senior, said the Aggies must play smarter to perform better.
“We need to understand game situations better,” Everett said. “The defense is not that complicated. It’s more about communication. And we’re doing that better. We talk more.”
Even with all the newcomers projected to be in the huddle, Everett said he anticipates better communication on the field this year. And better results. Why?
“Can we get much worse?” Everett asked, shrugging his shoulders. “We’ve got to play better, that’s all we can take from it. To give up as many points as we did as a defense is embarrassing. We’re definitely going to come out stronger this year.”
A fast defensive start to the season is essential, in Snyder’s estimation. In 2012, the Aggies held Florida in check during a 20-17 loss and Snyder said the confidence level “kind of snowballed” despite the season-opening setback. Last year, Snyder said defenders did not jell with one another until a 56-24 victory over Vanderbilt in Week Eight.
With the Aggies, ranked No. 20 in the preseason coaches’ poll, set to open Aug. 28 at ninth-raked South Carolina, there is a heightened focus among Snyder’s defenders to get the defensive wrinkles ironed out in fall camp. Defensive end Julien Obioha predicted the depth of talent among A&M’s defensive linemen will surprise outsiders who see the departures of Golden and Stansbury but overlook the additions of Garrett, a five-star signee from Arlington Martin, and Daeshon Hall, a sophomore who added 30 pounds this off-season while recuperating from two shoulder surgeries.
“There’s been five, maybe six guys, we could rotate,” Obioha said of A&M defensive lines the past two seasons. “This year, there’s going to be a lot. There’s going to be 10, 11 or 12. We’ll have a lot of guys playing 40 snaps and staying fresh.”
The first round of proof comes later this month, but Snyder expressed optimism. Although he admitted A&M’s defense is still “a year away” from being an elite unit by SEC standards, he offered a thought he never uttered for public consumption last season.
“I like our depth chart right now,” Snyder said.
By the time that depth chart is finalized for the South Carolina game, expect it to be flooded with freshmen.
“This is college football, not the NFL. We can’t go to the waiver wire,” Snyder said, reflecting on vacancies created by his midsummer departees. “Other guys have to step up. For us, depth is the key. We’ve got to increase the quality of defensive depth around here to match up with the quality of our offense.”
Not to mention the quality of their sparkling new locker room.