Texas A&M braces for defensive test against SHSU

Lost amid the national firestorm about the conduct of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel during last week’s opener against Rice was a major teaching point for Aggies coaches.

The defense surrendered more yards (509) than No. 7 A&M’s explosive offense produced (486) in a 52-31 victory over the Owls. That defense, once again, will be depleted by suspensions — three starters out, cornerback Deshazor Everett limited to second-half duty — for Saturday night’s game against Sam Houston State, a team that rolled for 455 yards in last week’s 74-0 rout of Houston Baptist.

The Aggies’ rebuilt defense, which will not have all of its starters together on game day until next week’s showdown against top-ranked Alabama, figures to be tested in Kyle Field by the Bearkats (6 p.m., FSN pay-per-view). To what degree remains unclear because Sam Houston State, the No. 4 team in the FCS coaches poll, posted their offensive largesse against a first-year football program.

There is a big difference between upstart Houston Baptist and Texas A&M. But the Bearkats’ offense, led by a pair of fourth-year starters who hold multiple school records (quarterback Brian Bell, running back Timothy Flanders), concerns A&M coach Kevin Sumlin.

Especially because the Aggies, who rotated 11 incoming freshmen into last week’s defense lineup, will lean heavily on young players again while waiting for several veterans to return from suspensions.

“They weren’t always where they wanted to be. But our guys have a good grasp of what we need to do to improve this week,” Sumlin said of his inexperienced defenders. “The Rice game was a real learning experience that will pay dividends for us down the road.”

A&M lists 13 freshmen on its defensive depth chart, including two starters (DE Tyrone Taylor, CB Alex Sezer Jr.). As a group, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said his freshmen “all had good things and bad things” that surfaced against Rice, which rolled for 306 rushing yards and averaged 6.0 per carry.

“The thing that was most pleasing to me was the emotion they played with,” Snyder said. “They made a play and you saw the emotion. To me, that’s what defense is all about.”

In last year’s meeting, Sam Houston State scored 28 points but only after A&M sprinted to a 47-0 lead. The Bearkats return most of their playmakers from that team, which lost in the FCS national championship game, and project as an FCS national title contender again in 2013.

After watching eight FCS teams knock off FBS opponents last week, including Eastern Washinton’s upset of then-No. 25 Oregon State and North Dakota State’s victory over a Kansas State team coming off a Big 12 title and BCS bowl appearance, Sumlin has notified his troops that the Bearkats are not to be taken lightly.

“Seeing North Dakota State go in to Kansas State and win last weekend is all you need to see to be prepared,” Sumlin said. “They’re well-coached. They won’t be intimidated coming in here.”

A&M, in turn, will not be looking past SHSU toward next week’s showdown against Alabama, running back Ben Malena said.

“They’re not a team to mess with,” Malena said. “If you don’t come out and play hard, this team will come out and beat you.”

Safety Toney Hurd Jr. said: “We don’t take any team lightly. We will not overlook this team.”

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