Aggies hope former wide receiver helps limit Arkansas’ ground game

It is rare to find a starting linebacker on one of college football’s top 10 teams who took part in remedial tackling drills heading into his senior season.

But there is nothing normal about Nate Askew’s ascent into the Texas A&M defensive lineup. The former wide receiver shifted positions in spring drills, with A&M coaches hoping they might uncover a situational pass rusher.

Even that was considered a reach because Askew (6-foot-4, 235 pounds), despite being one of the team’s top athletes, had not played defense since his freshman year in high school. And those snaps came at safety, before the growth spurt that made him a blue-chip recruit as an upsized receiver with 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash.

Yet Askew began a gridiron metamorphosis that resulted in Tuesday’s updated depth chart showing he will start at 6 p.m. Saturday at Arkansas. A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder admits he is taking a chance by naming Askew as his strongside linebacker in the 4-3 scheme the 10th-ranked Aggies (3-1, 0-1 SEC) plan to use against the Razorbacks (3-1, 0-0) and their ground-and-pound offense.

Thus far, most of Askew’s work has come as a pass rusher, where he’s recorded 10 tackles (two for loss), with a sack and a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown against Sam Houston State. Now, he’ll be asked to become a primary cog in a run defense that has limited only pass-happy SMU to less than 234 yards in its first three games.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Snyder said. “I think Nate’s up for the challenge. This is the chance for Nate to show us he’s become a complete player. He’s shown us his athleticism. This week’s going to be about his toughness.”

It’s also going to be about his tackling skills, which Askew considers substandard when compared to teammates.

“Steven Jenkins tackles pretty well. I’ve still got a ways to go to catch him,” said Askew, reflecting on the Aggies’ starter at weakside linebacker. “I just have to get used to the physical aspect of the game.”

But significant progress has occurred since the spring, thanks to technique-oriented tips from linebackers coach Mark Hagen.

“I really didn’t miss a lot of tackles. I got the job done but my form was terrible,” Askew said of his spring indoctrination to his new position. “I had to work on that a lot. … Coach Hagen says I’m real powerful in my legs. But I’m more of an upper-body guy when I tackle. So he’s trying to get me to come through with my legs when I deliver the hit.”

Most of Askew’s hits, thus far, have come in space. Against Arkansas, he’ll be asked to shed the blocks of 300-pound offensive linemen and bring down a pair of running backs averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game: Alex Collins (120.2 average) and Jonathan Williams (104.5 average). The tandem has combined to score five of the Razorbacks’ six rushing touchdowns this season.

A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said he’s all-in on the Askew reclamation project. He pitched the idea during preparations leading into last year’s Cotton Bowl, after Askew struggled with route concepts and grabbed just three passes during the 2012 season, Sumlin’s first at the school. Now, the senior with the sprinter’s speed and the 40-inch vertical leap has found a viable new role and is ready to make his first start at the college level. At a brand new positon.

“A guy with that much talent, I don’t want him standing next to me during the game,” Sumlin said. “So you try to find a way to help that guy and transition him to something else and hope it works out.”

The mental transition came quickly, said Askew, who immediately developed a fondness for being the hammer, rather than the nail, in on-field collisions.

“I went out there for my first practice and I was like, ‘This is kind of fun. This is different than I thought it was,’” Askew said. “On offense, you don’t know where the hits are coming from. Now, you’re doing the hitting. It’s definitely way better.”

The key to keeping his position, of course, depends on whether Askew delivers enough timely hits to stymie opposing rushers. Teammates consider him capable.

“He has heart. I knew that from the moment I met him,” cornerback De’Vante Harris said. “It’s impressive, the transition he’s made. He’s a great athlete. He can do it all. I feel like he’s going to have a chance to play that position at the next level.”

That issue surfaces next season. For now, A&M coaches just want to Askew hold his own against Arkansas.

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