Upsized Texas A&M players plan to get more physical

Texas A&M offensive lineman Germain Ifedi said the Aggies have gotten more comfortable with their running game during the off-season.
Texas A&M offensive lineman Germain Ifedi said the Aggies have gotten more comfortable with their running game during the off-season. AP

It won’t mean much in the long run. But Texas A&M claimed its first football-related title as an SEC member Tuesday.

The Aggies unveiled the brawniest three-man player tandem that will visit SEC media days this week. The Aggies’ all-linemen contingent of Germain Ifedi, Mike Matthews and Julien Obioha tip the scales at a combined 880 pounds, based on heights and weights listed in the SEC media guides distributed to attendees.

If the Aggies’ beefy threesome did not intimidate scrawnier contingents trotted out by South Carolina (kicker, receiver, linebacker), Tennessee (quarterback, linebacker, defensive back) and other schools, it was not from a lack of effort and subliminal messaging by coach Kevin Sumlin.

“He brought all the fat kids. I like that,” Obioha said, summing up the Aggies’ show of strength. “In football, it all starts up front. We’ve always known that. I think we have all the pieces up front to make it go again.”

Texas A&M OT Germain Ifedi expects big improvement in the Aggies line this season. Video by Jimmy Burch.

This is Sumlin’s fervent hope, based on his highest-profile staff additions during the off-season: defensive coordinator John Chavis, who spent last season at LSU, and running game coordinator/offensive line coach Dave Christensen, best known for his time as the Wyoming coach (2009-13) and as Missouri’s offensive coordinator under coach Gary Pinkel (2001-08).

Sumlin said the personnel moves were made in tandem to make A&M “a tougher team, mentally and physically” than it showed during last year’s 8-5 season. In addition to finishing last among SEC teams in total defense for a second consecutive season, the Aggies had difficulty running the ball in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

Sumlin envisions improvement in both areas this season, based on players’ off-season efforts with Chavis and Christensen. He rolled out 880 pounds of evidence Tuesday, although the proof will come on game days this fall.

“To become a more physical team, we need to be able to run the ball when we want to and when we need to,” Sumlin said. “In order to do that, you’ve got to practice a certain way. The presentation of the offense to the defense has to be one that has a physical aspect to it.”

Christensen provided that during spring drills, honing a sharper mental edge among linemen on both sides of the ball. Ifedi (6-foot-5, 325 pounds), who is expected to take snaps at both offensive tackle spots this season, considers the change dramatic.

“We need to be better and tougher. Five losses is unacceptable,” Ifedi said. “At times last year, it seemed like we didn’t have the tools together to run the ball. Now and throughout the spring, we’ve all gotten comfortable in our run game. We should be able to do whatever we want up front.”

If so, the Aggies will stem an ongoing slide that has seen their SEC win total fall in each of Sumlin’s three seasons, from 6-2 (2012) to 4-4 (2013) to 3-5 (last season). If not, A&M could be pedaling hard to stay out of the cellar in the balanced West Division. The margin of separation between teams projects to be that thin this season.

Matthews (6-2, 290), a third-year starter at center, said Christensen has “brought some good things to the table to get us going” in a positive direction in the offensive trenches. As the son of an offensive lineman in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (former Houston Oilers’ standout Bruce Matthews), he was particularly troubled by last season’s struggles to convert on third-and-short.

“With our offense, if you get stopped on third down, you kind of stop the roll,” Matthews said. “We rely on momentum in our offense to continue helping us get first downs. That’s something we’ll have to get better at.”

A&M center Mike Matthews says third down issues plagued the Aggies last season and must be improved this year. Video by Jimmy Burch.

Likewise, Obioha (6-4, 265) said he and his fellow defensive linemen must make strides against the run. A&M allowed a league-high 216 rushing yards per game last season. Obioha’s move in spring drills from defensive end to defensive tackle is considered a key step in that direction. But the big-picture solution requires immediate contributions from a group of upsized freshmen led by defensive tackle Daylon Mack (6-1, 350).

Sumlin sees the big picture. That is why Chavis and Christensen are on his staff, seeking to impart their knowledge to a team facing a crossroads season in the SEC West.

“The SEC is not only a line of scrimmage league. It’s a line of scrimmage and depth league,” Sumlin said. “We came into the SEC with an attitude that we want to win right now and the best way to do that is by scoring points and then building off of that with recruiting.”

Three years after A&M’s impressive 11-2 debut season in the SEC, it is time for those recruiting efforts to translate to more victories on the field and in the trenches. Until that happens, A&M’s only football-related “title” this season will be for burliest bunch of players in attendance at the SEC media days.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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