Jimmy Burch

Texas A&M defense facing big challenges in John Chavis’ new scheme

John Chavis was hired to lift the Aggies’ defense out of the SEC basement.
John Chavis was hired to lift the Aggies’ defense out of the SEC basement. AP

As much as he exudes energy in his words and actions, the defining trait of new Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis can be found in his preparation.

Before passing judgment on players he inherited from a unit that finished last among SEC teams in total defense the past two seasons, Chavis made sure to watch every defensive snap from last season. Four different times.

His initial staff and player meetings, held over a 10-day period, were unique.

“We didn’t talk any football,” Chavis said. “We talked about philosophy.”

Eventually, Chavis installed an aggressive 4-3 scheme designed to spotlight a relentless pass rush and dependent upon cornerbacks with strong man-to-man coverage skills.

But one of his starting cornerbacks in Saturday’s season opener in Houston against No. 15 Arizona State (6 p.m., ESPN) is expected to be Brandon Williams, a converted running back who has yet to line up at the position in a college game. Two of his top linebackers, Otaro Alaka and A.J. Hilliard, might not be available because of injuries they have battled in fall drills. Four incoming freshmen dot the defensive depth chart (DT Kingsley Keke, DT Daylon Mack, LB Richard Moore, SS Justin Dunning).

Those are some notable unknowns for a person who prides himself on being prepared for anything that might be thrown his way. So it was not surprising Tuesday to hear Chavis tap the brakes, at least slightly, on some of his take-the-world-by-storm bravado espoused earlier during fall drills.

“We’ve got the pieces we need. There’s no question about that. It’s just getting experience in this system,” Chavis said during a news conference that included more coaches (three) than players (two) to address the matchup against the Sun Devils. “We’ve got to continue to grow. And we’re getting there. It’s time for them to step up and play big-boy football because that’s what is going to happen Saturday.”

If not, an ASU offense that returns multiple playmakers from a unit that averaged 36.9 points per game last season could spoil Chavis’ debut as the Aggies’ defensive play-caller. And that would not be a joyous way for A&M fans to celebrate the public unveiling of their latest asset acquired to place the Aggies on a collision course with an SEC title.

Chavis, hired away from LSU in January at a reported salary of $1.5 million per season, has coordinated one defense that won a national championship (Tennessee, 1998) and another that fell in the national title game (LSU, 2011) during two-plus decades of coaching in the SEC.

He’s clearly a man with a plan to help A&M avoid repeating last year’s SEC-worst digits in total defense (450.8 yards per game) and rushing defense (216 avg.). He’s got some intriguing young players, but he’s facing a matchup that could veer off in any direction, depending on breaks and communication breakdowns. He’s also got the support of coach Kevin Sumlin, who said of his rebuilt defense: “We’ll learn a lot, right off the bat. Whatever happens, win or lose, will not define us. We learned that last year.”

Sumlin, in his fourth season, is more interested in winning a conference championship than in starting with a bang, like in last year’s opening romp over No. 9 South Carolina (52-28), but following up with a three-game losing streak in October that removed A&M from SEC title contention. He said he’s excited about Chavis’ schemes and looks forward to them being executed by players who “understand what it takes now to play at this level consistently” after last year’s midseason fade.

Hilliard, a transfer from TCU who sustained a season-ending ankle injury in last year’s opener, hedged about his availability for Saturday’s game. But he said he looks forward to playing for Chavis, whom he compared favorably to TCU coach Gary Patterson, at his first available opportunity.

“Coach Patterson is a genius, a defensive guru,” Hilliard said. “Just like coach Chavis. There are a lot of differences. But as far as defense, they’re great defensive minds. I’m pretty confident in our defense.”

So is Chavis. For the long run.

“One of the reasons I’m so optimistic is because of the young talent. Not just young talent, but really good talent,” said Chavis, who placed A&M’s talent on par with what he inherited at LSU in 2009 before helping the Tigers reach the national title game in his third season. “Now, we’ve got to grow and mature. The scheme we’re bringing in now is a scheme that’s been tested in the SEC for a long time. All we need to do is do it consistently.”

Whether Saturday is a realistic timetable to expect that to happen remains the biggest unanswered question in Aggieland.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch