COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis played football in the SEC (Tennessee) in the late 1970s and has been an assistant in the SEC for 26 years. In all that time one thing has never, ever changed.
“If you can’t run the ball and stop the run, you’re not going to win a championship,” said Chavis, affectionately known as “The Chief.” “And last year we were simply not able to stop the run.”
The numbers were ugly. Last season, opponents ran the ball 555 times against the Aggies. No defense in the SEC was run against more times than Texas A&M. And here’s why: Texas A&M gave up 2,778 yards rushing, more than any other school in the conference. Opponents averaged a gaudy 5.01 yards per carry. Only South Carolina allowed more (5.13) per rush.
You don’t have to be a mathematician to figure out that if you’re giving up 5 yards a carry, some long Saturdays are going to ensue.
“We have some athletes on that side of the ball, but the fact remains is that we played three quarters of the opening game with a walk-on at linebacker,” Chavis said. “But a lot of that is my fault. We just didn’t play up to the standards that we’ll have to play in order to compete at the top of our conference.
“But we expect that to change.”
When I met with Chavis in his office this spring, he flat out said that, in his second season in College Station, the Aggies would be better overall and significantly better at stopping the run.
“There is a learning curve and now our guys are much more comfortable with what we’re trying to do,” Chavis said. “They have gotten bigger and stronger and more confident.”
Just look at the pieces he has in place.
Texas A&M has arguably the best set of rush ends in college football. Myles Garrett led the SEC in sacks with 12.5 last season as a sophomore. Senior Daeshon Hall had seven sacks. Chavis says Garrett and Hall are the best combination at the position that he has ever had. Given that that he coached a national championship defense at Tennessee in 1998, that is saying a lot.
“The only thing that will hold those back is being content,” Chavis said of Garrett and Hall. “It’s really not about what they have to do. It’s more about what they should not to do and that is to get complacent. And I don’t think they will.”
Chavis feels good about the defensive tackle position where sophomores Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke will build on their freshmen seasons. And A&M has three pros in the secondary in safeties Armani Watts and Justin Evans, and nickel back Donovan Wilson. Chavis has compared Wilson’s big-play ability to that of LSU All-America Tyrann Mathieu, the beloved “Honey Badger.” Watts was second in the SEC in tackles last season with 126.
“All of those guys are physical and athletic,” Chavis said. “Hopefully as we get better, they won’t have to make so many tackles.”
But here is what Texas A&M didn’t have last season and what Chavis is hoping for in 2016. His national championship defense at Tennessee was built around a war daddy at linebacker named Al Wilson. Wilson was the enforcer, both on the field and off. He had 272 career tackles. The tougher the game, the more Al Wilson liked it.
“We don’t have an Al Wilson yet, but I’m feeling better about some of the guys we have,” Chavis said. “We haven’t made it a secret that we need to get better play from our linebackers.”
Senior Shaan Washington had 81 tackles last season. Sophomores Otaro Alaka, Richard Moore and Dwaine Thomas give Chavis some athletic ability that he can work with. Alaka missed most of his freshman season with various injuries and family issues.
“You look at where he is now,” Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said during SEC Media Days when asked about Alaka. “He’s bigger and stronger. He’s obviously a talented guy that can run and do a lot of things.”
Moore is a smaller linebacker (6 feet 0, 210 pounds) who finally got a chance to play in the sixth game against Alabama. In the last three games of the season, Moore had 26 tackles including 10 against Vanderbilt, nine against LSU and seven in the Music City Bowl against Louisville. Moore, though, tends to get dinged up because of his lack of size.
There are some other pieces to the puzzle at linebacker but, in short, Sumlin – who played linebacker at Purdue – now believes Texas A&M has the talent that will give Chavis a fighting chance to slow some people down this season.
“The fact is that we’re bigger and stronger across the board,” Chavis said. “The other thing we have to do is stay healthy. When you can put the same 11 out there week after week, then that’s the sign of a good football team. Last year, it was just a revolving door of players for us.”
If the Aggies can take a step forward by slowing down the run, they could be a dark horse in the SEC West. There is no question that Texas A&M – 8-5 in each of the past two seasons – is trying to regain the momentum lost since Johnny Manziel departed after the 2013 season. After going 6-2 in the SEC in Manziel’s Heisman-winning season in 2012, the Aggies have gone 4-4, 3-5, and 4-4 in SEC play.
The Aggies will start the season with a new offensive coordinator (Noel Mazzone) and a new quarterback (Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight). Sumlin is the second-highest-paid coach in the SEC at $5 million per year. The Aggies open with UCLA and quarterback Josh Rosen on September 3 at Kyle Field. Two weeks later they go to Auburn. So, yeah, there is some pressure there.
Stopping the run likely would ease some of that pressure.
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(You can follow Tony Barnhart on Twitter @MrCFB)
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