Texas A&M football: Youth could provide leadership on defense

(Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
(Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Texas A&M football lost much of its defensive leadership from 2018 to graduation; some of the young players may step into those roles.

Mike Elko executed one of the best turnarounds in college football in the 2018 season, taking a defense that finished in the bottom half of most statistics and transforming the group into the No. 32 overall defense in yards allowed and No. 47 in scoring defense (a number inflated by the seven-overtime thriller in which they gave up 72 points to LSU, most of which in the overtime periods). Texas A&M football was in good hands on that side of the ball.

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However, one could note that while his coaching certainly made an impact on the group, it was a unit full of experience at every level of the defense. He had three seniors on the defensive line in Kingsley Keke, Daylon Mack and Landis Durham, senior linebacker Otaro Alaka, and senior defensive back Donovan Wilson. Beyond that was junior Justin Madubuike on the line and junior Tyrel Dodson at linebacker.

All but Madubuike are gone, meaning half the defense and basically all of the leadership will need to be replaced. Some of the younger players have potential to step into these roles.

The first and most obvious that comes to mind is Leon O’Neal Jr. Donovan Wilson was a team captain and starting safety in 2018, but he graduated. O’Neal started for Wilson in the Gator Bowl due to an injury, but also had several opportunities during the season as Wilson found himself ejected for targeting on multiple occasions.

LOJ played well in the Gator Bowl. He is a candidate for a breakout season but could also be the vocal leader on defense. He proves how much he loves Texas A&M football daily on his Twitter account and did the same on the field at every home game. You could always count on O’Neal to get the crowd going from the bench.

Safety is a position where leadership comes naturally. You’re not only surveying the field on every play from the deepest vantage point, but you’re the last line of defense. Sometimes safeties act as another assistant coach out there on the field.

Texas A&M safeties have often been the best players on defense for the past few seasons. LOJ knows he has some big shoes to fill. He has earned the respect of his teammates from the way O’Neal carries himself, how hard he works and how he contributed as a true freshman from day one.

He isn’t the only one, either.

Anthony Hines III is expected to be back for the 2019 season and has the skillset to become one of the better players on the entire defense. He was the top overall recruit from the 2017 class and missed basically the entire 2018 season due to injury.

He was able to use a medical redshirt and will be a redshirt sophomore this season. The Plano, TX native was named to the Freshman All-SEC team with 33 tackles, six tackles for loss and three sacks in a backup role in 2017. The Aggies have few linebackers on scholarship, but a healthy Hines could be one of the very best in the SEC.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Aggies got contributions from true freshman Tyree Johnson and Bobby Brown in 2018. With Landis Durham and Kingsley Keke gone, they will be critical components to a retooled defensive line.

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It cannot be overstated how valuable experience and leadership from seniors can be, but the Aggies will be in more than capable hands for the 2019 season.

Jeff Shull is the Site Expert for the Gig Em Gazette on FanSided. Follow him on Twitter, and be sure to follow the Gig Em Gazette on Facebook and Twitter.