Texas A&M football 50 in 50: Can defense handle all players it lost?

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

Texas A&M football lost about half its starting defense from a year ago to the NFL, can it re-tool and be as dominant in year two with Mike Elko?

One of the biggest reasons Texas A&M football went 9-4 last season and was competitive in just about every game was the play of the defense under new defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Jimbo Fisher’s splash hire for the position panned out in a major way, though Elko was inheriting an experienced group and that helped.

The Aggies finished in the Top 50 in both points and yards allowed last season, something they had never done under Kevin Sumlin. A lot of that was Elko’s scheme that he designed to stop the run and put offenses in tough second and third down situations, and some of it was due to the fact the defense had six players who are now on NFL rosters.

Linebackers Otaro Alaka and Tyrel Dodson, defensive lineman Landis Durham, Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke, and safety Donovan Wilson were each drafted or signed after the draft this offseason. Only Dodson was not a senior among that group. It’s not that easy to replace seniors in general, but seniors who are also that excellent are hard to come by.

However, the Aggies may be set up for the “next man up” philosophy thanks to some excellent recruiting by Fisher in the past couple cycles.

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Leon O’Neal seems about as ready as ever to take over as the leader and best player in the secondary with Wilson gone. DeMarvin Leal is a 5-star stud defensive lineman, 2018’s Bobby Brown got into the rotation as a true freshman and came to camp looking like a man among boys. Plus guys like Michael Clemons coming back from injury, Tyree Johnson getting valuable reps last season, Jayden Peevy and T.D. Moton still on the squad, and Max Wright being ready to contribute gives the defensive line invaluable depth.

The issue might come at linebacker. Aside from Buddy Johnson and Anthony Hines III — who is coming off an injury that kept him out for the 2018 season — there’s not much depth there aside from unproven young players. If either Johnson, Hines, or whomever else starts the season with the first group gets hurt, it could be trouble.

However, the secondary, which played poorly for much of the year in 2018, should make up the difference for the linebackers. The corners are basically all coming back and so is presumed starting safety Derrick Tucker. O’Neal is the only new addition, but he could prove to be even better than Wilson.

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So, while it could take some time out of the gates for this new group to gel, the defense has more potential than it did a year ago. If they come together the SEC better watch out.