Spring Preview 2010 Part One: Defensive Line

Spring Preview 2010 Part One: Defensive Line

In this three part series Websider's Jeffrey Jennings will take an in depth look at the personnel of A&M's defensive line. The focus will be on their attributes, current status, what they have on the line this spring, and where they hope to find themselves at camps end. Jennings will also give a brief sneak peak at the new faces that will be joining them in August. Subscribe to Websider today!

Spring Camp Preview 2010: Defense

With everything finally seeming to come together for A&M and the offense established (as not only a team strength but one of the most potent in the nation) the gaze of coaches, fans, and reporters will be fixed primarily on the defense as it gears up to complement them and approach some past honor and glory. Though cautious, Aggie followers have to be excited by the promise of the personnel as well as the refreshed philosophy and faces of new defensive coaches. The Aggies' replaced a retired Joe Kines with former Air Force DC, Tim DeRuyter who runs a very successful and aggressively attacking 3-4 base defense. For the first time in more than a decade the Ag's defensive coordinator steps into a good situation and DeRuyter plans to maximize young, but quality, defensive talent across the board (and decent depth for the most part). Oh yeah, if that thought isn't enough to wet the appetite of Aggie fans pining for the old days of the Wrecking Crew, a certain former cerebral linebacker, Aggie legend, and Dallas Cowboy fan favorite Dat Nguyen takes his next career step as he returns College Station to coach the middle linebackers in the new system.

Spring Preview 2010 Part One: Defensive Line

The defensive line, namely the potential emergence of two certain defensive tackles, will be one of four key personnel areas to cue in on throughout spring (the other three being a wide open linebacker cross-training audition, restocking safety and offensive tackle development).

Though currently none of the interior defensive linemen have emerged as true playmakers, A&M has some serious candidates up front (especially considering the impressive newcomers set to join them in August). Assuming all emerge healthy from fall camp, we will enter the season with about eight very solid options for the DT (nose and strong end) rotation. For the moment however, the battle for the tackle spots will essentially be a four-man race. While that sounds thin, the fact it appears to be four men is actually very encouraging as two of them are to date sitting on unfulfilled promise but seem poised to finally make their mark. It clearly remains to be seen whether they will arrive for certain, but early off-season reports are encouraging. Until camps end their development will be one of coaches, reporters and fans focal points.

Defensive End is a slightly different story. Spencer Nealy enters his sophomore season in 2010 poised to be a true difference maker and take his next big off-season step before assuming the lead role on the front edge of Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 defense. However while Nealy brings playmaking ability to the spot, depth behind him is razor thin at the moment (a deficiency that should be short-lived as several extremely talented new faces arrive in August to back and push him).

Let's take a comprehensive look at the defensive line candidates, from those who look to give themselves breathing room or push for starting spots to those who will simply look to provide serviceable depth.

(Please keep in mind as you read this, the positional projections presented here are as current and researched as possible but even before the turnover of this defensive staff, one thing you can count on from them is they will not hesitate to move a player around to give that individual and the team the best possible chance to succeed. Nothing dramatic, but there may very well be some inter-positional fluidity between the two defensive tackle spots.)

Defensive Tackle

Eddie Brown would be a favorite to man the Nose Tackle spot but shoulder surgery will keep him on the shelf this spring (he will be good to go in August). Given that, the spring battles will be fixed on Adren Dorsey and Rod Davis having all the opportunity and reps they need to prove themselves and resuscitate their careers as they battle it out for the nose tackle spot. Proven starter Lucas Patterson and a well seasoned Tony Jerod-Eddie will duke it out for the strong end position (think weak defensive tackle) of the odd front in the resurrected 3-4.

Nose Tackle

The two players with a magnified glass on them are the aforementioned Rod Davis and Adren Dorsey. Both young men came in as highly touted defensive tackles and were expected to immediately remedy our low-key presence in the defensive trenches but their success has yet to materialize. It's unclear if the developmental hiccup is singularly a case of injuries (which in fairness both have had their share of) or work ethic and trying to lean too much on natural size and abilities (as is often the pitfall of young DT's) or both. At this point it's really irrelevant. Simply put both young men have the ability to help our defensive line take the next step and they now have a great opportunity to do so. In fall they will enter their third year on campus (both as redshirt sophomores) and as often happens when there are new coaches on one side of the ball (in this case a new defensive coordinator and defensive line coach), those players are reinvigorated with new life and a clean slate. With the proverbial dog-house removed and essentially a wide open spring competition amongst themselves at the Nose Tackle spot they will undeniably have all the chance and work they need to prove themselves, resurrect their careers and push the Aggies' defensive line and defense further along as it looks to re-establish its presence.

Adren Dorsey is a big, powerful, bull-rushing, run-plugger who may have the inside track at the Nose Tackle spot this spring. Early off-season word is that new defensive line coach Terrell Williams really likes what he sees in Dorsey. Whether or not he can put distance between himself and the newcomers as well as possibly finding strong footing as a contender against Eddie Brown in August is up to him. Alongside Dorsey at the position and in the same situation is mammoth Rod Davis. Davis possesses brute strength, fires off the ball and plays with pretty solid pad level and technique. He's proved he'll work, as he's in much better shape than when he first arrived, but like Davis consistency will decide his future. To date they have failed to show a steady motor, essential for success at the position. To be brutally honest if they can find it, the Aggies' have two more great options at the position, if they can't, then the ship has likely sailed for the last time. Though they are linked by parallel circumstance it's not a package deal. They control their fates individually and none, one or both will emerge one way or the other. Here's hoping that both end up on more solid ground at springs end. Whatever the case we'll have a much clearer picture in a few weeks.

If one or both of Dorsey and Davis find their stride they will be contending with leading NT candidate Eddie Brown in August when returns from injury. Brown enters his third season on campus and on the field in 2010. Last fall fans witnessed him approach his stride as he wrested the job from Tony Jerod-Eddie at about the midway point of the season, starting the last eight games and racking up 33 tackles (23 unassisted, including 7 tackles for a loss of 40 yards, 4 sacks-32 yards) and while it's true we lack a playmaker at DT we could see his development curve closing in on that level of output. Ndamukong Suh would be pushing it, but in August you may see Brown taking the next step towards reaching his potential and being a truly disruptive force up front for the Aggies'. He is very quick off the ball and follows it up with a great combination of speed and size (at 288 Brown was clocked at an amazing 4.79) and like any successful defensive tackle, the requisite motor that doesn't quit. With another off-season of more refined size and speed, in addition to his wealth of experience kicking in, look for some big on field growth from this hard working Aggie in 2010 to further propel the defensive line and the defense in general.

Andrew Wolridge (#44, 6-1 266, RS-SO) was moved from linebacker to a situational role at defensive tackle last season as an interior pass rushing specialist. He has good burst, pad level, leg drive and motor but a lot of that is cancelled because he lacks strength up top and his handwork is also limited due to his wingspan. He initially was getting a look at FB this off-season but is back on the DL getting a look at NT. Finally Michael Ebbitt rounds out the pack. The California native is a hard worker, has good size and strength, has done a decent job in his development and making the most of the amount of work he's gotten, but he falls in the long-shot category to find a spot on the depth chart beyond spring.

Strong Defensive End (Weak Defensive Tackle)

Here is a quick positional terminology clarification because some fans are confused to see 300-pounders listed at defensive end. In a 3-4 you have two defensive tackles like normal, one a nose tackle and the other dubbed an end because they are in an odd front and on the edge. On the opposite side of that strong defensive end (or weak defensive tackle) is the traditional rush end (in this case Spencer Nealy). The rush end on the SDE's side is essentially the RLB (in A&M's case Von Miller). In lieu of a difference maker at tackle like Ndamukong Suh coaches need brute run-pluggers who can also occupy blockers for the real pass rushers, be it a stunting rush end like Spencer Nealy or one or more speedy and attacking linebackers (that the Aggies' will boast plenty of this season) coming from all angles as well as the occasional blitzing DB. A&M has several strong candidates for this role (strong defensive end/weak defensive tackle) currently and will have more in August when they welcome some very talented newcomers. Until then lets take a look at who will fight for the spot this spring.

Following a 2009 August camp where he spent most of his time in a well-documented experiment on the other side of the ball at left tackle, Lucas Patterson was moved back to defensive tackle and never missed a beat. Patterson locked down the other interior tackle spot last year starting all 13 games for the Ags'. He made 23 tackles (13 solo, with one TFL and a recovered fumble). The Senior-to-be is not a world-beater but he's no slouch. He's a very solid plug in the trenches bringing a healthy combination of power and nastiness, to complement his athleticism and tenacious-motor. The veteran lineman is well established but will be staving off the push for his starting job by some very serious contenders.

First and foremost will be Tony Jerod-Eddie who, like Eddie Brown, will enter his third season on campus as a junior in the fall of 2010. Following a year on campus TJE (as he's often referred to in order to avoid confusion with his Eddie counterpart) added a lot of size, strength and established himself in the starting rotation last spring. He carried that into the 2009 season and started the first five games then dislocated his left elbow and the job went to the talented and surging Brown. In the course of those five early starts and the other eight games as a vital backing DT, he earned 23 tackles (7 solo, 2 tackles for loss, including one sack for nine yards), one batted ball, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick. The enormous youngster is a solid run stuffer and his footwork and athleticism aid him well in pressuring opposing quarterbacks. He has a good initial burst, the motor to follow, and a requisite on field mean streak. His ability to step in and contribute as a true freshman, as well as his continued development to date is a testament to both his work ethic and talent. He is quick off the ball but his surge was really limited last year with that weakened elbow (effective hand technique can be just as important as leg drive and he was still effective but obviously hindered last season). This spring look for the TJE to take another step in his progression and entrench himself atop what should be a very deeply talented stable of interior defenders. Kirby Ennis is out this spring as he injured his knee against Georgia and is coming off of surgery. Depending on where he has filled out physically Kirby Ennis will push depth at either the rush end spot or the SDE (WDT) spot. He has a good frame, footwork and is an athletic big man who was moved to DT from DE last off-season in a move to find a more disruptive pass rusher on the interior.

A Brief Look Ahead to August 2010: Help On The Way at Defensive Tackle

Coach Sherman and his staff were really clutch, in not only signing much needed reinforcements, but also infusing another level of talent in the defensive trenches with the 2010 class of recruits. Jonathan Mathis is a four-star, juco defensive tackle from Blinn College who will arrive physically the part and ready to step into the fray. Also entering ready from a physical standpoint is Brandon Jackson, an interior defensive lineman from Shreveport, La. This highly sought after young man also received offers from Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas and Alabama and adds talent to strong numbers at the position. The Aggies' signed another Louisiana DT talent in Ivan Robinson but given his current size and speed, he'll likely start out at the traditional rush end behind Spencer Nealy.

Defensive End

There won't be much congestion atop the defensive end depth chart this spring but that doesn't mean it's a dire spot. While A&M currently lacks numbers, the defensive end spot does have a likely playmaker in sophomore Spencer Nealy. Following a relatively quiet but very promising freshman year (played in all 13 games, and had 19 tackles, 11 of which were solo, three of those for loss, including one sack for a 12 yard loss) backing Matt Moss, he is set to have a great career for the Aggies'. From early in the 2009 fall camp it was obvious observing him that he's got great physical tools, including a tremendous burst off the ball and sound technique and hand placement. With a year in the weight room and a season on the field under his belt, this son of a former San Antonio Spur is set to shine. I had a conversation with Coach Sherman about him early last season and he mentioned that in addition to his physical attributes and technique, he is also a very heady ball player, just like his old man was on the hardwood (he actually cited Phil Jackson praising Ed Nealy in his biography). In addition to his presence the Ags' are set to reload this August with a healthy set of talented rush ends. Until then backing Nealy this spring will be frankly a host of long-shots but they'll be getting a lot of reps and bear recognition.

After his second try at tight end K.J. Williams found himself at DE last August. He's a very athletic, rangy body but has yet to find a position or a niche. He has good speed and quickness but his lack of bottom heaviness is a hindrance. It will at least be interesting to see where he is with his hand technique and development in general, and if any of this group were to emerge as a legitimate choice for depth I'd put my money on him. Cody Williams has always been a plus sized rush DE but may get a look at WDT (SDE). Unfortunately it's doubtful he'll make an impact either way but since it's spring and he may get a look it's worth mentioning. Williams came in as a guy Coach Franchione thought could very well come in and have an immediate impact as a guy with flash of the edge that obviously hasn't happened. Be it poor evaluation or his lack of development, Williams enters his senior year with one last chance to put together a decent season as a backup defensive lineman but history makes me skeptical this will pan out. Obviously I hope he proves me wrong but it is what it is at this point.

A Brief Look Ahead to August 2010: Help On The Way at Defensive End

An interesting young man to watch this season will be Ivan Robinson. He was recruited as a defensive tackle but unlike his counterparts, the Louisiana product (a four star who clocked an impressive 4.75 at 260 pounds) needs time and work to attain college defensive tackle size. However much like Spencer Nealy was last fall, he is a perfect fit of size and speed to step in at the rush defensive end spot behind Nealy and have an immediate impact until he grows out of it. Other candidates include yet another Louisiana product (three on the DL if you are counting) Gavin Stansbury and the speedy and rangy Nehemiah Hicks. Damontre Moore is a rush DE but may get a look at the Joker (formerly the Jack) rush LB position behind Von Miller. All three will need to add a little beef before being game ready at the DE spot but once there will significantly raise the talent level at the spot and round out a really deep positional area.

Defensive Line Overall

This spring the defensive line will take steps towards being a nasty outfit in the 2010 season. Even if one of Adren Dorsey or Rod Davis steps up to the plate you'll have seven strong candidates at the position. No playmakers at the moment (that could change upon Eddie Brown's return in August and the arrival of two very talented and physically ready big men) but a healthy rotation of solid run-pluggers who can occupy blockers and free up pass rushing lanes for the new attacking defense. Defensive End is thin but may very well feature two highly disruptive pass rushers and overall edge defenders up front. For now focus on the defensive tackle spot as it seeks to add to its numbers and talent level. Also keep an eye on the ultra talented Spencer Nealy on the left side as he pushes the developing right tackles and how he compliments Von Miller attacking from the right side. If anyone steps up behind him in the next few weeks it will be a very pleasant surprise but not likely.

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