Linebackers In Aggieland
Texas A&M is approaching a season that could be unlike any other in their history. For the first time in many, many years the Aggies are coming in as a top-5 team and are considered a real national title contender. The difference this year from a trip to Pasadena or a trip back to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl will be how the linebackers perform.
Last year Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart provided tremendous leadership and play for group of linebackers that exceeded everybody’s expectations and overachieved throughout the year. Those two guys are in the NFL now and it is Steven Jenkins who will assume the role of defensive leader. The senior outside linebacker played very well last season and in talks with the media this offseason has showed that he understands he has to be the leader of a young inexperienced defense. Jenkins will be depended upon to apply outside pressure on the quarterback. He will assume a role much like Porter had last year. Going up against the likes of A.J. McCarron, Bo Wallace and Tyler Russell it will be vital to make these guys uncomfortable in the pocket. Pressuring the quarterback is especially important on third down passing situations. This is the chance for a linebacker or two to pin their ears back and really bring the pressure.
Other than Jenkins I think the other linebacker to watch on third downs will be Nate Askew. The 6-4 230 pound senior played wide receiver the past three years, but was moved to outside linebacker in the spring. Though he may not have the experience some others do on the defensive side of the ball, he brings an uncanny athleticism to the position. Ask any of the Aggie players or coaches and they will tell you he is the most athletic guy on the team. With the ability to run a 4.4 40 and quickness rarely seen in a linebacker Askew has the opportunity to be a sack master. Depending on how well he can learn the defense Askew may see more than just playing time on the third downs. If he uses his athleticism to make plays in the backfield on third downs he will be a huge asset to A&M’s defense.
The guy who will most likely be starting ahead of Askew is junior college transfer Tommy Sanders. Ranked as the 33rd best JuCo player coming out of Butler Community College and the top at his position, he showed in the spring that he is deserving of the starting spot. What he will need to do to help the A&M defense is be great in pass coverage and at stopping the run. He has a great short area burst and the ability to run down running backs behind the line of scrimmage. He can also set the edge and use his quickness to get around blocks. In the pass defense Aggies have to hope that he is as good as Sean Porter was last year. Porter was great at playing the zone. Sanders showed the same type of ability at Butler and he can read the quarterback and make quick breaks on the ball. However going from playing in junior college to the SEC is a big jump. Sanders doesn’t have to be an all-conference player but will have to be a solid starter if A&M wants to be a contender for a SEC title.
Middle linebacker could be the position that affects A&M’s season the most. Last year Jonathan Stewart was a key component in stopping the run. This year the guy at middle linebacker will be Donnie Baggs. Other than Jenkins, Baggs has the most on-field experience. Last year his 4.5 tackles for loss ranked fifth on the team. Now a junior Baggs has been waiting for opportunity to be man in middle and now his time has come. His ability to get in the backfield will be absolutely huge for A&M’s defense to hold up in SEC play. Where this will come into play most is that little game on September 14th against Alabama. With T.J. Yeldon’s ability to run the ball it will be Baggs who will be stuffing the middle of the field. Baggs has to have a breakout season for the Ags if they want to make that trip to the Rose Bowl.
Some other guys to watch for through the year at the linebacker positions include Brett Wade and Reggie Chevis. These two true freshmen will certainly be getting good looks to get a lot of time on the field. Wade has the intelligence and fundamental soundness any coach loves to see in a young player. He can also put a big hit ball carrier and rarely misses a tackle. Chevis is an 18 year old in a in a 26 year old NFL linebacker’s body. Chevis is a tremendous run stopper and another big hitter. He doesn’t quite have the fundamentals down like Wade but his size and tackling ability could certainly be valuable for A&M. If one of these guys can breakout and be one of the top freshmen in the SEC the A&M defense will be much better than most think.
For the linebackers it all comes back to Jenkins. His play will dictate how the rest of the linebacker crew performs. He is the quarterback of the defense and could be the most talented players A&M has on that side of the ball.
I don’t see A&M having a season worse than 10-2, but if they want to run the table and finish the season playing in the National Championship game it will come down to if the linebackers can overachieve and step up. C