A&M defensive line 'turned a lot of heads'

Senior defensive tackle Spencer Nealy anchored the Texas A&M interior along with junior Kirby Ennis. Brett Davis/US Presswire

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Coming into the season, an area of concern for Texas A&M was on defense.

It was an area where the Aggies had their fair share of struggles last season. Of particular concern was the defensive line and its depth, since Texas A&M has made the switch to a 4-3 alignment after spending the last two seasons playing -- and recruiting to -- a 3-4 base defense under the previous coaching staff.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder didn't hide the fact that they were concerned about depth in that area. But in their season-opening 20-17 loss to Florida on Saturday, it appears that the defense as a unit, and the defensive line in particular, held its own against the Gators.

"I thought coming into the game our main concerns, which I think were everyone’s concerns, were our kickers, punters, snappers and our defensive line," Sumlin said. "You look at Saturday and you know what, our kickers made every kick, our net punt was 49-something and our defensive line really did a pretty good job of containing their running game."

The Gators finished with 142 rushing yards and while the Aggies might not have played shut down defense, they were certainly effective. They held Florida to just three yards per carry on the day and 307 total offensive yards.

"We were pretty pleased," junior defensive end Damontre Moore said. "When we went back and watched film, obviously we were upset that we lost and that we didn’t get the win, but we saw that we did a lot of good things. We were really worried about the transition from a 3-4 game to a 4-3 and I think that we handled it very well and turned a lot of heads. There were a lot of good things and there were also some mistakes but we’re working on trying to get those mistakes fixed."

The front four, which featured Moore and true freshman Julien Obioha starting at the defensive ends and junior Kirby Ennis and senior Spencer Nealy starting at the defensive tackles, did not get over powered and was effective enough to keep blockers away from starting middle linebacker Jonathan Stewart, who collected a game-high 17 tackles.

"You can’t make 17 tackles if there’s somebody blocking you all the time," Sumlin said. "I think that says something, too, about our defensive front. That all works together. It’s kind of like a running back and an offensive lineman. You can be a really good linebacker but if there’s somebody all over you all the time, it’s hard to make tackles. I think for him to make 17 tackles, that’s great for us and great for him, but that also says something about the design of the defense and that means there are a bunch of other people doing their job."

Stewart said he isn't surprised by the unit's performance up front. The starting front four accounted for five of the team's eight sacks, with Moore picking up three and Nealy adding two.

"The questions were all from the media," Stewart said. "From a defensive standpoint, we were all confident in what the D-line could do. We saw them do it all in two-a-days when the media (couldn't) be out there. We were confident. We expected them to come out and perform the way that they did. To get as many sacks as they did – that might have been surprising – but the way that they played, that didn’t surprise me at all."

Snyder said he felt his unit held its own against the Gators offensive line.

"You never know until you get to the first game," Snyder said. "Transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3, I’ve got to give Coach Sumlin a lot of credit for that. The way we practiced -- half-line inside drill going good-on-good, I think it showed Saturday. We have two SEC periods every day. I think if you watch the film, we more than held our own up front against Florida."

As the Aggies turn their attention to SMU, there is one area where the coaches and players know improvement can occur: turnovers. The defense didn't force a single turnover on Saturday.

"We’ve just got to focus on that," Stewart said. "When the first guy has him wrapped up, the second guy has to come in and try to get the ball out. When you have the opportunity to get a sack, secure the tackle and then try to get the ball out. It’s just little things. It’s just one game. We have some things we have to work on. We have a lot of season left. This is a new week. We never know what could happen. We could come out this week and create four-or-five turnovers. That’s going to be our goal this week. That is an issue -- turnovers and penalties -– but it’s something that we can fix."