COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- After a recent practice, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin illustrated just how many new, young faces there were on the Aggies defense by making a joke.
"I look out there today and I need a roster like [the reporters]," Sumlin said, laughing. "Who is that? ... I looked out there … it was like a whole new defense out there for a couple snaps."
Yes, the Aggies defense is a work in progress. With new players, new coaches and a new scheme, there are plenty of things on the to-do list during fall training camp. High on that list is simply finding the right players and putting them in the right places.
"I think we're trying to find pieces, giving everybody a chance right now," Sumlin said. "It's hard with continuity. We've got so many young guys that we've got to get a look at up on the defensive front. We've got so many guys that we've got to plug in at linebacker also and get a look at that too. So it's a little hard to get a feel for the defense because it's a team deal."
Improvement is the theme. The Aggies finished 70th in scoring defense, 109th in pass defense and 59th in total defense a year ago. On the bright side, they led the country in sacks and finished 13th against the run but they were also in the bottom 20 nationally in turnovers and turnover margin, making for a feast-or-famine endeavor.
While the Aggies have a lot of ground to cover before the season starts, they have a goal in mind.
"Any time you play defense at Texas A&M, you have a standard," Sumlin said. "From where I sit, I think that you have to have some sort of motivating factor based on the tradition of excellence on defense in the past. Everybody since the 80s and 90s has tried to meet that standard. So that's been a bigger motivational factor than anything.”
The Aggies haven't finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense or scoring defense since 2001. From 1985-2001, the Aggies finished in the top 10 in total defense eight times and in the top 10 in scoring defense seven times.
Getting back to that kind of success is something that drives the coaching staff.
"That's huge and it's something that's not going to be overnight," linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt said. "A lot of people want to talk about the 'Wrecking Crew' and bringing that back and that's a process that we started when we first hit the ground here. It's not something that's going to flip overnight but it's going to be building the foundation that started back in the spring.
"Getting a guy like (defensive line coach) Terry Price, getting a guy like (director of sports performance) Larry Jackson, getting those guys that have been around great defenses here, that know what it's going to take in our players here on a daily basis has really been beneficial. And the kids know the tradition here."
Price, who played defensive line for Texas A&M under Jackie Sherrill and R.C. Slocum from 1986-89, said that he talks about the defensive tradition and the standard with his players.
"I know I stress it quite a bit," Price said. "Texas A&M is one of the first teams to ever get a defensive nickname, one of the first teams to really develop a strong defensive tradition. It's something I think the staff understands from the head coach on down. It's something that we need to uphold as a staff.
"We're going to do that by coaching our kids hard, recruiting the players that fit our scheme. It's very, very important to live by. That's kind of a theme of our practice almost every day."
Though there's still much progress to be made as the Aggies try to figure out personnel to fit their 4-3 defense, the players speak with confidence.
"I don't think we're going to struggle in the first year at all," senior linebacker Sean Porter said of the perception that the Aggies will struggle defensively in the SEC. "I think we're a pretty good defense. We haven't really talked about that much, because we don't read too much into what the media says about how we're going to be bad on defense or whatever. From what I can see, we have a solid defense and we're going to be able to compete in the SEC."