COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Before Texas A&M made its SEC debut, many wondered about the Aggies' defense and whether it would be able to hold up in a line-of-scrimmage league like the SEC.
The unit performed well in its first year in the rugged conference, exceeding outsider expectations and becoming a key reason why Texas A&M was able to go 11-2.
This preseason brings -- in some ways -- feelings familiar to those at this time last year. The challenges for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff are, as he put it on the first day of preseason training camp earlier this month, "Exactly the same."
"We've got a lot of unknowns on defense," Snyder said.
Last August, there were a lot of unknowns for the Aggie defense, but several key players emerged and others surprised with their contributions. Defensive end Damontre Moore went on to have an All-American caliber season, leading the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks before declaring for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft.
Senior linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart provided production and leadership from their respective positions. Others, like defensive tackle Spencer Nealy and then-true freshman Julien Obioha produced beyond what was expected from them prior to the season. Defensive back Deshazor Everett proved versatile and valuable in the secondary, as did nickel cornerback Toney Hurd Jr.
This season, the Aggies are looking for more players to step up and answer questions like "Who is going to replace the production of Damontre Moore?" or "Where will the on-field leadership come from?"
The answer to the former question begins with Obioha.
A sophomore from Brother Martin High in New Orleans, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end started all 12 regular season games last season before missing the AT&T Cotton Bowl with a back injury. He sat out spring and spent the offseason getting healthy, but he's ready to go for what the coaches hope is a strong second season, improving on his 2012 totals (25 tackles, a sack, 1.5 tackles for loss, six pass breakups, four quarterback hurries, one forced fumble).
"When he first got here, nobody knew who he was," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He would be the last freshman that anybody thought would have started every game for us last year. I didn't see anybody last year say 'What about Julien Obioha? How's he coming?' All he did was start the Florida game and start every game during the regular season. He's a smart guy, a hard worker, a tough guy. He's played as much football in the SEC as anybody we have. That's amazing for a true freshman."
Matching what Moore did won't be easy. He was a force last year, posting 12.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Sumlin said replacing that type of production could be done in different ways.
"Either by personnel, with just moving Julien over there and trying some new guys or by scheme," Sumlin said. "Creating a different blitzer or a guy like [converted linebacker and former receiver] Nate Askew or somebody else. Right now we're evaluating the personnel and the scheme to create that kind of stuff."
Last year, the Aggies were solid in several key areas. In scoring defense, they were 26th in the country, allowing 21.8 points per game. Their third-down defense was among the best nationally. They were 16th overall and fourth in the SEC on third-down conversions, allowing a conversion just 32.4 percent of the time.
On third-and-short situations, the Aggies ranked even higher. They were No. 1 in the SEC and No. 5 nationally on 3rd-and-5 or fewer yards, allowing conversions 44.6 percent of the time. Florida State, North Carolina State, TCU and Oregon State were the only teams better than Texas A&M in those scenarios. You don't achieve those numbers without getting solid work from your defensive line. Combine those numbers with one of the nation's best offenses and it's easy to see why the Aggies were so successful.
If you listen to defensive line coach Terry Price, though, it doesn't sound like he's preaching those statistics. Instead, he's pointing on the opposite end of the spectrum to motivate his group.
Because of the loss of Moore, the graduation of Nealy and a perceived lack of depth along the front four, Price showed his players what others think of them.
"When you look at all the ESPNs and all the magazines and they have us ranked as the worst D-line in the SEC, I mean, everywhere you read it," Price said. "Two or three different places I've read that we're the worst D-line in the SEC. You have to form an identity. That means we're going to have to outplay folks and we're going to have to be the hardest working group and we're going to get some things done."
Obioha, Price said, embodies the kind of work ethic that will help the front exceed outsider expectations.
"To me, he is what we live by and our motto as a D-line is," Price said. "Our identity has to be the hardest playing D-line in this league. One thing that he does every single day in practice and every single game, he lays it on the line and plays hard every snap."
As for leadership, coaches and teammates have often pointed to Hurd and middle linebacker Donnie Baggs as players who have taken that role. Baggs was a reserve linebacker a year ago but appeared in 12 games and started one; Hurd is a senior who played every game, started seven and was productive throughout the 2012 season.
In addition to two new starting linebackers, the status of Everett and safety Floyd Raven for the start of the season is still uncertain after offseason arrests. Both were suspended during the summer after their arrests but returned to practice for preseason training camp. Sumlin said on Tuesday that a decision on whether they'll miss any games hasn't been made yet. Senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, a returning starter who also had an offseason arrest, is suspended for the Aug. 31 season opener against Rice.
Those situations combined with the natural attrition through graduation and the draft means plenty of new faces will be on the two-deep depth chart and see the field. The presence of newcomers can be seen during camp, where true freshmen have accounted for more than half of the second-team defense at times during 11-on-11 drills in recent weeks.
"We've got a bunch of new guys," Sumlin said. "Good news is that they're talented, but they just haven't played. They're learning on the run. The new guys, we're throwing it all at them. There's a lot of defense in, but the challenge is just like there is every year. We've got some new guys but I think the good news is that they're talented and they're working hard and they're understanding."