COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As part of Texas A&M's nightmarish 2013 season on defense, the Aggies linebackers endured more than their fair share of struggles.
Whether it was a position change, someone playing out of position or something as simple as inexperience keeping the Aggies from playing well, the group never quite found its footing in 2013.
The first week -- and even just the first day -- of training camp provided linebackers coach Mark Hagen with reason for optimism in 2014.
One area the Aggies' linebackers -- and the defense as a whole -- struggled with was communication. Sometimes when the ball was snapped, players were out of position or not certain of their assignments.
So far on the practice field there is much less of that, according to Hagen.
"Night and day,” Hagen said of the difference in communication. “The biggest thing we lacked last year were guys that had been there and done that ... I don't have to relive the 2014 season for you guys. It was constantly swimming uphill. And even though we got some pieces in the right place, the communication was never where it needed to be.
“We've got a different feel right now. It wasn't perfect. Going back to Friday, the first day of practice, even though it wasn't totally clean out there, there was never a time where you had guys looking left and looking right, [while the offense is] snapping the ball .... We got lined up and we played fast when the ball was snapped. That doesn't mean we played perfect in terms of the fits and the coverages, but we operated as 11 instead of 9 or 10 guys being on one page and a couple guys being on another page. That's a recipe for disaster."
Defensive line depth improving
One of the key tasks for Texas A&M’s defense since joining the SEC is building the type of depth needed to compete in the league. The defensive line is especially important in that area.
The Aggies have focused on the defensive line in recruiting and in 2014 were able to bring in five true freshman defensive linemen in the recruiting class plus a junior college transfer.
“It’s going to help everybody this season, not just me,” Julien Obioha said of the increased depth. “It’s going to help Alonzo Williams, Hardreck Walker, Daeshon Hall. There are two or three guys behind all those guys.”
Obioha was a true freshman who started in 2012 and is now entering his third season in Aggieland. The improvement in overall talent across the defensive line is evident to him.
“Depth is amazing compared to what it was [in 2012],” Obioha said. “Freshman year, we were playing maybe six guys [on the defensive line]. This year we’ll be able to play 12-14 guys.”
Defensive line coach Terry Price was able to secure top-flight talent in 2014, including the nation’s No. 1 defensive end, Myles Garrett, as well as ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham and three-star defensive end Jarrett Johnson. Price seems pleased with what they’ve shown him thus far.
“Our biggest deficiency last year, to me, was speed on the edge of our defense at the defensive end spot,” Price said. “We went out and tried to find the best we could find, which have added speed and depth to our defense which is huge.”
Competition at kicker
Walk-on kicker and former FC Dallas goalkeeper Josh Lambo emerged as an unlikely hero last season for the Aggies, making a game-winning field goal as time expired at Ole Miss. Midway through the 2013 season, Lambo assumed place-kicking duties from Taylor Bertolet, but just because Lambo finished the year as the starter doesn’t automatically make him the go-to guy.
Bertolet, a junior, is having a strong training camp according to special-teams coach Jeff Banks, making this year’s battle at kicker a close one. Last season Bertolet was 2-for-3 on field goals and 23-of-26 on point-after attempts. Lambo was 8-for-10 on field goal tries and 50-of-51 PATs.
"I'm in a great position,” Banks said. “To have two Division I guys who can kick the ball 60 yards and have a little depth, length and distance .... I'm in a great position from that standpoint; I'm in a tough position in [deciding] who's going to be the best guy for the job. It's probably a lot like quarterback. If you name a guy right off the bat then the other guy might get discouraged.”
“So we're not going to do that. We're going to continue to compete during fall camp. We've still got at least 15-18 practices before we get ready for South Carolina and we have to do the best job we can to evaluate who is the best for the job.”
Lambo sat out the first week of training camp, recovering from a groin injury but said he should be 100 percent soon.