March 23, 2010

Aggies looking for nose tackles in spring

Last week, we pointed out in one of our write-ups leading up to the start of spring football that A&M was once known as "Linebacker U" in the 1980s and 90s. However, almost from the start the success of the linebackers in Aggieland was made possible by the play of the front three and particularly the nose tackle.

When A&M and then defensive coordinator R.C. Slocum made the change to a 3-4 defense in 1983 it was done in order to get more speed on the field. In what was to be a familiar refrain over the years, safeties Billy Cannon Jr. and Jeff Fuller were moved to outside linebacker and helped A&M improve over 100 yards a game in total defense. It didn't hurt that defensive end Ray Childress had an All-American season with 15 sacks either.

However, what everyone forgets is that Keith Guthrie, a defensive tackle who had lost his starting position the year before on a bad defense, took over the nose tackle spot and played well enough to become a seventh round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers. Guthrie's play was an overlooked facet of A&M's improvement on defense. The following year, A&M replaced Guthrie with freshman Sammy O'Brient, an undersized but strong and active player who became a four-year starter and eventually an All-SWC performer.

In 1988, O'Brient was gone and the Aggies rotated through a number of guys at the position between then and 1990. Not coincidentally, A&M's defense slipped, particularly against the run, even though the Aggies continued to crank out linebackers who went on to play in the NFL. It wasn't until 1991's "Six Pack" rotation that the Aggies became an elite defensive unit again and were ranked No. 1 in the country. Again, everyone remembers the contribution of freshman end Sam Adams, but nose tackles Pat Henry and Mark Wheeler (who went on to play for the Patriots) were big time contributors.

A&M continued to spawn good to great nose tackles through the 90s such as Lance Techelmann, Ed Jasper, Marcus Heard and Ron Edwards (most of who played in the NFL). Even though the linebackers got the accolades, the nose tackles made it possible by forcing double teams and keeping interior linemen off of the inside backers. When A&M quit producing quality nosetackles in the early part of the 2000s, A&M's defense began to slip. It ranked 35th nationally in 2002 and has not been that high since. Even when A&M switched to a 4-3 and 4-2-5 defenses, the only tackle to be drafted during that time was Red Bryant in 2008.

Now, A&M is at a crossroads defensively. If A&M is going to get back to the standards of the 80s and 90s, new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter and new defensive line coach Terrell Williams are going to have to find and develop a nose tackle. With a fan base excited over the hire of DeRuyter and former A&M great Dat Nguyen as linebackers coach, Williams is probably the biggest hire of all of the newcomers on the coaching staff.

And Williams has no shortage of candidates for the position.

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