SEC Newcomers Face New Brand of Football
By Matt Smith
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin. Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page
The days of the pass-happy Big 12 are gone. For Missouri and Texas A&M, it’s a new era, both on and off the field.
For the first time in 20 years, the Southeastern Conference will welcome new faces to the league in July when Missouri and Texas A&M officially make the jump from the Big 12. Both programs are a logical fit both economically and geographically, but adjusting to the on-field style of the SEC will present a sizable challenge for the Tigers and Aggies.
It doesn’t take deep dissection of game film to understand how the SEC owns the last six BCS crystal balls (well, five, thanks to an accident in Tuscaloosa last month), but it’s always more credible to hear it from an actual SEC head coach. During an appearance on The Paul Finebaum Show last week, Florida head coach Will Muschamp commented on the strength of defensive line play in the league.
“The difference between the SEC and all leagues is our defensive linemen. There’s not one or two teams that have good defensive linemen, there are eight, nine, or, ten. It will be interesting to see how [Missouri and Texas A&M] adjust to the SEC.”
While Muschamp’s introduction doesn’t exactly exude traditional Southern hospitality, it’s an honest assessment of what it requires to be successful in college football’s toughest conference. Despite an offensive background from his time with Mike Leach and Dana Holgorsen, among others, new Aggies boss Kevin Sumlin recognizes the urgent need for defensive production.
After watching his new team practicing in preparation for the Texas Bowl last December, Sumlin offered his opinion of the current state of Texas A&M’s defensive front in an interview with The San Antonio Express.
“From just watching practice, I haven’t seen [New England Patriots All-Pro defensive tackle] Vince Wilfork out there. We’re going to have to get some things done.”
After the sudden departure of defensive line coach Terrell Williams in February, Sumlin sought SEC roots when hiring a replacement for Williams. He brought in Terry Price from Texas Tech, who had coached with Tommy Tuberville at both of his SEC stops, Ole Miss and Auburn.
The Aggies are ditching departed coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s aggressive 3-4 scheme for a 4-3 set under Mark Snyder. The former Marshall head coach comes from the Jim Tressel coaching tree and runs a far less blitz-heavy scheme. With less pressure from the linebackers this season, Snyder will demand production from his front four.
Unfortunately for Texas A&M fans, both experience and depth are lacking. Projected defensive tackle starters Kirby Ennis and Jonathan Mathis have both dealt with issues over the past year. Ennis struggled with consistency in 2011 after a strong start to the season, while Mathis missed all but three games with a knee injury. Redshirt freshman Shayvion Hatten must become a valuable contributor in the tackle rotation. He has good size at 6’4”, but needs to add strength to his frame upon the move from a 3-4 end to a 4-3 tackle.
There won’t be as many bubble screens and jet sweeps as there were in the Big 12. Most SEC teams prefer running it down the defense’s throat. If there are problems in the middle of the line, there will be problems everywhere.
The situation is a little better at end with returning starters Spencer Nealy and Damontre Moore. Both are better suited in the 4-3, with Nealy at strongside end and Moore as the primary pass rusher on the weak side. Both are experienced and have the size to go toe-to-toe with SEC offensive lines. Moore isn’t quite as polished as Aggie great Von Miller during his later years in College Station, but his production could come close to that of the No. 2 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Sumlin recognizes the need for improved depth on the line, having already received three verbal commitments from defensive linemen in the 2013 class, including four-star tackles Isaiah Golden and Kerrick Huggins, who both are already nearly 300 pounds.
Up the road in Columbia, the state of Missouri is quite similar to that of Texas A&M. Jacquies Smith is gone at defensive end, but he’s the only notable loss. High-motor Brad Madison returns at one end position after an injury-riddled 2011 season, while spring star Kony Ealy looks poised to take over Smith’s starting role. Ealy played in nine games in last year as a redshirt freshman, but has added weight to help be able to withstand life in the SEC. Juniors Michael Sam and Brayden Burnett are viable reserves and will be part of the rotation at end.
Like the Aggies, defensive tackle is a major concern. Sheldon Richardson, one of the top junior college transfers in the country in 2011, is now the key cog. Size and talent aren’t lacking with Richardson, as he has a future playing on Sundays, but he can’t take any plays off this season at such a critical position. Expected starter Lucas Vincent played sparingly last season. His ability to transition into a full-time player in the SEC is still a question mark despite a strong showing this spring.
Unlike his counterpart at Texas A&M, Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel appears more content to maintain status quo – a system that propelled the Tigers to three double-digit win seasons in the past five years.
“You’ve got to do what you do,” Pinkel told Sports Illustrated last month.
If doing what they do includes allowing three rushing touchdowns three different times last season (all losses), Missouri might quickly be yearning for life in the Big 12. Credit Pinkel for not drastically changing what made him one of the most respected coaches in the nation. He’s won four of five games against the existing SEC members since coming to Missouri, and defeated Texas A&M in College Station in both 2010 and 2011.
However, Pinkel and Sumlin need to look no further than the state that separates Missouri and Texas to see what the SEC can do to seemingly strong teams. Few programs have had the offensive firepower of Arkansas over the past few seasons. Both Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson have put up eye-popping passing numbers. However, the Razorbacks have struggled to find the kind of elite defensive linemen that have led Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU to recent national titles. The effect? 24-point losses to both Alabama and LSU last season.
Both Missouri and Texas A&M have the resources to compete at a high level in the SEC. However, their rosters aren’t quite SEC-ready, and it will show this season over the course of the eight-game conference schedule. When they meet at Kyle Field on Nov. 24 in the regular season finale after playing seven conference games each, expect the Tigers and Aggies to be just fine with turning back the clock and playing a Big 12-style game.