With only three defensive starters returning from last season, the Texas A&M defense will gain valuable experience going against a seasoned Texas State offense on Thursday night at Kyle Field.
Since the arrival of defensive coordinator Mike Elko, the Aggie defense has been through many changes. Most notably was the efficiency of the defensive front, which finished 2018 at third in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing defense, according to NCAA.com.
On the other hand, there was a constant struggle from the secondary. The transition from former defensive coordinator John Chavis’ playbook to Elko’s left much to be desired, as A&M ended the year at 98th in passing yards allowed.
Now the Aggies will have the experience and the benefit of an entire offseason spent working on their struggles, with Elko’s specialty being with the secondary. Corners junior Myles Jones and senior Charles Oliver are set to return as starters. Junior Debione Renfro will sit out on Thursday due to a violation of team rules. Returners juniors Rony Elam and Keldrick Carper, and top junior college recruit Elijah Blades will also provide quality depth at corner as well.
The Aggies lack experience at safety. Sophomore Leon O’Neal will return after a breakout season a year ago, with true freshman Demani Richardson set to start as well.
Despite the lack of starting experience along the line, the spring and fall camps have improved each member of the defensive trenches significantly. Junior defensive end Michael Clemons, sophomore edge rusher Tyree Johnson and sophomore nose guard Bobby Brown III have been the talk of the offseason.
“Clemons and Johnson, they give me a run for my money every day,” A&M offensive tackle Dan Moore Jr. said. “One day, I’m blocking good on [Johnson], and at the same time, I’m getting demolished by [Clemons]. The next day, it’s just flip-flop, but both of those guys are making me and [offensive tackle Carson Green] better.”
For the linebackers, expectations are the lowest among the defensive positional groups. After losing Otaro Alaka and Tyrel Dodson to the NFL Draft, A&M will rely on sophomore Anthony Hines III and junior Buddy Johnson to pick up where last year’s starters left off. For the past year, Hines has been recovering from an ACL tear.
Johnson’s role has grown exponentially since the 2018 season, being the primary linebacker communicating to the defensive line.
“It’s been pretty natural,” Johnson said. “I’ve never been a vocal type of guy, but over the offseason, I put it on myself that [making calls] is something that I'm going to have to do.”
It is no secret that in recent years, Texas State has maintained one of the worst offenses at the FBS level. After firing head coach Everett Withers last season, the Bobcats made the call to West Virginia offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and came to an agreement for him to become the next head coach in San Marcos.
Spavital spent time in College Station as the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator under former head coach Kevin Sumlin. He said Kyle Field was the first place he got to call plays.
According to the depth chart, Spavital is starting quarterback Tyler Vitt, who played in nine games a year ago and did not win a game. The sophomore finished the season with 1,159 passing yards, seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Spavital has junior college transfer Gresch Jensen ready to go as well. Jensen is coming off an undefeated 2018 season at Montana, where current Texas State offensive coordinator Bob Stitt called plays for the Grizzlies.
The Bobcats return four starters along the offensive line, including all-conference right tackle Aaron Brewer. The left tackle spot may be cause for concern, with no experience on the left edge.
Vitt will have several weapons to work with come Thursday, with Wuerffel Award watch list wideout Hutch White returning and veterans Mason Hays and Jeremiah Haydel also set to start.
Texas State will have several returning running backs to rotate throughout the game — with senior Anthony D. Taylor being the first one up. Caleb Twyford is also another running back that will see a fair amount of handoffs as well.