Texas A&M’s seniors were in diapers when the “Wrecking Crew” was rocking Kyle Field but defensive coordinator Mike Elko is counting on them providing leadership to help the unit improve.
“The kids are hungry to change the impression of where they stand,” Elko said. “And I think you’ve got some really talented seniors in this program that are really excited to try to leave their mark on this program before they get out of here and they’re doing a great job of leading right now.”
A&M returns eight defensive starters, three of them seniors – linemen Landis Durham and Kingsley Keke, and linebacker Otaro Alaka. Senior safety Donovan Wilson, who a year ago suffered a season-ending injury in the opener, also returns and his 15 career starts are third most on defense behind Alaka’s 33 and Keke’s 21. Defensive tackle Daylon Mack and defensive back DeShawn Capers-Smith are other key seniors.
Elko compares this unit to his Notre Dame defense last season that he said was hungry and played a huge part in the Irish improvement from 4-8 to 10-3. Notre Dame allowed 21.5 points and 369.2 yards per game in Elko’s lone season in South Bend to rank 31st and 46th in the country, respectively.
Elko takes over an underachieving defense at A&M for first-year head coach Jimbo Fisher. The Aggies allowed 408.5 yards per game (78th) and 30.7 points per game (87th) last season. A&M allowed more than 40 points five times.
“What does this group need to do?” Elko said. “I think this group needs to establish their own identity. We’re not looking to chase the past or even measure ourselves with those [Wrecking Crew] teams. We want to go out there and play a great brand of defense.
“I think to do that we’ve got to be physical, we’ve got to be fundamentally sound. We’ve got to do all those things that we preach and talk about and that great defenses do. But I think if we do that, this fan base will certainly embrace this group for who they are and what they’re capable of.”
Elko as a teenager watched the Wrecking Crew.
“I was a huge college football fan so I remember watching R.C. Slocum’s teams,” Elko said. “I remember watching those defenses run around. I remember watching this place when all of that was going on.”
The 41-year-old Elko, who a decade ago was the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Hofstra, was coordinator at Wake Forest three seasons before going to Notre Dame. It was Elko’s work at Wake Forest that impressed Fisher, who at the time was at Florida State, saying that it was a “pain in the rear” to prepare for Elko and his 4-2-5 base alignment.
“We want to make it difficult for quarterbacks – nowadays in the RPO [run-pass option] world— to know exactly who the read is, where the read is, [and] who’s in the fit or who’s not in the fit,” Elko said. “And try to create as much diversity in the scheme to make it a little bit difficult for those quarterbacks to execute.”
The players who have to learn the most in Elko’s scheme are linebackers and safeties. Elko said the linebackers initially tried to feel their way through plays but are now “starting to utilize their skill sets.”
“Coach Elko has put me all around the field,” said junior linebacker Tyrel Dodson. “Whatever the team needs me to play, I’ll play.”
Dodson said he might line up at inside or outside linebacker or even defensive end.
“I just need to stay in my playbook and ask him questions,” Dodson said. “It’s already made me more comfortable in the defense and more knowledgeable of the game.”
NOTES – Elko and offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey met the local media Sunday for the first time since they were hired. … A&M’s two-hour Fan Appreciation Day on Sunday drew the largest crowd since 2013 which featured Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, said an A&M official. … There were approximately 500 at A&M’s 2 1/2-hour practice late Sunday afternoon that featured the pleasant temperatures and cloud cover. … A&M will scrimmage Monday. … Fisher said sophomore quarterbacks Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond are both elevating their game as they compete for the starting position. “Their decision-making has been very good,” Fisher said. “Their accuracy is getting much better as we’re learning the receivers, the backs, the decision-making process.”