In early December, it appeared Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s stay in Aggieland could be short.
Reports swirled that after one season with the Aggies, Elko could be in line to fill the head coaching vacancy at Temple.
It’s a narrative that Aggie fans might become accustomed to in years to come, but only because Elko decided to continue with an Aggie defense that finished 2018 trending upward.
Head coach Jimbo Fisher said no salesmanship was needed in convincing the defensive head of the program to stay in College Station.
“I don’t think the task to keep him on board is that tough, because I think you look at A&M and what we have and what we’re building and the players we have coming, and he knows what the future of this program is going to be, and Mike wants to do that for sure,” Fisher said.
The recent past for the Aggie defense includes struggles to stop the run, especially against Southeastern Conference opponents. In 2017, the Aggies allowed 170 yards rushing per game, which ranked 70th in the country and ninth in the SEC. A&M ranked 78th in total defense.
Enter Elko and a return to the run-stopping focus of Aggie lore. A&M finished 2018 with the third-best rush defense in the nation, allowing 95.2 yards per game.
Elko’s second year at A&M will feature a focus on the future after the departure of seven defensive starters, including five from the front seven.
Anchoring the defense with experience is the line, which returns junior interior linemen Justin Madubuike and Jayden Peevy, a key reserve who saw action in every game and had one start. Sophomore defensive tackle Bobby Brown is expected to work his way into the starting rotation as well after recording 14 tackles and a tackle for loss as a freshman.
“We have those guys like Bobby, like young guys that are hungry to get out there and play,” Madubuike said. “So I have no doubt that they are going to do that.”
On the outside, sophomore Tyree Johnson will step in the spotlight after recording a sack and a half last season with action in all 13 games. Opposite Johnson is Micheal Clemons, who will get his shot after sitting out last season with a foot injury.
“I think hopefully he’ll have a very solid year if he stays healthy,” Fisher said of Clemons’ potential impact. “His leadership has been good. He’s working his tail off, and he had a great spring. He’s a very physical football player. He can rush and he’s athletic and he’s long. Man, he plays with great physicality.”
The Aggies lost both tackle leaders to the NFL in linebackers Otaro Alaka and Tyrel Dodson, leaving the door open for a young group to fill the void. Junior Buddy Johnson accrued the most experience last season, with 27 tackles and half a sack in 12 games. Sophomore Anthony Hines III returns to action after missing almost all of last season with a lower leg injury.
“He’s bigger,” Fisher said of Hines. “He’s running extremely well. They said in the summer he was top of the sprints in running, and it looks like he’s put on some size.”
The secondary is where Elko can make the most improvement in his second year. A&M had the nation’s 98th-ranked defense in passing yards allowed at 253.2 per game.
“We’ve got to get better in pass coverage, but we’ve also got to get better in rushes,” Fisher said. “We’ve got to be able to put pressure on the quarterback and create those things and cover better and mix things up, and hopefully we will.”
Hope lies in the late-season strides made by sophomore safety Leon O’Neal. As a true freshman, O’Neal recorded 14 total tackles, including six and an interception in the Aggies’ Gator Bowl appearance.
Arizona Western Community College transfer Elijah Blades joins an experienced mix at cornerback that includes junior Myles Jones, senior Charles Oliver and junior Debione Renfro. Blades had two interceptions and nine pass breakups in two JUCO seasons.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who had been three-year starters now and really a lot of experience,” Aggie quarterback Kellen Mond said. “Leon comes back for a second year and there is a lot of depth, so I really look forward to those guys being able to have a second year with Coach Elko’s system, and I really look forward to them having a really good season.”
Madubuike said Elko’s defense will present some different looks this year thanks to a few new wrinkles he was able to add during fall camp. It’s the luxury of continuity, Fisher said.
“That is huge,” Fisher said. “It lets them relax on not just where to be but what they’re doing.”