Texas A&M’s defense is getting better and younger.
The unit played well in Saturday’s 24-10 loss at top-ranked Clemson, holding the Tigers to their fewest points since a 24-6 loss to Alabama in the 2017 College Football Playoffs.
Better news for No. 16 A&M is that four of its five leading tacklers in the game are underclassmen. True freshman cornerback Demani Richardson led the Aggies with eight tackles, six of them solo. Sophomore defensive end Tyree Johnson had seven tackles, also with six solos including two for losses. Sophomore linebacker Anthony Hines and sophomore safety Leon O’Neal Jr. each had five tackles as seniors accounted for only six of the team’s 61 tackles.
“We’re a young group, and we just have to continue to grow every single week,” Hines said. “Just seeing those little mistakes really help us not to repeat those in future games.”
A&M held Clemson running back Travis Etienne to 53 yards on 16 carries, similar to last year when the former Aggie pledge had a season-low 44 yards on eight carries. Etienne, who put himself in the Heisman Trophy talk after a career-high 205 yards in the season opener against Georgia Tech, still found a way to hurt A&M with his pass-catching skills. Etienne had four receptions for 52 yards, including a 27-yarder on Clemson’s go-ahead touchdown drive. He added receptions for 8 and 14 yards on Clemson’s last touchdown drive.
“It’s all just about angles,” Hines said. “I overran one in the game. You just have to attack the near hip. It’s just little stuff like that that kind of got us as a team overall. We’re just going to lock into those and get it fixed for this next week.”
Clemson converted only 3 of 9 third downs and had only one possession or more than nine plays. A&M had two sacks, forced a trio of three-and-outs and had an interception.
“There [was] a lot of good,” Hines said. “We just have to be consistent with producing that good stuff.”
The bad included four 15-yard penalties, one of them on Clemson’s third touchdown drive and two on its last TD drive.
“You can’t have self-inflicted wounds. You’ve got to play smart football,” said A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, adding that some penalties just happen but “there were a couple we wish we hadn’t done. You’ve got to learn.”
One of the A&M defense’s best plays came near the end of the game. Senior cornerback Roney Elam intercepted a pass with 5 minutes, 49 seconds left that ended a 63-yard Clemson drive and allowed the Aggies to put together a 91-yard touchdown drive.
“That was a really nice play he made on that ball,” Fisher said.
It was the lone mistake by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who completed 24 of 35 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown. The Tigers got good production from their pair of second-team preseason All-America wide receivers as Justyn Ross had seven catches for 94 yards and a touchdown and Tee Higgins had four catches for 70 yards.
“I think we did a really good job on defense,” Fisher said. “They made a couple really big-time catches, too. They found a way to make that play.”
A&M junior cornerback Myles Jones broke up a pair of passes as the secondary played well enough at times to keep the Aggies in the game.
“We played the ball very well for the most part,” Fisher said. “They had a couple balls I felt we should have knocked down, misjudged them, but for the most part we played the ball very well.”
A&M’s secondary, which was three deep at both cornerbacks and safety spots for the first two games, will add junior cornerback Debione Renfro for the Lamar game Saturday. Renfro, who missed the first two games for violating team rules, has 22 career starts, fourth most on the team.
“He’s going to be in the rotation,” Fisher said. “It gives you another body when you start moving guys into nickel and dime and different positions in which you have.”