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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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A&M defense to be tested by No. 16 Arkansas’ ground game

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Photo by Photo by Ryan Hartfiel

A&M football has won nine consecutive matches against Arkansas.

The Texas A&M defense had a historic performance against New Mexico, holding the Lobos scoreless with just 122 total yards, the lowest an A&M defense has allowed since 2001. As the Aggies prepare for No. 16 Arkansas, they’ll look to control the line of scrimmage and build off their 11 tackles for loss in Week 3 as defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s unit gets back to full strength.

Head coach Jimbo Fisher said players like sophomore defensive lineman McKinnley Jackson and senior defensive back Myles Jones returning has allowed the Aggies to get back in rhythm, believing that the line of scrimmage will be of utmost importance this weekend. 

“[We’re] getting some of the guys back in a groove, getting playing time for everybody and getting better as a unit,” Fisher said. “Football’s a game of imposing your will on the line of scrimmage. I think that’s what Arkansas [is] doing a great job of, and we’re going to have to do it going into this game, that’s for sure.”

The 3-0 Razorbacks will bring a more veteran team to AT&T Stadium than in years past, led by redshirt sophomore quarterback KJ Jefferson, junior receiver Treylon Burks and several running backs, such as redshirt senior Trelon Smith and freshman Raheim Sanders. Fisher said these athletes are playing at a high level and Arkansas’ experience makes it a tough opponent. 

“[Arkansas] has a very experienced team, they don’t have a young team,” Fisher said. “This group has a lot of fourth, fifth and sixth-year guys, and they’re playing probably as well as anybody in the country.”

Fisher said Jefferson will be a challenge for the defense because of his dual-threat ability combined with his size, as Jefferson is listed at 6-foot-3 and weighs 245 pounds. 

“The quarterback Jefferson throws big long throws, but then all of the sudden he can take off and beat you with his legs. He’s hard to get on the ground,” Fisher said. “Just because you hit him doesn’t mean he’ll go down; he’s going to be a heck of a challenge, there’s no doubt.”

Senior defensive back Leon O’Neal Jr. said Jefferson’s size will be something the A&M defense has to mentally prepare for, believing he is an integral part of Arkansas’ talented offense. In the blowout win over Georgia Southern, Jefferson threw a career-high 336 yards on 13 completions and tied his career-high in passing touchdowns with three. 

“He’s got a lot of Cam Newton about him,” O’Neal said. “I think he’s a big-time leader on that team, and we’ve got to be able to stop him in everything we do.”

But the A&M defense’s focus this week will be on Arkansas’ ground game because of how many running backs they utilize and how dangerous each of them can be if not met at the first or second levels. The rotation consists of Smith, Sanders, sophomore Dominique Johnson and freshman AJ Green, all of whom have rushed for at least 100 yards through three games while averaging at least 5.5 yards per carry. They’ve also each scored at least once and have each ripped off runs for at least 26 yards.

O’Neal said he’s seen the Arkansas offense establish the run early through their physicality in his personal scouting, which allows them to tire defenses and catch them off-guard through the air. 

“They like to ground and pound you and then catch you lacking,” O’Neal said. “The way they do things on the ground is what I’m more interested in. I think they can make a lot of plays if they out-physical us, and we can’t let that happen.”

Fisher said Arkansas’ run game is potent and that their running backs feature a blend of both speed and power. The group’s best display of this was in Week 2 against Texas when the four aforementioned running backs each scored once and combined for 236 rushing yards on 33 carries for an average of just over 7 yards per run. 

“When you talk about running the football, Arkansas does so extremely well,” Fisher said. “The tailbacks can really run; they’re playing great. We’ll have to play a great game to have a chance to win.”

Part of the reason why the A&M defense is so focused on the run is because of the big rushes they’ve allowed in each of their three wins. Kent State had rushes for 38 yards and 26 yards on the Aggies, Colorado’s quarterback had a big 30-yard run and New Mexico had several 5- or 6-yard diving runs that were close to breaking for bigger gains. O’Neal said these plays are inadmissible because of the talent on the defense. 

“Once again, it’s unacceptable,” O’Neal said. “We’ve got talent on every level, and there’s no excuse for failure. We’ve got to do a better job of plugging holes up and just playing the defense that we know we can play.”

Fisher said it’s difficult to identify a singular problem with those bigger runs because each play is different, with each position having different responsibilities, but said the front seven on the line are improving as time progresses. 

“[It] could be a multitude of things. It could be anywhere from a defensive lineman to a defensive end on a twist back inside or a linebacker or a safety,” Fisher said. “But they’re doing a solid job. We’re getting better each and every week, and we see it, and our athleticism and knowledge of what’s going on is getting better.”

Fisher’s defense will have its hands full in the first SEC matchup of the season, but being able to limit big runs from Arkansas’ quartet of rushers while doing its best to keep Jefferson in the pocket will likely make life much easier as time unfolds this Saturday, Sept. 25.

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