Texas A&M’s secondary was victimized time after time last season as opponents threw 26 touchdowns with only seven interceptions.
The unit again could be a weak link after losing free safety Donovan Wilson, the secondary’s most experienced player and nickel back Deshawn Capers-Smith, who started 10 games last season.
“What matters is what we think as a group, as a defensive group and as a team,” junior defensive back Keldrick Carper said. “We don’t pay any mind to anything outside that building, that Bright building, in that locker room. I just feel like there’s a lot we can do this season, we can be very special.”
There was little special about the secondary last season.
A&M ranked 106th in passing efficiency defense as opponents averaged a whopping 8.2 yards per attempt. The Aggies gave up 54 completions of at least 20 yards as opponents completed 60.7% of their passes, the highest rate against A&M since it joined the Southeastern Conference.
“I just feel like a lot of times when we got to the point of attack, we were in position,” Carper said. “A lot of times, I just feel we didn’t finish the play.”
Only one opponent, South Carolina, failed to complete at least 50% of its passes against A&M. And the Gamecocks’ Jake Bentley shook off a horrid first half to complete 11 of his last 18 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns as A&M had to hold on for a 26-23 victory.
Part of the secondary’s problem was adjusting to first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko.
“I just feel like we didn’t buy in, we didn’t trust the process,” Carper said. “And when we did, we had success, and when we didn’t, we had certain games, that we look back on, wow, we had a chance.”
Now the group is locked into what Elko is saying in the film room and wanting on the field, Carper said. That hopefully, will slow down opponents and lead to more game-changing plays for the Aggies.
A&M tied for 120th last year in creating turnovers, managing only 11 – four fumbles and seven interceptions. Only Baylor, Georgia State, Oregon State and Southern Cal were worse. Those four teams combined for a 16-33 record.
“You have to [cause turnovers] in practice before you can do it in a game,” Carper said. “It just doesn’t happen on Saturday.”
Things have been much better at fall camp, Carper said, in part because of improved communication resulting in breaking up passes and forcing turnovers. The unit is winning its fare shares of battles against a veteran receiving corps.
“I feel like we’re going up against one of the best receiving corps in the nation every single day,” Carper said. “That just helps build our confidence when we’re competing against them. Practice makes perfect, that’s what [coach] Jimbo [Fisher] likes to say a lot,” Carper said. “We live with that.”
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Carper has played in 23 games. He started two games his freshman season, getting a career-best six tackles against Auburn with four of them solos. He also started against Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl, posting four tackles.
When A&M used a dime package — adding a sixth defensive back to the alignment — it often was Carper who entered the game. Now, he hopes his role will be expanded.
“I want to do whatever it takes to help this defense,” Carper said. “We gotta lot of guys who can play in a lot of different positions.”
A&M started nine different players in the secondary last season. It lost Wilson, Capers-Smith and Larry Pryor, who combined for 54 career starts.
“Now it’s up to guys like me, [junior] Derrick Tucker and [sophomore] Leon O’Neal [and others],” Carper said.
Seniors Roney Elam and Charles Oliver, and juniors Myles Jones and Debione Renfro also have starting experience. There’s also plenty of talented newcomers, including Elijah Blades, a junior college transfer from Arizona Western. Freshmen from A&M’s Top 5 incoming class are safeties Demani Richardson and Brian Williams and cornerback Erick Young.
NOTES — Carper won the defense’s strength and conditioning award at the team’s annual banquet last fall. … A&M’s annual Fan Appreciation Day will be Sunday from noon-2 p.m. in the Gilliam Indoor Track Complex. … Fisher liked the tempo and physicality at Thursday’s practice. “It had good juice,” he said. … A&M had more good plays Thursday when both sides were playing well, Fisher said, a departure from Monday’s first practice in full pads when one side would make a good play because the other side wasn’t playing well. … Freshman offensive lineman Kenyon Green is having a solid fall camp, competing for a starting position, Fisher said. …. Sophomore defensive back Leon O’Neal Jr., is out with a finger injury, but is expected back Monday or Tuesday. … Former A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, who won the Outland Trophy in 2012, was at practice. He graduates from A&M’s Mays School of Business on Friday. Joeckel, the No., 2 pick in the 2013 draft, is retired. … Former Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf also was at practice. He talked to the team Thursday night during a team meeting. ... A&M, which had its eighth practice Thursday, will be off Friday.