For the first time in his Aggies tenure, Kevin Sumlin has a defense to match his offense.
The group is headlined by a hellacious pass rush featuring Myles Garrett. The lesser-known faces are on the back end, where safety Armani Watts leads a unit of talented and versatile players.
Last year, Watts embarrassingly led the team in tackles. His 126 tackles represented 13.6 percent of the team’s total. The numbers were good for Watts but poor for the defense as a whole. Having the last line of defense lead the team in stops is difficult to accomplish even if you’re trying.
That 2015 unit surrendered 27.8 points per game. Through four weeks this season, the Aggies have conceded 16 points per game.
Watts’ numbers have declined, but that is not a bad thing for the A&M run defense.
He continues to have the greatest impact of any safety in the conference. Watts earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors this week for his display against Arkansas and remained a difference-maker.
Defensive coordinator John Chavis likes to utilize his safeties in multiple ways.
No SEC defense does more to disguise its coverage pre- or post-snap. The Aggies play with a base two-high safety look and utilize a lot of safety movement to create nightmares for the quarterback trying to diagnose the coverage. Safeties are rotated into the box, lined up as pseudo linebackers and moved to the boundary. All this comes with bluffs and traps thrown in for good measure.
Watts fits perfectly. He has the athletic ability to play in deep center field, and he can shoot gaps and make plays in the backfield.
Moreover, he may be Texas A&M’s best perimeter run defender. That allows Chavis to move Watts whenever necessary, keeping the defensive structure and not substituting personnel.
In run support, Watts appears to play every snap at recklessly close to 100 miles per hour.
The Week 4 game against Arkansas showcased the good, the bad, the ugly and the special.
Here, on a second-and-6 play, Watts lined up in the box as a linebacker. His penchant for gambling in the run game bit him.
He read the lead block of the fullback and shuffled laterally to make a play. He voided his gap, leaving a huge hole for the Arkansas running back to cut through and make a big gain.
You can see here: where Watts should have been, where he ended up and where the running back crossed the line of scrimmage.
It’s an assignment bust and one that the Aggies live with because Watts more than makes up for it by creating negative plays.
On this second-and-4 toss play, Watts again lined up in the box. He diagnosed the play and attacked. Rather than becoming a force defender, setting the edge and forcing the running back to turn inside, he undercut all the linemen. He sorted through traffic and dropped the ball carrier in the backfield for a big loss.
Like all great playmakers, Watts has a knack for making crucial stops. Saturday, he turned a sure touchdown run into a forced fumble. He also made an open-field tackle to hold the Razorbacks scoreless on a fourth-and-goal play.
Watts continues to grow in coverage. A large part of that value comes from his versatility and making quarterbacks second-guess themselves.
An example of this was in Week 1 against UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen.
Rosen was confused and beat up all afternoon. Despite feeling constant heat from A&M’s pass rush, Rosen consistently passed up quick throws. He could not trust the movements of Watts or Justin Evans, his safety partner.
That impact extends far beyond the box score.
Throughout this season, Watts will show up less on the stat sheet than he has. But he is impacting the opposing QB and his teammates more than ever.
Sometimes, hearing less from a defensive back is just what a defense needs.