Texas A&M to be without two key veteran defenders in Gator Bowl
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Safety Donovan Wilson and linebacker Otaro Alaka each used five seasons to exhaust their eligibility at Texas A&M.
Not because the two standout seniors needed a redshirt upon arrival to Kyle Field in 2014 — far from it. Each earned significant playing time as true freshmen, with Wilson leading the team in tackles in the 2014 Liberty Bowl, an A&M victory over West Virginia, and Alaka taking home defensive MVP in the same game.
Along the way of what would become standout college careers, each player missed a season because of injury, but returned to the game to round out their eligibility. Now, in the culmination of their combined 10 seasons at A&M, each player will miss the Gator Bowl against North Carolina State on Monday night because of injury. Wilson underwent surgery for a hernia injury and Alaka for a hand injury.
The losses are significant to the A&M defense, and not solely for nostalgia and leadership purposes. Alaka, a former Cypress Falls standout, and Wilson are the Aggies’ top two leading tacklers with a combined 145. The next two on the leaderboard have combined for 109.
“The challenge is the (lost) experience,” junior linebacker Tyrel Dodson told reporters on Thursday following the Aggies’ practice in Jacksonville, Fla. “Now it’s just the next man up.”
Alaka also leads the team in tackles for loss with 14.5. Sophomore Buddy Johnson, who played in 11 of the Aggies’ dozen games this season and has 20 tackles (including 4.5 TFL), will step in for Alaka in the starting lineup.
“It’s a loss, but Buddy has played well - injuries are a part of football,” A&M first-year coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Alaka is a very good player and has had a very good year for us, but our team has always adjusted throughout the year.”
DeShawn Capers-Smith, Keldrick Carper and Leon O’Neal should fill in for Wilson. The secondary has been the Aggies’ most glaring weakness all season, but appeared to improve down the stretch, as A&M closed the regular season with three consecutive victories.
The Aggies will face one of the nation’s top throwers, however, in the Wolfpack’s Ryan Finley, who leads the ACC in passing with 316 yards per game. The senior Finley is projected as a first-round selection in the NFL Draft.
“They’ll all rotate and play,” said Fisher of his mostly young defensive backs, in trying to put the best face on the loss of Wilson. “It’s great, because those guys will be the ones playing next year.”
The Aggies are trying to win nine games in a season for the first time since 2013. The Wolfpack (9-3) will be without two of their best players: receiver Kelvin Harmon and linebacker Germaine Pratt, although they’ve simply chosen not to compete in the bowl as they prepare for the NFL Draft.
As for the two key A&M defenders missing the game, Wilson broke his ankle in last season’s opener at UCLA, sat out the year while rehabilitating and returned for Fisher’s first season at A&M. Alaka played early on as a sophomore in 2015 before earning a medical redshirt for a torn labrum.
A year from now, Fisher’s concerns at defensive back and linebacker should not be so pronounced. Last week he signed four defensive backs who each rate four stars: Safeties Brian Williams and Demani Richardson and cornerbacks Erick Young of Bush High and Elijah Blades, the last a late addition to the class and a junior-college transfer from Arizona Western.
The linebackers haul is led by four-star prospect Andre White, and includes a trio of three stars: RJ Orebo of Dayton High, Tarian Lee and Ke’Shun Brown. Orebo can play outside linebacker or on the edge as a pass rusher, Fisher said.