Texas A&M Aggies: A.J. Hilliard


A defense that struggled mightily in 2013 will go into the 2014 season without two of its top players. That’s not what Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder needs as he tries to rebuild the Aggies' defense, but that’s the hand he is dealt after the news of the dismissal of starters Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Golden
John Korduner/Icon SMIFormer ESPN 300 recruit Isaiah Golden, who played as a true freshman in 2013, is one of two Aggies who were dismissed from the program on Tuesday.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin made the announcement on Tuesday. The Aggies will enter the fall without two players who were All-SEC freshman team selections.

But it’s a decision Sumlin had to make. Both Claiborne and Golden were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery on Tuesday from an incident that occurred on May 23. Both have already had second chances (Claiborne was on his third), so they were already on thin ice. The seriousness of the charges made the decision easy for Sumlin.

Claiborne emerged as perhaps the defense’s best player late last season after he began to find his groove as a middle linebacker, which isn’t his natural position. He finished the season with 89 tackles in his 12 games, nine of which came as starts.

Golden, meanwhile, was forced into the starting lineup after the Aggies lost senior Kirby Ennis to a season-ending knee injury. With the kind of size (6-foot-2, 310) the Aggies were looking for in a defensive tackle, Golden held his own well as a true freshman.

Both would have started this fall, which means the Aggies must come up with new plans to replace them. Claiborne would have likely been the starting weakside linebacker as Jordan Mastrogiovanni has emerged as the team’s new middle linebacker.

The absence of Golden makes a January recruiting coup by the Aggies even bigger. In mid-January, the Aggies were able to flip four-star defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, who was originally committed to Texas. An early enrollee, Henderson was on campus shortly thereafter and participated in spring football with Texas A&M. He showed flashes of potential, enough to get practice time with the first team and give the coaching staff optimism that he can contribute quickly.

Now, Henderson could be a starting candidate at defensive tackle, along with sophomore Hardreck Walker, who played as a true freshman last season. The Aggies also have an incoming recruit in ESPN 300 defensive tackle DeShawn Washington, who will join the team this summer. Their top defensive recruit from the 2013 class, Justin Manning, redshirted last season but saw plenty of repetitions this spring. One of those two might have to get game-ready sooner rather than later.

Losing Claiborne is a significant blow as well, but fortunately, the Aggies are building solid depth at linebacker and should have a myriad of options. Two outside linebackers in particular, A.J. Hilliard and Shaan Washington, turned in good showings during spring practice and are likely to fight for a starting spot in August. Hilliard transferred from TCU and sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, and Washington found himself in a special teams role last season, as well as a reserve linebacker. They have plenty of ability, but neither have much experience, which is the quandary the Aggies found themselves in last season en route to a horrific defensive showing. The Aggies were last or near-last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories in 2013.

Senior Donnie Baggs, who started early last season and played plenty, likely figures into a significant role somewhere as an outside linebacker. He received praise from linebackers coach Mark Hagen this spring. The Aggies also have incoming outside linebacker recruits in ESPN 300 duo Otaro Alaka (who they flipped from Texas) and Josh Walker.

Another linebacker who showed some promise in the spring is one who has been around but hasn’t seen much of the field -- senior Justin Bass. One of these players will have to emerge as the Aggies search for options to replace the once-promising Claiborne.
There are still more than three months until Texas A&M plays its season opener at South Carolina, but it's never too soon to look at which players could be playing an increased role this season. Players who haven't seen much field time -- or newcomers who just arrived on campus -- received a chance to show how much progress they've made during spring football. Here are five players on the Aggies' defense who gained some momentum and could carve out roles for themselves this fall:

DB Devonta Burns: Depth in the secondary -- particularly at safety -- was among the most significant concerns for Texas A&M coming into the spring, but Burns' consistent play and versatility during spring football provided secondary coach Terry Joseph with another option. Burns, a junior, has been seldom used in his time in Aggieland but began to find a role on special teams last fall. Head coach Kevin Sumlin noted multiple times this spring how much Burns has progressed. He's probably not a candidate to earn a starting spot in the fall but after seeing practice time both at safety and as a nickel cornerback in the spring, he is a player who has begun to earn the trust of the coaching staff when needed to contribute and could see a regular role in the defensive backfield in 2014.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Hilliard
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAfter transferring from TCU, A.J. Hilliard should contribute to Texas A&M's linebackers unit this fall.
DT Zaycoven Henderson: It's interesting that Henderson -- someone the Aggies didn't initially offer in the recruiting process -- emerged as someone who could contribute quickly. After taking Texas' top defensive tackle in the 2014 class (DeShawn Washington), the Aggies held off on heavily pursuing Henderson until he decommitted from Texas in January and became available. The Aggies' quick courtship paid off, and Henderson enrolled early and quickly found himself excelling on the defensive line during spring football. The 6-foot-1, 310-pound true freshman will have to work on getting into better shape during the summer, but if he can, he has the kind of quickness and explosiveness to play a contributing role -- perhaps a significant one -- on the Aggies' defensive interior come August.

LB A.J. Hilliard: Someone who Sumlin long pursued (the head coach recruited Hilliard when he was at Houston and also immediately upon landing the Texas A&M job in late 2011 and early 2012, but Hilliard signed with TCU in 2012). He transferred to Aggieland in 2013, and after sitting out a season per NCAA transfer rules, he showed signs this spring that he could be a contributor at linebacker. The Aggies used Hilliard in several linebacker spots in the spring, and he proved versatile enough to handle those responsibilities. At 6-2 and 225 pounds, Hilliard has good speed and showed consistent improvement. Look for him to find his way on the field this season.

LB Jordan Mastrogiovanni: After having a glassy-eyed freshman season, Mastrogiovanni showed significant progress in spring football. Both Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder praised the performance of the 6-3, 235-pound middle linebacker, and Sumlin went as far to say that Mastrogiovanni emerged as the leader of the defense. Considering how important the position is that he plays, that's meaningful for Texas A&M. He's the projected starter at middle linebacker after playing a part-time role last season, and the staff has high hopes for him in 2014.

LB Shaan Washington: Like Mastrogiovanni, Washington received some playing time as a true freshman last fall. He played at both linebacker and on special teams and brings versatility to the table. He was a safety at Alexandria (La.) High School and has the ability to drop into coverage or rush the passer off the edge. He'll be among several outside linebackers battling for a starting spot, and his role figures to increase on the field this season.
Editor's note: This is the third part of a weeklong series looking at five position battles to watch in spring practice, which begins Feb. 28 for Texas A&M.

When it comes to linebackers, the 2013 season was one of change for Texas A&M, at least when compared to 2012.

[+] EnlargeDonnie Baggs
Sam Khan Jr./ESPNSenior Donnie Baggs could get the first crack at Texas A&M's starting strongside linebacker job.
After a 2012 season in which the linebackers were a model of consistency with then-seniors Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart and then-junior Steven Jenkins, 2013 brought much more shuffling.

With Jenkins the only returning starter among the linebacker corps, youth and/or inexperience was served. The Aggies went through an early-season change at middle linebacker, started a converted receiver at strongside linebacker at times and threw some true freshmen into action early for myriad reasons, whether it was injury, suspension or ineffectiveness.

This season, and particularly this spring, linebacker, particularly the strongside position, will be a compelling position to watch.

With Darian Claiborne likely to start at weakside linebacker and Jordan Mastrogiovanni projected to be the starter at middle linebacker going into spring football, it leaves several candidates to battle for the strongside linebacker job.

The candidates will be numerous. Donnie Baggs, who will be a senior, ended the 2013 season as the No. 1 player on the depth chart at the position and should be a factor in the race. In 12 games last season, playing both outside and middle linebacker, Baggs had 30 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, though he began the year as the starter at middle linebacker before being replaced by Claiborne, who had a strong freshman season.

Shaan Washington, who earned playing time as a true freshman on both special teams and as an outside linebacker, is another to watch. Washington appeared in 12 games and garnered three sacks and four tackles for loss while compiling 26 tackles.

Outside linebacker Tommy Sanders, a junior college transfer who was in his first season in Aggieland last year, started in place of a suspended Jenkins early in the season and received playing time as Jenkins’ backup at weakside linebacker and could serve in that role to Claiborne this year as well. Last year’s strongside linebackers, Baggs (6-foot-1, 230 pounds), Washington (6-3, 220) and Nate Askew (6-4, 235), were slightly heavier or larger in stature than Sanders (6-2, 220), though.

Could A.J. Hilliard be a candidate? He is also a little smaller (6-foot-2, 210), than the aforementioned names, but the transfer from TCU is an intriguing possibility. An athletic linebacker, he received plenty of practice time on the second team during spring football in 2013 but had to sit out the fall per NCAA transfer rules. Hilliard was a player that head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff recruited when Sumlin was at Houston before Hilliard eventually chose TCU, and he’ll have a chance to compete somewhere in the linebacker corps.

When the summer arrives, the Aggies will also welcome two incoming outside linebacker recruits in ESPN 300 prospect Otaro Alaka and ESPN 300 prospect Josh Walker. So when preseason training camp begins in August, it stands to reason that those two will get a chance to compete for a spot as well. But when spring practice begins later this month, there should be no lack of competition at outside linebacker.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Throughout their successful 2012 season, the buzz around Texas A&M football built each week. It crescendoed after the Aggies defeated Alabama and peaked when the Aggies' quarterback, Johnny Manziel, won the Heisman Trophy. They kept that buzz going with a resounding win over Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.

That buzz has had a clear affect on Texas A&M recruiting and Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies' staff is doing what they can to ensure the buzz continues. In some instances, it's tricks or tactics that the Aggies use themselves, like when they trotted out a live disc jockey for the "Friday Night Lights" scrimmage last week.

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M hit the field on a cool, foggy afternoon for its first open-to-the-public scrimmage of the 2013 spring football season on Saturday at Kyle Field.

There is plenty to take away from the first extended on-field look at the 2013 Aggies, but here are a few things that stood out:

Brandon Williams looks like a potential playmaker: The Brookshire (Texas) Royal graduate, who is nicknamed "Slim," showed some nice moves and ability when he was on the field Saturday. In a handful of touches, Williams showed good vision and speed and was able to beat a few defenders to the pylon for a touchdown run midway through the scrimmage. His initial action was with the second-team offense, but he received plenty of time with the first team as well. Naturally, Ben Malena was the traditional first-team back and Tra Carson got some repetitions as well [freshman Trey Williams, who has been injured all spring, did not participate]. But Williams looked a lot like someone who will get touches and be productive this fall.

Floyd Raven experiment at safety is showing progress: As defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and head coach Kevin Sumlin noted earlier this spring, there are two things Raven does really well that fit the free safety position: He has good speed and he can hit. On Saturday he showed a nose for the football, intercepting quarterback Johnny Manziel once and nearly doing it a second time later in the scrimmage. The junior certainly looks the part so far.

Reggie Chevis
Sam Khan Jr./ESPN.comFreshman Reggie Chavis received snaps with the first and second team at linebacker on Saturday.
Youth is served, especially on defense: Injuries are keeping several key players on the sideline, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. (Projected starters Julien Obioha, Kirby Ennis and Steven Jenkins are all sitting out this spring.) So it's giving the Aggies a chance to work out some younger players at key positions. Redshirt freshman Tyrone Taylor, younger brother of junior Tyrell Taylor, lined up at defensive end with the first-team offense, as did sophomore Alonzo Williams, who played the last half of the 2012 season and started in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. True freshman linebackers Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade also had plenty of playing time Saturday -- Wade as a second-team weakside linebacker and Chevis at middle linebacker, getting snaps with both the first- and second-team defense. (Junior Donnie Baggs started the scrimmage as the first-team middle linebacker.) Sophomore A.J. Hilliard, who transferred from TCU in January, also saw time with the first-team defensive unit at outside linebacker.

Offensive line set? Whenever the first-team offense was out on the field, the same group of five was out there: Jake Matthews at left tackle, Jarvis Harrison at left guard, Mike Matthews at center, Germain Ifedi at right guard and Cedric Ogbuehi at right tackle. The primary battles going into the spring were to be at center and right guard and so far, it appears Mike Matthews and Ifedi have a solid grasp on those spots.

Positive signs from the kicking game: Sure, the scrimmage doesn't count, but fans certainly had to be happy to see Taylor Bertolet connect on his kicks. The only miscue in the kicking game was a mistake by the holder, punter Drew Kaser, that forced Bertolet to stutter step before a kick that was blockes. But every other field goal and point-after-touchdown attempt that Bertolet tried went through the uprights. The sophomore is looking to bounce back from an inconsistent 2012 season in which he was 13-of-22 on field goal attempts and 67-of-74 on extra point tries.

The stars are still the stars: Manziel made some nice throws and though he did throw three interceptions -- some of which might have been forced since he wasn't really running the football himself -- he overall had a solid day. He certainly remembers how to get the ball to the Aggies' best receiver, Mike Evans, who probably had the most impressive day of anybody, catching two touchdowns and picking up where he left off from 2012.

Position breakdown: Linebacker 

February, 26, 2013
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The Texas A&M linebacker corps served as a backbone for the Aggies defense in 2012.

With a trio of upperclassmen as starters, including two senior leaders in Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, it was one area the Aggies defensive coaches didn't have to worry too much about.

Brett Wade
William Wilkerson/ESPN.comCould early enrollee linebacker Brett Wade play as a freshman in 2013?
With Porter and Stewart having graduated and looking toward NFL futures, the Aggies will have two new bodies to line up next to the lone remaining starter of the group, Steven Jenkins.

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