Texas A&M Aggies: A.J. Hilliard

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.


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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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