Texas A&M Aggies: Isaiah Golden
Texas A&M suspended cornerback Victor Davis after he was arrested and charged with shoplifting, and defensive end Gavin Stansbury, who was arrested in April, left the team for personal reasons.
At Georgia, Mark Richt dismissed yet another player a day after defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor was arrested for aggravated assault.
These incidents are just the latest in what has been a troubling offseason for the SEC. With media days behind us and fall camps about to begin, we want to know which team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions for this season.
Dillon Lee and Jarran Reed were both arrested for driving under the influence, Altee Tenpenny was caught with marijuana, and Kenyan Drake was arrested for disobeying a police officer. None of the players involved has been dismissed, but this is becoming both a problem and a distraction for Alabama.
Across the state, Auburn is still trying to figure out what to do with quarterback Nick Marshall. The potential Heisman Trophy contender was given a citation for possession of marijuana this month, but will he miss any time as punishment? To make matters worse, teammate Jonathon Mincy was arrested for the same thing, possession of marijuana, just two weeks prior.
The school that has been in the news the most this offseason is Georgia. Four players were arrested in March for theft by deception. Two of those four, Taylor and Tray Matthews, were later dismissed for separate incidents. A third, Uriah LeMay, opted to transfer. Back in February, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons also was dismissed from the program following multiple violations of team rules.
At Missouri, it was three strikes and you're out for star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The sophomore was arrested for the second time on drug-related charges in January, and after being involved in an altercation with his girlfriend in April, he was dismissed from the team. Green-Beckham has since joined Oklahoma.
Lastly, there is Texas A&M, which has not seen any decline in off-field distractions since quarterback Johnny Manziel left. Quarterback Kenny Hill was arrested in March for public intoxication. Two months later, head coach Kevin Sumlin dismissed a pair of key defenders -- Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden -- after they were arrested and charged with aggravated robbery. Then the news broke this week with Stansbury’s departure and the suspension of Davis.
Three-star defensive tackle Kingsley Keke committed to Texas A&M on Wednesday afternoon, giving the Aggies their 13th commitment in the 2015 recruiting class. Keke, a 6-foot-3, 290-pound prospect, had an offer list that included Florida, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas among others.
The commitment is timely because the Aggies dismissed a defensive tackle off their current squad, Isaiah Golden, on Tuesday. Golden, who along with dismissed linebacker Darian Claiborne was arrested and charged with aggravated robbery, was projected to be a starter this fall.
Keke's addition obviously can't help the Aggies this fall since he won't be able to sign until February, but Golden was expected to be a mainstay on the defensive interior for years to come. Depth on the defensive line, and particularly at defensive tackle, is an ongoing challenge for the Aggies as they try to build an SEC-caliber defense.
According to ESPN scouts, Keke has plenty of tools to work with. He is able to generate power with his short area quickness, has the kind of frame suitable to develop more strength and has power to push back blockers. He's not quite as big as Golden was coming out of high school, but he brings a level of athleticism with his size that should serve him well at the next level.
The Aggies have heavily recruited defensive tackles in the Kevin Sumlin era. In addition to the now-departed Golden, they signed ESPN 300 prospect Justin Manning and three-star prospect Hardreck Walker in the 2013 class and in 2014 they added four-star prospect Zaycoven Henderson and ESPN 300 prospect DeShawn Washington, who were two of the three best defensive tackles that the state of Texas had to offer.
Keke joins five-star prospect Daylon Mack to give the Aggies two defensive tackle commitments in 2015. As long as the Aggies can ensure they sign on the dotted line next February, the flow of large, quality players at the position will continue to flow in, which is much needed for this Texas A&M defense.
- Safety Tray Matthews, who was dismissed by Georgia on Tuesday, is scheduled to be arraigned on Thursday in Athens, Ga., along with two Bulldogs players and one other former player on charges of theft by deception. Matthews, defensive end James DeLoach, defensive lineman Jon Taylor, and former UGA wide receiver Uriah LeMay were arrested in March for illegally cashing scholarship checks twice.
- After two of Texas A&M's key sophomore defensive players were arrested and kicked off the team on Tuesday, some are wondering what it's going to take to keep the Aggies out of jail. Seven players have been arrested since the end of last season. Tuesday's arrest was the third in seven months for ex-LB Darian Claiborne. It was the second offseason arrest for dismissed DT Isaiah Golden.
- The Miami Hurricanes have reportedly been approached about playing a kickoff classic game against either Alabama in 2017 or LSU in 2018.
- Ole Miss defensive back Chief Brown tore his Achilles' heel in an offseason workout and will likely miss the 2014 season.
- Vanderbilt announced the transfer of former LSU quarterback Stephen Rivers, who can play right away. Head coach Derek Mason says he's excited about his QB competition this August.
- Six SEC players are among the Heisman Trophy favorites according to one Vegas sportsbook. They are Auburn QB Nick Marshall, South Carolina RB Mike Davis, Georgia RB Todd Gurley, Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott, and Alabama RBs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry.
- One of Georgia's 2014 signees, wide receiver Gilbert Johnson, did not qualify academically.
- Two of Florida's games this fall -- at Alabama and vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla. -- are among the most expensive tickets out there.
- Count Kentucky's Mark Stoops among the SEC coaches who favor an early signing period. But, he says, not too early.
- LSU's highly anticipated running back signee Leonard Fournette hung out with rapper Master P recently and ran a race.
- South Carolina will erect a statue of Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers outside of Williams-Brice Stadium.
On Tuesday, we saw three projected defensive starters in the league -- Georgia safety Tray Matthews and Texas A&M linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden -- shown the proverbial door.
Much will be made of the Aggies, especially as bad as they were on defense a year ago, being in no position to lose young talent the caliber of Claiborne and Golden. But Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is smart enough to know when enough is enough, and when you've got guys on your team who already have previous brushes with the law and are accused of robbing people at gunpoint (in a drug deal, no less), it's past time to cut your losses.
At Georgia, coach Mark Richt had obviously had enough with Matthews, who started six games a year ago in an injury-plagued freshman season. Matthews had shown promise and was a big hitter, but Richt's statement concerning Matthews' dismissal spoke volumes. Matthews was arrested in March, along with three other players, and charged with allegedly cashing school-issued financial aid checks twice.
"We are trying to make room for guys who want to do things right," said Richt, who almost never publicly calls out players, be it current players or former players.
Ironically, Matthews tweeted that he'd likely wind up at Auburn or Louisville, a pair of schools that have become a safe house of sorts for Georgia players who get into trouble or decide to leave the program. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins have transferred to Louisville, and Nick Marshall is entering his second season as Auburn's quarterback.
Just in the last five or six years, Richt has cut loose a ton of highly regarded talent. Other than Matthews, Harvey-Clemons and Marshall, some of the other names include Isaiah Crowell, Zach Mettenberger, Chris Sanders, Ty Flourney-Smith, Brent Benedict and Washaun Ealey.
Below is a list of the some bigger names around the SEC who've either been dismissed or have decided to transfer for various reasons since the end of last season:
Alabama: RB Alvin Kamara
Florida: S Cody Riggs, QB Tyler Murphy
Georgia: S Josh Harvey-Clemons, QB Christian LeMay, S Tray Matthews, CB Shaq Wiggins
Kentucky: QB Jalen Whitlow
LSU: QB Stephen Rivers
Missouri: WR Dorial Green-Beckham
Ole Miss: OT Austin Golson
Tennessee: QB Riley Ferguson
Texas A&M: LB Darian Claiborne, DT Isaiah Golden, QB Matt Joeckel, S Kameron Miles
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.
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.
The next question is usually relates to the defense, and how much better -- if at all -- the unit will be after a disastrous 2013 season.
While neither can be definitively answered, when it comes to the defense, there is at least some reason for optimism coming out of spring football. The Aggies can't get much worse than they were a year ago, when the ranked last or near last in the SEC in virtually every major statistical category, but there were signs during spring practice that indicate that brighter days are ahead for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder's group.
One reason the Aggies have to feel better about their defense is the experience they'll have. Last year the root of the struggles seemed to be the youth and inexperience up and down the depth chart, with the Aggies having as many as a dozen freshmen in the defensive two-deep.
Though the Aggies will still be relatively young in some areas (particularly linebacker), most of the players who are candidates to start or see significant time were thrown in the fire last season.
Middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni is a perfect example. Though he'll only be a sophomore this fall, he started against Alabama last Sept. 14 and in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Duke. Mastrogiovanni called it "overwhelming," but as the guy getting first-team work at his position this spring, coaches have heaped praise upon the former ESPN 300 prospect.
Should defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne return from suspensions (both missed the spring after February arrests), they too will benefit. Both started a large portion of the season as true freshmen.
Other players who could be in position to contribute, such as linebacker Shaan Washington or cornerback Noel Ellis, weren't starters but saw enough field time to give them a taste of what life in the SEC is like.
Add to those young players a host of returning veterans, such as the starting secondary of Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris, Howard Matthews and Julien Obioha, Gavin Stansbury and Alonzo Williams and the Aggies can begin piecing together a more experienced defense.
With so many players returning (nine starters return from last year's defense) and a top-five recruiting class on the way, the Aggies will continue to add to their talent level on defense. One defensive player is already on campus (defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson) and showed flashes of his potential during spring football.
With players like defensive end Myles Garrett, the nation's No. 4 overall prospect, ESPN 300 athlete Nick Harvey, who will be a defensive back at Texas A&M and other ESPN 300 prospects like Deshawn Washington, Otaro Alaka, Qualen Cunningham, Armani Watts and Josh Walker, competition will only increase when preseason training camp starts.
The increased depth on the defensive line could be the biggest factor in helping the defense improve. Snyder indicated how critical it was earlier this month.
"Up front for the first time, we're going to be able to roll people," Snyder said. "I told [defensive line coach] Terry [Price] that when we get to the fall, we're going to have to practice our rotations, which is a great thing."
For the Aggies, there really is nowhere to go but up defensively. They could be another year away from being the kind of defense they hope to be, but the developments this spring suggest at least some improvement is in order in 2014.
In a league often dominated by line-of-scrimmage play, the Aggies know they have to be up to par if they want to be long-term contenders in the conference. On the offensive line, that hasn't been an issue. They've stayed relatively healthy and had high-level players across the front five.
While the Aggies had the luxury of a mostly veteran line and a highly productive defensive end in Damontre Moore in 2012, their inaugural SEC season, the 2013 season brought something totally different. The Aggies were young, inexperienced and not particularly deep as they continued to recruit in an effort to get better numbers on the defensive line.
After the Aggies' 13th practice of the spring on Wednesday, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder indicated that they're making progress toward that effort.
"Up front for the first time, we're going to be able to roll people," Snyder said. "I told [defensive line coach] Terry [Price] yesterday that when we get to the fall, we're going to have to practice our rotations, which is a great thing."
Snyder and Price could look at opponents such as Alabama, Auburn and LSU last season with envy. Those programs have enough talent on their defensive fronts to freely substitute and not worry about a drop-off in level of play. Texas A&M hasn't had that luxury the last two seasons, but with a heavy focus on defensive line recruiting in recent seasons and a highly regarded group coming in from the 2014 recruiting class, the Aggies are taking steps toward having that ability.
One benefit is that the Aggies return virtually their entire defensive line from 2013. Those same players who were rushed into duty as youngsters, such as defensive tackles Isaiah Golden and Hardreck Walker and defensive ends Daeshon Hall and Jay Arnold, will no longer be freshmen and have a year of SEC experience under their belts.
Add into the mix five-star prospect Myles Garrett, ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham and four-star defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson as part of a five-man defensive line class, and suddenly the pieces begin to come in place.
Garrett, Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson are a trio of defensive ends due in Aggieland in the summer and it has pushed the incumbent defensive ends, such as junior Julien Obioha, to raise their level of play this spring.
"Obioha's fighting for his life because competition makes us all better and he knows what's coming," Snyder said.
Henderson is the only one of the five defensive line recruits to enroll in January and he'll be joined in the summer by Deshawn Washington. Henderson has already made waves in his short time on campus, but he still has progress to make this summer.
"(The new) guys, (they) don't know how to practice. (Henderson is) a little bit out of shape," Snyder said. "He does have a big rear end and he's a plugger in the middle. When he's fresh, he's not bad. ... Right now he's three plays and he's done. He's going to bring some beef up front for us."
Veterans such as Obioha, senior defensive end Gavin Stansbury and junior defensive tackle Alonzo Williams, who have two years of experience, are expected to have significant roles again this season. With those returnees, a redshirt freshman entering the mix [Justin Manning], the returning youngsters and incoming recruits on the way, the future on the defensive front looks a little bit better for the Aggies after a disastrous 2013 on defense.
"We're not there," Snyder said of the defensive depth. "We still need another recruiting class, but we're way, way, way closer."
Climbing out of the SEC cellar in major defensive statistical categories is critical if the Aggies wish to succeed in the SEC West. Central to that goal is the performance of the Aggies’ defensive line, a unit that is a work in progress this spring.
“Zaycoven [Henderson] has continued to impress,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said of the true freshman, who enrolled in January.
Henderson, at 6-foot-1 and 310 pounds, appears to be a possible instant-impact player. The four-star 2014 prospect, who was previously committed to TCU and Texas before eventually landing in Aggieland, brings the size and ability the Aggies need to improve their quality and depth at defensive tackle. That’s significant for a run defense that allowed 222 rushing yards per game and ranked 110th nationally (as well as last in the SEC) in that area.
Another defensive tackle making waves this month is one from the previous recruiting class: 2013 signee Justin Manning.
Ranked as the top defensive tackle in the state of Texas in his class, and the ninth-best nationally, Manning didn’t see a snap of game action last fall while he redshirted. But Golden’s absence has allowed Manning to get some time in the two-deep this spring and show the improvements he has made.
“[He] showed some twitch that he had in high school,” Sumlin said. “He lost a little weight; when he got here he was out of shape. He has come on.”
If Henderson and Manning can contribute, that helps bolster the Aggies up the middle, where they already have veteran Alonzo Williams and sophomore Hardreck Walker, who also contributed as a true freshman. With ESPN 300 defensive tackle DeShawn Washington arriving this summer and Golden expected to return, the Aggies could begin to show the kind of depth Sumlin has been pining for since taking over the program.
At defensive end, there’s a mix of veterans and youth. Julien Obioha, who has been a starter since his true freshman season, is now a junior. Senior Gavin Stansbury is coming off his best season in Aggieland, showing flashes of his potential last fall. Senior Tyrell Taylor is back also and has been getting turns this spring.
The two young players at the position who are sitting out with injuries this spring -- Arnold and Hall -- both saw time as true freshmen last season, suggesting a promising future for each. And in the summer, the Aggies will welcome the services of five-star recruit Myles Garrett as well as ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham and three-star prospect Jarrett Johnson.
Obioha said he is looking forward to the increased depth.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “My first couple of years here I had to play 60-70 plays [per game] and you don’t want to play that much. When you think about a two-deep or a three-deep, you want to play maybe 35 plays and having those 35 plays be where you can come 100 percent every play and you’re not tired.”
Defensive line coach Terry Price’s message to his group this spring has been clear.
“Last year, bottom of the SEC, bottom 25 in the nation, that’s not going to happen this year, that’s been the message,” Obioha said. “We’re going to be completely different this year from the bottom to the top and it all starts with the D-line.”
- If you haven't already heard (unlikely as it may be), South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds. For a defensive end who is 6-foot-5 and 266 pounds, that's darn impressive.
- Someone not so impressed with Clowney? Auburn's Dee Ford. He said he's better than Clowney, who plays "like a blind dog in a meat market." Ford later clarified his comments and expanded on them but stood behind them and stuck to his original assessment.
- Missouri's Michael Sam has been focus of much attention since announcing he is gay and on Monday got the chance to perform for scouts at the NFL combine. The on-field results Monday weren't quite what he hoped and are what one draft analyst called "concerning."
- Kentucky linebacker Avery Williamson has had a strong showing at the combine, and also gives some insight into the 2014 Kentucky Wildcats here.
- Ole Miss receiver Donte Moncrief helped his draft stock by running a fast 40 time, 4.40 seconds.
- Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews also opened some eyes with his 40 time of 4.46.
- Looking for spring football? Here's a glance at what's ahead for Missouri's secondary.
- Texas A&M had two defensive starters -- defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne -- arrested over the weekend and it puts a cloud over spring football, which starts this week for the Aggies.
Editor's note: This is the first part of a weeklong series looking at five players to watch in spring practice, which begins Feb. 28 for Texas A&M
One of the primary issues for Texas A&M's defense in 2013 was the sheer number of inexperienced players, particularly freshmen, that had to play significant roles, either as starters or as members of the two-deep. The tough part was lining up such young players against older, more-seasoned veterans across the SEC.
Among those having that benefit is defensive tackle Isaiah Golden. Though he was a part of the defensive tackle rotation from the very beginning of the season, his role increased significantly when the Aggies lost then-senior Kirby Ennis to a season-ending knee injury in their road game against Arkansas in late September.
Suddenly, Golden was thrust into the starting lineup, where he stayed for six of the final seven games. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder praised Golden's effort several times late in the season while noting that the coaching staff simply asked him to "do your job" and not worry about anything else.
By season's end, Golden finished with 32 tackles and three tackles for loss but gained a wealth of experience starting against SEC offensive linemen that should benefit him in 2014. Surely, he'll be asked to do more than simply hold his own and start becoming an impact player for the Aggies. Often times last season Snyder said Golden "is going to be a really good player in this league," meaning in the future.
The future can't come soon enough for Golden, an ESPN 300 prospect coming out of Carthage (Texas) High School in the 2013 class who has the kind of size you look for in an SEC defensive lineman (he played at 6-foot-2, 310 pounds last season). As long as he can improve at a steady pace, the Aggies' defensive line success should improve as well. And considering the results last season, when the Aggies were in the bottom 15 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (222.31) and total yards allowed per game (475.8), improvement is needed at every level of the defense.
Defensive line, and particularly, the defensive interior, is a good place to start. Golden will be a player worth keeping an eye on when the Aggies kick off spring practice later this month.
Well, Texas A&M is not in a reloading mode yet. The Aggies are in "building" mode right now on defense.
This was a program that relied heavily on two freshmen along the defensive front in 2013 with defensive end Daeshon Hall and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden. This was not the positon coach Kevin Sumlin would have preferred to be in with these guys. In the 2014 class the Aggies currently have five defensive lineman committed, including No. 1-ranked DE Myles Garrett (Arlington, Texas/James Martin), so depth and an upgrade in talent are being built in College Station. There is no magic wand to wave, however, to speed up the process. Sumlin knows that in the SEC high-powered offenses will only take teams so far. It’s similar to Bobby Petrino while at Arkansas. The good news is that Texas A&M has the ability to lure top-flight defensive personnel along the front and Arkansas couldn’t. The Aggies' defense is in development and they need to grow up fast as breaking in a new offense next fall will mean that the defense is going to have to be better. In order for Texas A&M to truly be a championship contender, it will have to improve greatly on defense which is why last year’s class and this year’s class have been heavy on that side of the ball.
The freshmen continue to grow: Linebacker Darian Claiborne had another strong performance (team-high 12 tackles, forced fumble). Defensive tackle Isaiah Golden continued to make strides, as did defensive need Daeshon Hall. Receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez got in on the action with a 57-yard reception. The Aggies are finding that they can rely on some of these young players to come up big as the season wears on.
The defense is gaining confidence: Yes, the Aggies have faced two backup quarterbacks in as many weeks, but if there's anything this unit needed badly, it was confidence. After the struggles against Auburn, where the Aggies allowed 379 rushing yards and 615 total yards, it seemed like it might never get better for the much-maligned unit. But the Aggies, who had trouble stopping even an FCS team earlier this year, have definitely made strides on defense. On Saturday, they held UTEP to 198 yards and came up with four turnovers.
Johnny Manziel's feeling all right: He didn't scramble much last week against Vanderbilt because of an injured shoulder (and there weren't called runs in the game plan) but on Saturday he cut it loose and ran for 67 yards and two touchdowns. The first touchdown run appeared to be a called run play and the second was a 49-yarder that brought back memories of the 2012 version of Manziel, zigging and zagging through opposing defenses.
The struggles are significant. The Aggies rank near the bottom of the FBS in most defensive statistical categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the five teams that have allowed more yards per game than the Aggies -- New Mexico State, Idaho, California, Nevada and Indiana -- have a combined record of 8-27.
Texas A&M is fortunate enough to have a 5-2 record (2-2 in the SEC). It certainly helps to have one of the nation's most high-powered offenses and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Johnny Manziel).
For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff, it has been a challenge from the start of the season. Suspensions, injuries and ineffectiveness are all to blame.
The Aggies currently have 11 freshmen in their defensive two-deep depth chart. Two true freshmen (defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne) are starting. The four defensive line first-team spots include Golden and two sophomores. At linebacker, a former receiver who moved to linebacker this offseason (Nate Askew) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Of the seven linebackers on the Aggies' two-deep, only one (Steven Jenkins) started a full season at the position before this year.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin's first signing class that was completely under his watch had 32 members, 18 of whom were on defense. Of those 18, a dozen have already played this season.
But how did the Aggies get to this point, playing this many freshmen and newcomers? There are some juniors and seniors on the field, but there aren't nearly as many as there were a year ago when the Aggies went 11-2 in their debut season in the SEC.
In 2012, the Aggies were fortunate to have the benefit of some good leaders on defense and others who were productive. At linebacker, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart both provided leadership and production. Along the defensive line, Spencer Nealy made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle effectively despite not having the ideal size for the position. Steven Terrell was a steady and heady player at free safety. All four of those players were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. So was Dustin Harris, who didn't always start but played plenty at cornerback and was the team's primary punt returner.
One defensive player still remains from that 2009 class: defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who started last season and this year but suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 28 against Arkansas. But last year's A&M starting defense was more than half made up of what turned out to be a solid recruiting class on the defensive side of the ball.
So to understand why A&M is in the position it is now, take a look at the recruiting classes on defense since then:
- In 2010, the Aggies signed seven defensive players and two more that were offensive players but eventually moved to defense. Defensive end Damontre Moore turned out to be a star, but declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. For a team that's lacking in its pass rush (only three FBS teams have fewer sacks than Texas A&M's seven this season) a guy like that could help. Of the remainders in that class, three are starting: Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel back, Gavin Stansbury at defensive end and Askew, who was recruited and spent his first three years at receiver, at strongside linebacker. Two others (defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and quarterback Clay Honeycutt, who's now a reserve safety) are playing but not starting. Nehemiah Hicks was considered to be either a defensive end or tight end and became a tight end. The other two players in the defensive class are no longer on the team.
- The 2011 class -- the final class signed by former head coach Mike Sherman -- brought 13 defensive players. Deshazor Everett, a cornerback with ability to play safety, is currently the defense's best player. Safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven and linebacker Steven Jenkins also emerged as starters out of that group. One of the big fish landed late in that class, defensive end Brandon Alexander, has rarely played. He's now getting some playing time at tight end. Linebacker Donnie Baggs entered this season as the starting middle linebacker but is now a reserve. Tyrell Taylor is rotating at defensive end. The rest of the group hasn't made any impact at all. Five players in that group are no longer with the program.
- The 2012 class, the first one Sumlin signed after essentially two months on the job, had some holdovers that committed to the program under Sherman. It is a mixed bag. Four of those players are starting as either true sophomores (Julien Obioha at defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle and De'Vante Harris at cornerback) or in one case, a senior (cornerback Tramain Jacobs, who was a junior college transfer). Defensive end Tyrone Taylor, brother of Tyrell, gets some playing time at defensive end. Edward Pope, who was a receiver/defensive back, is playing receiver for the Aggies. A car accident took away one member from that class -- defensive tackle Polo Manukainiu, who died in a crash in July and is being honored by the team every week this season. A spinal injury took away another member, linebacker Michael Richardson, who played as a freshman. He had successful surgery and was fortunate to not suffer any major physical issues, but is no longer playing football. Defensive back Kenneth Marshall, though on the team, was not part of the 105-man roster during preseason training camp. Linebacker Jordan Richmond transferred to Navarro College in the offseason and one player in the class, defensive tackle Edmund Ray, never made it to campus because of qualifying issues.
These two teams engaged in a dramatic affair last season, one that saw the Aggies' escape with a 30-27 comeback win. Here are five things to watch heading into the rematch:
2. Youth is served on D-line: True freshman defensive tackle Isaiah Golden will get his first start tonight in place of senior Kirby Ennis, who is out the remainder of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Golden has played in four games this season and showed signs of why the coaching staff feels like he'll be a good player in the SEC for years to come, but if the Aggies are to improve on a run defense that is last in the SEC and 108th nationally, the 6-foot-2, 310-pound Golden and his teammates will have to jell quickly. Three of the four starters on the defensive line are freshmen or sophomores: Golden, defensive end Julien Obioha (a sophomore who started 12 games as a freshman last season) and defensive tackle Alonzo Williams (a sophomore who started the AT&T Cotton Bowl last season and has started every game this season). That doesn't include true freshman Hardreck Walker, who will also be a part of the defensive tackle rotation moving forward.
3. Health: The Aggies were beat up after their last game against Arkansas. The aforementioned Ennis is out for the year, but Evans and linebacker Darian Claiborne also left that game with injuries. Both will play tonight, but it'll be interesting to see how effective they are -- certainly the off week helped both. Safety Floyd Raven Sr., who injured his collarbone on Sept. 7 against Sam Houston State, might be a slight possibility -- though not a certainty -- to play. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said earlier this week they would monitor the situation throughout the week; when Raven returned to practice last week it was of the non-contact variety. If Raven isn't back today, Sumlin said he'd be "probably probable" for the Auburn game next week.
4. Ole Miss weapons: The Rebels have a talented receiving corps led by junior Donte Moncrief and true freshmen Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell. They also have a speedy running back in senior Jeff Scott, who is averaging 8.7 yards per carry and is a big play threat whenever he touches the ball. The Aggies' defense has struggled overall this season, though they did show some positive signs in the second half against Arkansas, getting key stops at critical times. They'll have to do that again if they want to get a win in Oxford.
5. Road streak: The Aggies' play away from home continues to be solid. Since Sumlin took over, the Aggies haven't lost a game away from Kyle Field, going undefeated last season and winning their bowl game. If they can bring the same energy and focus that they have been accustomed to, it will bode well for their chances tonight.
So when the Aggies discovered that senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis had a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that would require season-ending surgery, it was a blow. Ennis started most of last season, was a starter this year and his absence mean more youth is injected into a lineup already full of it.
The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Golden has the kind of frame you look for in an SEC defensive tackle, he's just lean on playing experience with just four career games under his belt since signing with A&M in February.
"It doesn't matter how comfortable I am with it, it matters how comfortable he is," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "It's not the NFL, I can't call Bob Stoops and trade a guy. We've got who we've got."
The coaches like what they've seen from Golden so far. An ESPN 300 recruit from Carthage (Texas) High School, Golden showed enough during preseason training camp to crack the two-deep depth chart along with another true freshman defensive tackle, Hardreck Walker.
But with Ennis out for the remainder of this season, that means the Aggies' young defensive tackles will have to grow up in a hurry. Golden will start next to Alonzo Williams, a sophomore who has been a key player for the Aggies' up front this year. Walker and junior Ivan Robinson will figure into defensive tackle rotation as well.
Another ESPN 300 signee from the 2013 class, defensive tackle Justin Manning, is getting an increase in repetitions at practice. While it doesn't appear he'll see playing time just yet, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that the Aggies are an injury away from having no choice but to put Manning into the rotation.
Golden brings size and is "very athletic and a natural playmaker," according to sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha.
"He's a very physical kid," Snyder said of Golden. "He's very capable of playing in this league. He's going to be a really good player someday. I actually sat in [defensive line coach] Terry [Price's] meeting [on Monday] in the back of the room like a fly on the wall and he seems excited, which he should be. It's part of college football.
Sumlin said Tuesday that his ideal scenario with freshmen is to have them in a backup role for a season then allow them the chance to become starters for the remaining three years of their careers. But it doesn't always work like that, especially when injuries come into play.
Golden has had a lot to handle already this season. Last month, he had to deal with the unexpected death of his two-month old daughter and missed the Alabama game shortly thereafter. He has appeared in all four of the Aggies' other games, and now a new challenge awaits him.
"Isaiah has been through a lot this season," Sumlin said. "He missed a week with the death of his child. He came on early on and played some good football for us. He's settled back down and emotionally it's been a pretty up-and-down situation for him this year.
"Last week we talked a little bit about where he was. Kirby's situation came to light and now he knows he has to go as a regular guy. Sometimes, different guys react differently. I'd be surprised if Isaiah doesn't do very, very well from here on out."
Williams, who seems to be a cagey veteran compared to the others even though he's just a sophomore, sees time at nose tackle when the Aggies' go to personnel packages of three defensive linemen, and that will continue, Snyder said. But Williams and Golden will be the go-to guys in four down linemen sets moving forward.
Obioha, who started 12 games for the Aggies as a true freshman at defensive end last year, said he told Golden to come to him with any questions since he understands what it's like to be a teenager facing SEC offensive linemen.
"I went through this last year," Obioha said. "There wasn't an injury, I earned my spot, but I was out there 18, 19 years old. I was just telling him, 'Man if you have any questions, come talk to me. I know exactly what you're going through.'"
For a run defense that is last in the SEC and 108th in the country, allowing 214.8 rushing yards per game, it's not the ideal situation. But it's the hand the Aggies' have been dealt and it's an opportunity recruits dream of when they're being recruited by a program.
"We hope guys come to play," Snyder said. "They get their opportunity now. I was pleased with what I saw [in practice] ... I think Isaiah's excited, I really do."
Zwerneman previews Texas A&M season
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