- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
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.