SEC: A.J. Hilliard

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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.

[+] 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.

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