Position Battles: Linebacker

A&M is poised to have all new faces at linebacker this season. There is plenty of promise among the prospects, but not returning any significant playing experience will be costly in 2014. There has been much attrition at the position these past two years from both graduations and untimely suspensions. However, it wasn’t always this way. A&M used to boast a strong and experienced linebacker corps and had the likes of Dat Nguyen and Von Miller come through the program.

Just two years ago, A&M had a linebacker corps that was solid across the board. Seniors Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter were forces at the middle and strong sides. Junior Steven Jenkins handled the weak side. Sean Porter landed with the Bengals in the 4th round while Sean Porter was picked up by the Rams as an undrafted free agent. Steven Jenkins has expired his eligibility this past season and could have a chance to be picked up as an undrafted free agent after the 2014 NFL draft. The loss of all that NFL talent coupled with Darian Claiborne’s suspension will result in a brand new linebacker corps this season.

Right now, linebacker coach Mark Hagen is mixing and matching to find the most cohesive unit. The good news is several players are able to play a couple different spots. This will prove critical as he tries to get the best 3 players on the field.

Donnie Baggs
A lightly recruited 3-star prospect out of League City, TX, Baggs did not redshirt and has earned playing time all 3 years he has been on campus. Last season, he started in 6 games and had 30 tackles on the year. He also had 1 forced fumble and 3.5 tackles for loss. He enters his senior year and has the most experience of the group. Not much has been made of his spring camp so far and there is speculation that he will not be a starter next season. However, he should definitely factor into the rotation at strong side.

Shaan Washington
Washington was also a 3-star prospect and was recruited as a safety. With the depth issues that A&M had at linebacker last season, he made the switch to linebacker and came along well throughout the season. In 2013 he had 26 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 1 forced fumble. Considering he was a true freshman learning a new position, he did very well. Look for him to take on an increased role and possibly claim one of the starting positions in 2014.

Tommy Sanders
A JUCO transfer who was hoped to contribute immediately in 2013, Sanders has been less than impressive. At Butler Community College he tallied 71 tackles, 20 for loss, 8 sacks, and 1 interception returned for a touchdown. He led his team to an 11-1 record and an appearance in the title game. For A&M he had 20 tackles and 3 tackles for loss in limited action last season. Entering his senior season, he most likely won’t contribute much unless injuries force him to.

Jordan Mastrogiovanni
An inside linebacker that was heavily recruited, the 4-star prospect chose A&M over Oklahoma, LSU, and UCLA among others. The coaches would have liked to redshirt him, but injuries and a lack of depth forced them to play him last season. He even started in the bowl game against Duke when Claiborne was suspended. Mastrogiovanni was one of the most improved players last season and the most complete middle linebacker that we have on the roster. Sumlin praised the sophomore saying, “Mastrogiovani looks a lot more confident and comfortable. He’s embracing the confidence and leadership part of the position.” He is in a tough battle with Reggie Chevis for the spot but should be the go to option in passing situations.

Reggie Chevis
Only a 3-star prospect out of Houston, TX, Chevis could make big waves this upcoming season. The coaches redshirted him last season and he enters spring practice as the only major run stopping linebacker on the roster. He weighs in at 240 and is 6’2”. Last week Sumlin made the comment, “Reggie Chevis is a very physical player. He does a great job in the run game, but it’s a different game for him when it comes to the pass game.” If he makes the appropriate strides in the passing game, look for him to push Mastrogiovani for the starting middle linebacker spot.

A.J. Hilliard
Another name that is new for most Aggies is the transfer from TCU. Per NCAA rules, he sat out last season but is now eligible and making an impact in spring practice. Coach Sumlin already praised the 3-star prospect, “He can play all the linebacker spots. We’ve got bodies; we just have to figure out where they fit best.” Expect the sophomore to see the field often and possibly earn himself a starting spot.

Brett Wade
A 3-star middle linebacker out of high school, Wade redshirted last season. He has not been mentioned in any of the spring practice reports and could find himself playing minimally or contributing primarily on special teams this season. However, with another year in the system and in Larry Jackson’s strength and conditioning program he could become a contributor down the line.

Josh Walker
A&M beat out the likes of Oklahoma, Texas, and LSU for the 4-stars services. He was one of 2 linebackers recruited in the 2014 class and will be on campus this summer. The coaches could look to redshirt either him or Otaro Alaka this next year. It will depend on who performs best during fall camp and who the coaches believe can make an immediate impact on the depth chart.

Otaro Alaka
A huge recruiting win over Texas, coach Sumlin convinced the 4-star prospect to flip his commitment this past January. He was heavily recruited with offers all over including Florida St., Michigan, and UCLA as well as the usual suspects of Oklahoma and Texas. As the 8th best outside linebacker in the nation, he could immediately figure into the depth chart. He will also arrive on campus this summer.

Although there are so many new faces, A&M is poised to have much more depth in 2014 than they had last season. Furthermore, if Darian Claiborne is able to handle his legal situation and work his way back onto the team, there will be even more depth and flexibility for coach Mark Hagen. Until then, he will not be factored into the starting lineup or depth chart. A&M has a chance to surprise lots of people next season. Most of the focus will be on the QB battle or how Speedy Noil is impressing people. But the difference between an 8 win season and double digits could very well hinge on how this linebacker unit comes together.

Predictions:
Strong-side Linebacker: Shaan Washington
Middle Linebacker: Jordan Mastrogiovanni
Weak-side Linebacker: A.J. Hilliard


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