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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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A.J. Hilliard: Long overdue

Aj+Hilliard+is+suspended+until+September+19th+when+A%26amp%3BM+plays+the+Nevada+Wolfpack.
Photo by Glen Johnson

Aj Hilliard is suspended until September 19th when A&M plays the Nevada Wolfpack.

The highly anticipated return to football will stall even longer for junior middle linebacker A.J. Hilliard. 
The Klein, Texas, native was suspended for the first two games of the season, along with sophomore defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, for a violation of Athletic Department rules. The suspension comes after Hilliard missed nearly all of last season for A&M due to a dislocated ankle. 
Hilliard and Henderson were listed on the two-deep depth chart in the days leading up to the Aggies’ season opener against Arizona State. Both players started a game at one point for A&M last season and, as such, many expected to see the two get significant playing time in Saturday’s season opener.
For Hilliard, the time away from the game last season allowed him to focus on himself and the future of his team.
“[I’m] just sitting back and just really focusing on me, and my goals and what I can do to help this team get over the hump where we were, because I think the last couple of years we have lacked leadership with the players,” Hillard said. “And I think this year, a lot of young guys are stepping up and answering the call for that.”
This suspension adds to a list of events that have kept Hilliard off of the football field more often than on it during his collegiate career.
The 6-foot-2, 245 pound linebacker actually began his college playing days about 175 miles north of College Station in Fort Worth, as a member of TCU’s 2012 recruiting class. Hilliard earned a ranking of three stars by ESPN after totaling 143 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles his senior year of high school. 
His performance landed him with first-team all-district and the district’s defensive MVP honors along with scholarships from power five conference football programs, including TCU, Michigan State and even Texas A&M. However, Hilliard took his talents to Fort Worth and with his decision, exposed himself to the defensive mentality of TCU’s head coach Gary Patterson.
“Coach Patterson is a genius,” Hilliard said. “Coach Patterson is a defensive guru just like coach Chavis. They have a lot of differences, but as far as defense, they’re great defensive minds. Coach Patterson, you’ve seen his defenses. Everyone’s seen his defenses, and coach Chavis, he has a nice resume too. So both of them are great.”
But after playing in 12 games, mostly as a member of TCU’s special teams unit, Hilliard recorded a mere one solo tackle his freshman year. In turn, Hilliard decided to transfer to Texas A&M with the only indicator being he wanted a new fit and to be closer to home.
Hilliard redshirted his first season in College Station, thus waiting an entire year before debuting with sophomore eligibility for A&M in the 2014-15 season opener versus South Carolina. 
Hilliard — much like the rest of the Aggie football squad — fired out of the gates in Columbia, South Carolina, recording three tackles, a sack and a quarterback hurry. He was part of a 38-14 initial surge against the Gamecocks until, with 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter, he suffered a gruesome, season-ending ankle dislocation in the process of chasing down a Gamecock ball carrier. 
“It was devastating,” Hilliard said. “So, I wait a whole year out having to watch our defense be kind of, you know, shortcoming, and having to just sit back and wait, and wait my turn and coming back. And getting hurt was really upsetting. But you know, I was in the training room at South Carolina and just looked at my parents and just kind of laughed like, ‘You know, I’ll be back out there soon.’ So it’s all God’s plan. So I’m looking forward to the season and all of the good things I’ll be able to accomplish.”
Hilliard must wait until Sept. 19 to be eligible to make his 2015-2016 season debut against the Nevada Wolfpack. Time will tell what a healthy and eligible Hilliard can contribute to a defensive unit that is already receiving rave reviews following Saturday’s 38-17 victory over Arizona State.
Fortunately, the Aggie linebacking crew, which also played without the services of starting sophomore linebacker Otaro Alaka in the opener, proved they could carry the slack with key performances from junior linebacker Shaan Washington and sophomore linebacker Josh Walker. Washington and Walker combined for nine tackles against ASU. 
“Josh Walker’s done a good job stepping up as a vocal leader in the linebacking corps,” Hilliard said before the start of the season. “The young guys are stepping up. Trying to learn how it is, how to practice, how to play collegiate football … As far as Josh and Otaro, they are always consistent, playing fast, doing what they need to do to be good on Saturdays … Shaan, I mean y’all have seen a lot of Shaan. Shaan’s fast.  He plays hard. He makes plays. That’s what you’re gonna get with Shaan.”
The defense Hilliard describes can live up to the hype of the “Wrecking Crew” and could be poised to wreak havoc on opposing offenses all year long.
“After coach [Mark] Snyder leaving, we really have a lot of young guys taking a stand saying, ‘We aren’t gonna be last in the SEC in defense, we aren’t gonna be what everyone makes it seem like we are,’” Hilliard said. “We’ve been really looking forward to bringing back the Wrecking Crew and really, really showing the country what we are all about.”

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