Changes abound for Texas A&M linebackers

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Donnie Baggs isn't the biggest guy -- or even the biggest linebacker -- on Texas A&M's defense.

But he might have the biggest load to carry this spring and fall for the Aggies. And it's a critical role, one that demands success if Texas A&M is to consider the 2013 season a success on defense.

In many ways, Baggs' transition -- from reserve linebacker and spot starter last season to likely full-time starter at middle linebacker this season -- is indicative of what the entire group of Aggies linebackers are going through. Change.

Turn your eyes to that group on the Coolidge Grass Practice Fields this spring and what you see -- at least in terms of personnel -- is significantly different than what you would have seen at this time last year. A unit that was considered a strength coming into the 2012 season, with two experienced seniors (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart) leading the way is now a group in transition, with two new starters and several players who weren't even on the Texas A&M campus prior to January. And that includes the position coach, Mark Hagen, who is in his first year with the Aggies.

Earlier this spring, head coach Kevin Sumlin joked that he doesn't talk to Hagen much because Hagen's too busy melding all the new players together.

"I don't talk to him much because he's busy," Sumlin said with a laugh. "His plate's full, he's running around, he's meeting, he's chasing guys all over the place."

But the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Baggs is at the center of it all -- literally and figuratively. Not only is he responsible for getting acclimated to a new role, he's also the point man for getting the rest of the front seven lined up properly before the offense snaps the football. That task is easier for someone like Stewart, who was an experienced senior with plenty of football under his belt, than it is for Baggs, who has never been a regular starter.

The transition has brought its own sets of challenges for the League City (Texas) Clear Springs product, especially when most of those around him are new to the defense or even new to the Aggies, period.

"It's been kind of tough, bringing all the young guys along the spring, Brett Wade, Reggie Chevis, getting Tommy Sanders lined up and getting everyone to go along with it," Baggs said. "But I put it on me, I put all the weight on me to go out there and get everybody lined up, do work and get everybody together."

This spring has been a learning experience for Hagen as well. The veteran coach crossed paths with Sumlin at Purdue in 2000 and said he quickly realized that Sumlin had a bright future. Hagen spent the last few seasons at his alma mater, Indiana, but the opportunity to join Sumlin at Texas A&M was an opportunity he didn't want to pass up.

"This is one of the top programs in the country," Hagen said. "I think there's very few programs that you would leave home for. But this is one of them. This is a no-brainer."

Hagen spent the first three weeks of spring without the Aggies' lone returning starter at linebacker -- senior Steven Jenkins -- to work with. The weakside linebacker returned to practice on Tuesday after being out most of spring with a torn laburm and Hagen said he's "champing at the bit" to start hitting, but there will be plenty of time for that in the fall.

Baggs, who backed up Jenkins at weakside linebacker, is emerging as a leader for the unit. Sanders, a transfer from Butler Community College and an ESPN JC 100 prospect, has received plenty of work with the first-team and is expected to be a contributor this fall, perhaps even a starter. Chevis and Wade are true freshmen who enrolled early but have received many repetitions this spring with multiple units. And there's the Nate Askew experiment: the senior and former receiver has moved to strongside linebacker and has been busy learning the fundamentals of that position.

And the Aggies haven't been afraid to throw a little extra at guys, including Askew.

"He's working at it," Sumlin said. "There's a big difference between wide receiver and linebacker. He's athletic, he's 230, he's getting it."

Baggs and co. know there's much room for improvement between now and the Aggies' season opener against Rice. Fortunately for Texas A&M, there's plenty of time for that.

"I think we have a lot of work to [do]," Baggs said. "We've got to keep working. Like I said earlier, I think it starts with me. I have to fine tune my game and make sure that I'm ready so that I can lead the other guys out there. But I think we're going to be a pretty good group with Jenkins coming back and the young guys and myself, I think we're going to do really good as a group."