No one in the Texas A&M locker room can guarantee a successful starting debut Saturday by freshman Isaiah Golden, the replacement for injured nose guard Kirby Ennis.
But everyone in maroon can confirm they’ve seen Golden handle a much tougher situation than the one he’ll face at Ole Miss (7:30 p.m., ESPN). They’ve all seen him deal with the death of his infant daughter.
To the Aggies, the mental toughness shown by Golden (6-foot-2, 320 pounds) during and after his personal tragedy makes him a likely candidate to play winning football against the Rebels.
“He’s very, very strong-minded. He’s been through some tough times and he’s overcome them,” defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said of Golden, who missed the Alabama game after his 2-month-old daughter, Avery, died suddenly and unexpectedly during game week. Avery Golden was born July 9, less than a month before her father — a member of A&M’s 2013 signing class — reported to fall drills with his new team.
Since his return to the team following Avery’s funeral, Golden has emerged as a playmaker in the trenches. He’s collected 11 tackles this season, including two for losses, and he will get the first opportunity to replace Ennis, a senior leader who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the team’s Sept. 28 victory over Arkansas.
A&M coach Kevin Sumlin announced Tuesday that Ennis is slated for season-ending surgery to repair a torn ACL. Tuesday’s depth chart confirmed that Golden will be the next man up in the defensive trenches for No. 9 A&M (4-1, 1-1 in SEC), which will start its sixth different defensive lineup of the season against Ole Miss (3-2, 1-2).
Sumlin said he considers Golden a strong candidate to thrive in his new role because he watched him thrive after experiencing every parent’s worst nightmare: burying a child.
“Isaiah’s been through a lot this season. Emotionally, it’s been a pretty up-and-down situation for him,” Sumlin said. “But he’s really settled back down … and played some good football for us. Now, he’s got to step up. Different guys react differently in these situations. I’d be surprised if Isaiah doesn’t do very, very well.”
Golden was not available for interviews Tuesday because Sumlin prohibits first-year players from speaking to the media. But teammates said the flashes he showed against Arkansas, when Golden was in on three tackles during a 45-33 victory, have been evident in recent practices; particularly those held during last week’s bye week.
“He’s really proven himself to me,” said center Mike Matthews, who blocks Golden on a daily basis. “He’s a big dude. He’ll step up there and push you back a couple of yards. I think he can be an impact player.”
The A&M defense needs one, particularly in the trenches. The Aggies, who have experimented with fresh personnel on a weekly basis, rank last among SEC teams in rushing defense, allowing 214.8 yards per game and 6.1 yards per carry. A&M is No. 112 nationally in total defense, allowing 476.8 yards per game.
Thus far, a prolific offense has kept the team perched among the nation’s top 10 despite the defensive struggles. But defensive coordinator Mark Snyder continues seeking catalysts for a turnaround. Golden will be the fifth incoming freshman to start this season in A&M’s front seven, where another notable newbie — converted receiver Nate Askew — is entrenched as a starting linebacker.
Snyder described Golden as a physical athlete who is “going to be a really good player some day.” He acknowledged the lack of proven depth in the defensive trenches means Golden projects to play a major role the rest of the season, regardless of whether he continues to start.
Teammates cited enough intangibles to suggest they expect Golden to take the job and run with it. Safety Deshazor Everett said: “He just needs to improve. He has to step in and he has to play like a veteran. That’s what we’re going to expect from him, and I believe he can do it.”
Hurd said Golden, unlike others on the A&M roster, is driven by a special desire to excel that seems to be carrying him this season.
“He hasn’t spoken about it too much. But I know when he’s out there on the field, he’s playing through that child,” Hurd said. “He’s playing for his child. I personally can’t sympathize with him enough. I don’t have any kids but my heart goes out to him and his family for that situation.”
As of Saturday, Golden gets his first opportunity to prove he belongs in A&M’s starting lineup. But coaches and teammates already know he is capable of handling a much tougher task than that.