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Aina’s Return Would Give Line Big Boost

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taffe Aina says he is in good shape, physically and academically.

His coaches say, wait and see.

The proof will come when Aina, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound left guard, puts on the pads. Aina, his eligibility in question, expects to be cleared to practice today.

“I’ll be ready,” he said.

Aina, Northridge’s offensive rookie of the year as a junior in 1997, was academically ineligible last season, leaving the Matadors severely depleted in the line.

“It crushed us,” said interim Coach Jeff Kearin, a Northridge assistant last season.

Aina, who played at Channel Islands High and Ventura College, weighed 350 pounds two years ago, yet displayed remarkable agility. Kearin said he expects Aina not only to lead the way this season but catch the eye of NFL teams.

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“He’s huge and he still runs well,” Kearin said. “He could be the difference for us [this season].”

Provided Aina makes the grade.

“It’s up in the air right now,” Kearin said.

Aina is among a handful of players whose eligibility is in limbo. Aina said he raised his grade-point average to above 2.2 during the spring.

Aina has spent his idle time running, a big reason he has dropped nearly 50 pounds.

“I’m in really good shape,” Aina said. “I’ve been jogging and running. I really feel good.”

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Jeremy Golden’s situation is the opposite of Aina’s.

Golden, a junior free safety and among the Matadors’ top defensive players the last two seasons, is academically ineligible and facing knee surgery to repair a torn ligament.

Golden, a former two-way standout at Westlake, was the Matadors’ leading tackler last season, despite serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules. Golden was declared ineligible during the spring but was expected to regain eligibility.

“He was going to Moorpark [College] and working on getting eligible,” defensive coordinator Foster Andersen said. “He had an MRI during the summer and found out there was a tear.”

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Golden’s likely replacement is sophomore Hassan Abdul-Malik, who filled in for Golden last season and made eight tackles in a 32-28 victory over Portland State. Abdul-Malik was impressive during spring workouts but is nursing a pulled hamstring.

Newcomers expected to compete for starting jobs in the secondary include freshman Travis Campbell from Westlake and senior Steve Forte, who was academically ineligible last season. Seniors Rahman Sparks and Chazz Moore are returnees.

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Javier Ortiz, a 6-2, 265-pound offensive lineman and transfer from Fresno State, joined the team Thursday. Ortiz sports a tattoo of a bulldog, Fresno State’s mascot, on his leg. . . . Running back Jaumal Bradley was suffering from flu Wednesday and did not practice. . . . Defensive lineman Sean Beard suffered a sprained knee Thursday and is expected to miss practice for a couple of days. . . . Sophomore guard Joe Bergman sat out Wednesday because of a sprained ankle. . . . The eligibility of running back DeJuan Gilmore and wide receiver Terrance Jones, transfers from Washington State and Fresno State, sophomore linebacker Cos Abercrombie, and cornerback Mel Miller is contingent on their completion of summer classes, Kearin said. Miller’s name has been removed from a preseason roster.

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Steve Gossett, a former teammate of Northridge baseball Coach Mike Batesole, has been hired as the Matadors’ pitching coach.

Gossett was the pitching coach the last five years at Midland Lutheran College, an NAIA school in Fremont, Neb. Batesole and Gossett were teammates at Oral Roberts.

Gossett replaces Jamie Nelson, who resigned last month.

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