Texas A&M sheds some swagger and tries to change trajectory
COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) The five-star quarterbacks are gone, replaced at Texas A&M by a graduate transfer looking for a second chance. The hotshot young coordinator is out. A seasoned veteran assistant is now running Texas A&M's offense.
On the recruiting trail, yet another five-star passer has bailed on the Aggies, and the reaction one A&M assistant had to the news this week only made matters worse for Kevin Sumlin's program.
The Aggies have lost some of the swagger that came when Johnny Football took the Southeastern Conference by storm, Sumlin became a $5 million per year head coach and Texas A&M looked as if it could be a perennial threat to Alabama.
Maybe that's good for a program and coach in need of a trajectory change after three straight seasons of not being able to break .500 in conference. Expectations will be modest for the Aggies in 2016 and that more than anything else might be what's needed in College Station.
''Whatever that perception is, what is it compared to?'' Sumlin said. ''Because 36 (victories) in four years is the most anybody's won here in 20 years. From a sheer numbers standpoint, the things that you quantify where your program's headed, by the numbers, there's no questions this program's in better shape than when I took over.
''Is it where we want it to be? No. But is it better based on the fact that we're winning right at 70 percent of our games and from 2000 to 2012 it was 50 percent?''
Wins and losses seemed to be the least of Sumlin's problems last December.
In the span of a couple weeks two former elite quarterback recruits - Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray - decided to transfer. Add in Kenny Hill, who left after the 2014 season, and it made three one-time starting quarterbacks to transfer out of A&M in less than a year.
''We're not in the business of trying to run people out of here,'' Sumlin said.
The Aggies had to play third-string quarterback Jake Hubenak in a loss to Louisville in the Music City Bowl. A few days later, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital was fired. Spavital was 27 when Sumlin hired him in 2013.
It seemed as if a tempest was sweeping through Texas A&M football.
On a warm, overcast April day in College Station, between meetings and spring practice, Sumlin said the winter upheaval was not nearly as sudden as it looked from the outside.
''The assessment of the program internally is probably different than what some people have,'' Sumlin said. ''And it's always been that way here. Whether it's the first year that I got here or this year.''
High-powered offenses have followed Sumlin as he climbed the career ladder from Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator to Houston head coach to Texas A&M.
In 2012, Sumlin's first season, the Aggies were second in the nation in yards per play with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel at quarterback. The next season Texas A&M ranked fourth in yards per play.
The season after Manziel left, A&M was 27th in yards per play and last season the Aggies ranked 69th.
Sumlin turned to an old friend to help turn things around, hiring UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. The 59-year-old Mazzone and Sumlin worked together at Minnesota in the 1990s. Sumlin also brought offensive line coach Jim Turner back for a second stint at A&M.
Sumlin used the word ''experience'' eight times when explaining why he chose Mazzone and Turner.
''I love that word. Better experience than old,'' Mazzone said. ''Kevin and I really grew up in this one-back world and then he was the one that really turned me on to that tempo stuff. There was no doubt that it was an easy transition for him and I to be on the same page as far as what we want to be offensively.''
Sumlin wants a more efficient and consistent running game. And he needs Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight to fill the void at quarterback.
Knight looked like a potential star when he led the Sooners to a Sugar Bowl victory against Alabama in 2014. But he never sustained success, throwing 17 interceptions in 490 career passes.
Knight showed Sumlin and Mazzone enough in the spring to be named the starting quarterback over Hubenak.
''Trevor, who has been a very mature guy, came in and really diffused any notion about we're in a so-called quarterback crisis,'' Mazzone said.
The quarterback drama never seems to end at Texas A&M. The latest social media storm came earlier this week when highly touted recruit Tate Martell from Las Vegas announced he was backing away from a verbal commitment to the Aggies. What followed was a series of tweets from A&M receivers coach Aaron Moorehead about a lack of loyalty and accountability that didn't mention Martell, but still led to an apology the next day from the assistant.
Sumlin still even finds himself answering for his handling of Manziel as the quarterback deals with legal and personal problems as a pro.
''All I know is that personally and as a university and as a program we did a lot to help Johnny Manziel,'' Sumlin said. ''We did a lot to get structure for Johnny Manziel and I think because of that he worked at it when he was here and he had some success because of it.''
The 2016 Aggies will likely be pegged to finish near the bottom of the SEC West, just like they were in 2012 when they went 11-2 and beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
''So we just come out with a little chip on our shoulder knowing that most people think we're going to be underdogs against most of the people,'' said defensive end and potential first overall NFL draft pick Myles Garrett.
Garrett anchors what could be the Aggies' best defense in several years. Sophomore receiver Christian Kirk is one of the nation's most dynamic playmakers, but there are plenty of question marks on offense.
A 36-16 record doesn't bring much job security in the SEC and some Aggies fans are wondering if the school was too quick after the 2013 season to hand Sumlin a six-year contract that pays him $5 million annually.
Sumlin dismisses the idea this is pivotal season for him and the Aggies.
''He who listens to the fans,'' he said with a smile, ''soon sits with them.''
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP