When we last left the Texas A&M football team, a 5-0 start deteriorated into an 8-5 frustrating finish punctuated by a season-ending two-game slide against LSU and Louisville. To make matters worse, head coach Kevin Sumlin had somehow mismanaged his offense enough to run off two starting quarterbacks, sophomore Kyle Allen, who transferred to Houston, and Kyler Murray, who transferred to Oklahoma.
The losses continued to mount with offensive coordinator Jake Spavital “parting ways” after three seasons in College Station before landing with the Cal Golden Bears. Another pivotal coach getting broken in for the 2016 season is offensive line coach Jim Turner. Turner was brought in to replace Dave Christensen after just one year.
College Football Podcast: SEC Primaries, QB Transfers, Coaching Duos
The good news about any bad season, there is always next year. For the Aggies, the new year officially kicked off on March 1 with the start of spring practices. With all of the changes on staff and loss of talent due to transfer, graduation and early departure for the NFL Draft, spring ball for Texas A&M could be the foundation that helps keep Sumlin around for years to come or the beginning of the end for the offensive-minded head coach still trying to give the 12th Man their first SEC West title.
5 Storylines to Watch in Texas A&M’s Spring Practice
1. Noel Mazzone instructing his new offense
All eyes will be on the new offensive coordinator and his handling of the Aggies offense with Sumlin helicoptering overhead. Mazzone orchestrated UCLA’s offense with Brett Hundley and true freshman Josh Rosen executing the plays before heading to College Station. The Bruins never got over the hump in the Pac-12 to bypass Oregon, Stanford or USC, but did give Westwood a balanced offense leaning towards an exciting passing attack.
How will Mazzone and Sumlin mesh when the real heat is turned on mid-way through another tough SEC gauntlet of a schedule?
2. Who will win the starting quarterback Job?
With Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen finding greener pastures on the other side of the college football fence, the quarterback battle comes down to Jake Hubenak and Trevor Knight. Hubenak got one start during the 2015 season with the Aggies, the Music City Bowl vs. Louisville. For the season Hubenak completed 40 of 75 passes for 399 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.
If the name Trevor Knight sounds familiar but cannot place why, he is a senior transfer from Oklahoma. Knight started 15 games for Oklahoma but lost his starting job to Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield in 2015. In 2014, Knight threw for 2,300 yards but had a problem turning the ball over with a 14:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio. If Knight wins the job, his propensity to toss the ball to the wrong team will eat at Sumlin to no end, forcing another benching of a starting quarterback and perhaps another rift within the team and staff.
3. Can Jim Turner develop the Aggies’ offensive line?
A lot of writers, fans, and finger pointers tried to hang some of the failures of this offense in 2015 on line coach Dave Christensen. Seeing the stat that the line gave up 2.85 sacks per game, which was No. 107 in the nation, was a reason for the five losses is a very misleading notion. The Aggies averaged 37 pass attempts per game in the toughest conference in the nation – with a sophomore and a freshman quarterback running the offense, sacks are going to happen.
The finger pointers missed that the Aggies improved their run game from 149.9 yards per game (No. 82 nationally) to 169.1 yards per game, which placed them No. 66 nationally last season. Twenty yards more per game may not seem like much, but two extra first downs adds up to keeping the offense on the field longer and extending drives, which can lead to points on the board.
Turner is a familiar face for A&M fans from Mike Sherman’s staff (2008-11). Turner has a lot of experience and should help develop this offensive line. One of his first priorities will be figuring out to replace starters Germain Ifedi and Joseph Cheek.
4. Further growth of the defense under John Chavis
The big losses on defense for the Aggies were cornerbacks De’Vante Harris and Brandon Williams, to go along with defensive tackle Alonzo Williams. Other than that most of the top performers from last year’s unit are back. Under Chavis, this defense showed marked improvement last season, improving from ranked 102 in the nation in yards allowed per game (455.4) all the way up to No. 51 (380.0) in 2015.
The additional experience the returning players gained in the system last year and this spring should increase their comfort level and result in the unit taking another step forward this fall.
5. The Walking Wounded
The Aggies have some downed soldiers for spring ball. The players on the sideline for the spring include offensive lineman Keaton Sutherland (shoulder), safety Donovan Wilson (shoulder), linebacker Riley Garner, and safety Justin Dunning. Additionally seniors Justin Manning and A.J. Hilliard also have decided they will not return to the program as they have retired from football due to injuries. Hilliard contributed 58 tackles and four tackles for a loss in nine games as a linebacker last season.
The one good piece of injury news, Otaro Alaka should be back from a torn labrum, adding depth at linebacker.
Pre-Spring Texas A&M Outlook in the SEC
Every college football team’s spring game is a horse and pony show parading around the strengths of a given team against the weaknesses to give hope to an unknowing fan base. Aggie fans cannot get too excited if quarterback Trevor Knight or Jake Hubenak tear it up on April 9. The 2016 season starts unrelenting and does not give up with UCLA, a cupcake in Prairie View A&M, but then Auburn, Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama before a breather against New Mexico State. Three of the final four are not instant “Ws” with Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and then a needed win against UTSA, with the season finale against LSU.
The Aggies will once again have a tremendous receiving corps that can win games if the ball is worked within the system. If new offensive line coach Jim Turner can develop a front that can get the few yards needed on third down and in goal-line situations that will be a big improvement since Kevin Sumlin took over in 2012.
Texas A&M picked up some good running back talent in the 2016 class with Trayveon Williams and Rakeem Boyd. Justin Madubuike might be the next standout defensive end for the Aggies and linebackers Aaron Hansford and Tyrel Dodson could contribute as true freshman, but if A&M has to rely too much on the incoming class, this could be another frustrating run for the 12th Man and the end of the line for Sumlin.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.