Texas A&M fans have been patient with head coach Kevin Sumlin, even if each season feels like déjà vu. After wowing the Aggie faithful with an 11-2 record and a Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma in his 2012 debut, Sumlin set the bar high but a 9-4 showing in ’13 has given way to three consecutive 8-5 campaigns. On top of that, 2017 is shaping up to be a rebuilding year of sorts in College Station, something fans won’t be too thrilled to hear.
As has been the case each season under Sumlin, Texas A&M got off to a hot start only to fall apart in November against some of the SEC’s top teams. No one questions Sumlin’s ability to put together an offense but his defenses have always been questioned. The hire of former LSU defensive coordinator Jon Chavis prior to the 2015 season was supposed to take care of that problem, but finishing strong remains the biggest issue plaguing the Aggies.
Quarterback continuity has been a common theme recently too with Texas A&M shuffling signal-callers over the past two seasons. The production has basically remained the same (about 260 passing yards per game), although transfer Trevor Knight provided a little more boost with his running ability last season.
The defense, however, took a step back last season, as the Aggies had difficulty against the pass, resulting in them giving up 442 yards per game. This was despite the presence of defensive end Myles Garrett, an unanimous All-American who could be the first player taken in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Garrett is one of 11 starters Texas A&M is looking to replace this season, a process that begins in spring practice. With so many positions seemingly open and plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the ball, this spring is shaping up to be a pivotal one for Sumlin and company.
5 Storylines to Watch in Texas A&M’s Spring Practice
1. Quarterback Battle
Trevor Knight may not have been the most accurate of quarterbacks but he had a way of throwing a strike downfield for big plays at key times or frustrating defenses by scrambling to keep drives alive. In 11 games last season, Knight averaged 277 total yards per game, accounting for 29 total touchdowns. Knight has exhausted eligibility, leaving Jake Hubenak as the most experienced quarterback on the roster. A rising senior, Hubenak has starting experience and threw for 884 yards with six touchdowns and two picks last season. He is not a scrambler like Knight, which could open up the door for redshirt freshman Nick Starkel or true freshman Kellen Mond. Starkel impressed the Aggies’ coaching staff in practices last season.
2. Sorting out the Receiving Corps
Three of the Aggies’ top four receivers from the 2016 season are gone, as Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil combined for 108 receptions, 1,697 yards and 15 touchdowns. Replacing that production won’t be easy, but there are options, starting with Christian Kirk, who led the team with 83 catches and was second in both yards (928) and touchdowns (nine) last season. Sumlin also has a slew of younger players that could contribute right way, including a trio of four-star prospects in his 2017 recruiting class – Camron Buckley, Hezekiah Jones and Jhamon Ausbon. They will complete alongside 2016 recruits Quartney Davis and Clyde Leflore-Chriss. Expect the lineup on the outside to be fluid until leaders start emerging from a very talented, yet inexperienced, group.
3. Filling Holes in the Defensive Front Seven
Defensive coordinator Jon Chavis enters spring ball not only having to replace All0-American defensive end Myles Garrett, but also fellow lineman Daeshon Hall and linebacker Shaan Washington. Garrett and Hall combined for 83 tackles, 28 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks even with the former missing a couple of games due to injury. Washington led the team with 104 tackles.
The linebacker unit should remain strong with Otaro Alaka, Richard Moore, Cullen Gillaspia and Tyrel Dodson. Junior Jarrett Johnson was productive up front in relief last season, registering 6.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks in 12 games. Fellow defensive end Qualen Cunningham should take on a bigger role as well. Chavis also will get long looks at redshirt freshman Justin Madubuike and true freshmen Jayden Peevy and Tyree Johnson, each of whom will have a chance to play right away if they can show they are ready.
4. Can the Rushing Attack Continue to Improve?
The Aggies are quite literally gaining ground in the run game over the past two seasons with Tra Carson rushing for 1,165 yards in 2015 and Trayveon Williams’ breakout performance as a freshman with 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns. Texas A&M had three new starters along the offensive line last season and now must replace both tackles with Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor gone. Who will be the next men up?
Junior Koda Martin and sophomore Austin Anderson should compete for time at the tackle positions. Early enrollee Jared Hocker has the ideal size (6-6, 310) for a left tackle, so expect him to get a shot for early playing time. The rest of the 2017 recruiting class will bring in some interior depth but might only produce one other player ready to contribute early in four-star Grayson Reed.
5. Can Sumlin End the Cycle?
Sumlin has no doubt heard the grumblings from the fan base after three consecutive poor Novembers. The 2016 season was no different, as Texas A&M entered the final month of the regular season 7-1 only to lose three of its final four games (two of those at home), and then fall to Kansas State in the Texas Bowl to close out the year.
Looking ahead to this season, the Aggies’ open at UCLA but the rest of the non-conference schedule offers three matchups that should pad the win column. It always comes down to the SEC slate, which starts with Arkansas in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 23. That opens a stretch of six straight conference games, including a visit from Alabama and a trip to Florida in back-to-back weeks. The Gators are the only true road game in that span, but after hosting New Mexico Nov. 11, Texas A&M closes things out at Ole Miss and at LSU. Is this the year the Aggies finally finish strong?
Pre-Spring Outlook for Texas A&M in the SEC
The most optimistic of Aggie fans could put Kevin Sumlin down for another hot start with a 5-0 record. The Alabama and Florida games in consecutive weeks will test just how strong this Texas A&M team will be in 2017. The November slide could start early for Sumlin and team. An open date on Oct. 21 before back-to-back home games against Mississippi State and Auburn could help right the ship if things have changed. If not, another poor final month will only give fans more to grouse about.
If Sumlin wants to turn down the noise in College Station he needs to make the most of these spring practices with so many key spots on both sides of the ball needing to be filled.
— 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.