Texas A&M opens its third set of fall practices under Kevin Sumlin searching for answers on both sides of the ball. The Aggies went 4-4 in SEC play last season and must replace three first-round draft picks in quarterback Johnny Manziel, offensive tackle Jake Matthews and receiver Mike Evans.
Replacing Manziel is the top offseason storyline for Sumlin, but Texas A&M’s defense is a bigger concern. The Aggies allowed 6.7 yards per play in SEC contests last year and gave up 36.5 points per game.
Texas A&M has plenty of positive momentum heading into the 2014 season, as a newly renovated Kyle Field is one of the top stadiums in college football, and Sumlin continues to reel in elite talent on the recruiting trail.
What should Sumlin and the Texas A&M coaching staff concentrate on this fall? Here’s a few things to watch when fall practice begins in College Station.
Texas A&M 2014 Fall Practice Priorities
1. The Quarterback Battle
Study Materials for 2014
As mentioned above, this is the position generating the most interest in fall practice among fans from rival SEC schools. The two candidates vying to replace Johnny Manziel are true freshman Kyle Allen and sophomore Kenny Hill. Allen ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled in time to compete in the spring. Hill played in four games last year, completing 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards and one score. Both quarterbacks are capable of running Texas A&M’s high-powered offense, but neither have much in the way of experience. While game snaps and playing time as a backup can be overrated, Allen and Hill won’t have much time to acclimate to life as a starter with a road trip to South Carolina in game one.
Will Sumlin and coordinator Jake Spavital get separation between Allen and Hill this fall? Or will this battle continue into the opener and beyond?
2. Fixing the Defense
Where should we start? The good news for Texas A&M: It’s hard to get any worse. The bad news? The Aggies may not show dramatic improvement on defense in 2014.
Texas A&M ranked 14th in the SEC in points allowed, last in the conference against the run and generated only 14 sacks in eight league matchups. The Aggies also allowed 42 scores on 48 redzone trips by their opponents.
Each level of the defense has concerns, which were magnified by the loss of tackle Isaiah Golden, end Gavin Stansbury and linebacker Darian Claiborne this offseason. With only five returning starters, coordinator Mark Snyder has his work cut out for him this fall.
Talent certainly isn’t an issue, but there’s a good chance the Aggies will field a defense with only eight seniors in the defensive two-deep. How quickly will the young talent reach its potential?
The line will be counting on true freshman Myles Garrett to play right away, while sophomores Hardreck Walker and Daeshon Hall need to take on a bigger role. Redshirt freshman Justin Manning and true freshman Zaycoven Henderson will be asked to play significant snaps on the interior. As mentioned above, the line has talent, but it's also very young. Snyder needs this group to be stronger at the point of attack and eliminate some of the big plays allowed on the ground in 2013 (84 rushes of 10 or more yards).
At linebacker, Tommy Sanders or A.J. Hilliard will get first crack at replacing Claiborne on the weakside. This unit as a whole has to perform better and will be needed to help plug a run defense that was gashed frequently in 2013.
Establishing a consistent pass rush will help the secondary, which allowed 23 touchdowns in eight SEC contests last year. The defensive backfield could be the strength of Snyder’s defense, especially if cornerback Deshazor Everett plays at an All-SEC level. Junior De’Vante Harris has 18 starts under his belt and will start on the opposite side of Everett. The Aggies have to get better play from their safeties, which include senior starters Floyd Raven and Howard Matthews.
It's hard to envision this defense performing any worse than last year, but it may take a chunk of the season for the defense to find its footing with the young players stepping into the lineup.
3. Solidify the Offensive Line
Out of the three fall practice goals, this is the least of Kevin Sumlin’s worries. The Aggies have a future first-round pick in Cedric Ogbuehi anchoring the line at left tackle, while Mike Matthews is one of the best centers in the SEC. Senior Jarvis Harrison starts at left guard, and sophomore Germain Ifedi returns after starting 13 games as a redshirt freshman. Ifedi will move from guard to tackle in 2014.
The only open spot on Texas A&M’s line is at right guard, where junior Joseph Cheek holds an edge over junior college recruit Jermaine Eluemunor. With Cheek stepping in at right guard, combined with Ogbuehi and Ifedi changing positions, the line needs snaps to jell in the fall.