HOOVER, Ala. — Although he didn’t go into details, Kevin Sumlin disclosed on Tuesday afternoon that he’s exchanged some text messages with his troubled former quarterback, Johnny Manziel, during the past few weeks.
“He’s always going to be an Aggie,” the Texas A&M head coach explained to reporters at SEC media days, but that’s about as far as he wanted to go down that road, both in terms of disclosure and his team’s approach to the upcoming season.
If Texas A&M’s had a theme song during the head coach’s four-year tenure, it might be “Living on the Edge,” as the Aggies have been all over the place in terms of expectations and subsequent success and failure.
Granted, each Sumlin-led team finished with a winning record, but while all were at some point ranked in the Top 10 of the Associated Press Poll, only one finished there, with another in the Top 25. The other two drama-filled seasons sort of fell apart, contributing to the growing perception that the Aggies were a regressing program despite their promising potential.
Not too long ago, back-to-back 8-5 seasons would have been considered pretty good for Texas A&M, but the bar has been raised. Now the coach is trying to get away from all that. In fact, he knows he has to for the 2016 team to come close to its potential.
Fortunately for Sumlin, the last few months have been quiet in College Station while he’s moved the pieces into place for his team to again be a real force in the SEC West.
“I like where we are,” Sumlin said. “I like the chemistry of this football team. I like where the locker room is. I like where their mind is.”
That’s a far cry from the way Sumlin felt after the 27-21 loss to Louisville in the 2015 Music City Bowl, after which he had to do some soul-searching about himself and the direction of the program.
One consequence was shaking up his coaching staff, with three moves, including Noel Mazzone replacing Jake Spavital as offensive coordinator. It’s the second straight year in which Sumlin’s hired a coordinator, which, combined with the departure of two high-profile quarterbacks, would normally indicate a coach reaching desperation, only Sumlin wasn’t done yet.
He added graduate transfer Trevor Knight, who had failed to hold on to the starting job at Oklahoma but gave the roster a veteran presence that had been sorely missing with the Aggies.
“Timing is everything,” Sumlin said. “You don’t get a new quarterback and an offensive coordinator in seven, eight days if you don’t have a plan.”
Knight called his initial move a “leap of faith” but feels like he’s now a “perfect” fit for the Aggies. The team has, in turn, rallied around him.
“When Trevor came in, he showed confidence,” junior wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones said. “He really shows that strength, determination and passion to go out. ‘I’m going to beat you until you beat me.’ That was his mindset in the spring, and he’s continued that through the summer.”
That approach didn’t work so well in Normal, Oklahoma, though.
Although Knight helped lead a victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2013 season, that performance remains the biggest highlight of his career. Inconsistent play turned him into a reserve with the Sooners, and last season, he only attempted 40 passes—fewer than against the Crimson Tide.
“I think what has helped Trevor is some of that gunslinger has won games and some of that gunslinger cost him his job and has put him in the situation that he’s in,” Sumlin said. “So, when you’re dealing with a mature guy, a guy that understands and starts to understand his strengths and weaknesses maybe at the age of 23 that you didn‘t understand at 18 and you look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, look, I got beat out and let’s not just think about, you know, was the guy better than me?’ ‘What could I have done better?’ and he understands that.
“The growth during your career can happen quicker if you understand where your shortcomings are, and there was no greater teacher than losing this opportunity at Oklahoma.”
Ironically, the coach who had his best season with a gunslinger at quarterback now needs one not to be in order for his team to succeed.
Granted, Texas A&M has to be able to run the ball better, must improve at stopping the run and still has some major questions at linebacker, but having a veteran command the offense and the locker room might have made a big difference in how the 2015 season played out.
On a squad that now features an outstanding defensive line, standout safeties and a receiving corps with a ridiculous amount of talent, the Aggies could be a very tough team if Knight continues to click with his new teammates as well as Sumlin hopes.
For that, he needs the anti-Manziel, a player who learned from his on-field mistakes and matured. Otherwise, 2016 could be another roller-coaster season for the Aggies.
“It was pretty simple,” Sumlin said about the decision to name Knight his starter at the end of spring. “He earned it.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
Read more SEC Football news on BleacherReport.com
Source: Bleacher Report CFB