Heading into his fourth season, Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin has shown he can thrive on inherited talent.
Under his watch, five Aggies recruited by predecessor Mike Sherman have morphed into first-round NFL Draft picks (Johnny Manziel, Luke Joeckel, Jake Matthews, Mike Evans and Cedric Ogbuehi). Sumlin parlayed those players into enough head-turning upsets to become one of the nation’s highest-paid coaches, at $5 million per season.
He’s also shown an ability to lure five-star prospects to College Station. The Aggies’ 2015 roster includes three sophomores on watch lists for national awards: quarterback Kyle Allen (Maxwell), receiver/kick returner Speedy Noil (Hornung) and defensive end Myles Garrett (Bednarik), an Arlington Martin graduate who earned Freshman All-America honors last season by collecting 11.5 sacks.
What Sumlin has yet to do is turn a talent-laden roster into a championship-caliber team. A porous defense has been the primary stumbling block, with A&M finishing last among SEC teams in yards allowed the past two seasons while going 7-9 in conference play.
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A year ago, the Aggies ranked 102nd nationally in total defense (450.8 yards per game). In 2013, they were 109th (475.8). Those digits triggered the January hiring of defensive coordinator John Chavis, whose LSU units quieted the Aggies’ high-flying offense during Tigers’ victories the past three seasons.
As Sumlin acknowledged when explaining his rationale during the SEC spring meetings: “If you can’t beat him, hire him.”
It’s a solid football philosophy when it comes to assistant coaches. But will it yield immediate dividends for the Aggies, who project as one of college football’s most unpredictable teams this season?
Heading into Monday’s opening session of the SEC football media days in Hoover, Ala., the pundits are all over the map in assessing A&M’s potential. Two of seven notable national magazines rank A&M in their preseason Top 25 polls. The Aggies check in at No. 20 with Athlon and No. 23 with Lindy’s. Yet they’re omitted from the Top 25 by five other publications and picked to finish last in the SEC West Division by The Sporting News.
Even Athlon, the outlet with the most favorable preseason view of the Aggies’ potential, targets A&M to finish sixth (next to last) in the rough-and-tumble SEC West. Topping such meager projections this season is certainly possible, perhaps likely. But the heavy lifting will fall to Chavis, who installed a 4-3 defensive scheme and a more aggressive philosophy with the troops during spring drills.
“You’ll see a different defense, a different philosophy,” Sumlin said, citing a more attacking style that will replace A&M’s read-and-react approach last season. “It’s been a great fit for him and for us. The buy-in has been great.”
The biggest payoff, in Sumlin’s estimation, should be evident with Garrett and Daeshon Hall, the Aggies’ starting tandem at defensive end.
“For the first time, we’ve got two guys at defensive end right now who have big-play ability,” Sumlin said, reflecting on the evolution of the A&M defense during his tenure at the school. “The scheme that John has brought in gives them the ability to get upfield. The tough part is, a lot of our linebackers, guys we project as starters, were not there in the spring [because of injuries]. We had a lot of key pieces that didn’t practice.”
Chavis has time to bring those guys up to speed in fall drills. But the unanswered question is how much the A&M defense can improve in one off-season while learning a new system.
During last year’s fall drills, former A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder estimated the Aggies were still “a year away” from fielding an elite, SEC-caliber defense because of rampant youth at key positions. Now, it’s a year later and Chavis is in charge. If the Aggies can make statistical strides toward the middle of the pack among FBS defenses, a robust offense with lots of returning playmakers should be able to seal the deal in most weeks.
How far must the Aggies climb defensively to become relevant in the SEC title race? Consider:
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Oregon, which played in last year’s CFP national championship game, finished 87th among FBS schools in total defense last season (429.7 yards per game). The Ducks actually allowed more offensive touchdowns (43) in 2014 than A&M (42), but played an additional game. Florida State, another 2014 playoff team, ranked 61st in total defense (396.9). And the 2013 SEC champs from Auburn, who reached that year’s national title game, allowed 420.7 yards per game to rank No. 87 in total defense that season.
If the Aggies could shave 50 yards per game off their defensive efforts this season, they’d be on comparable statistical footing with recent title contenders if their offense continues to hum. The question, at this point, is whether Chavis can erase 50 yards per game from opposing offenses.
Until we know for sure, the Aggies loom as one of college football’s most unpredictable teams this season.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760
Time for a turnaround
New defensive coordinator John Chavis has brought an attacking style to the Aggies, who were among the worst defensive teams in the nation last season.
Pass yds. allowed