Texas A&M confident entering life after Johnny Manziel
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- A piece of breaking news hit the Texas A&M quarterback meeting room last week. Not that piece of news. The identity of the heir apparent to Johnny Manziel probably won't be revealed until August. Still, this little nugget of information caused quite a stir.
"You're a redhead named Lucas?"
Incredulous senior Matt Joeckel asked this of walk-on -- and quarterback room mayor -- Conner McQueen, whose recently received SEC Academic Honor Roll plaque came in an envelope bearing McQueen's given first name. "Did you have a rough childhood?" Joeckel asked.
"There was a rough patch," McQueen replied. "Heard a little Mucus Lucas."
This cracked up Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill, freshman Kyle Allen and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital -- four people with every excuse to come to practice puckered. After all, one of the first three will inherit the spot vacated by Johnathan F. Football. The fourth has to choose which of the three gets the job. But, with a little help from McQueen and a lot of help from a more experienced defense, and with an offensive roster stocked with intriguing talents, no one in the Aggies' football complex seems to dread the prospect of life after Johnny Manziel.
About an hour later, Manziel himself -- he was in town last week for teammate Jake Matthews' pro day and the impending nuptials of former Texas A&M wide receiver Ryan Swope -- cracked wise with the quarterback group in the Aggies' indoor facility. The quarterbacks laughed and smiled, even though for the next few months they will be locked in a contest to determine who gets to replace Manziel. Spavital watched carefully, taking mental notes to help him decide which player will be next. "I'm kind of curious to see the direction we go in this offense," Spavital said. "The past four quarterbacks I've had have all been really good, but they've all been different in the offense. We just developed a different mentality."
As a graduate assistant at Houston, Spavital helped then offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen coach Case Keenum, who chucked the ball around the field. As Holgorsen's right-hand man during a one-year stint at Oklahoma State, Spavital worked with Brandon Weeden, who excelled at play-action set up by a loaded backfield. As West Virginia's quarterbacks coach, Spavital tutored Geno Smith, who could do both well. When Spavital was hired at Texas A&M in January 2013, he inherited Manziel from friend and current Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury. Manziel didn't resemble any of Spavital's previous three passers. The Aggies' quarterback was merely the defending Heisman Trophy winner and the most exciting player in college football.
Neither Allen nor Hill nor Joeckel can do what Manziel did. "Is there going to be another Johnny Manziel?" coach Kevin Sumlin asked. "No." But the quarterback who wins the job might have more help than Manziel did in 2013. Texas A&M's freshman-heavy defense -- which allowed a pitiful 6.4 yards a play last season -- is back nearly intact, and all those youngsters thrown to the wolves last fall are now experienced players competing for starting jobs. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder won't have to play whichever bodies are available; he'll get to reward those who practice the best with playing time.
Meanwhile, the Aggies return more offensive talent than any team that lost a first-round quarterback, left tackle and receiver probably should. They are deep at tailback, where Trey Williams, Tra Carson and Brandon Williams each averaged at least 5.3 yards a carry last year. They have a 274-pound tight end (Cam Clear) who should become a more integral part of the passing game. They lose a likely first-round draft pick in Matthews, but just as Matthews did last season, Cedric Ogbuehi will move from right tackle to left and should receive the same kind of attention from NFL scouts. And while Texas A&M lost 6-foot-5, 225-pound receiver Mike Evans, 6-5, 230-pound receiver Ricky Seals-Jones is nearly fully recovered from the knee injury that forced him to redshirt last season.
Of course, the Aggies are still young. And they open the season on Aug. 28 at South Carolina, which has gone 33-6 over the past three seasons. So, while the possibilities may be exciting, Sumlin, Spavital and Snyder must have their team ready for a date with reality in a matter of months.
Sumlin understands this better than most. He has gone 20-6 since he and A&M joined the SEC in 2012. But he cited a statistic last week that is even more sobering than the fact that the Aggies went only 4-4 in conference play with Manziel running the offense. While last year's team should produce three first-round picks (Evans, Manziel and Matthews) in May's NFL draft, those three were the only A&M players invited to the NFL combine. "I don't go by you guys," Sumlin said, waving at notepad-toting guests. "I go by the employer. And the employer is the NFL ... We had three guys go to the combine. Vandy had more guys go to the combine. So did Arkansas. Yeah, we've got some talented guys. But where we need to get to would be more guys going to the combine. That's a big deal."
The Commodores and the Razorbacks (four apiece) were among the nine SEC teams that sent more players to the combine than the Aggies. West Division rivals Alabama and LSU led the way with 12 and 11, respectively. To compete year-in and year-out with those programs, Sumlin knows that Texas A&M will need to match those teams in terms of future pro output.
Maybe in 2017 or '18, Speedy Noil and Zaycoven Henderson will be on the combine list. Along with quarterback Allen, Noil and Henderson graduated high school early to enroll at A&M. Noil, a 5-11, 190-pound receiver from New Orleans, has wowed coaches. His emergence has eased the minds of a staff that must replace Evans (1,394 receiving yards last fall), Derel Walker (818) and Travis Labhart (626). Henderson is a 6-1, 330-pound defensive tackle from Longview, Texas, who originally committed to the Longhorns before flipping to the Aggies on Jan. 8. He wears special-order shoes, and last week coaches seemed hopeful that the extra-extra-extra-extra large pants that they ordered for Henderson from adidas would arrive soon. Snyder said the country-strong freshman has been pushing 300-pound sophomore Hardreck Walker.
Last spring, Snyder didn't have the luxury of holding competitions for positions. Because of injuries, suspensions and poor class balance, the former Ohio State defensive coordinator and Marshall head coach had to toss freshmen on the field regardless of whether they were ready. At one point during last September's loss to Alabama, he had to insert then-freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall with the Crimson Tide deep inside Texas A&M territory. "That's just not fair," Snyder said. During a timeout in the Aggies' Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Duke, Snyder looked up and saw eight 18-year-olds staring back at him.
This year, Snyder hopes to "scheme for success" with his younger players. In other words, he hopes he can give them their first playing time in comfortable situations, which will allow them to build confidence instead of having their confidence crushed by a steamroller wearing Alabama crimson or Auburn orange. Spavital would like to do the same for whichever quarterback ultimately wins the starting job, but with the Gamecocks waiting, he probably won't get that chance. Allen, Hill or Joeckel will sink or swim at Williams-Brice Stadium.
The quarterback competition has heated up with the arrival of Allen, who came to College Station from Scottsdale, Ariz., as the class of 2014's top-rated quarterback prospect, according to Rivals.com. Allen has clearly studied the A&M playbook, and in the same meeting last week at which he received his plaque, he kept up with Hill and Joeckel and asked informed questions of Spavital. A day later, however, when Spavital cranked up the play-calling speed during a short scrimmage, he set the freshman's head to spinning -- proving that the time Hill and Joeckel have in the offense will give them at least a temporary edge over their young rival. Of course, every time the 6-4, 195-pound Allen unleashes a tight spiral traveling at high speed, some of that advantage dissipates.
Sumlin remains confident that he and his staff can build the offense around whoever wins the job. There isn't another Manziel on the roster, but there wasn't another Keenum on the roster when Sumlin first took over in Aggieland. Somehow, the offense managed to move the ball. "It's just a coincidence, I guess," Sumlin said. Then he laughed as hard as his quarterbacks did at their teammate's memory of Mucus Lucas.