COLUMBIA, S.C. – Maybe this is the real Kevin Sumlin offense.
That was the only logical thought Thursday night at halftime as dejected South Carolina fans slunk across Bluff Road to Bojangles, where they presumably drowned their sorrows with sweet tea and Bo-Berry biscuits. The Gamecocks trailed Texas A&M by 17 at that point. It would get even worse. The Aggies, playing their first SEC game without Johnny Manziel, looked even more potent on offense than they did when Manziel raced to the Heisman Trophy in 2012. Sophomore Kenny Hill, Manziel’s replacement at quarterback, set a single-game school record with 511 passing yards and led No. 21 Texas A&M to a 52-28 win over No. 9 South Carolina, a team that hadn’t lost at home since 2011.
Maybe this is how former Houston quarterback Case Keenum might have looked if he’d been a four-star recruit throwing to five-star receivers behind a line full of future NFL players. At Houston, Keenum put up huge numbers for Sumlin in an offense that didn’t ask him to work the kind of miracles Johnny Football worked for Texas A&M. Remember, Manziel’s improvisational gifts forced Sumlin and his Aggies assistants to revamp their offense on the fly in 2012, the system that carried over into 2013. Maybe this is the offense Sumlin intended to run all along, except he didn’t have the players yet. What he had was Manziel and a gifted offensive line recruited by predecessor Mike Sherman, and the Aggies rode Johnny Football and first-round tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews to 44.3 points a game during Manziel’s two years as the starter.
Or maybe this isn’t some one-back, up-tempo spread ideal hatched by Sumlin and current West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen at Houston – where current Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury and current Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital were graduate assistants. Maybe this is something Sumlin and Spavital developed for the post-Johnny world. Maybe the 99 plays of hell that A&M unleashed on South Carolina sprouted from the confluence of what Sumlin and Spavital learned along the way and a cupboard stocked with freakishly athletic ingredients. This isn’t what they did with Case. This isn’t what they did with Johnny. This is something completely new, and, from a defensive coordinator’s standpoint, completely terrifying.
“The tempo is the same as what we did at Houston,” Spavital said. “But we wanted to add [tight end] Cam Clear into some packages. We were trying to get in some heavier sets. We even ran a set out there with no receivers. Kliff and Dana, I can’t wait to hear from them. There is such a thing as a formation without a receiver.”
What makes the Aggies dangerous is that an offense that can run plays without receivers also completed passes to 12 different players on Thursday night. Most of that came after the aforementioned Clear, a 6-foot-6, 277-pound tight end who looks bigger than a lot of offensive tackles, injured his ankle in the first quarter. That left Aggies coaches scrambling. Following Clear’s injury, they basically chucked half the gameplan and still wound up gaining 680 yards.
Texas A&M had so many weapons Thursday. They had Malcome Kennedy, best known for catching the eventual game-winning TD at Alabama in 2012, who caught 14 passes Thursday for 137 yards. They had Josh Reynolds, a 6-4 receiver who attended Tyler (Texas) Junior College in 2013 after being lightly recruited out of high school in San Antonio. Reynolds caught six passes for 76 yards and a touchdown. They had Ricky Seals-Jones, the 6-5, 235-pound H-receiver who looks capable of playing the way Jimmy Graham does for the New Orleans Saints. Seals-Jones, who redshirted 2013 after injuring his knee two games into his freshman season, caught five passes for 67 yards and a touchdown.
They had Speedy Noil, a freshman receiver from New Orleans who can return kicks, beat defenders in space on short passes and take the top off the defense. They had Clear, who before his injury converted a third down on Texas A&M’s first drive. They had a three-headed tailback combo (Trey Williams, Tra Carson and Brandon Williams) that can burst through holes left open by defenders stretched out by of all those pass-catching targets. They had left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, who could be the Aggies' third consecutive top-10 draft pick at the position. They had center Mike Matthews – brother of Jake, son of NFL Hall-of-Famer Bruce – whose coolness in the trenches allows them to push the tempo. And they had Hill, who beat out true freshman Kyle Allen by a whisker in a preseason competition and who will wake up Friday with his name on Heisman watch lists.
Hill seemed more nervous about his postgame press conference – “I don’t even know what to say, I’m so excited,” he said with a huge grin -- than about facing South Carolina’s defense. Like the rest of the Aggies, Hill had grown tired of hearing about how poorly his team would fare in Manziel’s absence. “We wanted to prove everybody wrong,” Hill said. “We wanted to show everybody we can be good without Johnny.”
While the Aggies appreciate everything Manziel did, they want to blaze their own paths. That’s especially true for Hill, whose game barely resembles Manziel’s. “They both throw it well, but Kenny’s going to stay in the pocket,” Kennedy said. “He’s a pure passer. If you stick with your route, he's going to hit you with it.” Hill also needs a nickname. He was called King of the Hill on occasion during his career at Southlake (Texas) Carroll. A nickname for a suburban Texas quarterback that honors a fine animated comedy about the Texas suburbs could be effective, but Hill seems open to suggestions. There is one he’d like to avoid, though. “I don’t really like Kenny Football,” he said.
We probably shouldn’t hand Hill the Heisman just yet. Nor should we anoint Texas A&M the favorites in the SEC West. The sample size is small. Maybe South Carolina’s defense couldn’t adequately replace Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton, Kelcy Quarles and Victor Hampton. Maybe the attention paid to Clowney allowed everyone else to excel, and the Gamecocks just aren’t as stout when they all can be played straight up. The Aggies endured several questions about beating a top-10 team, but we won’t actually know what kind of team South Carolina is until a few more games have been played. The Gamecocks certainly looked as if they missed Clowney and quarterback Connor Shaw.
“It was obvious the oddsmakers don’t know what they’re talking about,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “That team was so much better than us it wasn’t funny. They out-coached us, out-played us, they were better prepared and they knew what they were doing.” Spurrier made a crack at SEC Media Days about Sumlin’s skill as a negotiator, a reference to the whopping contract extension Sumlin received last November. On Thursday, Sumlin appeared to be worth every penny as he – to use a Spurrier-ism – negotiated half-a-hundred on the Head Ball Coach’s team.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder probably feels a little lighter this morning. Last year, the offense had to win games in spite of the defense. The Aggies allowed 6.36 yards a play – worst in the SEC. Texas A&M’s defense certainly wasn’t perfect Thursday. The Aggies allowed an eye-popping seven yards per play. Ghastly coverage busts allowed Dylan Thompson to toss a 69-yard bomb to Nick Jones and a 46-yard strike to Damiere Byrd. But freshman defensive end Myles Garrett spent much of the night in Thompson’s face, and the Aggies showed off a pass rush that was missing all last season. Meanwhile, sophomore middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni – last spotted looking very much like a freshman when pressed into a starting job against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl -- appeared as if he belonged in the starting lineup.
All the Aggies seemed far more confident in themselves than those outside the program were in them. They also played with an edge that Sumlin helped hone by reminding his players just how little respect they had earned outside College Station. USA Today released the preseason coaches’ poll on July, 31, the day the Aggies assembled for preseason practice. On that same day, USA Today published an analysis that declared Texas A&M the most overrated team in the poll. “I just put that up there [in the complex],” Sumlin said. “That’s how we started practice.”
Less than a month later, the Aggies started the season by crushing South Carolina and announcing to the world that they can survive and maybe even thrive without Johnny Football. “All we heard all last week was two touchdowns. If we could keep it close, it would be great,” Sumlin said. “What we did tonight showed we weren’t a one-trick pony. We’re not anywhere near where we want to be, but we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.”