Texas Two-Step: After the transfer decisions of Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen, what is going on at Texas A&M?
When Jameill Showers left Texas A&M in January 2013, it didn't seem like a big deal. After all, the Aggies had Johnny Manziel. Plus, Kenny Hill was on the way.
When Matt Davis left in August 2013, it didn't seem like a big deal. After all, A&M had Manziel and Hill. Plus, Kyle Allen was on the way.
When Matt Joeckel left in April 2014, it didn't seem like a big deal. After all, the team still had Hill and Allen.
And when Hill left the school in January 2015, it didn't seem like a big deal. After all, Allen had beaten out Hill for the A&M starting job midway through the '14 season. A week later, the Aggies would also be sure prized prospect Kyler Murray was on the way.
The revolving door at quarterback never seemed that troubling because the Aggies always had a pair of talented ones. Quarterback isn't like offensive tackle. The player who loses the starting job can't slide to the other tackle or guard spot. Attrition was expected. Then the situation in College Station got weird.
When Allen announced he would transfer a week ago, it felt like a bigger deal. He had finished the 2015 regular season as the starter, throwing for the Aggies' lone touchdown pass in a 19–7 loss at LSU on Nov. 28. Murray had not played in that game. Sophomore Jake Hubenak had relieved Allen in the fourth quarter. Allen's departure didn't follow the usual pattern, either. Showers, Davis and Hill had all been beaten out for the job before they left. Allen held it.
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When Murray announced he would leave the program on Thursday, it felt like a very big deal. All of Texas A&M's highly touted quarterbacks had suddenly departed. The last scholarship quarterback remaining on the roster is Hubenak, a 6' 3", 195-pound sophomore from Georgetown, Texas, who transferred in from Blinn College before this season. Hubenak will start the Music City Bowl against Louisville on Dec. 30. And this will happen despite the fact that Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said on Wednesday he expected Murray to start the bowl game even though Murray was all but gone.
When Murray made his departure final, it laid bare the dysfunction that led the Aggies to this point. They have an 102,000-seat stadium they just spent $485 million to expand and renovate. They have an 11–13 record in SEC play over the past three seasons. They have no idea what their long-term plans are at quarterback, and if the head coach knows who will call the plays next season, he certainly isn't saying.
Since Manziel's Heisman Trophy-winning tenure in College Station, Texas A&M's default mode has been drama. That apparently won't change this off-season.
It has been three years and change since Sumlin took the Aggies into Tuscaloosa and Manziel captured the nation's imagination by leading Texas A&M to a 29–24 victory over eventual national champion Alabama. On that November day, anything seemed possible. The Aggies had a new coach, a new conference and a new brand. All those middling years in the Southwest Conference and the Big 12 were distant memories. This program—the SEC team in Texas—would forge a new identity while visiting recruits in the Swagcopter and posting flashy videos on AggieFBLife.com.
In the long run, it might have been better for A&M to lose that game to the Crimson Tide. Then maybe we wouldn't have expected so much out of the Aggies in the succeeding years. Maybe we would have taken a more realistic view of a program that has rarely managed to sustain success through the decades. The out-of-sight expectations that led to an enlarged stadium in an age when every program should probably be downsizing contributed to the team-wide pressure and drama.
When Allen left, the logical assumption on the outside was that coaches had decided Murray was their man. Those inside the Bright Football Complex in College Station knew this wasn't the case. No one had picked anyone. Nor had anyone done anything to squelch the rumors that Sumlin would replace third-year offensive coordinator Jake Spavital—the man who had recruited Allen and Murray to Texas A&M—at season's end. Spavital remains the offensive coordinator for the moment.
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Murray, the touted true freshman from Allen, Texas, who the Aggies had swayed away from Texas and from the MLB draft, had been on a parallel track with Allen since late in this season. While Allen contemplated leaving and going to a program where he could win a starting job without feeling like he was keeping it warm for some mythical heir apparent, Murray also contemplated a departure.
The result was a standoff of sorts. Both quarterbacks weighed their options, probably assuming the one who decided to leave first would cede the job to the other. Unlike each of the past three years (Hill in 2013, Allen in '14 and Murray in '15), there is no hotshot quarterback committed to the incoming recruiting class. Tate Martell, a star at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, is committed to join in '17. As the quarterbacks debated the merits of leaving or staying, everyone wanted to know what would happen to the offense. The continuing silence on that front only aggravated the situation. Allen departed, and Murray had all but decided. Murray wanted to leave, and he didn't care that the job was his after Allen's exit. So, this week, Murray left, too. His former teammates responded quickly.
Entitlement is such a silly beast. Welcome to 2015.— Germain Ifedi (@GermainX1) December 17, 2015
Whether Murray was the second coming of Manziel is irrelevant. Allen was the more polished quarterback and more likely to play the position beyond college, but that doesn't matter, either. What's so unusual is that both quarterbacks had the same doubts about whether they belonged in the program. What's even more unusual is that the coaching staff couldn't convince either to stay.
The duo's abrupt departure has put Sumlin in a precarious position. If he did want to make a splash with a big-name offensive coordinator hire—Sumlin made a splash on the other side of the ball by hiring John Chavis away from LSU last off-season—he'll have to convince that person the Aggies' offense can succeed with its current quarterback situation or with whoever the Aggies can manage to sign or convince to transfer to College Station. A pile of money could aid the persuasion, but a seven-figure salary might not be enough. The kind of coordinator the Aggies might hope to lure may not want to leave his current situation for one that is beset by uncertainty.
Even if the quarterbacks hadn't left, Sumlin would have entered 2016 on a warm seat because of nagging questions about his team's ability to compete in the SEC West beyond that magical debut season in '12. Now, after the public, embarrassing departure of the starting quarterback and the phenom supposed to take his place, the doubts about Sumlin will rage unless he can turn in enough wins to quiet his critics. The real MVP in this situation is Sumlin's agent Trace Armstrong, who convinced Texas A&M in November 2013 to guarantee the entirety of a six-year, $30 million deal and then convinced university officials to agree to a condition that the entirety of his buyout would have to be paid within 60 days of a potential firing. Had LSU gone through with firing Les Miles, Miles would have been owed $16 million. That buyout would have been payable over eight years, making it far more tolerable than a lump sum. Sumlin has extra protection because if he is fired after the '16 campaign, A&M would have two months to pay him $15 million. Texas millionaires are willing part from their money if they get mad enough, but that is a huge chunk of change. Texas A&M won't fire Sumlin unless all hope is lost.
There is reason for hope in spite of the recent rash of negative news. Chavis made the defense better this fall, and the Aggies could return as many as 10 starters on that side of the ball. And even though the guys who threw him passes are gone, the SEC's reigning freshman of the year seems happy in College Station.
In the bowl game, Texas A&M will rely on a starting quarterback (Hubenak) and a backup (former walk-on/holder/accountant/future president Conner McQueen) who always dreamed of becoming Aggies. Maybe they'll lead Texas A&M to a win over Louisville. Maybe Hubenak will prove he can lead the offense. He'll certainly have the backing of everyone wearing an Aggie ring.
Maybe the offensive leadership questions will be answered, either with a new hire or with another chance for Spavital. Maybe this will work out in spite of all the drama.
But after a six-day stretch in which the Aggies managed to lose their top two quarterbacks, that possibility feels awfully far-fetched.