HOOVER, Ala. — As he headed downstairs Tuesday to face a media throng waiting to hear his thoughts on his most talented team at Tennessee, Volunteers coach Butch Jones stopped and pivoted. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was holding court in a corner of the room, and Jones wanted to tattle on Sumlin. Jones: “We get to the airport [Tuesday morning], and we missed [the Texas A&M contingent]. There were two buses. He took the bus with the air conditioning and left us the bus with no air conditioning. So thanks. We sweated the whole way. A hundred degrees.” Sumlin: “Trying to set the tone.”
As Jones left, Sumlin pointed out an interesting fact. “He and I have known each other for years, as assistant coaches…as head coaches, and we’ve never, ever played each other until this year,” Sumlin said. “And, as luck would have it, it’s his best team he’s ever had. It’s kind of the way my life’s going right now.”
This is as close as Sumlin would get to acknowledging the pressure on him this season, and he played it for a laugh. When answering less-than-comfortable questions about his team, Sumlin can drop into a cadence that is the verbal equivalent of a wink and a nudge. His attitude says “I’ve got this” even if the circumstances suggest otherwise. This makes it difficult to ascertain how he really feels about his situation, and that’s exactly what Sumlin wants. One set of facts seems like a harbinger of doom. The two quarterbacks who started games for the Aggies during the 2015 regular season (Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray) left the team during a seven-day stretch in December. Sumlin had to part ways with his offensive coordinator (Jake Spavital) and his offensive line coach (Dave Christensen). Alabama and LSU remain on the schedule. So do UCLA and the aforementioned Volunteers.
Another set of facts suggests this could be Texas A&M’s best team since quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman and led the Aggies to an 11-2 record in their debut season in the SEC in 2012. Texas A&M could have its best defense since that year thanks to two elite pass rushers (Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall), a 335-pound defensive tackle (Daylon Mack) and a trio of safeties (Armani Watts, Justin Evans, Donovan Wilson) who will all play at the same time against opponents who try to spread the field. The Aggies have a diverse receiving corps that includes a take-the-top-off-the-defense playmaker (Christian Kirk) and a pair of long, reliable pass-catchers (Ricky Seals-Jones and Josh Reynolds). And after all that quarterback drama last year, they wound up landing an intensely drama-averse quarterback who needed a place to play because he simply got supplanted at his previous school by a Heisman contender.
The Aggies probably needed Trevor Knight more than he needed them. After graduating from Oklahoma, Knight also could have chosen Auburn or LSU. While it’s difficult to imagine Knight fitting in LSU’s offense, it’s no stretch at all to imagine him piloting Gus Malzahn’s quarterback run-heavy scheme in the Loveliest Village on the Plains. But Knight is a San Antonio native who wanted to finish his career close to home. He began life as a Texas fan, wearing burnt orange on Thanksgiving days and talking trash to his Aggie cousins at his aunt and uncle’s ranch in Waller, Texas. Then Knight, who was briefly committed to Mike Sherman’s Texas A&M staff in 2011, became a Sooner. He thought he’d finish his career in Norman, but once it became clear last year that Baker Mayfield was the best player to run coordinator Lincoln Riley’s offense, Knight decided in December to examine his options.
At the same time, Sumlin was trying to determine what to do with his offense. He’d just lost two former five-star recruits at quarterback, and it had become clear that the Aggies and Spavital—now Cal’s offensive coordinator—would part ways. Sumlin landed Knight and UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone in the same week. Mazzone seems a decent fit for Knight. Mazzone’s offense is steeped in many of the same one-back principles as Sumlin and all the coaches Knight played for at Oklahoma. Mazzone also has proven over a long career that he’ll build around his personnel rather than trying to impose a rigid system on his players. He has worked with Jason Campbell at Auburn, Philip Rivers at NC State and Brett Hundley and Josh Rosen at UCLA. All had different skill sets, and Mazzone adjusted.
After spending a year with gifted pocket passer Rosen, Mazzone inherits Knight, who was at his best at Oklahoma when he had the freedom to keep the ball on the read option. He doesn’t have to actually run it often, but the threat must exist to keep the defense off-balance. Knight only carried five times for seven yards in Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl win against Alabama after the 2013 season, but most of Oklahoma’s highlight-reel plays—Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns—began with him putting the ball in the belly of a back or a receiver in motion and having the option to pull and run or pull and throw. In games where former Oklahoma co-coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell tried to turn Knight into a pure pocket passer—the mystifying 2014 loss to Texas, for example—Knight struggled. We know Sumlin’s teams utilize packaged read option plays similar to the ones Knight thrived running at Oklahoma. We also know what Sumlin’s team can look like with a gifted runner at the helm of the offense, so is this a perfect match?
• STAPLES: Punt, Pass & Pork: Preseason mad libs in honor of media days
We don’t know. On paper, it looks quite promising. But Knight wasn’t consistent at Oklahoma. If he had been, he might never have been unseated by Mayfield. The set of facts in the previous paragraphs seems promising. The set of facts that opened this paragraph seems troubling. That’s the way Kevin Sumlin’s life is going right now. His seems to have one of his best teams at Texas A&M, but the unknown on offense and a meat grinder of a schedule—if Texas A&M starts this season 5-0, it won’t be a mirage like the past two—could combine with the fact that the SEC West has reached coaching critical mass to force a change.
Is Sumlin worried? If he is, he won’t show it. Heck, he didn’t even seem worried when those quarterbacks left. “We wouldn’t have been able to have a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator in a week and a half if there wasn’t a plan,” Sumlin said.
The wink and the nudge were implied.