COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Choosing a successor for a Heisman Trophy winner and one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in college football history would be enough to keep most offensive coordinators up late, obsessing over every detail in hopes of making the right decision.
If Texas A&M offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital is stressed out about that task, which is at the top of his to-do list this month, he doesn’t show it. The laid-back 29-year-old has taken everything in stride this offseason, his second at A&M and first as the Aggies’ lone offensive coordinator and playcaller.
Overseeing the quarterback battle that will yield Johnny Manziel’s successor seems anything but overwhelming for the budding star assistant. That’s important because keeping Kyle Allen and Kenny Hill on an even keel when one of them makes their first career start on Aug. 28 at South Carolina is a priority.
“When they go out there to South Carolina, they're going to be wide-eyed, and that's tough,” Spavital said. “For a first start, that's a very tough atmosphere to go into.”
Of course, things are a little different in Aggieland now than they were at this time a year ago. Texas A&M’s Bright Football Complex became a fishbowl as national media swarmed in the middle of an NCAA investigation into Manziel. Overseeing the polarizing Manziel was quite an initiation for Spavital.
By season’s end, Spavital was handed play-calling duties for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which the Aggies won 52-48 over Duke, and a new chapter began for the Oklahoma native.
"That was a wild game,” Spavital recalled. “It reminded me back of the Conference USA days when it was just shootouts all the time. It was a very memorable game."
Conference USA is where Spavital got his coaching start. He started in his hometown of Tulsa as an offensive quality control coach for then-Golden Hurricane offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Then he landed a graduate assistant job in Houston, where he studied under Dana Holgorsen and Kevin Sumlin. Spavital followed Holgorsen to Oklahoma State, then West Virginia before Sumlin tabbed him to succeed Kliff Kingsbury as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator in 2013.
Sumlin has shown a knack for hiring quality offensive minds. Holgorsen, the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach under Sumlin in 2008-09, is now the head coach at West Virginia. Kingsbury, who served that dual role from 2010-11 in Houston and in 2012 at Texas A&M, is now Texas Tech's head coach. Spavital appears ready to continue that trend.
He arrived with the experience of working with Case Keenum, Brandon Weeden and Geno Smith on his résumé. A close friend of Kingsbury, with whom he crossed paths at Houston, Spavital still talks to Kingsbury daily, and that proved valuable when Spavital tutored Manziel. Now, they continue to exchange offensive ideas, something they’ve done for years.
“I talk with Kliff every day to see if he's doing anything differently,” Spavital said.
This season, Spavital enters without a Manziel-like talent but two gifted quarterbacks, nonetheless. Neither is proven, but both were decorated recruits: Allen as the nation’s top-ranked pocket passer, Hill as a Texas state champion and one-time state player of the year. Before camp began, Spavital sat both down and let them know where they stood.
“I told them [before camp] they're all even right now and we're splitting reps 50-50,” Spavital said. “Each day, we hope to get equal amounts to run with the ones and twos. I got it all planned out; we're going to put them all in the same situations.”
Sumlin, who has a strong history with signal-callers himself, said he’s “pretty hands-on” with quarterbacks. Spavital said Sumlin lets his opinion be known, but he doesn’t micro-manage.
"He's great,” Spavital said. “He lets me go out there and do my thing with the installations and how I'm going to rep the kids. We talk on a daily basis and he gives his opinion on what he thinks. ... We’ll have many discussions by the time we announce a starter, I promise you that.
“It's good just to bounce ideas off of each other and get some advice from him, and he’s pretty good at not stepping on my toes and letting us go out there and see what direction this offense is going to go."
The new NCAA rule allowing coaches to meet with players in the summer allowed Spavital to speed up his installation timetable. By time training camp started, the entire offense was installed, which wouldn’t have been the case previously. Spavital was able to change his practice script accordingly, which allowed for more creativity and evolution of the offense in camp while monitoring Hill and Allen’s progress.
The Aggies will announce their starting quarterback within the next week. No matter who it is, Spavital is confident.
"I think they're both capable of coming in here and doing big things,” he said. “I'm pretty fortunate to have both of these kids. I think they can go and compete for a starting job anywhere across the country. I think they both have the capability to take this offense where it needs to go.”