- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The first time Clarence McKinney met Kevin Sumlin, the two were in quite different places than they are today.
The pair first crossed paths in the late 1990s. McKinney was a young, budding offensive coordinator at Houston's Booker T. Washington High School, while Sumlin was an assistant at Purdue, coaching wide receivers and serving as recruiting coordinator.
Though Sumlin spent plenty of time in Texas and in the Houston-area in particular, he never signed a player from Washington while McKinney was there. But he saw something in McKinney and let him know then what he thought of the Houston born-and-bred product.
"We were hanging out one day, and he told me at that time, that if he ever had an opportunity to hire me, he would," McKinney said.
About 10 years later, when Sumlin was putting together his first staff as a head coach at Houston, he lobbed a call to McKinney, who at the time had worked his way up the ladder in Houston coaching circles and was a successful head coach at his alma mater, Jack Yates High School, which sits literally across the street from the University of Houston campus.
Sumlin was making good on his word and offered McKinney a position as an assistant.
"He made the phone call and without hesitation, I asked him when I needed to show up for work," McKinney said.
The pair have worked together the last five years and had marked success, first, for four years at Houston and now at Texas A&M, where the Aggies put together a memorable 11-2 campaign that included a Heisman Trophy winner. Now, McKinney -- who started his college coaching career as Sumlin's running backs coach at Houston -- is now the man who will call the plays for the Aggies as their offensive coordinator in what is one of the most anticipated seasons in school history.
His experience in the Aggies' wide-open up-tempo offense is plentiful. McKinney is the only full-time on-field assistant coach from that initial Houston staff in 2008 that is still with Sumlin today. Three members of that first staff eventually went on to become head coaches (Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia; Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech and Tony Levine, who succeeded Sumlin at Houston). McKinney has progressed nicely since becoming the running backs coach at Houston in 2008, adding the recruiting coordinator title in 2010, taking both titles with him to A&M last year and now becoming the offensive coordinator and playcaller.
"This will be my sixth year of installing this offense," McKinney said. "So I've seen it, I've done it and it's pretty natural for me."
And while this fall will be the first season that McKinney is serving as primary play-caller under Sumlin, it won't be the first time, period. He served as the interim offensive coordinator and play-caller during the AT&T Cotton Bowl, an audition that was a smashing success as the Aggies dominated Oklahoma 41-13.
"The transition went well if you go back to the bowl game," Sumlin said. "He knows the offense, he's been with us five years in this offense. Everybody sees things from a different perspective. Clarence, obviously, being with us the last five years, starting with Dana and with Kliff, he understands what we're doing from a protection standpoint, a play standpoint and a play-calling standpoint."
The 42-year-old rising coach has plenty of challenges in front of him. Among them, finding a way to get the ball in the hands of every playmaker. His primary star, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel, will work closely with new quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, just as he did with Kingsbury -- A&M's former offensive coordinator -- a year ago.
The two should be a good fit because both are, as McKinney put it "young guys who like to have fun."
"My relationship with Johnny really hasn't changed," McKinney said. "I let Coach Spav coach him and I just talk about off the field things. Hopefully I can give him some insight on growing up."
Then there's the group of running backs that McKinney will continue to work with. Starter Ben Malena returns, as does Trey Williams -- who played as a true freshman last season -- and added to the fold are a pair of transfers who will be eligible at A&M for the first time after sitting out last season: Tra Carson and Brandon Williams.
"Wow," McKinney said when thinking about his options in the backfield. "These guys are all competitive, they're very talented. We just hopes we have enough balls for them. The good thing about them is that they all bring something different to the table. So we'll find things for those guys to do."
The Aggies also have three starting receivers to replace, but will have plenty of options. What will the differences in the offense be? They won't be drastic, McKinney said.
"The offense is going to look the same," McKinney said. "We'll probably be a lot more up-tempo than we were in the past, if that's possible. But we will have some tight end plays because we'll have a couple of guys that we feel comfortable with. We went out and recruited a guy that we think is one of the best in the country in Cam [Clear]. He's a big guy and he gives you an extra offensive lineman body and he runs well and he catches the ball well."
When it comes to his coaching style, players say the 42-year-old rising coach is detail-oriented.
"Coach McKinney is a perfectionist. He coaches for perfection," Malena said. "He doesn't let the small things go to waste, especially with the running backs -- things like ball security, taking false steps, reading your keys. Being coached under his tutelage, it's a really good deal."
The Houston native has seen success at virtually every stop he has made. A high school and college quarterback, McKinney started his coaching career as a seventh-grade "C" team coach in Fort Bend ISD. Once jumping to the high school level, he steadily moved up, from quarterbacks coach at Yates, to offensive coordinator at Washington, a short stint as an assistant at perennial power Houston North Shore, to head coach at Yates, guiding the Lions to three consecutive successful seasons that haven't been matched since he left.
He built a strong reputation for his recruiting prowess in Houston while with the Cougars and in his first season with the Aggies. Now he's ready to show his chops as a college coordinator and do things his way.
"I've settled in pretty good," McKinney said. "I'm doing things a little differently than some guys have probably done in the past. Every coach on the offensive staff has input, and then we put it all together. It seems to work pretty good for us."
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