Texas A&M Aggies: Kevin Sumlin

At this time last year, Texas A&M was the epicenter of college football during spring practice. The Aggies' 2013 spring game drew a record crowd. ESPN televised the game, "Johnny Football" was the face of the sport and it helped swing in-state recruiting momentum from the Longhorns.

It would only make sense that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was ready to do it all again this spring.

“No, it’s not for me,” Sumlin said in March. “I’ll be honest with you, you guys know me, that second half [of spring games] goes real quick. I’m ready to get out of there.”

The spring game in many ways goes against the core belief of Sumlin, and really every coach, of using every practice to get better. So the Aggies went without a game this spring, and will do so again in 2015 as Kyle Field's renovations continue.

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Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsOhio State coach Urban Meyer likes the opportunity to get young players, such as redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, some playing time in a spring game.
Spring games are at somewhat of a crossroads in college football. They’re hardly fighting off extinction as 54 FBS programs held games this past weekend. But the watered-down product is giving coaches reason for pause. The argument against holding the spring game is picking up steam, and coaches are questioning the value in using the final spring practice on a half-speed “dog-and-pony show,” as Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship puts it.

A handful of programs aren't holding spring games this year. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy did not plan a spring game, and Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst believed it wasn’t in the program’s best interest to have one, either.

Both Chryst and Gundy have young rosters. Only Utah State returns fewer starters than the Cowboys. Chryst is still trying to put his stamp on a program that has had more head coaches than winning seasons in the last decade, and he is breaking in a new quarterback. To Chryst and Gundy, it did not make sense to waste a practice day for a haphazard game.

“Truly looking at this from the inside of the program and what this group needs, it was, 'What’s the best use of the 15 opportunities we get in the spring,'” Chryst said. “I felt like we didn’t have a group where we’re going to take just one full day and scrimmage. Bottom line is we wanted to make sure we’re maximizing our opportunities.”

Two coaches not questioning a spring game finale are the leaders of programs with some of the best odds to win the first College Football Playoff. Both Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer are in favor of the model most programs still subscribe to: 14 practices, mix in a few scrimmages and hold a game at the end of camp. Fisher and Meyer believe it’s the only time in the spring to get an accurate read on how players react to a fall Saturday game atmosphere.

“What you get is the people in the stadium, you get pressure, you get outside people watching you get the lights on the scoreboard and [the game] matters,” Fisher told ESPN.com last week. “You get a game environment. It might not be the one in the fall, but it’s as close as you’ll ever get out in this practice field. To get a guy in front of 40,000 people and watch how they play in front of them, to me, I put more value in that.”

However, Meyer acknowledges the issues the modern-day spring game presents. Ohio State star quarterback Braxton Miller was out with an injury, but Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were healthy scratches. Fisher elected to sit starting running back Karlos Williams, leaving a fullback and a handful of walk-on running backs to carry the spring load Saturday. The sustainability of the spring game could come down to depth, but rosters are thinner with the 85 scholarship limit, and coaches are keeping their proven commodities out of harm’s way.

Fisher To get a guy in front of 40,000 people and watch how they play in front of them, to me, I put more value in that.

-- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, on the value of spring games
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the lack of numbers at certain positions causes the few available players to “double dip” and play both sides, opening those few healthy players up to injury. The emphasis on preventing and identifying concussions has grown substantially in the last few years, and Blankenship added that “a lot more guys are missing practice today with concussion-related symptoms, and that’s been consistent across the board with other coaches I talk to.”

Meyer said spring games are often a “great opportunity to get scout-team guys a chance to play,” which in itself can be considered an indictment of the spring game’s inherent value.

“One time at Florida we had only five or six offensive linemen and they had to play both ways,” Meyer said, “but the experience of playing in front of [fans], if you want to have a practice but arrange how the receiver has to be the guy, to be in coverage and catch a pass and hear the crowd, that’s real.”

There are only so many programs that consistently draw 30,000 or more fans for a spring game, though. Those other programs don’t have the benefit of putting their players in a game-day atmosphere when only a few thousand fans fill the bleachers.

Blankenship understands he needs to promote his Tulsa program and bring in as many fans as possible. So last year, they tried a new spring game model. Instead of a traditional game of the roster being split, Blankenship operates on only 50 percent of the field and allows fans to sit on the other side of the 50 to get a more intimate view. The game resembles more of a practice as the team works on situations such as red zone and fourth down instead of keeping score.

A piece of him still wants a sound 15th practice, though.

“I do think [the spring game] is worth it from the fan standpoint,” he said, “but the coach in me would like to have another practice.”

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Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsThese Virginia students received a better-than-front-row view of the Cavaliers' spring game.
Fans and alumni are maybe the most overlooked part of the equation of whether it is realistic to ditch the spring game. Florida State director of marketing Jason Dennard said it would be nearly impossible to change the Seminoles’ spring game model, which begins with downtown events Friday. The school even receives grant dollars from the local economic development council to fortify the weekend lineup.

“It’s a complete home run,” Dennard said. “After what we’ve built, it’d be hard to scale it down. People have come to expect this to be a big deal. It’s an investment into the future of our program.”

While Pittsburgh has struggled to draw fans for its spring games in recent years, Chryst was still cognizant of the program’s fans when he decided to cancel the spring game. So Chryst met with the marketing department at Pitt and helped introduce a football clinic for young players and offensive and defensive breakdowns of the Panthers’ schemes for the Xs-and-Os fan.

“It was different at first and people said, ‘What, no spring game?’ But when Coach Chryst announced the Field Pass, the response was overwhelming,” said Chris Ferris, associate athletic director for external relations at Pitt.

Could that union of a standard 15th practice with an added day of fan interaction be the union that seals the fate of spring games? Maybe.

“I think it is,” Blankenship said. “We’re much closer to that in our part of the country. I think the tradition of the spring game is something we’re all kind of tied to, but we’re all figuring out there’s a better way.”
Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans went from relative unknown to bonafide star in college football circles and now is preparing for the NFL draft.

With the sophomore departing early, the Aggies hit the recruiting trail to find someone who they hope could be the next Evans, ESPN 300 receiver Frank Iheanacho.

The comparisons have been drawn for several reasons. The Houston Westside High School product, like Evans, was a varsity basketball player first before deciding to join the varsity football team as a senior and both have impressive size (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) and leaping ability.

We caught up with the U.S. Army All-American to talk about the comparisons and much more.

Q: You recently attended one of Texas A&M's spring football practices and spent some time with coach Kevin Sumlin. How did that go?

[+] EnlargeMarshon Lattimore, Frank Iheanacho
AP Photo/Eric GayFrank Iheanacho could be Texas A&M's replacement for Mike Evans.
Iheanacho: "It was good. I got to see how practice works, chat it up with all the players and get to learn about the offense. It got me more anxious to get there. [Sumlin and I] were just chatting it up. He told me he can't wait until I get down there to play and practice for them."

Q: How big a factor was Sumlin in your decision to sign with Texas A&M?

Iheanacho: "He's the type of coach that you can build a relationship with pretty easily. He's cool to talk to. He understands the game and understands where you're coming from so I felt like the connection is easy to make. The vibe that I got from him was good. He's a coach I want to play for."

Q: What was it like for you to go from virtually unknown in football circles to one of the top 100 recruits in the country and receive the accolades and attention that you did?

Iheanacho: "It was dream come true for me, honestly. I grew up always wanting to be considered one of the best. That's what I worked for. When the moment actually came, it was crazy. I'm still awestruck about everything that happened."

Q: Was it ever overwhelming?

Iheanacho: "Yeah it was definitely overwhelming. You ask yourself a lot of questions. 'How did this happen?' In my situation, coming on so late, 'Do you deserve to have this role?' You just learn to accept it and appreciate everything that you're given."

Q: I know many who followed your recruitment know your backstory, but for those who don't, summarize your journey to the gridiron

Iheanacho: "I grew up as a little kid playing basketball and started playing organized in the eighth grade. I was in the AAU circuit and I worked hard every day trying to get my school paid for. That was the goal. I played football in my freshman and sophomore year but I never really took it seriously. It wasn't something I felt was in my future. I decided I was going to go straight to basketball and focus on that. My friends brought me back [to football] my senior year and it just took off from there."

Q: Many people make the comparison between you and Mike Evans because of your paths. How do you react to that?

Iheanacho: "It's a compliment. He's going to be a great player in my eyes. I'm flattered to have that comparison. At the end of the day, I want people to remember my name and that's what I'm striving for. I want to be a player people look up to and I want to be considered the best."

Q: Did you get to know Mike throughout your recruitment?

Iheanacho: "Yeah. He's a cool dude. He accepted me from the jump. I actually just talked to him [Thursday]. He had great things to say about the program and how things are going to go."

Q: How helpful is it to have that relationship with someone who has gone down the path you're trying to travel?

Iheanacho: "It gives me a positive vibe about what I'm doing in life. I listen to him and the No. 1 think he told me is to listen to [receivers] coach [David] Beaty and he'll steer me in the right direction. That's what I plan to do."

Q: Most people call you by your nickname, "Nacho." How often do folks mispronounce your actual last name?

Iheanacho: (Laughs) "Hundreds of times. But 'Nacho' has been with me since forever."

Q: For those who don't know, how do you say your last name?

Iheanacho: "Eye-HAN-uh-cho"

Q: What have you been doing during the offseason as you prepare for your arrival in Aggieland this summer?

Iheanacho: "I've just been getting ready and prepared for the next season. Just working hard and trying to get better at my craft."

Q: Is playing early a goal that you've set?

Iheanacho: "I set that as a goal. When I come through, I'm going to work hard to achieve that goal."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Like many of Texas A&M's defensive players, Jordan Mastrogiovanni was thrown onto the field sooner than most anticipated.

He got his first career start in the Aggies' most anticipated game of 2013, the Sept. 14 clash against Alabama. He appeared in all 13 games last season and made another start in the Aggies' Chick-Fil-A Bowl game win over Duke.

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Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Texas A&M coaches expect sophomore linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni to be a defensive leader in 2014.
Most incoming recruits relish the chance at early playing time, but for the ESPN 300 prospect out of Dallas Jesuit, the excitement was also met with a dose of reality.

"To be honest with you, it was overwhelming at times," Mastrogiovanni said. "To think that a year [before] I was playing in front of 2,000 people in a high school football game, that's just one of those things where you have to man up and take care of your responsibilities and do the best you can."

What was overwhelming about it? In a word, everything.

"Really, every aspect of the game," he said. "The players, the calls, just looking up in the stands and seeing 100,000 people, that's something not many people get to experience. As an 18-year-old kid looking up, it's something that not a lot of people get to experience."

In the bowl game against Duke, Mastrogiovanni started at middle linebacker in place of the suspended Darian Claiborne, who served as the starter for most of the season. Linebackers coach Mark Hagen recalls the difficult start the defense had across the board against the Blue Devils, as the Aggies surrendered 38 first-half points while a handful of glossy-eyed freshmen, Mastrogiovanni included, tried to figure things out.

"It was a disaster from the opening kickoff in the bowl game," Hagen said. "Nothing went right. I think like most of our guys they were questioning themselves in the locker room and it was just a matter of going out there and getting a stop and I think you saw the confidence start to come back a little bit. It was a playing time issue really as much as anything [for Mastrogiovanni], just not having a ton of [first-team] reps."

But as the Aggies regrouped in the locker room, Mastrogiovanni spoke up and the defense collected itself. The unit allowed only 10 points in the second half as the team completed its come-from-behind effort to steal a 52-48 win.

"At halftime I went in and was pretty frustrated with my performance and the rest of the defense's," Mastrogiovanni said. "I tried to take over as the leader at that point and I said 'Turn the page. Don't even think about it.' That's what Johnny [Manizel] was saying too. I really think we went out there and bought in on what the coaches and players were preaching in the locker room. I think you can see on tape that we were a lot more physical and we trusted each other so it paid off."

The Aggies are hoping the instinct the 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker showed that night carries over into this season, because he figures to be Texas A&M's starting middle linebacker. Mastrogiovanni spent the spring working with the first team. The Aggies are looking for improved play -- and leadership.

"I think we lacked a lot of it last year," coach Kevin Sumlin said of the defensive leadership. "We need a guy who's going to step up and talk and make sure we know everything and that we play with some confidence. I think that whole year has given him some confidence and some credibility among his teammates. It's one thing for you to be confident, but what about the guys around you? Mastro has spoken up."

Spring football, which wrapped up for the Aggies on Saturday, was productive for Mastrogiovanni. He became much more comfortable in his role as the middle linebacker and showed the qualities the coaching staff seeks.

"I just think you see a totally different person out there," Hagen said. "Much more comfortable, he's taking charge, he's getting our guys lined up which is over half the battle on defense."

The coaches want him to continue to progress, but so far he has given them reason for optimism. The one thing Sumlin wants him to work on is, of all things, his voice, so his teammates can hear him.

"I give him a hard time because I tell him to put some bass in his voice," Sumlin said with a smile. "I keep forgetting he's a freshman. He has played a bunch of football here. 'Yell from the diaphragm, act like a middle linebacker, put some bass in your voice.'"

With Claiborne likely to move to the weakside linebacker position and the Aggies mulling over a number of options for strongside linebacker, Mastrogiovanni's play is key. Texas A&M is looking to improve a defense that was last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories and struggled mightily against the run. It also didn't deal with offensive wrinkles well, something that having an experienced middle linebacker with the leadership qualities coaches are looking for will help improve.

Mastrogiovanni doesn't want to see another season go by with the Aggies ranking in the bottom 30 nationally defensively, like they did in 2013.

"That's just unacceptable, especially for a program the caliber of Texas A&M," he said. "The fans deserve better and we need to push ourselves. That's not the product we want to put out on the field. We're driven, we're motivated, we just don't want to have another defensive season like that."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Although spring football games are rarely meaningful in the grand scheme of a college football season, Texas A&M's Maroon-and-White game in 2013 was about as memorable as it gets for Aggies.

They hosted a record crowd (45,212) at Kyle Field. The game was televised live on ESPN. Even the Coaches Trophy, which was awarded to the BCS national champion each year, made an appearance. And of course, there was Johnny Football, who was the center of attention.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsKevin Sumlin and the Aggies will get one final scrimmage this spring, but without all the fanfare of a spring game.
On Saturday, Texas A&M will host its final spring practice of its 2014 spring football season and none of those bells and whistles will be present. There will be no large crowds, no television coverage, no Manziel. It won't even be at Kyle Field, which is surrounded by cranes and construction workers as it undergoes a $450 million renovation.

There is no Maroon-and-White game this year (or next) as the school officially announced in February, because of the ongoing construction at Kyle. Instead, the Aggies' 15th and final practice of spring will be a scrimmage at the Coolidge grass practice fields, just the way coach Kevin Sumlin likes it.

"It's not for me, it's more for the fans," Sumlin said of a spring game. "I miss it for the fans. Shoot, last year we had 50,000 people here and we had ESPN here. It was a great recruiting opportunity. Great national exposure for the program, and it's a great day for fans. It was a beautiful day to get out and see the team, but from a football standpoint, I'll be honest with you: you guys know me, that second half goes real quick [laughs]. I'm ready to get out of there."

Sumlin used a running clock in the second half of last year's spring game (and has traditionally done so in his tenure as a head coach) in order to minimize the risk of injury.

"The goal that day is to look halfway decent and get out of that thing without getting anybody hurt or some guy getting all juiced up because he's playing in front of a crowd for the first time," he said. "So that's really the goal of that."

What Saturday afternoon will serve as is a significant evaluation opportunity, the last one until preseason training camp begins in August. The Aggies have had a couple already this spring -- their annual "Friday Night Lights" scrimmage last week and a scrimmage the week before spring break last month. For some players who are fighting for jobs or just trying to get on the field, Saturday will be the last chance to leave a good impression on Sumlin and the coaching staff heading into the summer.

"We've got one more [scrimmage] to really define who you are coming out of spring football," Sumlin said. "When the coaches aren't on the field for some of these young guys and it's a game-like situation, that's where my evaluations are coming from. It's like quizzes and tests. The practice sessions are quizzes. They count so much. But the exams are weighted a little bit more than the quizzes and that's what the scrimmages are. We need guys to come out of this last scrimmage situation and let me know and let their teammates know that they're ready to play football in the SEC."
Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

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Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The race to replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's starting quarterback is a marathon, not a sprint, but it fostered a compelling development when one of the contenders found himself on the outside looking in, at least temporarily.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsKenny Hill is losing valuable time in the competition for Texas A&M starting QB.
The three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman Kyle Allen will continue this week sans Hill, who was arrested (and later released) early Friday morning on a charge of public intoxication.

On Friday night, the Aggies held their third scrimmage of the spring, this particular workout serving as coach Kevin Sumlin's annual "Friday Night Lights" event which draws numerous recruits but also serves as a live-action opportunity for the current players. Hill did not participate as he began serving his indefinite suspension (Texas A&M athletic department policy dictates that student-athletes are immediately suspended indefinitely, pending further investigation, after an arrest). The repetitions at quarterback were split "half and half" between Joeckel and Allen, according to Sumlin, who made his first public comments about Hill's incident on Monday.

With no timetable currently set for Hill's return, it appears Allen and Joeckel will continue splitting time in this final week of spring football for Texas A&M. Sumlin sounded pleased with both players' performances on Friday night.

"I think both of them did some good things," Sumlin said Monday. "They both are progressing. I think they understand the offense a lot more. Obviously, Kyle has to because he just got here. Joeckel, being two years into this [offense], he understands it a little bit more and he should. But we've got to get everybody on the same page."

Hill's absence obviously isn't helping his chances.

"I would say that if you're not out there practicing, then that would have an effect on your ability to compete for the job," Sumlin said.

He also expressed disappointment with Hill's actions. He is the third Texas A&M player to be arrested in the last six weeks and the fourth to be disciplined because of an off-field incident. Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden have both missed all spring after arrests in February and Sumlin dismissed safety Kameron Miles from the team last month.

"[It's] extremely disappointing," Sumlin said of Hill.

He noted that the team educates its players on a wide range of off-the-field matters, including drugs, alcohol and behavior, when they come into the program.

"We've got a whole educational process with our young guys when they come in," Sumlin said. "We have a 'CHAMPS' class that puts them through the structure of basically growing up. Helping guys with a sense of urgency about time management, about on the field and off the field situations, drug and alcohol counselors. We have a couple of those guys, at least, a semester that come in. We have a complete curriculum and an educational process for all those guys."

The misstep isn't necessarily a death knell for Hill's chances, if history serves as a guide. Manziel was arrested the summer before he was named the starting quarterback, just before his Heisman Trophy-winning 2012 campaign. At the time of his arrest, he was in a battle with then-Texas A&M quarterback Jameill Showers, Joeckel and former A&M quarterback Matt Davis for the starting job.

Sumlin has overseen two preseason starting quarterback competitions in his tenure as a head coach and both were decided in August, roughly two weeks before his team's scheduled season opener. That will be the case again this year, which quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital confirmed in February.

So while there is time for Hill to make up ground, the absence hurts him, especially in this final week of spring practice. Allen and Joeckel will have the benefit of seeing more exotic defensive looks from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his unit this week and in the final scrimmage of spring on Saturday, which will aid both quarterbacks' development in the ongoing battle to start on Aug. 28 at South Carolina.

"I'd like for them to see it all here this week," Sumlin said of his quarterbacks. "As we get into the summer, it gives them a chance to work against some base looks and work their progressions."
Texas A&M got an unwelcome distraction on Friday when the news of Kenny Hill's arrest broke.

Hill, a sophomore quarterback who is part of a three-way competition for the starting job, is suspended indefinitely, per Texas A&M athletic department policy after he was taken into custody on a public intoxication charge.

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesKenny Hill's suspension leaves him unable to participate in the rest of Texas A&M's spring practices.
This is the third arrest and Hill is the fourth A&M player involved in an off-field incident since mid-February -- not an ideal situation for coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff.

The news broke just hours before the Aggies were scheduled to hit the field for their annual "Friday Night Lights" practice, an energized scrimmage/recruiting event that Sumlin has hosted since his first year as the Aggies' head coach.

Hill's suspension likely means the other two contenders for the starting quarterback job, senior Matt Joeckel and true freshman Kyle Allen, will see increased repetitions in his absence. The Aggies have four spring football practices remaining after Friday's scrimmage.

Many observers might be quick to point out that Texas A&M's recently departed quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner and potential first-round NFL draft pick Johnny Manziel, survived an offseason arrest in 2012 and won the starting job before going on to his historic freshman season. However, Manziel's arrest came in the middle of the summer, not during the spring, thus Manziel did not miss valuable practice time or scrimmage opportunities.

By all accounts, the quarterback battle has been a tight one. One factor that could work in Hill's favor is Sumlin's patience in quarterback competitions: He typically does not name a starter until two weeks before the season opener, and that is likely to be the case again this season. So there is a long way to go until anything happens, giving Hill time to recover from his legal incident.

Hill came into this spring with an edge over newcomer Allen because of his game experience (he appeared in five games last season) and because he's a dual threat with plenty of experience dating back to high school with no-huddle spread offenses like the one the Aggies run. But by enrolling early, Allen -- the No. 1 pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class -- is doing everything he can to put himself in position to succeed. And Joeckel, the veteran of the group, has the most experience and has long been waiting for his opportunity.

If this proves to be an isolated incident for Hill, it will likely become a footnote if he bounces back and wins the starting job. This doesn't help his case for the time being, though.

This is the latest off-field incident for the Aggies, as starting defensive teammates Isaiah Golden and Darian Claiborne were arrested last month, and safety Kameron Miles was dismissed from the team earlier this month. Claiborne and Golden have both sat out all spring (Golden actually withdrew from school recently, though Sumlin said he expects the defensive tackle to return) and Miles is headed to Butler Community College in Kansas.

Sumlin has been swift in dealing with off-field issues this offseason, but the last thing he wanted was to have to deal with another.
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: Colorado has struggled on the field and in recruiting since its transition to the Pac-12, but this season is going to be key for the Buffs to turn things around with local prospects. And don’t be surprised if there’s some major news out of Texas A&M this weekend with the Aggies hosting their Friday Night Lights practice.


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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As Texas A&M began its ninth practice of spring football on Monday, Johnny Manziel briefly roamed the sideline before hitting the turf for a pre-workout stretch.

Earlier that morning, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback was in Kevin Sumlin's office, catching up with his former head coach.

And in the afternoon, prior to his workout, he made headlines across the Internet with this viral video of him displaying his athleticism with a multitude of dunks.

Yes, it was just like old times in Aggieland for Manziel.

The difference this time is, he wasn't suiting up for practice with the Aggies. Instead, he was utilizing the facilities where he launched his memorable college career to prepare for the latest "most important day" of his young career, his pro day workout in front of NFL personnel on Thursday.

Though he has spent most of his time since January in San Diego, working with private quarterback coach George Whitfield and Aggies teammate Mike Evans (who will also perform on Thursday), Manziel is finding respite in the place he spent the last three years.

"It was kind of startling to open the door and see him there," Sumlin said of seeing Manziel in his office first thing Monday morning. "Obviously, he feels at home."

Manziel and Sumlin caught up briefly and the quarterback inquired on the team's practice times so he could schedule his workouts with Whitfield and a host of familiar A&M teammates like Evans, Travis Labhart, Derel Walker and Ben Malena.

Sumlin made sure to mention Manziel's television commercial debut, a McDonald's spot featuring LeBron James.

"We just talked about pro day, we talked about a lot of things," Sumlin said. "I haven't seen him since the first week of spring football, before spring break. I congratulated him on his commercial (laughs). We just talked about a couple things and asked him how he was doing. He wanted to know what time we were practicing and whether we were indoors or outdoors because he was going to come in and throw a little bit beforehand and come out and watch practice. Just regular stuff."

On Thursday, both Manziel and Aggieland will be the center of attention as he throws for NFL personnel who will be on hand. Evans -- who like Manziel is projected to be a first-round pick -- will also get a chance to shine since he didn't work out in the Aggies' first pro day on March 5. The pair's aforementioned workout partners will also be a part of the pro day script and will have the opportunity to prove their worth to those on hand.

There will be plenty of eyes on Manziel in particular, including those of the Houston Texans, who hold the No. 1 pick in the draft.

"I'm happy for him now," Sumlin said. "This will be a big day for him. The exposure, the bright lights, the video, the brand -- that carries worldwide and that's a big deal for everybody concerned."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- With four returning starters, the offensive line is a position group the Texas A&M coaches feel good about.

But the battle to be the right tackle, the lone starting spot up for grabs, is one of the most intriguing storylines of spring practice.

One name that continues to surface is sophomore Germain Ifedi, who worked at right tackle again on Tuesday when the Aggies resumed practice after taking a week off for spring break.

[+] EnlargeGermain Ifedi
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsRising sophomore Germain Ifedi is angling to be Texas A&M's right tackle, moving outside from right guard.
Last season, Ifedi started every game at right guard. With right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi moving to left tackle, Ifedi has made it clear he's interested in the possibility of following in Ogbuehi's footsteps and sliding outside.

"He likes playing tackle," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said of Ifedi. "We'll see. He's competing, and the way he's playing right now, he really doesn't want to give it up."

Sumlin noted Ifedi's efforts to stay in shape. The 6-foot-5 lineman has tipped the scales as high as 340 pounds in the past but trimmed down when he entered the starting lineup last season. He checked in this week at 327 pounds.

"I was on him a little bit about his weight and he pulled his shirt up and his belly wasn't hanging over," Sumlin said with a smile. "He's catching up with his body."

Ifedi's emergence allows the Aggies to shift players around on the offensive line, including the pair of junior-college transfers who began spring competing for the right tackle job: Jermaine Eluemunor and Avery Gennesy.

"It's given us an opportunity to really take the two new junior-college guys and put them with the twos so they can really hone in and learn," Sumlin said.

With starting left guard Jarvis Harrison sitting out while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, the Aggies have also inserted Garrett Gramling -- who started two games at left guard last season -- at Harrison's position for the spring and veteran tackle Joseph Cheek at Ifedi's old right guard spot.

Sumlin stressed that with Harrison, "we know what he can do," and he said he fully expects Harrison healthy and ready for preseason training camp in August. But Ifedi's emergence as a competitor to be the right tackle opens up several possibilities for 2014.

"The thing about the offensive line is you want to create what we call a nickel, and not five pennies," Sumlin said. "The five best guys aren't always the best O-line. [It's] the guys who can communicate and the guys who can play. We'll figure that out.

"I think the experience that Germain is getting at tackle gives us some real different combinations without having to put an inexperienced player on the field right away at South Carolina."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M’s defense struggled across the board in 2013, and the Aggies can use all the help, and depth, they can get in order to improve in 2014.

That is probably more true at safety than any other position. It’s a spot the Aggies have found challenges when trying to maintain or add talent and depth, with the latest hurdle coming recently as spring practice opened.

The loss of safety Kameron Miles, whom the Aggies announced officially on Thursday had been dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons, isn’t cause for panic because as head coach Kevin Sumlin pointed out, Miles didn’t see the field at all last season.

[+] EnlargeClay Honeycutt
Juan DeLeon/Icon SMIClay Honeycutt is one of the returning players Texas A&M hopes will fill the open safety positions.
But it is cause for concern at position of need for the Aggies. This is one of the biggest challenges facing new Texas A&M secondary coach Terry Joseph this spring.

Safety is certainly a position where they need to see on-field improvement, both from the 2013 contributors who are returning this season (Clay Honeycutt, Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven) and the new bodies that could step in.

So while Miles -- an ESPN 300 recruit who signed in the 2013 class -- didn’t play (he redshirted after missing all of preseason training camp recovering from a knee injury), he certainly was a candidate to do so this season. Losing him is impactful, especially considering his potential and the rough end to Class of 2014 recruiting at the position.

Texas A&M had an ESPN 300 safety committed to them for months in Dylan Sumner-Gardner, but he switched his commitment to Boise State in early January after former secondary coach Marcel Yates left his post in Aggieland to accept the defensive coordinator position at Boise State. Even before Sumner-Gardner’s switch, the Aggies were still trying to add another safety to the 2014 recruiting class.

The loss made finding a safety even more urgent in the class. The Aggies long recruited ESPN 300 safety Steven Parker II (who signed with Oklahoma) and made a late run at ESPN 300 safety Mattrell McGraw (who signed with Oregon), not to mention other ESPN 300 prospects whom they recruited earlier in the process but decided on other programs.

The Aggies were able to land a safety late in the 2014 recruiting cycle when three-star athlete Donovan Wilson (Shreveport, La./Woodlawn) committed four days before national signing day and inked a letter of intent with the Aggies. He will enroll at Texas A&M for the fall semester, but whether he will be able to have an impact this fall is unknown until he arrives on campus.

Texas A&M has commitments from two elite safeties in the 2015 recruiting class in ESPN Junior 300 prospects Justin Dunning and Larry Pryor Jr., but that has no bearing on this fall.

What is known is that the Aggies need the three who played the most last season to improve and for others to contribute. One name Sumlin mentioned on Thursday was junior safety Devonta Burns, a 6-foot, 214-pounder who contributed mostly on special teams last season.

“Devonta Burns is having a really, really good camp,” Sumlin said. “He’s been around here a long time and really was a good special teams player for us from game three, four, five, on. It’s about time for him to start showing up and he has. You’ve got three guys back there [Honeycutt, Matthews and Raven] who have played a lot, not always well, but have played and are experienced and need to step up. I think Devonta is right in the mix with the other three guys.”

The Aggies also have the services of 6-3, 213-pound sophomore Jonathan Wiggins, a 2013 signee who saw most of his time on special teams last season. Beyond him, the options consist of mostly walk-ons such as Sam Moeller (last year’s 12th Man) or perhaps even someone like Shane Huhn, a transfer from UTEP who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules.

Another potential option is using the secondary’s best player, senior cornerback Deshazor Everett, at safety. Everett has flip-flopped between cornerback and safety before, including on certain occasions last season when the Aggies needed the help. However, it appears that Everett is working exclusively at cornerback, and Sumlin said he doesn’t anticipate that changing, at least “Not right now.”

Everett said last week that he has seen improvement from the safety returnees, especially Matthews.

“He’s a different player now,” Everett said of Matthews. “He’s not lagging around or doing it his way. He’s playing hard, he’s going hard every play, he’s being vocal. That’s what we need at the back end from the safeties, because they have to communicate to everybody on the defense. He’s definitely changed.”

“Floyd is definitely understanding the defense more, and Clay has always been a smart player. With the new coaching change and the way we’re running it, it’s set up so that you can always make plays and always be in the right position, and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”

The Aggies’ secondary also have new blood in the form of Joseph, the former Nebraska secondary coach. The reviews for Joseph have been positive thus far, including from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who called Joseph a “technician” and “fundamentalist.”

Everett also has noticed his new position coach’s impact thus far.

“He’s a real vocal coach and he wants you to do it exactly the way he wants you to do it, and there’s no other way about it,” Everett said. “If you’re not going to do it his way, you’re not going to play, so you have to adjust to that and you have to go out there and do it his way.”

If Joseph has it his way, there will be more answers than questions at safety come August. Fortunately for the Aggies, three weeks remain in spring practice to find some.
Whether or not the much debated 10-second rule passes or not on Thursday (or even goes to a vote), it’s clear that the pace of the game in college football and the number of plays being run has been the topic du jour this offseason.

The coaches who want to go fast frown at the thought of a restrictor plate being placed on their offenses, while a few defensive-minded coaches, namely Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, are concerned that player safety is compromised by increasing the number of plays in a game.

“This is the only game in history of any sport where the college game is longer than the pro game,” Saban said.

Compared to the rest of the country, the SEC wasn’t a league last season that necessarily lived in the fast lane, at least as a whole.

Ole Miss averaged the most offensive plays per game (79.8), but only ranked 21st nationally. Texas Tech was first nationally with an average of 90.3 plays per game.

Not surprisingly, Alabama and Arkansas were at the bottom of the SEC. The Crimson Tide averaged 65.9 plays and the Hogs 64.7 plays.

Auburn, which is renowned for its hurry-up, no-huddle attack under Gus Malzahn, was tied for fifth in the SEC along with Texas A&M with an average of 73.8 plays per game.

In 2012, before to Malzahn’s arrival as head coach, Auburn averaged just 60.5 plays per game, which ranked last among 124 FBS teams.

The Aggies went the other way in Kevin Sumlin’s second season in College Station. They averaged 83.5 plays per game in 2012 and dipped to 73.8 last season, a difference of nearly 10 plays per game.

Here’s a rundown of the entire SEC in the last two seasons in terms of offensive snaps per game:

2013

1. Ole Miss: 79.8
2. Missouri: 75.5
3. Georgia: 74.6
4. Mississippi State: 74.2
5. Auburn: 73.8
6. Texas A&M: 73.8
7. South Carolina: 72.5
8. Vanderbilt: 70.8
9. Florida: 68.9
10. LSU: 67.7
11. Tennessee: 67.7
12. Kentucky: 66.8
13. Alabama: 65.9
14. Arkansas: 64.7

2012

1. Texas A&M: 83.5
2. Ole Miss: 76.2
3. Missouri: 75.7
4. Tennessee: 75.1
5. LSU: 70.8
6. Arkansas: 70.5
7. Vanderbilt: 69.2
8. South Carolina: 69
9. Georgia: 67.8
10. Florida: 67.2
11. Kentucky: 67
12. Mississippi State: 66.8
13. Alabama: 66.3
14. Auburn: 60.5

SEC's lunch links

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
12:00
PM ET
The "10-second rule" has been the hot topic in college football this offseason, and the debate raged on Tuesday with Nick Saban speaking out on the issue. As we all await Thursday’s vote, see what else is going on in the SEC with today’s lunch links.

Texas A&M pro day on tap

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
8:00
AM ET
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Scouts and player personnel people from across the NFL will descend on Aggieland today when Texas A&M hosts its annual pro day at 9:30 a.m., one of two pro days on deck for the Aggies this month.

The Aggies’ biggest names are all expected to be present at the McFerrin Athletic Center -- quarterback Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews -- though Manziel and Evans won’t be working out for scouts until March 27.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin is expecting all NFL teams to be represented at Texas A&M’s pro day, which will feature a dozen players.

“Ever since we’ve been here every team shows up, with a couple of different representatives,” Sumlin said. “We had a couple guys who did real well at the combine. Obviously, Mike was here last week and was real pleased with how he did things. I talked to Johnny [on Sunday] night and he’ll be back in town. I think it’s big when you have those types of marquee players [like them] and Jake. It creates opportunities for other players who weren’t at the combine and I think that’s a big deal.”

Other Aggies who will be present and are expected to work out are linebacker Nate Askew, defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, tight end Nehemiah Hicks, defensive back Toney Hurd Jr., cornerback Tramain Jacobs, linebacker Steven Jenkins, receiver Travis Labhart, running back Ben Malena and receiver Derel Walker.

Evans, Manziel and Matthews are all projected first-round picks and the fact that their presence brings plenty of NFL personnel is a positive, Sumlin said. The same has happened in the past with previous high draft picks who came out of Texas A&M.

“I forget how many guys we got that got into [NFL training] camp but it was a large number of guys that at least got an opportunity that maybe they wouldn’t have had if there’s not a Luke Joeckel here, if there’s not those types of guys,” Sumlin said. “It attracted a lot of guys and just about all of those guys got in camp which is, after that, that’s about all you can ask. Can they all make it? No. But it gave them an opportunity and I think that’s the bigger picture than just the three guys that went to the combine.”

Manziel did almost everything except throw at the NFL scouting combine, running a 4.68-second 40-yard dash and a 4.03-second 20-yard shuttle. He had a 31 inch vertical jump, his height was measured at 5-foot-11 inches and his weight 207 pounds.

Evans measured at 6-5, 231 and ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash and recorded a 37-inch vertical jump. Matthews measured at 6-5, 308, had a 30 inch vertical and performed the three-cone drill in 7.34 seconds.

The pro day begins at 9:30 a.m. and is closed to the public.

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