Kevin Sumlin isn’t a stranger to winning. The two-time national coach of the year finalist recorded a 35-17 record during his four years at Houston, before taking over as Texas A&M’s new coach in December.
But as Sumlin makes his return to College Station, Texas, he’ll do so as a SEC coach. While he hasn’t coached in this league before, he understands that size, strength and speed are on a new level down here.
That’s why he pushed spring practice back two weeks after spring break in order to give strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson eight full weeks to punish his new players and get them into the proper shape for a full SEC season.
Sumlin took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to ESPN.com about life as the Aggies’ coach before the move to the SEC:
What has the whirlwind of coming back to Texas A&M after your successful years at Houston been like for you?
Kevin Sumlin: Having been here before, I’ve got a better feel for the university, for the traditions, for how things work. There’s a certain comfort level in that, instead of walking into a completely new situation. Also, many of the recruits that were committed or that were prospects from Dec. 10 to Feb. 1, most of those guys we had a relationship with [at Houston], so it wasn’t a cold call, so to speak. A lot of the stress level of moving into a completely new situation and not knowing what’s going on, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
It isn’t easy for a new head coach, especially when you’re behind like you were, when it comes to recruiting. How much did being able to tell recruits that they’d be playing in the SEC help?
KS: It’s a factor. It’s not everything, but it certainly is a factor, particularly here in-state. It’s different than it has been in the past. Kids (in the state of Texas) have a choice now with the Big 12, the Big East and the SEC in where they want to play. It gives the guy an opportunity in our primary recruiting states of Texas and Louisiana to play in the SEC. I don’t think it’s hurt us at all, I think it’s helped us. The ability for a young man to play in arguably the best league in the country that’s what real competitors want to do and guys who want to play at the highest level. The quality of football and then the types of players in that league are exciting to a lot of young men.
Obviously, in recruiting, you want to hit Texas hard, but how important is it to get into the southeast and tap into states like Florida, Georgia and Alabama?
KS: We’re in a unique situation here because of the large amount of talent in the state of Texas and the importance that’s placed on development and coaching in high school. We’ve got a great, great talent pool here. I also think we can do a better job in state and expand into Louisiana. Really, those are our primary recruiting areas because we’ve got a proximity here in College Station to Louisiana (that is) probably closer than some schools on the east side of the SEC. After that, we’ll look at the top five or six players by position nationally that have an interest in us.
Focusing on the team you have now, what was the message you tried to convey to your team when you first met with them?
KS: It was a really unique situation. Both teams were in a bowl game -- Houston was in a bowl game and A&M was in a bowl game. It gave me an opportunity to really be here and watch practice and I purposely haven’t watched any video, but to be on the ground and watch practice and see our guys … it gave me about a week to do my own evaluations. When we got back the day before school started, we had a team meeting and basically we asked them to trust us and by saying that, meaning that there were going to be some changes, primarily their strength and conditioning program. We weren’t going to do anything that was just to play with people’s minds. Everything that we were going to do when they came into this building was to make them better, whether it was academically, whether it was athletically, or strength and conditioning, we aren’t here to play games with them. We’re here to get better.
These guys have been great and working at it like crazy and the attitude has been really, really phenomenal in a transition period.
Looking at the depth chart, you guys lose a few pieces to that defensive line. The SEC is known as a line-of-scrimmage league; so how important is it to develop that defensive line and also the offensive line.
KS: It’s extremely important. Right now, the strength of our team is the offensive line and we signed basically a third of our class this year as defensive linemen. We’ve got to continue to develop that moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3. It may be kind of a misnomer that we’re short defensive linemen because we’ve got a couple of guys who are playing outside linebacker who are 240-50 pounds and can put their hands down in the ground and go. We’ve got to continue to get better and our No. 1 goal moving here is we had to increase our talent level and we’ve taken one of the first steps to that with the first recruiting class. Then, I wanted to hire a staff of coaches that have coached at the highest level, been in those types of games, but are also developmental coaches.
We are all very familiar with what you did with Case Keenum and that Houston offense, but now that you’re making the move to the SEC do you anticipate any kinds of changes to combat this defensive speed?
KS: Yeah. You know, I don’t think speed is an issue for us. I think size is. This team has gone on the field and played pretty well against some people from a speed standpoint. I think size and strength may be where it is and we have to continue to recruit to that. That being said, I don’t think we’re in any position right now to win a 6-3 ball game. I don’t think we can do that. We’re going to have to score points. People look at us and think we throw it all over the place, but we’ve also been able to get the ball to our playmakers and that’s the basis of our offense. Whatever it’s going to take to get some points on the board, we’re going to have to be able to do that. Right now, we’re not anywhere near built to win a 6-3 game, but we’ve got enough talent here to be successful and as long as we continue to recruit these types of players, increase our size on our defensive front and continue to get the type of skill players that we’ve got in this class we’ll be alright.
Once spring practice comes and you’re able to put your hands on these guys when they're in pads, what do you want to immediately get out of them and what do you want to see?
KS: Our primary focus is changing our physical makeup, our conditioning and also our mental makeup. The bigger and stronger and more in shape you are, the more confident you are. That’s a fact. We have to start with that. Then, as we get into spring football, we want to really institute getting through those 15 practices with the basis of three new schemes -- offensively, defensively and special teams -- and make sure that we have a foundation with all of those new schemes.
We have to come through spring football and establish really where we are on the depth chart. I don’t know if we’ll have a quarterback named at the end of spring football. I’ve never really done that unless we’ve had a guy coming back who’s a starter. I look for that to continue even in two-a-days, unless somebody surfaces as a clear No. 1. The surface of our depth chart needs to be set at just about every position.