COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The first spring practice of Texas A&M's 2016 campaign began like almost every spring practice before it in the Kevin Sumlin era -- with much of the attention on the quarterbacks.
As team stretching concluded and players broke off into position groups for drills on Monday, about a dozen media members followed the passers, affixing their eyes on the group that included Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight and Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl starter Jake Hubenak.
This is Sumlin’s fifth spring in Aggieland, and it’s the fourth one in which the starting quarterback is unknown. It includes a notable first: The battle will be between a senior (Knight) and a junior (Hubenak). Every other preseason quarterback competition involved mostly sophomores and freshmen.
“It’s good,” Sumlin said of that dynamic. “They’re mature guys. They’re handling things pretty well. For older guys, they’re still new guys.”
The vibe is certainly different. In August, the competition between blue-chip recruits Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, then a sophomore and true freshman, respectively, was a source of constant buzz for observers wondering how the Aggies could keep two No. 1-ranked signal-callers in their class happy in the “winner starts, loser transfers” era of college football quarterbacks.
It fostered high drama over every throw and repetition. Even so, it paled in comparison to the drama that ensued in the Aggies’ December debacle, when both Allen and Murray transferred out of the program in the span of a week.
Those events and the aftermath were well-documented, but the Aggies picked up the pieces at the position quickly. In the 34 days following that ruckus, Knight announced his transfer and the Aggies gained a commitment from four-star recruit Nick Starkel, a former Oklahoma State commitment.
Sumlin, maintaining the “hindsight is always 20/20” cliché in response to questions about his management of the quarterbacks in the weeks that followed the disaster, is happy to turn the page and leave the past in the past. The humbling paths that Knight and Hubenak traveled to Aggieland suggest this quarterback competition -- and the in-season management that will follow -- will be relatively low maintenance for both Sumlin and new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.
"They handle things probably a little bit different than younger guys, but they’ve been through more," Sumlin said.
Knight, a former four-star recruit, found fleeting glory in Oklahoma’s 2013 season, leading the Sooners to a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. But the following season was disrupted by inconsistency and injury, and prior to the 2015 campaign, he lost the starting competition to Baker Mayfield. Knight, who originally verbally committed to Texas A&M before signing with Oklahoma in 2012, found his way back to Aggieland with one year of eligibility remaining.
While it’s unknown how good or effective he’ll be until he gets on the field, those in the program say Knight has been a hit in the locker room and in the meeting rooms since arriving.
As for Hubenak, he took a winding journey to College Station. He was a star at Georgetown (Texas) High School, but a season-ending injury disrupted his junior year and, as a result, his recruiting. After a stellar senior season, he walked on at Oklahoma State. He then transferred to Blinn College a year later, where he put up fantastic statistics for one season before the Aggies signed him in May.
Seemingly an afterthought behind Allen and Murray, Hubenak found himself thrust into the starter’s role for the Aggies’ bowl game after both transferred. The way he handled himself both as a backup throughout the season and during that eventful December was lauded by teammates and coaches. It also served as a learning experience for him heading into this spring practice, where he’ll compete with Knight for the right to start.
While Hubenak and Knight might not have much experience at Texas A&M, they do bring unique experience to the Aggies.
“They’re two guys who have been to a couple different schools -- shoot, Jake, this is his third stop. They knew who each other were before they got here," Sumlin said. "They did a nice job during winter conditioning of taking a leadership role and filling a void that we needed.”
Under Sumlin, the Aggies typically wait until the middle of preseason training camp to name a starting quarterback, and that’s likely going to be the case this time around. Monday’s practice is simply the first of many in that marathon, and while the competition may be close and spirited, the buildup and scrutiny surrounding the battle will be far from it.
For a team that needs to have a big year after back-to-back 8-5 campaigns and middle-of-the-SEC West finishes, that’s probably a good thing.