COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When Texas A&M initially joined the SEC and surprised observers with its 11-2 debut season, they did so with their high-powered, hurry-up no-huddle offense.
With Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel leading the show, the Aggies had one of the nation’s best units two years running. That was nothing new for Kevin Sumlin, who oversaw top-five offenses in his four years at Houston, where his teams shattered numerous NCAA records.
Over the last two seasons, the Aggies’ offense gradually drifted away from its 2012 and 2013 versions -- both in production and style -- to the point that it was nearly unrecognizable at the end of the 2015 season. The Aggies were in the middle of the pack nationally, 69th in yards per play (5.59), 80th in yards per pass attempt (6.38), 75th in offensive points scored per game (25.6). Beyond that, the fast pace that used to keep Alabama coach Nick Saban and other defensive minds up at night seemed to be a thing of the past.
That might change in 2016.
Following the Aggies’ first spring practice on Monday, Sumlin was asked about the team’s offensive tempo under new coordinator Noel Mazzone. His answer was revealing.
“We were really fast today and I don’t think it was fast enough,” Sumlin said. “We’re moving very quickly and that’s a good thing. We’ve got guys that have been used to a fast tempo. I think it helps us. That’s who we are. We’re better off doing that. We were practicing like that today.”
Read those words again: “That’s who we are. We’re better off doing that.”
That wasn’t the tone Sumlin carried last season. Days after the Aggies’ first defeat of the season, a 41-23 home loss to the Crimson Tide, Sumlin was asked about offensive tempo and noted the importance of being able to vary the pace.
“It's funny, we got here and they said, 'Well, you're going too fast. We don’t play football like that in this league.' Now everybody’s like, 'We’re going too slow,’” Sumlin said last October. “I think we’re at a point where we’re kind of in-between. Tempo does you a lot of good when you're making first downs. When you're not ... then you can have another situation like you had a year ago at Alabama [when Texas A&M lost 59-0]. If you’re not making first downs, you’re off the field in 19 seconds. All that goes hand-in-hand.”
Sumlin is correct about that -- a fast pace does little good when the offense isn’t moving the ball and can have an adverse effect on the team’s defense. But it was clear the Aggies consciously decided to not go fast all the time. That was a departure from Sumlin’s first six or seven years as a head coach, when his teams almost always went as fast as possible to gain an advantage.
The addition of personnel packages with tight ends, H-backs and more contributed to the change in pace -- rules dictate that when the offense substitutes, the defense gets a chance to do so too -- but the Aggies’ best SEC success in the program’s first four years in the league came when they were operating quickly (and, coincidentally, had the nation's best player). The departure from that core identity was one of many factors in the unit's eventual downfall.
Mazzone, a longtime one-back offense devotee, also believes in fast pace. The longstanding friendship between him and Sumlin, who go back to the mid-1990s when they coached at Minnesota together under Jim Wacker, means there is some overlap in offensive philosophies between the two. (They were among the original group of coaches who attended “one-back clinics” in the early 2000s.) That and the implicit trust that comes with a relationship that spans two decades made Mazzone a logical choice for Sumlin to look to for help in turning the Aggies’ offense around.
“He’s been able to be consistent wherever he’s been as an offensive coordinator and utilize the pieces that he has, from running backs to receivers to tight ends, whatever he’s got,” Sumlin said of Mazzone. “We’ve known each other a long time. He understood what we had piece-wise and he was excited to get here.”
Whether it works come the fall depends on how well the quarterback (either Trevor Knight or Jake Hubenak) plays and how well the offensive line performs. Both position groups have struggled or been a source of inconsistency the last two years, and that has been a significant part of Texas A&M’s offensive collapse.
But if the Aggies are going to get back to their high-scoring ways, it makes sense to do what they’ve done best in the Sumlin era -- go fast.