- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Texas A&M entered the SEC in 2012, the Aggies were well-equipped in an important area -- especially in a line-of-scrimmage league like the SEC -- the offensive line.
Immense talent stocked the cupboard and the Aggies owned one of the nation’s best offensive fronts in their first two SEC seasons. Naturally, observers assumed Texas A&M wouldn’t miss a beat in year three, with another future NFL draft pick anchoring the line (Cedric Ogbuehi) and several returning starters bringing experience to the 2014 group.
Instead, inconsistent play, injuries and resulting lineup changes affected what Kevin Sumlin once called “the strength of the program” and last season, the offensive line didn’t quite meet the lofty standard set the preceding two seasons.
“It was kind of mixed bag, just so many injuries and so many things that went wrong,” junior offensive tackle Germain Ifedi said last week, reflecting on last season. “Once you start getting all those moving pieces sometimes it's hard to get a good rhythm and camaraderie on the O-line.
“Under the circumstances I think we played well, definitely if we could have had all five of the guys all healthy at once all year you probably would have seen what everybody was expecting.”
This offseason is one of transition for the “Maroon Goons.” Sumlin parted ways with B.J. Anderson, who served as his offensive line coach for six years (three at Houston, three at Texas A&M) and hired Dave Christensen -- formerly of Utah, Wyoming and Missouri -- to take over offensive line coaching duties. Ogbuehi is gone as is left guard Jarvis Harrison. The Aggies will have a new left tackle for the third straight season. Christensen has myriad tasks on his plate, from honing technique to building depth.
“We have a lot of talent, but we aren’t as deep as we need to be, so we’re developing some depth right now we’re going to count on,” Christensen said. “We’ve got one freshman in right now [Keaton Sutherland] who’s in the mix to play and we’ve got three more coming in. So we’re getting better but we lost some experienced guys and [center] Mike [Matthews] is out for the spring, so we’re missing him. So we really only have two guys with a bunch of experience that are playing right now.”
Ifedi is one of those two (guard Joseph Cheek is the other), and he noticed that Christensen sweats the small stuff at practice.
“It is definitely different,” Ifedi said. “He pays a lot more attention to detail and we have just been improving small things, small things that we usually weren’t doing before and we really like it. We like being pushed and he definitely gets the most out of us.”
Christensen said the line is tightening up hand placement and playing with better pad level. The group also will show differences in stance -- the last three seasons the Aggies utilized a two-point stance the majority of the time. Christensen said the interior offensive line will be in a three-point stance most of the time while the tackles will be mostly in a two-point.
Sumlin likes Christensen’s wide range of experience and flexibility, which will bring a different flavor to the Aggies’ Air Raid-based offense.
"He’s always been a guy that has been adaptable,” Sumlin said. “You watch the transformation at Missouri to a really open scheme when he became a coordinator and was really effective. As a head coach [at Wyoming] he was a little bit different then at Utah a little bit different there. He’s well versed in offensive football and line play and whether it is from a run game standpoint with running backs, two backs, one back, quarterback run, he’s been efficient in all those areas.”
While Christensen focuses on depth and details, there is sufficient talent at his disposal among the starting group. Matthews, who is expected to be healthy for the fall after recovering from offseason surgery, has already mastered the new terminology Christensen brought and should be an all-conference caliber center. Ifedi and Avery Gennessy, a 2014 ESPN JC 50 tackle who redshirted at A&M last year, have both seen time at right and left tackle this spring and Cheek returns after starting 10 games last year.
It’s far too early to know if the Aggies’ offensive line can come close to the high standards it once set, but if it can, it bodes well for the offense as a whole as the Aggies look to improve after ranking 82nd nationally in rushing last season. Ifedi feels this year’s group can handle any issues that come its way.
“We have guys that can play up and down the line and we have guys that can flip sides easily with no difficulty,” he said. “I think definitely, this year, if a guy goes down another guy can flip and go here and there and be just as comfortable and effective at whatever he is playing.”