Texas A&M, Texas at different stages
Strong's High Expectations For Texas
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Earlier this month, Texas A&M's coaches had to evacuate their offices in the Bright Football Complex for several days, so construction cranes could move mammoth sections of steel over the building's roof to nearby Kyle Field.
The Aggies' ever-expanding facilities aren't the only things getting a facelift in College Station this spring.
As Texas A&M begins its third season in the SEC, the Aggies are undergoing a reconstruction on the field, as well. Gone are star quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, along with receiver Mike Evans and left tackle Jake Matthews, potential top-10 picks in next month's NFL draft.
"Everyone thinks we were just a two-man show with Johnny and Mike," Aggies offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi said. "But last year we had a lot of components to our team. They were a big part of our offense's success, but we're out to show the world that we're much more than two people."
While the Aggies will have to replace two of college football's most dynamic playmakers, their rebuilding job pales in comparison to what's happening at former rival Texas.
For the first time since 1997, someone other than Mack Brown led the Longhorns through spring practice. Former Louisville coach Charlie Strong, who guided the Cardinals to a 37-15 record and a BCS bowl game in four seasons, replaced the longtime UT coach in January. Strong inherits a UT team that lost at least four games in each of the past four seasons.
As the former Big 12 rivals head into the offseason, they're tackling similar issues. Finding Manziel's successor was priority No. 1 at Texas A&M this spring. He accounted for more than 7,800 passing yards with 63 touchdowns and more than 2,100 rushing yards with 30 scores the past two seasons combined.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin knows replacing "Johnny Football" won't be easy.
"I don't talk about it much," Sumlin said. "I think it's been brought up enough. It's pretty easy for us because when we got here there was no Johnny Football. We don't expect there to be another Johnny Football. We expect it to be whoever his name is. There's never been one like him and there probably won't be one after him. When we got here, nobody really knew who he was or what he was capable of."
The battle to replace Manziel became a two-man race between sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen after senior Matt Joeckel announced last week that he's transferring. Hill, from Southlake, Texas, completed 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards with one touchdown in five games last season. He was indefinitely suspended from the team in late March after his arrest on public intoxication charges.
Hill's absence this spring opened the door for Allen, an early enrollee from Scottsdale, Ariz. Sumlin isn't expected to name a starting quarterback until August, like he did when Manziel won the starting job as a freshman in 2012. Sumlin isn't offering much in terms of an assessment of the contenders, either.
"They look OK," Sumlin said. "They're good, not too bad. It looks like spring football. A lot of things can happen in the summer that can help guys get better. Quarterback is one of those positions, like many of the skill positions, where you can get a lot better in the summer because of 7-on-7 drills, studying route concepts and reads and watching video. I've seen guys make all kinds of strides during the summer. We'll get into fall camp and see what the guys have done."
The good news for the Aggies is that they bring back four of five starting offensive linemen, as well as three running backs -- juniors Trey Williams, Tra Carson and Brandon Williams -- who combined to run for more than 1,000 yards with 14 touchdowns last season.
"When you have a young quarterback, it's not on the quarterback for us to be successful," Sumlin said. "It's incumbent on the other guys and coaches to make him successful. Those guys are going to have to make this quarterback successful. We're not going to try to force a square peg in a round hole. We're going to find out what he can do and play to his strengths. We're going to allow him to grow by giving him as much as he can handle."
Strong said Ash looked good running UT's new offense before suffering the foot injury. The Longhorns are expected to run an up-tempo attack, much like other Big 12 teams have successfully utilized in recent seasons.
"I think just going through the medical issues took its toll on him," Strong said. "Knock on wood, but we haven't had any issues yet. But we haven't hit the quarterback, either."
Tyrone Swoopes, who played sparingly as a freshman in 2013, threw an interception on his first pass attempt in Saturday's spring game. He recovered to throw for 229 yards with three touchdowns against UT's No. 2 defense, but wasn't very consistent during the spring.
"He still has a ways to go with him learning the new offense," Strong said. "It's new to him."
Incoming freshman Jerrod Heard of Denton, Texas, the No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in the country according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will join the competition in June. The Longhorns also are courting former USC quarterback Max Wittek, who was Trojans starter Cody Kessler's backup last season. Wittek, who also is considering Hawaii and Louisville, has made three visits to the UT campus.
Regardless of who starts under center for the Longhorns this coming season, Strong is looking for more consistency at the position. Texas has struggled in the passing game since Colt McCoy left after the 2009 season.
"It's one of those positions where if you play well, a lot of praise is going to come with it," Strong said. "If you don't, there's going to be a lot of criticism. With [former UT quarterback Vince] Young and Colt, when everybody looks at the quarterback position that's what they expect to see. But that's not always what you're going to get. I don't need you to go make great plays. I need you to manage the offense and game. You can't be them because you don't have the ability to be them. Be yourself."
It sounds a lot like what the Aggies are facing this spring, too.
"It's kind of cool to know that we have to prove ourselves like we did in Johnny's first year," Ogbuehi said. "Everybody thought we were going to be a bad football team. I remember that spring and offseason, when nobody was even talking about us. Coach Sumlin kept telling us that it didn't matter if they weren't talking about us; it only mattered if they were talking about us when the season was over. It's not about how you start, it's about how you finish."