Kevin Sumlin, the unlikely QB guru
What will Texas A&M do post-Johnny? Sumlin's past provides the road map
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas - Johnny Manziel is in Aggieland no more. Life after Johnny Football beckons for Texas A&M.
While much of the college football world is focused on who is not in College Station, A&M fans are concerned more with who will be atop the quarterback depth chart now that one of the most dynamic players in the sport's history is gone.
This isn't new for Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. He traveled the preseason quarterback competition path twice before as a head coach, and both times, the winner became a record-setting passer who changed his school's history forever. Look deeper into Sumlin's history and it becomes evident that he has a knack for being in the presence of elite college quarterbacks, including Drew Bledsoe at Washington State, Drew Brees at Purdue, Jason White and Sam Bradford at Oklahoma, and Case Keenum at Houston.
"This guy has had the darndest luck with quarterbacks," joked retired Purdue coach Joe Tiller, who both coached Sumlin and coached with him. "He's been at the right place at the right time."
And while it's worth noting that this choice will yield the first Sumlin quarterback recruit to start a season opener in his head-coaching career, at what point is it not coincidence?
First job, first overall pick
Sumlin's relationship with Tiller proved key as he sought his first coaching job. After graduating from Purdue and working as an insurance underwriter, Sumlin had the itch to coach. He called several coaches he knew, including Tiller, looking for work as a graduate assistant.
Tiller, who was Sumlin's defensive coordinator at Purdue in the mid-1980s, was the offensive coordinator under Mike Price at Washington State in 1989. Tiller touted Sumlin's intellect, and Price saved Sumlin from life behind a desk. It was there in Pullman, Washington, that Price and Tiller charted a new path for the former linebacker, putting Sumlin on the offensive staff and making him the junior varsity head coach.
Price was among the early adopters of the one-back offense, which was growing in popularity in the late 1980s. Price and Tiller were ahead of the curve, and they informed Sumlin that he'd better be, too. Not only that, Washington State is where Sumlin found his first star pupil at quarterback.
"We had a guy named Drew Bledsoe who was pretty good," Sumlin said. "[Price and Tiller] brought me in the room ... and basically they said 'If you want to coach in the college ranks, if you learn what we're doing here and you learn the principles of this offense, you'll always have a job.' And at least up to this point, that's turned out to be correct."
Another brush with greatness
Sumlin was still learning on the job, but Tiller saw potential. After two years in Pullman, Tiller took over as Wyoming's head coach in 1991 and had about $24,000 to hire a receivers coach when he phoned Sumlin, whom Tiller joked would have probably accepted the job for half that since it would be his first full-time paid assistant coach gig.
"He was young and smart but he didn't know much about a game plan, etc.," Tiller said. "He kind of came from being a player to a GA to on the staff. He was our receiver coach for a couple years and did a good job and continued to learn the offense and became more knowledgeable."
In 1998, Sumlin reunited with Tiller at Purdue as the receivers coach. The team's quarterback? Drew Brees.
"He knew he was going to be able to coach Drew Brees as well as he did Drew Bledsoe, or be involved, rather," Tiller said with a chuckle. "So he came to Purdue and did a good job. He changed a lot. He had gotten married. ... He was more mature and he was able to contribute to the game plan because his knowledge was improving all along. One thing about Kevin is he's a smart guy and he can figure things out in a hurry."
With Brees behind center, the Boilermakers set records and made waves in the Big Ten with their offense, culminating with a Rose Bowl appearance at the end of the 2000 season.
Though Sumlin worked strictly with the receivers, Tiller said the chemistry of that offensive coaching staff, led by offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, allowed everyone to have input.
"Jim was really good about involving everybody in his staff, so when it came to game-planning, Kevin had about as equal a voice as you could have in the offensive staff room," Tiller said. "He had some good ideas ... We were all equals and we respected each other, and somebody had an idea, no matter who it was, and he got to put it on the table and it got discussed."
A coach on the rise in Aggieland
One head coach who had his eye on Sumlin was Texas A&M's R.C. Slocum.
"The papers in Texas would always have the top 50 list or the top 100 list for [recruiting]," Slocum said. "They'd have the young men's choices [listed] and I kept seeing Purdue in there. I'd see a kid considering A&M, Oklahoma, [whoever else] and Purdue. And so one day at a staff meeting, I said 'I want to know who recruits down here for Purdue.'"
Sumlin was the guy. At the next American Football Coaches Association convention, Slocum introduced himself to Sumlin and told the young assistant, "The next time I have an opening you're going to have to tell me 'No,' because I'm going to get you down here for an interview and talk to you about a job."
Slocum said Sumlin wasn't exactly eager to migrate south. But Slocum was persistent and landed the up-and-coming coach before the 2001 season to oversee receivers.
In addition to Sumlin's recruiting ability, Slocum was attracted to his offensive background and history with the one-back offense because Slocum wanted to open up the Aggies' offense. It was in 2002 that Sumlin truly made his mark.
Three games into that season, Slocum made an abrupt change on his offensive staff after a 13-3 loss to No. 7 Virginia Tech. Slocum relieved offensive coordinator Dino Babers of play-calling duties and handed them to Sumlin.
After averaging 16 points per game and 286 yards in the first three games, the Aggies averaged 33 points and 419 yards per game with Sumlin running the show.
The seminal moment for Sumlin that fall came Nov. 9, 2002, when the Aggies hosted then-No. 1-ranked Oklahoma. A true freshman quarterback and the jewel of the Aggies' 2002 recruiting class, Reggie McNeal, was gradually being prepped by the coaching staff to play but saw mostly spot duty before the Oklahoma game.
Late in the first quarter against the undefeated Sooners, with the Aggies trailing 7-0, McNeal entered the game with words of confidence from Sumlin.
"When I got ready to go on the field, I talked to Sumlin and exactly what he told me was, 'Reg, you're a damn good athlete. You've been playing this game for a long time. Play the game like you know how to play it. Go have fun. I'm going to put you in the right situations and you get us where we need to be and have fun doing it,'" McNeal told ESPN.com in 2012.
McNeal threw for 191 yards and four touchdowns in his three-plus quarters and led a 30-26 upset of the Sooners, derailing their BCS title hopes.
"It was a fun day and I give credit to Kevin for having a plan there and knowing the things that Reggie could do in the game and calling the game to give him a chance to do the things he could do," Slocum said. "Kevin's a really bright guy, intelligent guy and I think he has a good feel for kids and how much to give them, when to put pressure on, take pressure off. He understands all that about as well as anyone I've ever been around."
Sumlin then spent five years at Oklahoma, working with talented quarterbacks like Jason White and Sam Bradford, before he got his first Division I head-coaching gig at Houston.
From two quarterbacks to one in Houston
Before he rewrote the NCAA record books, Case Keenum was largely an unknown entity fighting for a chance.
In his redshirt freshman season under Art Briles, Keenum split time as the starting quarterback. But when Briles departed and Sumlin arrived, he made one thing clear: There would be no rotating quarterbacks; he would choose one guy and stick with him.
That meant Keenum would spend the offseason competing for the starting job. In his first major decision as a head coach, Sumlin and offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen tabbed Keenum as the Cougars' starter roughly two weeks before Houston's season opener.
"I remember him telling me ... that it was my job to keep and that they had faith in me and it wasn't like they were ready to pull me once something bad happened," Keenum said.
Keenum went on to FBS career records for total offense, passing yards, touchdown passes, touchdowns responsible for, completions, 300-yard games and 5,000-yard seasons. The Cougars were 33-11 in games Keenum started under Sumlin, including a memorable 13-1 campaign in 2011 in which the Cougars climbed as high as No. 6 in the BCS rankings.
But Keenum wasn't perfect. One growing pain came early in the 2008 season at Colorado State. With Houston trailing 28-25 at the Rams' 15 with nine seconds to go, Keenum threw an interception in the end zone that sent the Cougars to a 1-3 record.
"Everybody was pretty mad, and [Sumlin] put his arm around me and kind of explained the situation and what we needed to do and what should happen and what we're trying to accomplish," Keenum said. "He did a great job of doing stuff like that, crucial times and moments and being able just to teach us the game of football.
Keenum alluded to Sumlin's vote of confidence in him upon naming him the starter. He has always been a one-quarterback coach, so don't expect Allen or Hill to rotate.
"It's like pitching. You don't like to play looking over your shoulder at that position," Sumlin said. "Quarterback is a lot different [than other positions]. You have to have confidence. The hard part is every one of those guys that you recruit is used to being 'the man.'"
Keenum agrees, after experiencing a rotation firsthand in 2007.
"It was kind of different ... learning how to get into a rhythm real quickly, going in and out and you never really know what the deal is," Keenum said. "You're always kind of questioning. It is difficult."
The choice that changed Texas A&M
After taking the A&M job in December 2011, another quarterback decision awaited Sumlin. Coming out of spring, several gave the edge on the open starting quarterback job to Jameill Showers, who by several accounts -- even other college coaches who witnessed Aggies' practices that spring -- performed better than Manziel.
Then came Manziel's offseason arrest, which some believed hurt his chances more. The deck seemed stacked against Johnny Football entering August training camp, when it all changed.
Manziel shined the brightest in a four-player training camp competition. On Aug. 15, 2012, an announcement that would change Texas A&M football forever was made.
"Johnny has performed the best at this stage and we will proceed until the season opener with him getting the first-team reps," Sumlin said in a statement that day. "My policy is simple, really: The best player plays."
Improvement over the summer months was key. Then-offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury admitted that Manziel was "reckless with the ball" during spring football, which is a Sumlin pet peeve. His training camp performance showed vast improvement and he began making the routine plays necessary to move the offense.
Over the next two seasons, Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy and led the Aggies to a 20-6 record. A walking highlight reel who made headlines both on and off the field, Manziel left a lasting impact on Aggieland.
The next big decision
Today, a rabid fan base eagerly awaits word on Sumlin's next decision, listening to every word about Allen and Hill, dissecting every morsel of information in hopes of gaining insight into his thinking.
With this being Sumlin's third preseason quarterback competition, he has the drill down pat. Let things play out in the spring, split the reps evenly, analyze the quarterbacks every way possible, and roughly two weeks before the season opener, pick a guy and stick with him. His past experiences have taught him a few things.
"You don't make a decision based on one practice," Sumlin said. "You make a decision based on [what you see] over time. You don't make a decision just based on numbers. There are a lot of things that go into it. It helps that most practices are closed, so you don't have to get everybody's opinion."
Allen and Hill provide two talented options with quality credentials: Hill as a one-time Gatorade Texas High School Player of the Year and state champion at Southlake Carroll, Allen as the No. 1-ranked pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class.
Sumlin acknowledges that good timing has been a factor in all his experience with successful quarterbacks, but he credits his mentors from whom he learned plenty and who gave him the opportunity to begin the journey he continues today.
"Right place, right time," Sumlin said. "But I've been around a lot of real good coaches too."
That's true, but it's clear by now that Sumlin has something to do with it, as well.
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