In Texas A&M’s three years of membership, head coach Kevin Sumlin has learned a lot about life in the SEC.
Lesson No. 1: Despite the emergence of up-tempo offenses (including his) that spread the field, speed up the game and (hopefully) score a lot of points, the SEC is not a finesse league. Far from it.
“The SEC is a line of scrimmage and a depth league,” Sumlin said earlier this summer. “If you can’t run the ball and stop the run, you’re not going to win the championship.”
Lesson No. 2: There is no substitute for toughness. But in order to be tough, you have to think tough, recruit tough and practice tough. And that, Sumlin admits, is something his high-flying Aggies have been lacking in their first three seasons in the conference.
In 2012 Texas A&M used a Heisman Trophy season by Johnny Manziel to finish 11-2 (6-2 SEC). In 2013 the Aggies were 4-4 in the SEC. Last season they were 3-5 despite averaging 35.2 points per game.
Sumlin knew something had to change.
“One of our biggest goals in the off season was to become a tougher team both physically and mentally,” Sumlin said. “In order to do that you have to practice in a certain way.”
And you also have to bring in coaches with a track record for toughness. Everybody knows the Aggies, who were dead last in the SEC in total defense (450.8 ypg) and rushing defense last season (216 yards per game, 5.0 ypc) last season, made a huge move in luring defensive coordinator John Chavis from LSU. It’s going to take some additional recruiting, but that side of the ball is going to get fixed.
But in move that didn’t receive as much attention, Sumlin hired Dave Christensen away from Utah to become the Aggies’ offensive line coach and run-game coordinator.
Christensen, who was Gary Pinkel’s offensive coordinator at Toledo (1997-2000) and Missouri (2001-2008), was the head coach at Wyoming from 2009-2013. Last season Utah was third in the Pac-12 in rushing (190.4 ypg) behind Oregon and UCLA. Deveontae Booker was the No. 2 rusher in the conference with 1,512 yards.
Sumlin’s charge to Christensen was simply stated but not easily done: Take the Aggies’ spread, up-tempo offense and inject it with a power running component.
“People have this misconception that if you spread people out you can’t have a power running game,” said Christensen from his office in College Station. “That’s not true. You can do it but you have to commit to it and work on it every day. I’m excited about the opportunity.”
Sumlin is excited about what he’s seen so far.
“You watch what their team did last year at Utah. They were able to run the ball on a lot of really quality teams like USC (174 rushing yards gained in a 24-21 win over the Trojans),” said Sumlin. “Schematically, I think he brings attitude and experience to the table.”
And Sumlin puts a big emphasis on the attitude. He admits that when the Aggies first got into the SEC, he felt the best way to win was to spread people out and try to score a bunch of points. Now that recruiting has picked up and there are more quality linemen in the program, it’s time to play some big boy football.
“Our ability to recruit, retain, and develop defensive front players and offensive linemen has really, really increased over the last couple of years,” said Sumlin. “Hopefully we’re going to see that pay dividends over the next couple of years.”
The bar for offensive linemen at Texas A&M has already been set high with a first round pick in each of the last three drafts (Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Matthews, Luke Joeckel).
Christensen starts with an offensive line that returns three starters: Center Mike Matthews (an All-SEC candidate), guard Joseph Cheek, and tackle Germain Ifedi, who has made 24 career starts and could the next first-round pick for the Aggies.
“I would say our guys up front are a work in progress,” said Christensen. “We’re used to having a bunch of NFL guys around here. It’s a process.”
He has two powerful running backs in Tra Carson, a 6-1, 240-pound pile-driver and sophomore James White (6-0, 220).
Carson led the team in rushing last season with 581 yards on 124 carries. White had only 22 carries for 153 yards. Both will get more touches in this offense.
“Carson is a load. He’s similar to Booker (of Utah), “said Christensen. “White is also a big guy. I like having big physical guys.”
Senior Brandon Williams is an exceptional athlete who will play both cornerback and running back.
Christensen has been in coaching for 30 years and said that the opportunity to coach at Texas A&M was “one that I just couldn’t pass up.”
“I’ve done this for quite a while but I’ve never been at a top five or top 10 program in terms of facilities and resources,” said Christensen, who played for Don James at Washington (1980-82). “This is a place that has everything. Our new stadium (Kyle Field has undergone $425 million in improvements) is just incredible. This is a place where you can recruit the very best players in the country.
“Before I got to the end of my career I wanted a shot like this. I can’t tell you how excited I am about it.”
Texas A&M’s fans are excited too. The Aggies were picked to finish sixth in the SEC West during the league’s media days in July. But if the Aggies move up a couple of notches on defense with Chavis and improve on the running game with Christensen, they could surprise a lot of people.
Next stop: Vanderbilt