To say that Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin has had a remarkable 18 months on the job would be quite the understatement.
The 48-year-old native of Brewton, Ala., took over an Aggies program that was full of question marks. Who's going to play quarterback? Will scheme changes on both sides of the ball make their first season in the SEC even more difficult than expected? Can they shed the "soft" label and learn to finish in the second half?
All they did in Sumlin's inaugural season was post an 11-2 record, beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa and produce a Heisman Trophy winner (quarterback Johnny Manziel) and an Outland Trophy winner (offensive tackle Luke Joeckel) in a defensive-driven conference.
Not a bad debut.
But things have changed a bit in College Station. Excitement about the future has evolved into legitimate national championship aspirations.
How is Sumlin handling those expectations, and what does the future hold for his program?
He went one-on-one with lead SEC college football writer Barrett Sallee in cooperation with EA Sports' NCAA Football 14—which will be released July 9—to preview the season, the future and recruiting.
Barrett Sallee: Things are a little different this offseason than last offseason during your transition year. How much over the last year and change has the marriage between the SEC and Texas A&M benefited you on the recruiting trail and as a program overall?
Kevin Sumlin: It's really been a combination of a lot of things, including moving to the SEC, changing the culture of the program and the success of last year. You add all those things up, and throw in a situation where you have a Heisman Trophy winner, an Outland Trophy winner and finish up with a big bowl win. All those things have worked hand-in-hand to create momentum, which has paid off in the offseason in recruiting.
BS: You adapted your system to quarterback Johnny Manziel's skills last season. For the future, you have options not only at quarterback, but what kind of scheme to run. You have a couple of young quarterbacks on campus who can sling it: dual-threat class of 2013 prospect Kenny Hill, pro-style class of 2013 prospect (and top MLB pitching prospect) Kohl Stewart and another pro-style quarterback, Kyle Allen, committed for 2014. Where do you see your offense headed in the future?
KS: We've been able to do things all kinds of ways. I don't think that's ever going to change. We're going to recruit the best players who we think can help us win. When you look back before Case [Keenum] hurt his knee, he was able to move around and do some things at Houston. Obviously when I was at Oklahoma, we had two or three different styles of quarterbacks. Jason White was pretty good, he didn't run anywhere, and he won a Heisman. We don't get locked up in it. People try to make a big deal about what style of football you play. What we do is try to create a style that will move the football and score touchdowns. Moving forward (after Manziel), we're going to pick the guy who we think can do that.
BS: One of the biggest questions heading into the season is your front seven where you're looking to fill quite a few holes. Linebacker Steven Jenkins missed spring practice, as well as defensive end Julien Obioha. What do you learn this spring from the guys who did practice, and where do you see your front seven heading into the fall?
KS: We actually had three members of the front seven who didn't practice this spring, which gave us the opportunity to practice everybody else. [Defensive tackle] Kirby Ennis (injury/suspension) didn't practice either, so we were without an end, without a nose and a starting linebacker. That's a plus and a minus. The plus is that guys who haven't played got double the amount of reps and work than they would have received if those guys were here. We know what those three guys can do.
That's why it's college football. If you're a team that's returning 18 starters from the year before, then you probably weren't very good the year before. I think we've got 11 or 12 coming back, which is about right for us. That means that half your team is leaving and half is back. That's the reason you have to recruit well, because some young guys are going to have to play. That's not any different than anybody else. Role players from a year ago are going to have to step up and be starters. There's a reason we signed 32 guys last year. I didn't sign those guys to come stand next to me. They're going to be thrown in the mix early.
BS: Floyd Raven moved to safety this offseason, and you have quite a talented and now-experienced pool of cornerbacks. What are you expecting from them this season?
KS: He (Raven) played well this spring, and I think he'll continue to get better this offseason. With two-a-day practices coming, we have some depth. Howard Matthews has played a lot of football for us at the other safety spot. Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris, [Tremaine] Jacobs and all of those guys played at corner last year. We've got some experience in the secondary, which is a lot different than we were last year. So it's about getting the right guys in the right place, including getting Toney Hurd back there and doing some things at nickel. Realistically, that secondary on paper has as much experience as any position on our team. If Floyd [Raven] can continue to develop and get that size, speed and range to where we need, that'll really strengthen our defense.
BS: You are up at EA Sports' campus talking about recruiting features for NCAA Football 14. How are this year's features similar to the experiences you have on the recruiting trail?
KS: We've been sitting here talking about all of the different features in the game and all of the new things, and the recruiting piece is outstanding. They now have the ability to go and scout players, recruit them and fill the needs of your program with a recruiting board that's very, very realistic. There's a rating system with the players, but you actually have the ability to go in and scout the players to make sure that he fits your program and make sure that their star value is accurate and what you think they should be. It's pretty impressive.
That's really why I'm up here. We've talked quite a bit, and I've given feedback on recruiting boards and how you scout and evaluate. What I might see in a player that's a 3-star in a recruiting service, I may see him as a different-level player in our program because of our position needs. We've talked about a lot here, and they're going to take that information and incorporate what really goes on in recruiting situations or in-game situations into the product. The video game is extremely realistic.
BS: How much do video games help your players in their development since you have such limited time with them on the practice field?
KS: Yeah, they play all the time. Our coaches play. My kids play. I think, in a way, it adds to your football IQ and the ability to have a plan, think about the game and anticipate things that are about to happen to you. Some of them are really good at it, and that's a good thing. That means they understand football, rules, strategy; and that's important. We have kids who travel with [systems] on Friday night, on buses, on planes and hotels. They're playing all the time.
*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.