Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin’s offensive reputation has long stemmed from his teams’ ability to throw the football.
Whether it was Case Keenum at Houston, Johnny Manziel at A&M or the handful of quarterbacks who followed Manziel, passing yards usually haven’t been hard to come by on Sumlin-coached teams. Rarely, if ever, have his teams been widely known for running the football, fair or not.
This season, that seems destined to change.
Following Texas A&M’s 45-24 win over Arkansas on Saturday, the Aggie offense has established that, more than anything else, this is a group that can run the football.
Through the first month of the season, the Aggies lead the SEC in total rushing yards (1,077), rushing yards per game (269.3) and yards per rush (7.04). The last time the Aggies led the league for a full season in at least two of those three categories was in 2012. That year, they led the conference in rushing yards per game and yards per rush ... and they went 11-2.
When considering games only vs. Power 5 conference opponents, the Aggies are still the best in the league so far on the ground: 800 total yards and 6.9 yards per rush. They are second in rushing yards per game vs. Power 5 teams, averaging 266.7 per to Alabama’s 288.
At the heart of the identity shift are multiple factors: the presence of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who also knows plenty about throwing the football as a one-back spread disciple but is intent on running the football. There’s the addition of a couple new running backs to the lineup: Oklahoma transfer Keith Ford, who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules and true freshman Trayveon Williams, who enrolled at Texas A&M in January. And the running ability of quarterback Trevor Knight has added a threat to the offense, though that isn’t necessarily new, as the Aggies have had Manziel, Kenny Hill and Kyler Murray (even Kyle Allen could move well, though he was considered more of a traditional pocket passer).
In the second half of the Aggies’ win on Saturday, they compiled 212 of their 366 rushing yards. They averaged 10.1 yards per carry in the second half and had eight runs of 10-plus yards in the final two periods, allowing them to pull away.
“Our ability to be able to run it in the second half when we needed to run it is a big step for this team,” Sumlin said after the win Saturday night.
He’s right about that. In the past two seasons, when the Aggies went 8-5 each year, they had their two lowest rushing averages of the Sumlin era, averaging 149 rushing yards per game in 2014 and 169 per game in 2015.
In 2012 and 2013, when the Aggies had Manziel (an elite rusher himself) and went a combined 20-6, they averaged 242.1 rushing yards per game in 2012 and 185.1 per game in 2013.
If the Aggies keep up the impressive pace they’re on this season, they’ll have their best rushing year yet since joining the SEC.
The depth at the running back position can’t be understated. Last season, the Aggies were left with mainly one feature back: Tra Carson. Carson, who has since graduated, became the first A&M running back to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season since the Aggies joined the SEC. He was to be part of a duo with James White, who’s now a junior, but an early-season ankle injury kept White from contributing consistently much of the year and left much of the load on Carson. This season Ford has been solid and Williams has emerged as an apparent star in the making. The true freshman ran for 127 yards on eight carries in the Aggies’ win over Auburn in Week 3 and 153 yards on 12 carries vs. the Razorbacks. White is still around contributing, and redshirt freshman Kendall Bussey and walk-on Kwame Etwi are two others the Aggies trust to tote the football.
The Aggies have accomplished this with an offensive line that’s starting a true freshman (left guard Colton Prater), a redshirt freshman (center Erik McCoy) and a true sophomore (right guard Connor Lanfear) between two senior tackles (Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor).
While Knight, who is completing only 53.2 percent of his passes so far this season, continues to find his way in the air, his running ability – which led to two 40-plus yard touchdown runs and 157 total rushing yards vs. the Razorbacks – is helping move the chains. He only attempted 22 passes on Saturday night, which might be the new ideal norm for the Aggies if they continue to run the ball this way.
Continuing to emphasize the run likely best serves the Aggies moving forward. Since joining the SEC, the Aggies are 28-1 in games they rushed for 180 or more yards and 15-1 in such games vs. Power 5 teams. When they don’t make it to 180 rushing yards? The Aggies are 12-15, including 9-15 against Power 5 competition.
Sumlin realizes with the elite defense the Aggies possess, this may be the best path for this team. He alluded to it after the Aggies’ 29-16 road win at Auburn in Week 3, one in which the Aggies struggled in the red zone and got the help of five field goals in the win.
“We played a little bit different as a team,” Sumlin said after that game. “This is a little different than no-huddle, going up and down the field, throwing it every down. I'm not saying that we're a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust team, but we'd like to get better in the red zone. If we can continue to do that, we can get better offensively.”