With the way Texas A&M’s offense has performed this season, you hardly notice that this team is working under a new staff and a new philosophy.
Kevin Sumlin and his crew have been in College Station for less than a year, but through three games, their up-tempo offense has looked like it’s been an A&M staple.
The Aggies (2-1) are fourth in the SEC in total offense (462.3 yards per game) and second in scoring (45). Now, the majority of Texas A&M’s production has come in the last two weeks against two much weaker opponents in SMU and South Carolina State, after getting shut out in the second half against Florida to open the year. But you can’t ignore the recent numbers from a team that is working with so much that is brand new.
“They expected to be good and they’ve really embraced this offense,” offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said. “They’ve played hard so far.”
As the Aggies head into their matchup with Arkansas (1-3) on Saturday, Sumlin still wants to see more. He’s pleased with back-to-back blowouts that saw his team average 526.5 yards and score 118 combined points, but the second-half collapse against Florida still stings.
“We’re capable of more,” Sumlin said.
And more could be scary for defenses, especially with the Aggies adapting to the rushed pace that made Houston so deadly when Sumlin and Kingsbury were there. You don’t see the same passing game, but you see a lot of explosion, and the hope is that the Aggies see a lot of tired bodies across the line of scrimmage.
Making sure players adjusted to the speed of the offense was the top priority this spring. Formations and routes were important, but making sure that players weren’t too gassed to execute properly in the hustle and bustle of the offense were concerns.
“We didn’t want them to play slow,” Kingsbury said.
That’s where strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson came in. With Sumlin pushing spring practice back two weeks, Jackson got eight weeks to get players in tip-top shape to run the offense.
Senior wide receiver Ryan Swope said the rigorous conditioning has paid off. Players went from exhausted this spring to coasting this fall with play after play coming faster and faster.
There were awkward moments with the tempo this spring, but as practices continued and players’ stamina increased, Swope said things clicked on the fly.
“It takes a little bit of time to get the hang of the offense,” he said, “but once you really start getting into the playbook and learning it, it really becomes natural. It becomes real fun.”
Sumlin said he’s seen little change in the offense since spring because players picked up on things so well. It helps to have a veteran offensive line and a talented receiving corps, headlined by Swope and fellow senior Uzoma Nwachukwu.
It also helps that A&M has a stud in redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel taking snaps at quarterback. The play and maturation of Manziel, aka “Johnny Football,” has been key to the Aggies’ offensive comfort because of his grit and his ability to extend plays with his legs.
“There’s no telling what he’s going to do, so you always have to be on your toes,” Swope said.
Arkansas coach John L. Smith hasn’t been able to take his eyes off Manziel.
“Their quarterback is a special kid,” Smith said.
“As I look at all of the film and it just jumps out at you is that kid pulling the trigger for them.”
Manziel has combined for 903 offensive yards and 12 touchdowns. For as wild as he can be, Manziel has yet to throw an interception, which pleases a coaching staff that sometimes stresses over what he might do.
“A lot of the plays he’s making all over the field aren’t exactly how they’re drawn up,” Kingsbury said with a laugh.
It’s a learning process for Manziel, and this entire offense. The next step is establishing more of a downhill running game. Manziel does his part, but Kingsbury wants more out of his backs, especially bruiser Christine Michael.
Michael has just 59 yards and two touchdowns this season, and was suspended for the SMU game. Michael has the talent to rush for more than 1,000 yards, but he’s trudged around in this offense. That has to change if A&M’s offense is going to continue to make strides.
And expect a few other changes from the offense with the meat of SEC play coming. Kingsbury knows that in this league, more modification is inevitable.
“With these defenses you see week in and week out, you’re going to have to change things on a weekly basis because they’re so good, they’re so fast and they’re so athletic,” he said. “If you show up and do what you’ve been doing, they’re going to lock it down.”