Coaching staff changes and key recruiting acquisitions generated questions surrounding the future of the 2015 Texas A&M defense and quarterback roles, and expectations for the season varied wildly among fans and national media. A&M's 38-17 trouncing of Arizona State went a long way towards answering questions looming from the pre-season, as well as creating some new ones.
Second-year QB Kyle Allen was given the starting role for the Aggie offense against ASU, but was replaced by highly-touted freshman Kyler Murray at the end of the second-half. Allen struggled on three consecutive drives prior to Murray's entrance, stringing together a lost-fumble and two three-and-outs. He would return to start the second-half, but was again sent to the sideline for Murray after throwing an interception and failing to cross the 50 on the ensuing drive. While Murray would lead the Aggies for the remainder of the 3rd quarter, a hip injury setup another return for Kyle Allen where he put together three touchdowns on three consecutive drives.
The quarterback rotation - specifically the timing of the changes - had the appearance of Coach Kevin Sumlin either losing faith in his starter or feeling that the offense needed to go in a different direction by kicking the tires on Kyler Murray. However, Sumlin refuted this notion in today's press conference, further reinforcing statements made after the game that a change at quarterback had always been the plan:
"We had a plan to play Kyler the whole time. He ran out of time in the first half and came out, it was a bit different for him too. He was breathing as hard as he's ever breathed, and I looked at him and he was smiling and he said, 'I can't breathe, and those guys are fast, too.' It was the first time he may have realized he wasn't the fastest guy on the field — although he looked like it to me.
What you saw was a combination of two things: number one, the maturity level of Kyle Allen, in how he was handling the situation, and also the explanation — nobody yanked anybody. The explanation to him was that he was going back in. He was able to handle that on the sideline, they were able to talk to each other, and knowing that he was going to have the opportunity to get back in probably calmed them both down a little bit. The maturity of Kyle Allen this year was a big part of that." - Coach Kevin Sumlin
Most of the yards created by Murray during his opportunities at QB came from his feet - rushing for 69 yards on 6 carries - and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital attributed that to Murray's discomfort in the pocket and with the scheme. That discomfort is likely what caused Coach Spavital to call three rushing plays at the goal line with Murray in at QB:
"The play-calling with Kyler down on the goal line, wasn't too fired up about throwing the ball with him, you've got a young quarterback in there and I thought, 'Let's get the ball to Tra Carson and get a touchdown with him.'"
Murray should get more opportunities to work with the offense with games against Ball State and Nevada coming up, as Coach Spavital assured the media that Murray's hip injury won't keep him off the field for long.
Offensive play has traditionally been the focus of praise heaped on Kevin Sumlin coached teams. On Saturday it was the improved play of the Aggie defense that stole the show.
No off-season story surrounding the A&M program was bigger than the hiring of former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis. A&M's 2014 defensive squad allowed an average of 450.8 yds/game - good for worst in the SEC on total defense. With ASU averaging 442.3 yds/game, 36.9 pts/game, and a 38.19% 3rd down conversion rate in 2014, the man the fans call "Chief" was tasked with developing a defense that could help keep A&M out of a shootout without the benefit of a tune-up game.
On Saturday Texas A&M gave up 291 yards of total offense, 17 points (7 of which came off of a fumble by Kyle Allen at the 4 yd line), allowed only 5 of 18 3rd down conversions, generated 9 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, and forced 5 fumbles. Texas A&M put up one of the best defensive performances in the country over the weekend in games where the opponent was ranked. To say that Coach Chavis captained one of college football's biggest off-season turnarounds is an understatement.
In the press conference today Kevin Sumlin said that the play seen on Saturday is "the baseline right now," and that the defense will continue to improve as players like Zaycoven Henderson, A.J. Hilliard and Otara Alaka, make their way back into the defensive rotation. Depth all around the ball is only going to bolster the play of a defensive line headlined by defensive ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. John Chavis stated today that A&M has "the two best defensive ends in the country," a claim that's hard to argue with Garrett and Hall combining for 6 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss.
Asked about the play of the secondary, Coach Chavis commented that "[the secondary] didn't get any deep balls thrown on [them]," adding that "they were physical, [and] they tackled well." How improved this group is has yet to be seen, but they are undoubtedly they will undoubtedly be the biggest beneficiaries of the defensive line's backfield havoc as they continue to grow.
For A&M fans, it's been a long time since chanting the phrase "wrecking crew" without a hint of being tounge-in-cheek was commonplace. Chavis' goal is to ensure that, when Aggie fans do believe that the glory days of dominating defensive performances at Kyle Field are back, his players will have earned it for themselves:
"We embrace tradition. If our fans feel strongly about it, I'm all for it. But our players understand it's something that has to be earned. I was asked in the spring where the deficiencies were, and it was confidence. These players have gotten much more confident. Confidence comes from having success. That's what we have to do as coaches is (put them in position to have success). When they have success they get confident, and when they're confident they become a great football team. Our players have to remember what it took from the first day of spring practice and even before that, what it took to grow to where we are." - John Chavis
Kevin Sumlin coached teams have traditionally been known to win their games with dominating offensive performances. On Saturday, with the defense putting on the dominant performance, the offense played more conservatively than fans are used to seeing. With an offensive line and crop of young quarterbacks still developing, Kevin Sumlin modified his game plan to ensure ASU's blitz-heavy defense didn't manufacture more points than they could afford to give:
"With a couple young guys, one quarterback started five or six games, the other hadn't played at all, against a very exotic blitzing defense, we were extremely conservative with what we did. You can be that way when your defense is playing the way we played. Our style in that game was probably a lot different than it's been since we've been here. Will that change, will it be the case all the time? I don't know. But certainly we have more confidence in where we are defensively. If you can have 400-something yards and 38 points, people will take that every week. It's just a matter of when that was. Was it frustrating? Not for us. You get a turnover and run it three straight times, there were some things in there that could've changed — at the line — but our quarterbacks basically ran the play. We kicked it and took the points." - Kevin Sumlin
The offensive line struggled at times against ASU, and coaches chalk up most of the issues to inexperience of the linemen and inconsistency at the QB position.
"When you're in a game like that, to the naked eye, any time there is a difficulty running the ball it automatically is assumed that it's the offensive line. The way this offense is designed, there are a lot more parts to it than just five guys up front. The execution on the perimeter, the ability of our quarterbacks to change plays and get the ball out, is part of this offense." - Kevin Sumlin
Based on the coaching staff's answers to questions about the line today, it's safe to assume that position assignments and starting duties will continue to be adjusted day-to-day, especially across the interior.
"That's a very difficult scheme and they're doing some uncharacteristic things schematically from a defensive standpoint. It's tough. You start the drive with Keaton Sutherland and that's the first time he's seen that type of look with that type of speed. It's hard to simulate that with the scout team. You put Stuckey in there and he's inexperienced as well, but he battled it out. I thought Avery Gennesy played lights-out over there. The right side of the line was pretty good." - Jake Spavital
When asked about the impact true freshman made on Saturday's game against ASU, Coach Sumlin pointed out that sometimes, "recruiting services are right."
While a few freshman made their presence known on Saturday, the biggest coming out party was held by 5-star Scottsdale, AZ wide receiver Christian Kirk. Kirk used his speed and vision to pull out two long-yardage touchdowns - a 79 yard punt return for a TD followed up with a 66-yard catch-and-run. The A&M offense is loaded with talent that can turn short-gains into home runs, and the addition of Kirk may prove to be critical if A&M continues to play conservative football deeper into this season.
"Very seldom do you see a guy that comes into a program as a freshman that is a really good receiver already and a return guy that can be a return guy at that level. People that didn't watch the game or really notice, he handled every kickoff and every punt in that environment — which tells you the kind of trust we had in him. Trey Williams was the first guy that we trusted against Florida and I was really nervous on the opening kickoff; Speedy's handled punts and we eased him into it last year; this guy, he handles every punt and kickoff for the game and starts.
That tells you the talent he has and the trust we have in him as coaches. That didn't come from showing a few flashes, that's from how he practices. ... He'll make a mistake and you just talk to him and that's it. He caught a punt at the six-yard line and before you could say anything he says, 'I screwed that up, Coach. Won't happen again.' Very rarely do you have a guy that mature who can communicate in that environment. Let's see what kind of encore he has. ... I'm glad he's on our team." - Kevin Sumlin on Christian Kirk
Another highly-touted recruit making plays on Saturday was freshman defensive lineman Daylon Mack. On the stat sheet Mack posted the highest tackle count for any freshman player on the team with 6.0, but the true value he added doesn't fit into a stat column. ASU's center was never able to push Mack off of the line on running downs, and Mack consistently held to his gap assignments when he wasn't drawing a double-team. He's got a lot of potential to make a big impact at the nose tackle position for the next few years.
"I think [Daylon Mack's] made a lot of progress from Day 1 in camp, was really pleased with the way he played. It's got to be growth every day. He's gotten better in practice and he's got to continue to grow, and we need to push him to do that." - John Chavis
Press Conference Videos
Tra Carson and Joseph Cheek