Dateline: December 31, 2013.
New Year's Eve in Atlanta because, well, defense. Halftime, Chick-Fil-A Bowl. 1 hour, 29 minutes, and 21 seconds on my save-till-delete, your DVR mileage may vary.
The head coach of Texas A&M, Kevin Sumlin, is - to put it midly - not pleased. After nearly a month of bowl preparation, the artist formerly known as Wrecking Crew has given up 17 first downs, a smooth 365 yards, and 38 first half points to what could charitably be described as a reasonably efficient Duke offense.
In a terse interview with Samantha Ponder that he would apologize for after the game, Sumlin very clearly lays out what is in no way happening when the A&M defense is on the field.
"We haven't stopped them once. We have to force something defensively to get them off the field. [Trails off, stares at scoreboard in disbelief, shakes his head.] We have to get off the field on defense. We have to tackle. . . if we got guys out there that can't do it, we have to replace them."
Lost in the 2nd half of what would prove to be Johnny Manziel's final absurd collegiate romp, and woefully unanswered through an uneven spring and summer that has seen several potential difference-makers kicked off the team: does the A&M defense have guys that can get themselves off the field? Perhaps equally as concerning: can Mark Snyder and his defensive staff recognize those potential difference makers and put them in position to succeed?
Rewinding 24 months, the 2012 season was a ridiculous, fantastic sprint, made all the better by the most rare and glorious of things: incredibly low expectations. Maiden SEC voyages, a Heisman-winning ninja at quarterback, and opposing coaching staffs featuring luminaries such as John L. Smith, Brian VanGorder, and Chris Wilson all conspired to produce a shocking 11-2 run through Year 1 of the Southeastern Conference.
The ambiguously ass-slapping duo of Sumlin and Kilff Kingsbury stole the headlines, but lost in the in the offensive fireworks was an A&M defense that quietly featured two 3rd round picks in All-American defensive end Damontre Moore, and All-SEC linebacker Sean Porter. Linebacker Jonathan Stewart, safety Steven Terrell, and destroyer-of-worlds/defensive tackle Spencer Nealy all continue to bounce around the league, as the 2012 group featured at least five NFL talents, spread across every level of the defense. (And that doesn't include high-level contributions from guys like Deshazor Everett, Julien Obioha, and Dustin Harris.)
A&M fans, high off 11 wins and an absolute pantsing of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, understandably believed Mark Snyder when he talked about guys playing faster in season two, and how he had the MIKE linebacker he had always wanted, and who knows - maybe the safety duo will be in line for some postseason accolades if they keep coming along?
Then the Rice game kicked off.
In what appeared to be a mix-up of game film, the A&M defense took the field for 2013 anything but ready for David Bailiff's offense. Almost every question fretted about in various corners of the internet was met with a resounding no, and players whom the coaching staff had labeled for months as irreplaceable starters quickly found themselves buried on the depth chart, often at completely different positions.
Warning: walking through the newly remodeled Bright Complex and entering Mark Snyder's office is to be punched squarely in the jaw by the Midwest. The accent, the clipped cadence, and the sensible wardrobe and haircut combo all politely declare that the human before you did not, in fact, grow up in the heart of SEC country. (Ignore the Ohio St. National Championship ring at your own peril.) Born in South Point, Ohio, and an All-Southern Conference safety at Marshall, Snyder joined Jim Tressel's staff in 1991 as the outside linebacker's coach, and quickly proved indispensable to the Sweatervest as they won three 1-AA national championships together. After five years coaching defensive ends under Glen Mason at Minnesota, Snyder reunited with Tressel at Ohio St. in 2001.
Having coached linebackers under the always-sunny Mark Dantonio for three years, Snyder was finally handed the keys to the defense in 2004. His one year of calling plays for the Buckeyes was solid, as they finished the season ranked 28th in the country in yards per game (and 16th in yards per play), but the defense took a small step back from the heights of Dantonio's swarming 2002 and 2003 groups. From there, after a rather inglorious five year run as the head coach at Marshall that ended in a 22-37 overall record, Snyder was tapped to run the South Florida defense under Skip Holtz, which went on to finish 17th, then 38th in total defense in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
Meanwhile in College Station, Sumlin began his coaching search by making a furious run at Michigan State's Pat Narduzzi, only to see him decide to stay in East Lansing at the 11th hour. Clearly a fan of the 4-3 Under defense that must inhabit the tap water of the greater Youngstown area, Snyder was formally announced several days later.
Fans of Snyder point to his first season in Kyle Field, the 2012 group - a fiery, physical, overachieving squad that finished 15th in Bill Connelly's F/+ rankings that fall. They point out the lack of talent on the 2013 defense, the not-quite-ready freshmen thrown into the fire, the notable absence of leadership, and a history of decent to quite-decent defenses on Snyder's resume. They mention the close friendship with Seahawks DC Dan Quinn and offseason visits, the 4-3 family tree, the joys of Cover 3, and the coaches around the country that speak highly of 'Snydes'. They see names on the backs of jerseys that read Hall, Manning, Harvey, Alaka, and Garrett, and see far, far better days ahead.
The other side of the aisle views the 2013 A&M defense as an unmitigated management failure - personnel confusion, head-scratching alignments, and a unit that repeatedly refused to properly line up, or even diagnose the most basic of reads (all your wheel route jokes go here). Despite an offense that most assuredly compounds defense statistics, there are probably several video game experts that wouldn't mind the chance to improve rankings like 100th in Red Zone defense, 95th in Scoring Defense, and a stomach-churning 109th in Total Defense.
So as the Aggies move to the full-pads phase of fall camp in Snyder Year Three, unsettling reports continue to trickle out: plenty of the 3-man defense lines that were abused all of last season, confusing cross-training of linebackers, Mark Hagen lighting very small candles in the corner of a far practice field in front of Dat Nguyen's Lombardi award, etc. There's also the very real absence of Isaiah Golden and Darian Claiborne, gone to the uncomfortably-ignored land where former standouts disappear to.
And yet. Texas A&M is a team in which the head coach played linebacker at Purdue, the defensive coordinator coached linebackers at Ohio State, and the linebackers coach, um, coached defensive tackles and special teams at Indiana. (At least it was after a career as an All-Big Ten linebacker.) If any group of coaches understand the importance of physicality and imposing your will in the defensive front seven, surely - surely - this group of coaches gets it.
Maybe 2013 was an aberration. Youth and injuries make for difficult dance partners, and it was clear in retrospect the emotional leaders of last year's team were at least as concerned with bottle service reservations and planning aggravated robberies as they were with winning games. As Sumlin has repeatedly pointed out, the DNA of a college football team changes drastically every year, and although the wizadry of a certain #2 will be missed, perhaps a lesser spotlight will allow some leadership the opportunity to form deeper roots this year.
The walk from the Bright Complex to the brand new Kyle Field is a short one. Staring up at the largest scoreboard in college football, it's hard not to think that everything is in place for A&M to compete for the playoffs and national championships starting in the fall of 2015. The stadium, the facilities, the commitment from former students, the talent, the recruiting - it's all there in spades, if Mark Snyder proves to be what most A&M fans thought he was in 2012: the right man for the job.