Monday afternoon, Texas A&M's players and coaches hit the practice field in College Station with a fresh start.
A clean slate.
A newfound energy stemming from the arrival of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, legendary offensive line coach Jim Turner, graduate transfer quarterback Trevor Knight (formerly of Oklahoma) and a defense that is more comfortable with the system in John Chavis' second year as its coordinator.
For fifth-year head coach Kevin Sumlin, those positive moves, coupled with the pressure to get the program back into contention for the SEC West title, make this the most important spring practice session of his Aggies career—and second place isn't even close.
Since toppling Alabama in November 2012 and dancing on the periphery of the division title race, Texas A&M has been a nonfactor in the SEC West. A middle-of-the-road program. A program that has the talent to jump up and bite the best teams in the conference from time to time but lacked consistency, struggled at the quarterback position and rarely protected its home turf in conference games.
Because of that, Sumlin has come under fire. Outgoing athletic director Eric Hyman told Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News in January he was fully supportive of Sumlin despite growing calls for the program to look elsewhere for a head coach.
"We're looking forward," Hyman told Hairopoulos. "The whole football program is moving forward. Kevin Sumlin is the captain of our ship, and the future looks good. Where we are in position football-wise, we're in a very strong position."
Despite the public perception of a program that has suffered irreparable harm, this team has the pieces to be successful.
Turner will preach a more physical approach to an offensive line that was a disappointment a year ago. Mazzone's ability to spread teams out and use tempo while also preaching a power rushing attack is exactly what this team was built for (as it was last year, when former coordinator Jake Spavital never seemed to embrace that identity). Knight has proved he has upside at the FBS level and should benefit from the first-team snaps he splits with Jake Hubenak this offseason.
Sumlin has to get his program accustomed to the new staff members, establish some sort of rough quarterback pecking order between Knight and Hubenak and make sure the offensive line and running backs Keith Ford and James White are ready for the pounding they're going to take with Mazzone calling the plays.
As Sumlin noted (via Gabe Bock of TexAgs.com), so far, so good after one session.
Sumlin says the energy at practice was better than he expected. He likes the leadership he's seeing from both of the quarterbacks.— Gabe Bock (@GabeBock) March 1, 2016
This team can't become soft—as it has in the middle of each of the last two seasons.
That's an identity that needs to be fixed now for the sake of the 2016 Aggies, the fans and Sumlin's future employment.
The landscape of college football in Texas is in a bizarre place right now.
Texas A&M and Texas are both down, with Sumlin and Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong on two of the hottest seats in America. Meanwhile, Baylor is cooking at a high level under Art Briles, Texas Christian is routinely in the national conversation behind Gary Patterson, and Houston head coach Tom Herman is the flavor of the year in the college football world. He would likely be the first call by either Texas or Texas A&M if head coaching jobs come open.
Because of that, the pressure Sumlin faces during the 2016 season will be nothing like he's ever experienced before.
Every move will be under a microscope. Every decision will be overanalyzed and compared to whatever Herman is doing with the Cougars. Every game will be make-or-break for Sumlin compared to Strong's success or failure and will determine whether A&M should cut bait and put the full-court press on Herman or let things play out with Sumlin.
The Aggies need to develop an identity now so Sumlin can fine-tune it in August when fall camp opens. They open with UCLA in Week 1 and face Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee before the bye week on Oct. 15.
If they aren't ready to go, things could get dicey in a hurry for Sumlin.
The quest to prevent another disappointment started Monday afternoon, with the eyes of Texas fixated squarely on Sumlin.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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