It was late in the night in Los Angeles, early morning pretty much everywhere else in the SEC, and the jokes were flying.
Texas A&M had just blown a gigantic 4th-quarter lead and lost to UCLA. Kevin Sumlin might as well have not even gotten back on the plane.
After three consecutive 8-5 seasons and an offseason proclamation from Texas A&M’s athletic director that it was time to win now, the Aggies opener could not have started and have been going better — dominating a high-profile opponent on the road in front of a captive Sunday night audience. And then it couldn’t have finished worse.
But since that debacle in the Rose Bowl, things in College Station are collectively, well, pretty good. Amid a Texas A&M board regent calling for his firing and racist hate mail being sent to his home, Sumlin has stabilized his team, now 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the Southeastern Conference, and secured at least another year coaching the Aggies.
While a lot of the good work Sumlin has done focuses on keeping his team from snowballing after its brutal opening-weekend loss, the bulk of it centers on the development of his freshman quarterback, Kellen Mond.
If you told Sumlin before the season started that Mond would have started the majority of his team’s games and that would be a good thing for Sumlin himself as well as the team, he wouldn’t have believed you. But injuries to initial starter Nick Starkel and backup Jake Hubenak have forced Mond into the primary role, and he has slowly gotten better and better, which may force Sumlin’s hand if reports that Starkel could return soon are accurate.
Mond did not start well. Coming on in relief duty to try to help his team hang on against UCLA, he completed just 3 of 17 passes. But since then, he’s made huge strides as Texas A&M’s starter.
The Aggies rattled of 4 straight wins, with Mond playing well and being a key factor in all of them. He threw 6 touchdown passes to just 2 interceptions and completed more than 60 percent of his passes for 781 yards.
“I think he’s getting better,” Sumlin said a couple weeks ago. “Every week is a step for him, every practice is a step for him. Like I said early, there’s more to it than just the quarterback. … For him, obviously knowing he’s the guy, I think he comes to grips with that as a young guy. I think that makes a difference. To know, ‘Hey look, I’m running this deal and here’s where we’re going,’ obviously he’s more comfortable with that.”
Sumlin has intentionally taken it slow in adding more passing responsibilities to Mond’s plate, but the freshman quarterback’s running ability has made even more of a difference for the Aggies. Mond ran wild in the overtime shootout win over Arkansas and the following week’s win against South Carolina, totaling 204 yards on 26 carries.
But the most telling example of how far Mond, Sumlin, and Texas A&M have come since their meltdown against the Bruins arguably happened this past Saturday when the Aggies hosted Alabama, even despite the loss. The Crimson Tide came into the game having straight up steamrolled two SEC opponents, outscoring them by a collective score of 125-3.
Alabama came into Kyle Field, and Texas A&M gave Nick Saban’s team its toughest test since its opener against Florida State, ultimately losing 27-19. Mond held his own against the Alabama defense, going 19-29 passing with 1 touchdown and 1 interception; he also ran for another touchdown, and while the Crimson Tide defense otherwise held him in check running the ball — 14 carries, 14 yards — Mond made plenty of plays with his feet in order to create open passing opportunities, like he did here on this Johnny Manziel-like touchdown pass.
“Kellen’s legs can keep plays alive,” Sumlin said after the game Saturday night. “He needs to learn when to use them and when to not. That’s what separates you as a veteran QB… He hasn’t always done everything right but he’s given us a chance in all these games to be successful…We’re not in the position to onside kick the ball at the end of the game if he doesn’t do some things.”
Sumlin deserves large amounts of credit for Mond’s development and the team sticking together. Christian Kirk turning into a bonafide star doesn’t hurt either. The Aggies on Saturday night did not look like a team that had quit on itself, its coach, or its season, as what at times has looked like the case at other programs in the SEC so far this season, such as Tennessee, Arkansas, and Ole Miss. And with the abysmal seasons going on at those schools, suddenly the situation with Kevin Sumlin in College Station looks pretty bright, doesn’t it?
The Aggies AD said 8-5 wasn’t good enough, and Sumlin will say 8-5 wasn’t good enough. At 4-2 right now, A&M has a strong probability at 8 wins again in 2017 with a reasonable chance at 9, and if you throw in an upset at home, at which the Aggies will get two shots, and/or a bowl win, their fans can dream of 10.
That type of strong finish has eluded the Aggies in the past under Sumlin, but after already keeping his team together through a rough start in 2017, he’s shown he can make further progress. And that progress will be an even greater springboard into the 2018 season, when Kevin Sumlin will still be the Texas A&M head coach, and Kellen Mond its quarterback.