Man, 2013 feels like a lifetime ago. For Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and QB Trevor Knight it must feel like an eternity. Their stars were never hotter, their futures have never looked as bright.
The culmination of the 2013 campaign saw Knight, then the starter at Oklahoma, deliver what remains the best performance of his career. We all know how the story goes: Knight, a freshman, threw all over a vaunted Alabama defense as he led the Sooners to what felt like a defining Sugar Bowl victory. Oklahoma was back.
Meanwhile, Kevin Sumlin was about to truly inherit his program. The Aggies’ boom into the big-time had come at the hands of some Johnny Football magic. It was reckless on the field, and Manziel was reckless off it. With Manziel moving on to the NFL, the culture that had surrounded the “cult of football” was set to go with it. It was time for the program to graduate, discard the frat-boy image and become a fine upstanding member of the SEC community. College Station had become cool and Sumlin oozed success. Based on their recent triumphs, the school’s move to the SEC, and their recruiting rankings, it was fair to wonder if the Aggies were set to become the dominant force in the state of Texas.
Two years on, boy, how things have changed.
Knight was unseated as the Sooners’ starter by Heisman finalist Baker Mayfield, and Sumlin’s program descended into chaos: two highly touted quarterbacks — Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray — transferred out, and the team’s offensive coordinator was fired.
“I think the culture was a big part of it, and I think that stems from Johnny’s era there — the way that they let Johnny and (others) act there,” Allen, the No. 1-rated pro-style quarterback in the 247Sports Composite for 2014, told CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd. “They (could) do that and still win games because they had Johnny … and five offensive linemen playing in the NFL right now.” Allen added: “A lot of people were riding off that, ‘I can do whatever the hell I want and win on Saturday.’”
Sumlin fought back against claims that his program is out-of-control. However the recent suspension of two assistant coaches over a sexist video presentation has done little to quell the doubters and has put Sumlin in “hot-seat” territory.
Now what he needs is a stabilizing influence, and Knight is just that guy.
The graduate transfer arrives in College Station in a fascinating situation: Trevor Knight needs Kevin Sumlin every bit as much as Sumlin needs Knight.
You might argue that the offseason narrative surrounding Sumlin and A&M has been overstated. Aggies fans likely will claim it’s a media creation. But in college sports perception is reality. Perception feeds recruiting, and you best believe that Sumlin’s rivals are using the quarterback defections against him in recruit’s living room. “Do you see how quickly those guys got out of there?”
And therein lies the key to the Sumlin-Knight relationship: Knight wants to be an Aggie.
Off the field he will be a calming and mature influence. That may sound like a typical veteran transfer stereotype, but with Knight it’s a reality. Former coaches rave about his work ethic, commitment, and leadership. He spends his offseason on mission trips to Haiti and not palling around with Drake. The latter can have little impact on an individual if he’s extremely talented, but the former can have a greater impact on the team and the entire program.
That influence already is being made clear. At SEC Media Days coaches and players on both sides of the ball showered the transfer with compliments, while throwing a little shade at those ex-quarterbacks who bailed on the team. “He’s a confident leader at quarterback,” Myles Garrett, the Aggies’ star defensive end, told USA Today. “That’s what we needed.”
On the field, he’s also a good fit.
Let’s not mistake Knight for a game-changing All-Conference-type talent. He is an above-average college quarterback with a good arm, questionable decision-making, and enough mobility to make plays his legs. But he fits what new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is looking for.
Mazzone and Knight came to College Station as a package deal. The coordinator’s relationship with Kevin Sumlin dates back to their days as position coaches at Minnesota and as leaders of the infamous “one-back” clinic founded by Mike Leach. Mazzone demands very little of his quarterback: get the ball to the playmakers and move out of the way.
The former UCLA offensive coordinator is a disciple of the spread, no-huddle style of offense. He limits his offense by design and works on perfecting a small number of concepts, throwing in some window dressing and disguises, and running them at a breakneck speed — UCLA finished 23rd in plays per game in 2015.
A lot of what Mazzone runs will be horizontal, high-percentage throws; bubble screens, swing passes and quick throws to A&M’s series of outstanding playmakers. Mazzone wants to force the ball to playmakers, get it to them in space and give them opportunities to generate yards after the catch.
“I try to create space for playmakers,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I’m going to get you the ball where all you’ve got to do is beat one guy man to man. I do that, then it’s up to you.”
In that respect, Knight should fit in. The Aggies are loaded with skill-position weapons all over the field with possibly the best collection of receivers anywhere in the conference. Where he may struggle is with the detail-oriented concepts in Mazzone’s playbook — specifically, second-level run-pass option and packaged plays.
Given the simplistic nature of Mazzone’s offense, he has needed to find creative ways to disguise his calls and has built in a series of packaged plays. Packaged plays are as exactly as they sound: multiple concepts built into one. They’re also often referred to as run-pass option plays or RPOs.
RPOs are the latest evolution of the classic “read-option,” but whereas read-option plays traditionally ask a mobile quarterback to read an unblocked defensive lineman and decide whether to keep the ball or hand it off to a running back, RPOs have the quarterback read a defender and decide whether to throw the ball or run it.
There are two variants of RPOs: pre-snap and post-snap.
Pre-snap RPOs are as simple as getting two play calls — a run and a pass — reading the alignment of the defense and how many defenders are in the box, then opting which play to run. Coaches often refer to them as “kill” calls as the quarterback will “kill” one of the plays after surveying the defense.
Post-snap RPOs involve the quarterback reading the defense on the fly and deciding what to do with the ball. The goal is for the defense to never be right: if they do X, the quarterback does Y; if they do Y the quarterback does X.
Below is an example of a common Mazzone RPO — a second-level (linebacker) RPO — in which the quarterback reads an unblocked linebacker. If the linebacker comes downhill to defend the run, the quarterback (Josh Rosen) throws a quick pass. If the linebacker sits in a zone, the quarterback hands off to the running back.
You can view both the run and the pass:
In theory, the linebacker can never be correct. However, the pressure falls on the quarterback to always make the right decision. Furthermore, that specific concept also builds in a bubble screen (a pre-snap read) and the option for a quarterback run if Mazzone has a more mobile quarterback like Knight. In essence, that one RPO is a quadruple-option.
It will be fascinating to see how Knight adapts to making many more decisions on the fly. His decision making on throws has been questionable at best, but mastering RPOs is more about quick mental processing than reading detailed coverages.
Mazzone will do his best to limit Knight’s deficiencies and accentuate the talent that surrounds him. In doing so, there is no reason why the Aggies should not remain a top-5 scoring offense in the league.
2013 now feels like a distant memory. That season ended with rave reviews and bright futures ahead for Sumlin and Knight. Now they join forces after falling to their lowest points — Sumlin’s future being questioned and Knight’s demotion from a starter to a backup.
Heading into 2016 they enter into a partnership that was born out of necessity, but a match that is as good as either could have hoped for.