By Lars Anderson
HOOVER, Ala. -- Kevin Sumlin has a terrific smile. When it's in full flame, his teeth gleam like a row of piano keys, his eyes radiate a youthful joy and he looks like the friendliest man in America. It's a winning smile, one that can charm recruits and disarm their parents. It's a smile so big and luminous and magnificent that it could be in a Crest commercial or a billboard promoting the simple concept of happiness.
That smile. There it was on Tuesday at SEC Media Days, as the 49-year-old Texas A&M coach moved from one interview to the next for nearly three hours. At virtually every stop along the assembly line -- first in the main ballroom to speak to print reporters, then to smaller rooms to chat into radio microphones and television cameras -- Sumlin was asked about Johnny Manziel. And every time he responded with that high-voltage grin. By the end of the afternoon, you got the feeling that Sumlin was smiling not because he thought the questions about Johnny Football grew laughably absurd (they did), but because he knows something the rest of us don't.
"I understand there's not going to be another Johnny Manziel, the way he played the game, that's all part of it," Sumlin said. "Now, does that mean that we change offensively? Maybe. Does that mean that we changed offensively for him? That might be the case, too. What we have done is we've gone out and been able to recruit very, very well to a system that we believe in."
A few minutes later, after yet another Manziel query, Sumlin said, "That's a great question for the Cleveland Browns."
So let the record reflect that Sumlin has moved on. In a few striking ways, however, the 2014 Aggies in July share some similarities with the preseason 2012 squad. Two years ago, Sumlin didn't know who his starting quarterback was going to be when he strolled into the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover -- just as he doesn't now. There were serious questions about the quality of his defense (same holds true today) and his team was picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC West (same as this summer).
Still, entering his third year in College Station, there's a lot to like about the state of Sumlin's program. A natural-born recruiter, he virtually owns the state of Texas and its fertile breeding ground of football talent. Sumlin has landed top-10 recruiting classes the last two years and is on track to secure another one in 2015, a class that Rivals.com currently ranks as third best in the nation behind Alabama and South Carolina. Kyle Field is undergoing a $450 million redevelopment. The seating capacity will balloon from 82,589 to 106,300 this fall, making it the third largest in the nation behind Michigan and Penn State. The athletic facilities for the players soon will be on par with every elite program in the SEC. Most impressive, Sumlin has won 20 games over the last two seasons -- he was rewarded with a $2 million annual raise this winter and is now making $5 million a year -- and has erased any notion that the Aggies couldn't compete with the giants of the SEC.
But A&M still needs to build, brick by brick, recruit by recruit. Even though the team had three first-round picks in the NFL draft (Manziel to the Browns at No. 22, left tackle Jake Matthews to the Falcons at No. 7 and wide receiver Mike Evans to the Buccaneers at No. 8), no other Aggies were selected, which illustrated the team's lack of depth of top-tier talent. Sumlin is adamant that SEC games are won at the point of attack -- he's repeatedly said that the league features the best linemen in the nation -- and he's aggressively targeting these spots on the recruiting trail. "You look at the top of our league, LSU, Alabama have nine and eight guys drafted -- that speaks to depth across the board, whether they're seniors, juniors, underclassmen or not," says Sumlin. "For us to be where we need to be, we need to be talented but we need to increase our depth."
Sumlin, on paper at least, has talent at quarterback. The biggest question in College Station entering camp is whether the starting signal-caller will be true freshman Kyle Allen or sophomore Kenny Hill. Like most every coach, Sumlin is tight-lipped and not tipping his hand, but the future seems to belong to Allen, the consensus No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the nation last year at Desert Mountain (Az.) High. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Allen possesses a strong arm and displays uncanny touch on short- and intermediate-length throws for a still-growing teenager. He's not a runner, but can keep plays alive with his instinctive moments in the pocket.
Hill, conversely, has more mobility and was dubbed by many as the "next Johnny Manziel" before Allen stepped onto the campus in January as an early enrollee. Last season, Hill completed 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards and one touchdown, but his playing time came after Manziel had triumphantly trotted to the sideline after A&M had built a sizeable lead. The Aggies didn't hold a spring game because of the stadium renovations, which certainly didn't bother the secretive Sumlin. He wants as little tape as possible on his quarterbacks to get into the hands of South Carolina. The Aggies travel to Columbia on Aug. 28 for their season opener, a night game that also will be the first football telecast on the new SEC Network.
"Probably whoever the quarterback is, I'll be his only friend at that point," says Sumlin. "Kyle Allen has been through a lot, Elite 11, recruiting. Both these guys have shown the ability to be resilient. Both have been through it a little bit as high school and younger players. Certainly none of them have been through what they're going to face that day."
The players don't seem to have an idea of who the starter will be. "Kenny [Hill] is a little more conservative," said cornerback Deshazor Everett. "He'll take the check-down route a lot more than Kyle will. Kyle will take a shot at you. Now, they'll both challenge you. You make against them, you know they're coming back at you. ... They're not afraid to challenge anybody."
Sumlin has a history of making the right calls at quarterback. As a young offensive assistant at Purdue he had a hand in molding Drew Brees and at Houston he turned Case Keenum into a touchdown-throwing machine. Sumlin's pass-happy version of the Air Raid offense has ranked fourth or better in the nation in total offense in three of his last four years as a head coach -- the exception being in 2010 when it finished 11th at Houston. So Sumlin knows quarterbacks, but don't expect anyone outside the program to have much insight into who the starter will be until the Aggies offense jogs onto the field in Columbia, S.C.
Whoever it is -- and the guess here is Kyle Allen -- will likely need to light up the scoreboard to keep the Aggies competitive in conference games, because the A&M defense was one of the most porous in the SEC last season. Alabama shredded the Aggie D for 568 yards and Auburn racked up 615 yards. They return nine starters, but those players were responsible for surrendering 32.2 points (95th in nation) and 390.2 yards per game (57th). "We can only get better," said Everett.
Perhaps. But in Year One of the Post-Johnny Era in College Station, all eyes will again be on the quarterback. The legend of Manziel has been so romanticized that it's easy to forget A&M lost its last two games last year and finished 4-4 in the conference. Manziel never led the Aggies to a BCS bowl game. "We haven't accomplished everything we've wanted to accomplish over the last couple of years," Sumlin says. "But I think there's no question that we're heading in the right direction."
After finishing that thought in Hoover, Sumlin looked up and smiled, big and bright, like he didn't have a care in the world, like every answer to all his problems was within his reach. This might be the most wonderful smile in all of college football. The question is: How much will we see it this autumn?
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Lars Anderson is a 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated and the author of six books, including The Storm and the Tide, which will be published in August. He's currently an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama.