As litmus tests go for college football teams, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin knows his team faces a whopper Thursday in Columbia, S.C.
The Aggies, ranked No. 21 in The Associated Press’ preseason poll, open their season at 5 p.m. at No. 9 South Carolina as a double-digit underdog with lots of inexperienced players in key positions. A&M’s depth chart features 14 freshmen (four on offense, 10 on defense) and a first-time starter at quarterback, Southlake Carroll graduate Kenny Hill.
Hill, a sophomore who played sparingly last season, will make his debut as A&M’s starter in a hostile environment for a team counting on contributions from 15 members of its February signing class, including three junior-college additions.
Sumlin, 20-6 in his first two seasons at A&M with former quarterback Johnny Manziel in the lineup, understands the potential for growing pains against the Gamecocks and in the games that follow this season.
“Whether we win or lose, how we handle that game will say a lot about how we do the rest of the season,” Sumlin said. “Our response during that game and after that game will say a lot about where we go.”
Problem is, the Aggies will be playing so many young players — especially on defense — there is no way for coaches to accurately predict how their newcomers will respond at South Carolina.
“When I say ‘young,’ it’s the thought process, the academic side of football, that concerns me,” A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. “A bunch of the freshmen are going to play … probably seven true freshmen. We’ll try to do our best to sub them in next to an older guy who is beside them [to minimize assignment busts].”
But that may not always work on Snyder’s side of the ball, where A&M is rebuilding a defense that ranked last among 2013 SEC teams in scoring defense (32.2), total defense (475.8 yards per game) and rushing defense (222.3). The offense, while solid and experienced in the trenches, projects to have four first-time starters flanking Hill at the skill positions: freshman receivers Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones, JC transfer receiver Josh Reynolds and running back Tra Carson.
Sumlin said the influx of youth provides a “little different vibe” for a team seeking to justify its staying power in the Top 25.
“The depth chart, that’s a fluid situation,” Sumlin said. “Wait to see who runs out there in Columbia. Young guys are going to give us depth ... at several positions. That’s something we’ve lacked.”
The bottom line shows a rebuilt A&M defense that leans on multiple freshmen being asked to stymie one of the SEC’s best ground games. South Carolina features one of the nation’s top offensive lines, as well as running back Mike Davis (1,183 yards, 11 TDs last season). Quarterback Dylan Thompson, a senior, was 2-0 as a starter in relief of injured teammate Connor Shaw last season, including a road victory over the Fiesta Bowl champs from UCF.
The Gamecocks, who have won 11 games in each of the past three seasons, have won 14 consecutive season openers and enter with the nation’s longest active home winning streak (18 games).
“We think we’ve got a pretty good team. Hopefully, we can live up to that prediction,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said of his team’s No. 9 ranking and status as preseason favorite in the SEC East Division. “A&M has recruited well, I know that. They’ve got ballplayers.”
Whether they have enough to win at Williams-Brice Stadium will be determined. Offensive guard Joseph Cheek called A&M’s season-opening challenge “huge” but said the Aggies are capable of making a statement as road warriors.
“A lot of teams have rebuilding years. I think this is a reloading year for us,” Cheek said. “We have the talent.”
But much of it is untested. That includes Hill, who completed 16 of 22 passes (72.7 percent) for 183 yards and a touchdown in four appearances as Manziel’s backup last season. Now that Hill is the starter, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said he must learn on the fly what Hill can do under pressure. He drew comparisons to two NFL quarterbacks: Manziel, a rookie with Cleveland, and New York Jets starter Geno Smith, whom Spavital coached at West Virginia.
“I don’t think he’s as athletic as Johnny. But I think he might be more athletic than Geno [Smith],” Spavital said of Hill. “I think Kenny has that ability to extend plays for a longer period of time. We’ll get him out on the perimeter some and find out.”
As a team, Sumlin envisions finding out a lot about his Aggies in South Carolina.