COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- With Arkansas mere feet from crossing the goal line on a third-quarter drive that chewed up almost 10 minutes worth of game time, Texas A&M’s defense did something that was rare for the unit in recent years.
The Razorbacks tried to hand the ball off from the 2-yard line, run a quarterback sneak from the 1 and run an end around that ultimately failed. After 19 plays, 89 yards and 9 minutes and 55 seconds of game clock, Arkansas was turned away with zero points.
It was all the proof Texas A&M strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson needed to know that the changes the Aggies made to their offseason program were paying dividends.
“At the end of those 19 plays, on play 19, they still couldn’t get one foot,” Jackson said. “It tells me that whatever plan we came up with, that we’re going in the right direction.”
When observers wonder what’s different about the 2016 Texas A&M team, its strength and effectiveness at the line of scrimmage is one of the biggest changes, one coach Kevin Sumlin decided needed to happen after the Aggies finished 8-5 for a second consecutive season in 2015. That meant changes in the weight room.
“Not subtle changes -- drastic changes,” Sumlin said.
Sumlin and Jackson have been together since Sumlin’s first head coaching job at Houston in 2008. Jackson was hired at Houston by then-head coach Art Briles in 2006 and was retained by Sumlin when Briles left for Baylor, though Sumlin and Jackson crossed paths at both Texas A&M and Oklahoma in the early 2000s. The pair has often produced teams that are focused on speed and endurance, given Sumlin’s preference for a no-huddle, up-tempo offensive style.
After seeing his team falter late in the season following consecutive 5-0 starts in 2013 and 2014, Sumlin knew something needed to change.
“We were a very lean, very athletic, very fast football team that were not really, really big,” Sumlin said. “You look at the end-zone copy of the tape and it just looks different. ... There are wider behinds in there [on other SEC teams] and that's a fact. Over the course of the season, that wears on you.”
Texas A&M began using data heavily in recent years, particularly GPS monitors to track how fast its players are moving in practice and in games. That gave Jackson and his staff an idea of when the team was beginning to show fatigue and when they had to adjust their weight room or sprinting workload accordingly.
This season, the coaches dove further into sports science data, tracking several aspects of players’ wellbeing. There’s an entire staff dedicated to the sports science, nutrition and all aspects of player development that works separate from the strength staff. One of those members, Texas A&M assistant athletic director for sport science Howard Gray, meets with Jackson at 5 a.m. daily to give him a rundown on where the team stands, and Jackson makes adjustments to his plan from there.
The biggest change in training, Jackson says, is the amount of running. Sumlin wanted his team to retain more muscle mass and be stronger against the SEC teams it faced. Jackson adjusted because “it’s hard to make that lean [muscle] mass grow if you’re forced to run a lot more.” Jackson said he focuses in-season on strength rather than conditioning.
“The big difference is the running is backed off on because we do it in practice now,” Jackson said. “Practice tempo is up, so I don’t have to do it as much whenever we’re not practicing.”
The result is that the Aggies are retaining more muscle mass and are indeed a stronger team, and their victory over the Razorbacks was evidence of it. The Arkansas offensive line, which is one of the largest in college football, pushed the Aggies defensive front around in their last two meetings. On Saturday, there were three separate series where the Razorbacks ran a combined 11 plays inside the 10-yard line and were unable to score a touchdown.
On his side of the ball, defensive coordinator John Chavis sees the difference.
“That’s what we needed to do,” Chavis said. “Coach Jackson has done a great job of continuing to, physicality-wise, make us look more like an SEC defense.”
The players say they notice the changes in their bodies and how it has manifested itself on the field.
“I feel like we’re stronger,” defensive end Daeshon Hall. “We look different. ... I know for me, it was a big difference [on the field].”
Mental and physical maturity matters, too, as this team has more veteran presence, which Sumlin noted.
Some observers have considered Sumlin's teams "soft" in recent years because he preferred a wide open, fast-paced offense that focuses on getting the football to players in space rather than lining up in tight formations and running between the tackles in a traditional style. That criticism only became more pronounced when the Aggies struggled in the heart of their SEC schedule in recent years.
They way the Aggies are performing at the line of scrimmage, both defensively and offensively -- they’re leading the SEC in rushing -- suggests they’re anything but soft in 2016.