COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Three weeks ago, Texas A&M was still smarting from the fallout of a 34-point collapse at UCLA and the loss of a starting quarterback to injury.
Uncertainty reigned and didn't subside much in the two weeks that followed, as the Aggies labored to defeat a pair of lower-tier opponents that had less talent. What's more, another quarterback got banged up along the way, leaving A&M's fate to a true freshman signal-caller as the SEC portion of the schedule arrived.
This week, as the Aggies (3-1) prepare to host South Carolina (3-1) in their second conference game, there's an air of confidence around the team. That's because, perhaps bigger than any other development to come out of a 50-43 overtime win against Arkansas last week, the Aggies might have discovered that -- even with a true freshman -- they'll be just fine at the game's most important position.
Kellen Mond threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns, ran for 109 yards and would have had another score had officials not incorrectly ruled him out of bounds. His breakout performance gives A&M some optimism moving forward.
"He's got a lot of talent," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "It's a combination of a couple things: He's getting more comfortable and we're getting more comfortable with him and knowing what he can do."
Mond might even be the long-term answer for the Aggies at a position they've yet to stabilize since Johnny Manziel left campus.
Mond didn't come into this season blindly; he fully expected to play. The ESPN 300 recruit, who enrolled at Texas A&M in January, arrived early with sights set on competing for a wide-open quarterback job after graduate transfer Trevor Knight, who started in 2016, completed his lone remaining season of eligibility. Redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and senior Jake Hubenak were Mond's primary competitors, and Starkel wound up winning the right to start the Aggies' season-opener at UCLA.
Everything went swimmingly -- Starkel played well, Mond got a handful of series and the Aggies built a 44-10 lead -- until it didn't. Starkel fractured his ankle in the second half, Mond had to finish out the game and the Aggies were unable to generate enough offense, or get enough stops, to avoid a historic collapse, resulting in a 45-44 loss. Mond's final line that night: 3-for-17 passing for 27 yards and 15 rushes for 54 yards.
Starkel's injury required surgery that will keep him out for most of the season. Mond started the next two games, the first a 24-14 win over Nicholls State in which he was 12-for-21 passing for 105 yards and a touchdown. But Hubenak took over early in the third quarter and finished the game. The following week, against Louisiana-Lafayette, Mond played all four quarters -- Hubenak was out with an injury -- and began to connect on passes downfield. He threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-21 win, a confidence booster to be sure.
The early weeks of the season were part of a feeling-out process, one in which, as Sumlin said, the coaching staff had to become familiar with what Mond was comfortable running.
"I think the first thing a young guy tries to do is impress you with everything," Sumlin said. "Our conversation with him has been about 'Hey, listen, what on this call sheet do you not feel comfortable with? Let's eliminate those things. Let's not find out on Saturday what you don't like after it's a catastrophe on a play.' Young guys have a hard time with that because they want to impress coaches and they want to show people that they know what's going on.
"Part of maturity is being able to say, 'Hey, I'm not comfortable with that.'"
With Mond's maturation process ongoing, the SEC opener loomed. It would be a stiffer challenge. Arkansas wouldn't be confused for a defensive juggernaut, but its talent level is well above what Mond had seen the previous two weeks.
However, against the Razorbacks, Mond made several big plays and looked more comfortable than he had in preceding weeks. In the first quarter, he scrambled to his right to extend a play, giving receiver Christian Kirk enough time to find a hole in the zone coverage before he delivered a strike for an 81-yard touchdown. Early in the second quarter, Mond kept the ball on a read option and sprinted downfield for what should have been an 89-yard touchdown. But an official incorrectly ruled him out of bounds at the 10-yard line, a call that was not reviewable, and the Aggies settled for a field goal. But it was a big play all the same for the young quarterback.
For the second consecutive week, Mond connected on a deep pass with receiver Damion Ratley, and in overtime he found Kirk with a perfect pass on a corner route for the winning touchdown.
"He was able to sit in the pocket and go through his reads," Kirk said Saturday after the win. "He was able to go through his progressions and put the ball where it needed to be. Especially today, the ball placement was on point."
How was Mond able to go from what he showed in Week 1 to leading the Aggies to a critical SEC overtime win in less than a month?
"His demeanor, it never really changes," Kirk said. "There's no moment that's too big for him. He just has the same calm demeanor. He focuses in, listens to the play call and goes out there and executes it."
Mond settling in as the Aggies' starter for the forseeable future comes on the heels of an eventful couple of years for the San Antonio native. He originally committed to Baylor in the summer of 2015, just before his junior season at San Antonio's Reagan High, then transferred to IMG Academy in Florida for the 2016 season.
In spring of 2016, after Baylor coach Art Briles was fired as a result of the sexual assault scandal that embroiled the school and football program, Mond decommitted from the Bears. The Aggies, who were quarterback-needy at the time after the transfers of Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray in successive weeks in December 2015, took advantage.
Mond became a catalyst in the Aggies' 2017 recruiting class, which was ranked 11th nationally. He was one of three prospects from IMG to head to College Station; ESPN 300 receiver Jhamon Ausbon and linebacker Santino Marchiol joined him. Mond also had a strong bond with other key prospects in the class, including receiver Hezekiah Jones. Sumlin and the coaching staff thought enough of Mond (and the prospects he was tight with) to essentially pass on junior college quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who's now at Auburn.
For now, the Aggies will gradually feed Mond more of the offense as he looks to improve his chemistry with his receivers. Ratley and Kirk said Mond regularly sits with the receivers at team meals on Fridays and Saturdays in an effort to fortify relationships.
"He has a different mindset from a traditional freshman," Ratley said. "Some freshmen come in and think, 'Oh, I'm the young one, I might not play.' He came in with the mindset that he wants to play, and he's showing it."
Things won't get easier. As opposing defenses get more video of Mond, the better they can scout his tendencies and attempt to force him away from his strengths. The next few weeks, with SEC clashes against South Carolina, Alabama and Florida looming, will be both important for the Aggies and key to Mond's development.
"How he handles that, the changeup of defense from play to play and situation to situation, becomes really, really important," Sumlin said. "Obviously, the older a guy is, the more he's in the system, he's got access to the whole playbook. It's a work in progress, and I think [offensive coordinator] Noel [Mazzone] has done a great job with the growth with Kellen and with all our quarterbacks."