Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has long been known as an offensive mind. Though he was a linebacker in his playing days at Purdue, Sumlin’s coaching career as an assistant was on the offensive side of the football, a trend that began in his first job under former Washington State coach Mike Price more than two decades ago. Even as a head coach, Sumlin has had a reputation for offensive prowess, including his knack for having star quarterbacks.
As his third season in Aggieland winds down and fans decry the defensive performances Texas A&M has put on the field this season -- which follows a poor 2013 -- it’s worth taking a look at how defenses have fared under Sumlin’s watch. While coordinators and defensive assistants do the heavy lifting, Sumlin ultimately puts those individuals in place by hiring them.
In his seven seasons as a head coach, only two seasons have yielded what could be considered good defensive results: his fourth and final season at Houston in 2011 and his first season at Texas A&M in 2012.
Looking at key categories such as scoring defense, third-down defense and turnover margin, the results were generally good in those areas those seasons. Houston was 35th nationally in scoring defense (22.4 points per game), 44th in third-down conversion rate allowed (37.3 percent) and tied for third nationally in turnover margin (plus-16) in 2011. In Sumlin’s first season at Texas A&M, the Aggies were 26th in scoring defense (21.8), 16th on third downs (32.4 percent) though they weren’t good on turnovers (a minus-five margin tied them for 87th nationally).
In the other five seasons, including this one, Sumlin’s teams have ranked 77th or worse in scoring and 78th or worse on third downs. In four of the previous six seasons, Sumlin's teams have been 92nd nationally or worse in scoring defense and have allowed at least 30 points per game.
Turnover margin has been varied from year to year, though this season the Aggies are 105th in that statistic (minus-six). Aside from 2011 and 2012, Sumlin’s teams have ranked 100th or worse nationally in yards per game (the Aggies are exactly 100th currently, allowing 445.2 yards per game). In 2011 Houston was 62nd (380.3) and in 2012 Texas A&M was 57th (390.2).
Because of the nature of his team’s offensive success and penchant to rank among the top teams nationally in scoring, yards per game and more, Sumlin’s defenses never needed to be perfect. With a potent offense, an elite defense usually hasn’t been necessary to win, evidenced by his 62-27 career record. However, the two best seasons Sumlin’s teams had record-wise were those two: 2011 and 2012 when his teams went a combined 23-3 under his watch.
At Houston, Sumlin made a defensive coordinator change after 2009, his second season, which also meant a scheme change from a base 4-3 alignment to Brian Stewart’s 3-4. The first season under Stewart was difficult but significant improvement was evident in 2011, Sumlin’s final season there as the UH defense posted its best numbers in four years in scoring, yards per game, rushing, passing, third downs, red zone efficiency and turnover margin.
It’s also worth noting that the best season of defense under Sumlin at Houston was one comprised entirely of starters that signed with Sumlin as recruits.
The 2012 season at Texas A&M, Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder had the luxury of many veteran defensive players on the roster, such as linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, defensive linemen Damontre Moore and Spencer Nealy and safety Steven Terrell.
Seemingly the heart of that 2012 unit, once key players graduated (and Moore exited early for the draft) it left a void of leadership and experience. Filled with underclassmen, the 2013 Texas A&M defense struggled mightily, allowing 32.2 points per game (95th in the country) and 475.8 yards per game (109th). The unit ranked last in the SEC in scoring, yards per game, yards per play, rushing yards per game, yards per rush and red zone efficiency.
The 2014 Texas A&M defense showed some improvement early this season during the team’s 5-0 start but has struggled in the second half. The Aggies are still better in most categories than they were a year ago, but not by much and are trending toward the 2013 numbers. The one area the Aggies have posted their best mark in the past three seasons is goal-to-go efficiency (65.4 percent), where they are 26th nationally.
The most eye-opening numbers have come against the best teams they’ve played this season. Against its best five opponents -- Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri -- Texas A&M has allowed an average of 533.6 offensive yards per game and 40 points per game. And while there are still some players starting that signed under the previous coaching staff, this unit mostly has players recruited by the current staff.
Recruiting in the past two years has been good, though, especially in the 2014 class, which produced true freshman like defensive end Myles Garrett, who is second in the SEC in sacks this season, safety Armani Watts (three interceptions) and linebackers Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker. Getting that talent to translate to on-field results will be crucial for Sumlin and the Aggies moving forward.