'Embarrassing' loss to Alabama set tone for Texas A&M's turnaround

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Sickness. Disgust. Disbelief. Anger.

Those were some of the feelings Texas A&M players and coaches had when they left Tuscaloosa, Alabama, last season in utter shock after being handed a 59-0 beatdown by the Crimson Tide. It was a jarring defeat unlike any Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin had experienced in his coaching career, and unique for just about everyone else involved, too.

Some tried to forget about it. But many couldn't.

"It was a feeling of embarrassment, to be on a national TV stage and be beat like that," quarterback Kyle Allen, now a sophomore, said. "We felt like we were a high school team playing a college team, honestly.

"It's not a feeling we ever want to feel again."

The reasons for the collapse were numerous. Answers were fleeting but one thing was clear: The Aggies had to take a hard look in the mirror and change some things.

Nearly a full calendar year later, with a Saturday rematch versus Alabama looming, much has changed for the Aggies. Some differences resulted from that infamous game; some were already underway well before then. The Aggies are 8-2 since that blowout loss, and Sumlin's ability to pull this program from that rock-bottom point -- from which some teams and coaching staffs never recover -- might be his best work since he first became a head coach in 2008.

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The most immediate and visible changes were personnel-related.

The chief changes were at quarterback, where the Aggies opted for Allen in lieu of Kenny Hill, who had started the first eight games of the season, and at linebacker, where Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker, then true freshmen, were injected into the lineup.

Allen's growth since becoming the starting quarterback has paralleled the team's. A sophomore who has been on campus since January 2014, Allen is quickly maturing and developing leadership skills to accompany his evident talent. His grasp of the offense is strong, and his ability to check the Aggies into favorable plays is invaluable. The splash he made in his second start, throwing for four touchdowns at then-No. 3 Auburn in November, helped accelerate his development, and that 41-38 win helped the Aggies repair their damaged psyches.

"I really think that was big for us in terms of bolstering more confidence," reserve quarterback Conner McQueen said. "That was big for Kyle in that it was really when you saw a turn in him from being a freshman to being a leader on this team. I really think that role has expanded since then and looks to expand from here on out, as well."

Offseason coaching changes have had an obvious impact, none bigger than the installation of former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis as the new boss on D. His presence led to a change in mentality.

"We're a lot more confident on defense," senior defensive lineman Julien Obioha said.

"It was a feeling of embarrassment, to be on a national TV stage and be beat like that. We felt like we were a high school team playing a college team, honestly. It's not a feeling we ever want to feel again." Kyle Allen, Texas A&M QB

The additions of new receivers coach Aaron Moorehead and offensive line coach/run game coordinator Dave Christensen have also paid dividends. Christensen's presence has helped the Aggies improve their running scheme, resulting in a more balanced offense after the Aggies struggled to run the ball effectively against quality competition last season.

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This season, the coaching staff has taken more care to address players' mental well-being after seeing them hit the wall in a three-game losing streak after a 5-0 start last year. Sumlin said the staff "neglected" this component last season but has become more sensitive to it this season. The staff went as far as consulting with professionals outside the program about how to better help players balance the mental grind of SEC football while meeting academic demands.

The result is a different approach when important times on the academic calendar arrive, like midterm exams.

"Injuries, stresses for tests, lack of sleep, hydration, that's all tied together. ... It's all a part of one body," director of player development Mikado Hinson said. "So if they're struggling in this area, it's going to manifest itself on the football field. ... The coaches know their approach has to change in the midpoint of the season. It can't be a hard grind all the time."

Some offseason changes were physical. This season the Aggies are placing an emphasis on recovery after games (the team does yoga on Sundays), and Sumlin has even flipped Thursday and Friday practice schedules before games. Instead of a normal Thursday practice and a Friday walk-through, the team has a light workout on Thursday with more focus on film study leading into a more intense Friday practice. This happened after the staff examined sports science studies that suggested a more intense workload the day before competition would be more beneficial than dialing it back closer to kickoff.

"It seems like a small thing, but to coaches, that's a huge change," associate athletic director for football Justin Moore said. "They've done certain things for so long because it's always been that way. I think [Sumlin] is smart enough and open-minded enough to say, 'OK, here's what the data says, here's what the research says; this makes sense and it's matching with what we're seeing with the players. Let's try it.' Once we did it, we said, 'It's great.' The players love it."

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Players and coaches alike cite improved chemistry on this year's team.

"The thing I like about this team is there isn't as much finger-pointing when they get to the sidelines," offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said.

In 2014, coaches and staff members say there was some selfishness. There's a feeling that the team quit during that 59-0 defeat. This year there's no talk of that, though since the Aggies haven't lost yet, they haven't faced the kind of adversity they endured last season.

"It's night and day," Hinson said of the chemistry. "I've been a part of a lot of teams. This team, from top to bottom, gets along. They genuinely like each other, across the board."

They've bought into the adjustments made this offseason. McQueen said one of the biggest signs of that buy-in came when senior Brandon Williams, who spent his entire college career before this year as a running back, willingly moved to cornerback after spring football at Sumlin's suggestion.

The change, which Williams embraced, has been beneficial for the Aggies on defense.

"To change positions in his last year, being that selfless to move to a position we were a little bit vulnerable at in terms of depth, really showed how bought in he was to the program," McQueen said of Williams. "I think that expanded leaps and bounds throughout some of the other guys who have bought in to what we're trying to do and really foster a selfless environment in terms of winning."

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At his core, Sumlin hasn't changed much. Those who have been around him longest will say as much. The fundamental beliefs, the way he runs the program, and his day-to-day demeanor are the same now as they were in 2008 in his first year at Houston.

But the Aggies have gradually evolved since his arrival in 2012. They don't always run the offense at a breakneck tempo as the Cougars did under his watch or in his first two seasons with former A&M star Johnny Manziel at QB. Small wrinkles that Sumlin and Spavital wanted to install but that worked only sparingly in the head coach's first three years have been effective this year. For example: using an in-line tight end or an H-back or even a two-tight-end formation to run the football -- which is unheard of for a coach rooted in one-back or air raid offensive principles.

Sumlin never before played two quarterbacks unless there was an injury or it was mop-up time, but this year he has utilized true freshman Kyler Murray in certain situations, though it's clear Allen is the starter. And the offseason changes to things like the practice schedule, the mental approach or emphasizing a running game are evidence of Sumlin's continued evolution. While many principles are the same, things are a lot different now than they were after that fateful October Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"He knows he doesn't have all the answers, but he's willing to listen to everybody," said Moore, who has worked with Sumlin since 2008. "It takes a unique person to do that, and I think it's one of the reasons he's special -- because he's always open to improvements, changing when he feels like it's necessary without compromising who he is and his core beliefs of how you run a program."