The New Gridiron: UT and A&M Battle It Out These Days in Teenagers' Living Rooms
A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and UT coach Charlie Strong
Diane C McDonald, wikimedia commons / University of Texas Athletics
It's the Thursday evening before college football's National Signing Day, recruiting's answer to Christmas morning, and the whereabouts of Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin are the worst-kept secret in the state of Texas.
Sumlin and his offensive coordinator, Jake Spavital, are visiting the home of all-everything quarterback Kyler Murray, a Texas high school football legend who has literally never tasted losing in his prep football career, having won multiple state championships and compiled a 43-0 record as a starter at powerhouse Allen High School.
Murray is an Aggie legacy (his father, Kevin, having starred at quarterback for Texas A&M back in the 1980s) and a verbal commitment to the Texas A&M program since last spring, but none of that is a factor this evening. Sumlin is in full-blown "sales pitch" mode and he has to be, because Murray is fresh off a visit to Austin to see the University of Texas, and unfortunately, in college football recruiting, a kid's "verbal commitment" is about as binding as a promise ring in fourth grade.
Murray's commitment to the Aggies is in jeopardy. At the 11th hour, the Longhorns have been emptying their playbook to try and steal the dynamic signal caller away from the Aggies, and Murray has been listening, as evidenced by recent pictures on his Instagram account showing a Longhorn jersey with his name and number. Whatever Texas is telling Murray seems to be working.
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Murray holds the keys to both programs' recruiting classes in his hands. The Longhorns and head coach Charlie Strong are desperate for a quarterback, and the Aggies are desperate to maintain recruiting's upper hand in the state of Texas over the Longhorns, and since A&M's exit to the SEC has destroyed any chance of these two programs actually playing a real football game against each other, this is now where they wage their war -- in the living rooms of a bunch of freakishly athletic Texas teenagers.
And truth be told, the battle has never been more intense and the stakes have never been higher.
"This is definitely the most competitive January I've ever seen between the two schools," said Billy Liucci, co-owner of Aggie recruiting website TexAgs.com. "The pressure on both schools has mounted to the highest point that I can remember, considering both had disappointing seasons on the field in 2014."
For nearly two decades, with Mack Brown as the head coach at Texas, late-January battles for recruits between the Longhorns and the Aggies were hardly even a thing, in large part because Texas was simply that far ahead of all the other programs in the state.
The perception, which was not far from reality, was that Brown would just hand-pick the Texas high school kids he wanted for each class and then let the rest of the state fight for the leftover scraps. Many recruiting seasons, Brown would have his entire class filled with a couple dozen of Texas's best before kids even began their senior year in high school. That was Brown's normal.
That entire dynamic, though, was turned on its head in 2012 when A&M left the Big 12 (and the massive shadow of the Longhorns) for the SEC, hired the charismatic Sumlin as its head coach and settled on some kid named Manziel as its starting quarterback.
All of a sudden, Texas found itself chasing and getting lapped by A&M. Sumlin raised the stakes, legendarily showing up at the Friday night games of key recruits by landing near the stadiums in a helicopter. When he secured a verbal commitment from a kid, he would tweet his trademark "YES SIR!" For 18-year-old kids, Sumlin's approval on social media was like actual currency, and the difference between being recruited by Sumlin and being recruited by Brown was the difference between hiring Jay-Z and hiring Barry Manilow to play their birthday parties.
"Sumlin and Johnny got there about the time that Mack was getting older and kind of losing his magic," Liucci said. "Before that, it was all Texas, all the time."
The effect of Manziel's two-year stint as the on-field leader of the Aggies cannot be understated either. For a generation of high school football players who exist on social media and hip-hop, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner is their patron saint.
"A lot of these kids grew up throughout high school watching Johnny. He made A&M 'cool' for these Texas kids to consider. He changed the perception," contended Liucci.
Enter Strong, the former Louisville head coach who took over in Austin for Brown when the latter retired from coaching following the 2013 season, and brought with him a newfound toughness and discipline that had been absent from the Longhorn program under Brown, especially toward the end of his tenure.
Strong also brought with him a different philosophy in recruiting. Gone were the days of rapid-fire offers to (and, in turn, commitments from) high school juniors. Strong has been more deliberate and methodical in his approach, with a majority of Texas's commitments for this year's class having come in the past two months.
Additionally, while Mack Brown's classes were almost exclusively kids from the state of Texas, Strong has figuratively removed the borders around the school's recruiting strategy, opening recruiting channels into Florida and the rest of the SEC's footprint. To quantify, in his 17 seasons, Brown signed 28 out-of-state kids in total. In the 2015 class, Strong has five recruits from Florida alone.
Perhaps most important, though, Strong has finally sent a proportional response on behalf of the University of Texas to Sumlin that the Longhorns want their state back. On December 19, Strong scored his first real coup as Longhorns head coach when he secured the verbal commitments of standout Mesquite linebacker Malik Jefferson and his high school teammate wide receiver DeAndre McNeal, both long thought to be A&M leans.
Jefferson's and McNeal's announcements then begat the commitments of cornerbacks Kris Boyd (Gilmer H.S., Gilmer, Texas) and Holton Hill (Lamar H.S., Houston, Texas), and the message from Strong to the Aggies became clear -- we came to fight.
"If nothing else, Charlie Strong proved in this class that he can recruit the state of Texas," said Chip Brown, who covers the Longhorns for HornsDigest.com. "You add in the kids from Florida, which is Strong's recruiting 'home turf,' and this class is definitely a good sign for Longhorns fans."
For the University of Texas, the 2015 recruiting class shows momentum, signs of life that were absent toward the end under Brown. Figuratively, it was a solid double in the gap.
Unfortunately for Strong and the Longhorns, later that Thursday night, the night of Sumlin's visit to the Murray home, would come the tweet that would prevent Strong's 2015 class from becoming a home run:
"Following my heart... #GigEm" -- @TheKylerMurray
Kyler Murray, and whatever Pied Piper effect would drag other recruits along with him, would remain committed to the Aggies, allowing droves of middle-aged Aggies to breathe a collective sigh of relief and celebrate uncontrollably (and somewhat insufferably) on Internet message boards, which are still the "local coffee shops" of recruiting banter.
Strong was certainly able to land some body blows on Texas A&M, but he couldn't deliver the knockout punch. Still, if the past two months are any indication, the recruiting war is on between Texas A&M and the University of Texas, and since the two schools can't agree to play each other on the field, this will have to do.
For fans of both these schools, teenagers' living rooms are the new gridiron, and National Signing Day is the new Thanksgiving.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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