During his head coaching career, at both the University of Houston and Texas A&M, two perceptions-that-border-on-reality have followed Kevin Sumlin around.
The first one is that Sumlin can't field a competent defense, either because the pace his offense plays with doesn't allow it or because he doesn't emphasize defense enough. The second one is that Sumlin is achieving his offensive success with quarterbacks who were already in place when he arrived in both places — Case Keenum at Houston (recruited by Art Briles) and Johnny Manziel at A&M (recruited by Mike Sherman).
"What would happen when Sumlin had to recruit, groom and succeed with his own recruits at the most important position on the field?" many asked.
To Sumlin's credit, he resolved the first perception this past offseason with the hiring of defensive coordinator John Chavis, who was able to put a scheme and culture in place that allowed all that five-star defensive talent to flourish for most of the 2015 season. Now, though, the second question, the one regarding the QB situation, has turned from conundrum into crisis as it appears that yet another Sumlin QB recruit is readying himself to leave College Station.
Just a week or so after starting quarterback Kyle Allen announced his intentions to transfer to another school, yesterday came news that backup quarterback and former elite recruit Kyler Murray is strongly considering leaving the program as well. TexAgs.com's Billy Liucci was the first to report this yesterday afternoon:
This was followed up shortly thereafter by Murray's absence at the Aggies' first practice for their bowl game in Nashville on December 30 against Louisville, and in a somewhat bizarre twist, Sumlin's announcing that Murray would still be the starter for that bowl game. It seemed a little strange that the starting QB wouldn't be at practice, but Sumlin tried to quell any rumors by attributing the absence to illness.
Neither Murray nor his father, Kevin, a former Aggie star QB himself back in the '80s, have commented publicly on the situation, but John Lopez of SportsRadio 610, from multiple sources, pieced the current situation together in a story on the station's website:
* Kyler Murray remains an Aggie. For now. But rest assured, after the Aggies’ first bowl game football practice Wednesday, when Kevin Sumlin said he expected Murray back for practice on Thursday it was largely wishful thinking.
* Sumlin and Murray’s father, Kevin, were expected to speak again Wednesday evening. Kyler Murray has told coaches and athletic department personnel that he truly loves the Texas A&M experience, his teammates, the school and wants to be an Aggie. However, the direction and coaching of the Aggie offense has been a huge disappointment and soured Murray on whether A&M actually is the best place for him to play football.
* Kevin Murray is looking for assurances that the changes in the offensive approach are significant and are the best fit not just for Kyler’s talent, but offensive personnel across-the-board, which underachieved badly this season. If Murray stays, then an almost complete overhaul of the offensive staff likely would happen.
Lopez also points out that, if Murray were to leave, this would be the fifth nationally acclaimed quarterback to transfer on Sumlin's watch since his arrival in College Station in 2012 (Jameil Showers, Matt Davis, Kenny Hill and Allen being the others), a chilling statistic for a coach who is perceived around the football world to be a sound, creative offensive mind.
Obviously, if the direction of the offense is a concern for Murray and change is a condition of his returning, then this is turning into a staring contest between Murray and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who's come under fire this season from the Aggie faithful as the offense has floundered through the SEC portion of their schedule. Murray was actually demoted to third string for the Ole Miss game as punishment for an outburst directed at Spavital during the loss to Alabama the previous week. The Aggies lost to Ole Miss 23-3 that weekend in a game that was screaming for Allen, the starter at that point, to be replaced.
Eventually, he was…by Jake Hubenak.
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There's a scene in Season 5 of The Sopranos where Tony is lamenting the fact that he may have to whack his cousin, Tony Blundetto, because of all the damage he's done to the Soprano crew's relationship with the New York crew. Tony Soprano realizes the corner he's painted himself into because of his relationship with his cousin. In this metaphor, Sumlin is Tony Soprano, Spavital is Tony Blundetto and the Aggie fan base is the New York crew,
I don't know how close Sumlin is with Spavital, but right now, a Murray transfer would jeopardize any improvement in 2016 and place Sumlin himself squarely on the hot seat. If it comes down to keeping Spavital and rebuilding the QB depth chart (a scary proposition on many levels), or placating Murray and cutting Spavital loose, then we've likely seen this ending before. Eventually, Tony Blundetto got whacked.
Sumlin is painted into a corner. What he does next will define him as a coach and a boss.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.