COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M seemed to have an embarrassment of riches at the most important position in football earlier this season.
The Aggies had a starting quarterback, Kenny Hill, who seemed to be a perfect fit for their offense. The sophomore ably filled the shoes of the school’s greatest player ever at the position, Johnny Manziel, who turned in two of the most productive and memorable seasons in college football history.
They have a backup who is young but credentialed in Kyle Allen. He was the country’s No. 1-ranked pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class and someone the coaching staff said battled Hill neck-and-neck for the starting job in preseason training camp.
Waiting in the wings is the No. 1 ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class, five-star prospect Kyler Murray, son of Kevin Murray, who was a successful Texas A&M quarterback himself in the 1980s.
Leading it all were two highly regarded offensive minds, head coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital.
Now, the Aggies are searching for answers everywhere, including quarterback.
After having a three-game losing streak capped by a 59-0 disaster in Alabama, Sumlin indicated the Aggies needed to go back to the drawing board at every position, but naturally, all eyes are on the quarterback situation.
Hill, once 5-0 and getting mention as a Heisman Trophy candidate, saw his numbers regress in the last three outings while the supporting cast around him also struggled. Spavital noted that Hill is fighting to keep his starting job as Allen is being given a chance to compete for the starting job Saturday when the Aggies host Louisiana-Monroe.
Allen is still a largely unknown commodity. He has seen limited action in four games, though he was given some first-half action in the Aggies’ 73-3 win over Lamar. He showed bright spots (12-of-16 passing, two touchdowns) and some not so bright (throwing an interception on his first series).
Who starts Saturday will be revealing. Is Allen ready to take the reins? Is Hill poised enough to pull himself out of the recent slump and return to the form he showed in his first month? What’s in the aftermath either way?
In college football’s current climate, it isn’t uncommon to see the “winner starts, loser transfers” mentality set in when it comes to quarterbacks. Only one can play at a time and waiting your turn can be challenging. Should Allen remain the backup the rest of this season, is he willing to wait around or will he consider heading elsewhere?
And now it’s worth wondering about the strength of Murray’s commitment after he recently took an official visit to Oklahoma. If more visits to other schools follow, it certainly is cause for concern. It’s a long way until signing day and if the Aggies don’t turn the ship in the right direction quickly, recruiting momentum could be affected.
Even if the Aggies are able to hang on to Murray’s commitment and get him to sign a national letter of intent in February, they still must keep their fingers crossed until the summer. Murray is a highly regarded baseball prospect who is projected to be chosen high in the 2015 MLB draft. The Aggies have been down that road before when Sumlin signed two quarterbacks in 2013: Hill and Kohl Stewart, who elected to sign a multimillion dollar deal to pursue pro baseball after being drafted fourth overall by the Minnesota Twins.
How all this plays out will be telling. For Sumlin, this is relatively uncharted territory for him as a head coach. Never has his team been shut out like it was in Tuscaloosa and never has his team gone through a three-game offensive slump like the Aggies have recently.
Turnover at quarterback has been rare under Sumlin. He chose Case Keenum to start in his first year as the coach in Houston and Keenum never relinquished the job, except for an eight-game stretch when he was injured in 2010. Keenum broke eight career FBS passing records.
Manziel won the starting job in Sumlin’s first season in Aggieland and that history is well-documented. A Heisman Trophy, two record-setting seasons and a first-round NFL draft selection later, Manziel never had to be replaced because of his play.
Sumlin is naturally reluctant to yank a quarterback. Having been in the presence of or coached many great college quarterbacks, Sumlin is a believer in confidence. He doesn’t want his starting signal-caller concerned with whether he’ll get yanked from a game for making a mistake.
“It's been our history to be a one [quarterback] team, not a 'one guy in, one guy out' kind of deal” Sumlin said in a July interview. “It's like pitching. You don't like to play looking over your shoulder at that position. Quarterback is a lot different. You have to have confidence.”
He has been through a rough stretch before in this offense: in 2012, Smith's senior year at West Virginia.
“At West Virginia we were 5-0, ranked third in the country and then we lost five straight,” Spavital said. “I've been through this before. The main thing is, it's really nothing to do with scheme or anything like that, it's just the mentality we play with, getting out there and competing and having some pride in what you do."
The search for answers continues. A position where the Aggies seemingly had plenty of answers seems to have some of its biggest questions. How they’re answered will mean a lot toward the direction of Aggies football in the coming weeks and beyond.