HOOVER, Ala. — Drew Kaser sat in the same corner occupied by his rock star teammate a year ago, serving as a symbol for the change at Texas A&M this season.
The punter held court with a handful of media members, most of which were curious about his inclusion as one of Texas A&M’s three representative during the SEC’s kickoff event. It was much smaller than the throngs who packed into the area to pick the brain of 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel — fresh off his infamous dismissal from the Manning Passing Academy — last July.
"The lack of Heisman hype … I’m a little bitter about that one," Kaser said laughing.
Texas A&M’s first two years in the SEC will be remembered for the remarkable talents of its star quarterback, who set the conference’s single-season total yardage record as a redshirt freshman (5,116) and followed it with the second-best performance in 2013 (4,873). But now that he’s off to the Cleveland Browns, the Aggies are determined to prove their success in going 20-6 overall and 10-6 in conference games over the two-year stretch won’t simply slip away with him.
It was evident during coach Kevin Sumlin’s time in the Wynfrey Hotel Tuesday. The third-year coach showed little interest in talking about his previous quarterback, who was as widely known for his off-the-field antics as electric performances.
He didn’t mention Manziel during his five-minute opening statement in the main ballroom. But it didn’t last. When asked immediately what it would be like not coaching Manziel and if he’d miss him, Sumlin chuckled before his response.
"Let me get this straight: What’s it like NOT coaching Johnny Manziel?" Sumlin said.
He continued with a lengthy response before adding: "Your first question to me is irrelevant. Your second question is something we have to work on."
Manziel’s replacement is the biggest question of the offseason. Either sophomore Kenny Hill or true freshman Kyle Allen will earn the job and move into the season as a first-time starter when the Aggies open at South Carolina on Aug. 28.
Stepping into the role won’t be easy. Especially after Manziel ran circles around opponents like Arkansas, became a thorn in Alabama coach Nick Saban’s side and left college as one of the most productive quarterbacks in NCAA history.
"I understand there’s not going to be another Johnny Manziel, the way he played the game," Sumlin said. "That’s all part of it."
But Sumlin realizes replacing a legend is, too, and there’s comfort knowing his top candidates for the starting job carry plenty of credentials of their own. Hill was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Texas as a senior. Allen was tops in the country.
There are other key holes to fill as well as the Aggies redefine their high-octane offense. Wide receiver Mike Evans and offensive lineman Jake Matthews also joined Manziel as first-round picks in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Then there’s the defense. Manziel’s heroics couldn’t always overcome a porous unit that surrendered an SEC-high 32.2 points and 475.8 yards a game.
Sumlin believes the unit is deeper, especially along a defensive front that is vital to success in the SEC. But the Texas A&M defense knows allowing 30 points or more in six of its eight conference games once again will be a recipe for disaster.
"We’ve got to play better," Texas A&M defensive back Deshazor Everett said. "To give up as many points as we did as a defense is embarrassing."
It’s the new identity for the Aggies as they move on without Manziel.
Tackle Cedric Ogbuehi admitting things are much more quiet as the Aggies take a step out of the broad spotlight. But he said it was reminiscent of two years ago before Manziel "became Johnny Football" so the departure isn’t a big deal.
Sumlin did his best to continue steering the conversation in that direction throughout his stay at SEC Media Days on Tuesday.
At one point in his question-and-answer session Sumlin was asked about Manziel’s recent party photos. Has he counseled the quarterback? Does he talk about off-the-field behavior with his next quarterbacks at Texas A&M?
"Is this SEC Media Days?" Sumlin said smiling. "That’s a great question … about the Cleveland Browns. Anybody else got something?"
The SEC will find out if Texas A&M does without Johnny Football this season.
"We’re a solid team. We’re all family," Kaser said. "We’re all brotherhood. Even when Johnny was here, it wasn’t a distraction to us. But at the same time, we’re the 2014 Texas A&M Aggies. We’re just ready to look forward to the new era ahead of us."