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Texas A&M starts spring practices with young players in key roles

Spring football usually is the time for optimism, albeit on the guarded side. Younger players try new positions. Veterans often have the luxury of not doing so much.

In College Station, count on Texas A&M’s spring workouts, which begin Wednesday, to be more deliberate. There really is no luxury of time as coach Kevin Sumlin deals with the aftermath of three straight seasons of swooning 8-5 records.

The 2016 season ended harshly at the Texas Bowl in Houston. Kansas State thumped A&M, 33-28, the Aggies’ fifth loss in their final seven games, with victories coming against only UTSA and New Mexico State during the stretch.

Here’s what makes what transpired last fall so much harder to figure: That A&M team was super talented. Nine players were invited to this week’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. That ties a program high, dating back to A&M’s salad days in 1992. Defensive end Myles Garrett is the favorite to be the top choice in the draft.

Sumlin, in the past two months, has hired a new defensive backs coach. He replaced Terry Joseph, who took a job with North Carolina, with Ron Cooper, who had been the interim coach at Florida International. Cooper worked with defensive coordinator John Chavis when the two were at LSU.

Sumlin also fired his long-time strength coach, Larry Jackson, a former A&M linebacker who has worked for Sumlin since the two were at Houston. Sumlin hadn’t been satisfied with the way his team’s conditioning seemed to give out late in the season against SEC teams; he hired Mark Hocke, who was an assistant at Florida State. But Hocke has significant ties to the SEC, serving as Georgia’s strength coach in 2015 and working for six years for Nick Saban at Alabama.

The Aggies will receive an immediate infusion of young talent. Nine players enrolled in January, graduating early from high school so they could participate in spring drills. Most will be showing up on the depth chart.

Count on these areas being the main focus for the Aggies:

Who will be the quarterback?

For the third time in four springs, Sumlin has to judge a quarterbacks contest. And this year’s starter could have no collegiate experience. Sumlin’s options are journeyman Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and freshman Kellen Mond.

Hubenak has played in 13 games in his two years at A&M. So experience is on his side. Starkel was generating buzz playing for the scout team last fall. He’s a former three-star prospect and one-time commitment to Oklahoma State. Mond, a San Antonio native who played for the IMG Academy in Florida, was considered by some recruiting services as the best dual-threat quarterback prospect in the country. But Mond would have to up his passing skills to even have a chance to start as a freshman.

Where are the receivers?

A&M lost three of its top four receivers from a year ago, including Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil, who left early for the NFL. The top candidates to replace them may be among the freshman early enrollees. Jhamon Ausbon was Mond’s teammate at IMG. Hezekiah Jones was considered a four-star prospect. Also keep an eye on Kirk Merritt, who transferred from Oregon.

Who will be the go-to player on defense?

Garrett is gone. So is safety Justin Evans and end Daeshon Hall. Consider true freshman Anthony Hines as a possible star. He was a borderline five-star prospect who committed to Chavis while Chavis was at LSU.

The spring game is set for April 8 at Kyle Field. Maybe Sumlin will have his answers by then.

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