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Sumlin: A&M looks to continue hot starts but avoid another cool finish

What a way to celebrate your birthday.

Kevin Sumlin turned 53 on Thursday, and the Texas A&M football coach received his first congratulatory text message just after 6 a.m., although Sumlin said the birthday wishes from South Carolina’s Will Muschamp were a bit too off color to share with the masses.

Later, there was an informal news conference at noon inside the Slocum Nutrition Center, where Sumlin answered questions in one corner of the massive dining hall while keeping an eye on his players across the room as they strolled in for a meal. Then Sumlin headed to lunch with his mother, who was in town for a visit.

Unlike on the blistering summer days that will follow, the football season wasn’t completely underway yet. Thursday brought a mashup of seven-on-seven drills, film-room study and individual weight-room work, but there remained significant coaching duties to perform as Sumlin started the most important preseason in his six-year tenure.

Players reported Thursday. There was a team meeting scheduled for Thursday night, with the first practice set for Friday afternoon. The countdown is on until A&M’s season opener, which comes Sept. 3 against UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

The immediate goals for the Aggies?

Find a quarterback. Replace an all-star defensive end who was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Figure out an identity for a team that has 29 new scholarship players, meaning more than one-third of the squad wasn’t on hand for the Texas Bowl loss to Kansas State that closed A&M’s 2016 season.

“In college football, you have great players for three years,” Sumlin said. “You have to replace talent with talent. You also build a culture to have guys come in and play right away. You have to have older guys who aren’t threatened by not playing. The more people we play the netter off we’ll be.

“When a third of the team is new, it can be dicey. We’ve talked about that and what we need to do as a team to finish. The more guys who play, the better we are.”

Sumlin said he expects to have his first depth chart set in two weeks. There are three quarterbacks still competing for the top spot, but Sumlin said he won’t be giving the contenders — Jake Hubenak, Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond — equal reps in practice.

But if you’re considering the big picture, another issue must be addressed. A&M’s coaches and players need to figure out in August how to stay hot in September and not cool off in November. Maybe it’s fixed through team-building exercises. Maybe it’s corrected with the hiring of new strength and conditioning coach Mark Hocke, who left Florida State for College Station.

There probably will be definitive changes in the way A&M practices, although Sumlin would only drop hints about what might be going on. A&M is conducting its workouts in the late afternoon. A&M opens its season on a Sunday against the Bruins so Sumlin will have the Aggies practicing on Sundays, which normally has been an off day.

He acknowledged “the noise” outside the program that suggests he’s on the hottest of seats after three straight 8-5 seasons. Over that stretch, A&M has won only two SEC games in November against seven losses.

“The energy level in this building maybe doesn’t match the energy level in the country,” Sumlin said, “which is fine.”

The nation’s coaches aren’t impressed with A&M as of yet.

USA Today unveiled its preseason poll Thursday. It was topped by Alabama, and there were six SEC teams among the 25. A&M wasn’t one of them. Then again, other than the Crimson Tide’s, there don’t appear to be any super SEC squads. LSU was the next highest-ranked SEC team at No. 12.

The lack of a preseason ranking didn’t stop Sumlin from bragging on his team as part of his birthday celebration.

“We have group of guys who are really mature, and they’ve been through it,” Sumlin said. “They’ve seen what’s happened in November, and they understand what we’re talking about.”

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