COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Noel Mazzone seemingly had it all at UCLA.
He was living in a nice house on Manhattan Beach. He went to work every day on one of the more beautiful campuses you’ll ever see. He was coaching a quarterback, Josh Rosen, who had (at least) two seasons left and looks to be a dead-solid lock to be a high draft choice in 2018.
But Mazzone, 59, left all that. He packed his bags, said good-bye to paradise and headed east to become the new offensive coordinator at Texas A&M. And today, about three months removed from the California sunsets, Noel Mazzone couldn't be happier with life in College Station.
"It was an intriguing challenge," Mazzone said as we sat in the offensive coaches meeting room in Texas A&M's plush football complex. "I guess I just wanted to coach in the SEC West just one more time."
This is Mazzone's fourth tour of duty in the SEC West. He served as offensive coordinator at Ole Miss under Tommy Tuberville from 1995-98. He followed Tuberville to Auburn and stayed there until 2001, when, after a 7-5 season, Tuberville fired both coordinators. He replaced Mazzone with some guy named Bobby Petrino. Mazzone returned to the SEC for a cup of coffee in 2005 as Ed Orgeron's offensive coordinator at Ole Miss. He was there a year. Orgeron wanted Mazzone to install USC's offense; problem was, Mazzone never had coached USC's offense and Ole Miss didn't have USC's players. Orgeron let Mazzone go after a 3-8 season.
Since leaving Auburn in 2001, Mazzone has made stops at Oregon State (2002), North Carolina State (2003-04), Ole Miss (2005), the New York Jets (2006-08), Cary (N.C.) Panther Creek (2009), Arizona State (2010-11), UCLA (2012-15) and finally Texas A&M. His four years at UCLA tied for the second-longest stretch he's had in one place.
"That's kind of been my MO during my career," Mazzone said. "It's just the nature of the business that you move around."
Mazzone brought his son, Taylor, with him from UCLA to serve as the quarterback coach, the same position he held at Westwood.
"It is a challenge," Mazzone said. "And I like challenges."
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Getting this offense to a place where the Aggies can compete in the SEC West should qualify as the mother of all challenges. Last season, Texas A&M was sixth in the SEC in total offense (424.7 yards per game), No. 7 in scoring offense (27.8 points per game), No. 8 in rushing offense (169.08 ypg), and No. 4 in passing offense (255.6 ypg). Those aren't Johnny Manziel numbers but it wasn't bad.
That was accomplished with quarterbacks Kyle Allen (2,210 yards passing, 17 TD), and Kyler Murray (686 yards, five TDs). Both left the program in December, with Allen transferring to Houston and Murray transferring to Oklahoma.
Joining the program in January was Trevor Knight, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma. Knight is best known for throwing for a career-high 348 yards and four touchdowns against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl following the 2013 season. There was talk before the 2014 regular season that Knight might contend for the Heisman. But he and the Oklahoma offense were inconsistent. Knight eventually lost his job to Baker Mayfield in 2015 and started looking for a new home. He was named A&M's starter two days after the Aggies' spring game.
"I've seen Trevor play before and he's got some skills we can use," Mazzone said. "He's proven he can manage a team. I have confidence in him."
Mazzone also has Jake Hubenak, a junior college transfer who started for the Aggies in the 27-21 loss to Louisville in the Music City Bowl. In that game, Hubenak was 28-of-48 for 305 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Hubenak was a late addition to the Aggies' 2015 signing class after throwing for 4,052 yards in 2014 at Blinn College in Texas. He has two years of eligibility left.
"To tell you the truth, Jake was the most improved player in the spring," Mazzone said. "In this offense, he should be a good, solid quarterback. The key is surrounding him with good people."
That will not be a problem at wide receiver, where Christian Kirk (80 catches, 1,009 yards), Josh Reynolds (51 catches, 907 yards), Ricky Seals-Jones (45 catches), Damion Ratley (15 catches), and Speedy Noil (21 catches) return. But throwing the ball has not been the issue for the Aggies the past two seasons. Running the ball when they had to and protecting the quarterback when they needed to have been shortcomings.
Toughness along the offensive line appeared to be lacking. Texas A&M averaged only 3.8 yards per rush in conference games, which was 11th in the SEC. In addition, the Aggies surrendered 20 sacks in eight SEC games (2.5 per game), which was ninth in the conference. Overall, Texas A&M allowed 37 sacks (2.85 per game), which was No. 107 nationally.
"There comes a time in every game where you've got to run the ball and control the clock in the fourth quarter," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We were very inconsistent and that's why we made the changes we made."
Sumlin replaced offensive coordinator Jake Spavital with Mazzone, who becomes Texas A&M's fourth OC in five seasons. Sumlin also replaced offensive line coach Dave Christensen, who had been in the program for one season.
The new line coach is Jim Turner, who was on A&M's staff from 2008-11 under Mike Sherman and is given credit for recruiting and developing first-round draft choices Jake Matthews, Luke Joeckel and Cedric Ogbuehi. Turner went with Sherman to the Miami Dolphins and ultimately was dismissed in the fallout surrounding the Richie Incognito hazing investigation in 2013. He had taken a job with Tuberville in Cincinnati when the offer from Texas A&M came.
Turner, a former Marine infantry officer, has been charged with bringing the toughness back to A&M's offensive line.
"Our offensive line was a little shaky (last season)," said Mazzone, being as charitable as he could. "But I like the fact that we have Coach Turner back. He's a great coach."
Mazzone's offense really hasn't changed much over the years. It's about going up-tempo, spreading the field to run the ball and getting the ball to the playmakers in space. "The quarterback drives the offense and has to make good decisions," Mazzone said.
The reality is that this is a big season for Sumlin and his staff. Since the Cotton Bowl season of 2012, the Aggies' first in the SEC, Texas A&M has gone 4-4, 3-5, and 4-4 in conference play. Sumlin is the SEC's second-highest paid coach at $5 million annually.
Sumlin knows he's on the right track with John Chavis as the defensive coordinator. Now he's counting on Mazzone to fix the offense. The only question is how much time he will get, given the über-competitiveness of the SEC West.
"Nowadays, everybody is coaching for their job every year," Mazzone said. "That's just the way it is. When I went to Ole Miss as the offensive coordinator, I made $45,000. So if the offense stunk, the guy in the stands said ‘Hey, give him a break. He's only making $45,000.'
"But if you're making a million (Mazzone has a three-year contract and will make $965,000 in 2016), it's different."
Yes it is.
(You can follow Tony Barnhart on Twitter @MrCFB)
© 2016, Tony Barnhart. All rights reserved.
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