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July 11, 2011
OVERVIEW: Any team coached by June Jones is going to have a potent passing attack, and that's the case with SMU. The Mustangs haven't thrown it around like Jones' Hawaii team used to - SMU was fourth in Conference USA and 21st nationally in passing last season - but this still is a dangerous passing attack. Jones has put more emphasis on the run the past two seasons and it has paid off in the school's first back-to-back bowl bids since 1984-85. SMU did set seven school records in 2010 (total offense, yards per play, total offensive plays, passing TDs, passing yards, completions and total first downs).
BACKFIELD: It might be hard to believe, but a Jones-coached running back led the league in rushing last season. Indeed, 230-pounder Zach Line was the only Conference USA runner to crack the 1,000-yard plateau, finishing with 1,494 yards and 10 TDs in his first season as the starter. Line isn't fast, but he is a downhill runner with good vision and toughness. He had seven 100-yard games last season, including a 139-yard performance against TCU. His yardage total was No. 2 on SMU's single-season list, behind only the 1,617 gained by Eric Dickerson in 1982. Junior QB Kyle Padron is coming off a big season in which he threw for a school single-season record 3,828 yards; he also set a school record with 31 TD passes. He needs to cut down on his picks (14 last season), and he needs to improve his completion percentage by a few points (he was at 59.4 percent last season). Padron should vie for all-league honors in a league that is deep at the position.
RECEIVERS: The Mustangs lost their best receiver, Aldrick Robinson, who caught 65 passes for 1,301 yards and 14 TDs. But leading receiver Cole Beasley (87-1,060-6) is back, as is Darius Johnson (78-845-6). Look for Johnson to take over Robinson's role. Senior Terrance Wilkerson was ineligible last season but has the talent to be the No. 3 guy. Also keep an eye on sophomore Keenan Holman, who played well late last season as a true freshman, and senior Bradley Haynes, by far the most physical of SMU's receivers. The Mustangs signed six receivers in February, and at least one or two should see the field this fall.
LINE: This should be the best line in Conference USA. All five starters return, and they combined for 67 starts last season (RT J.T. Brooks missed three games with an injury). But the Mustangs also get senior G Josh LeRibeus back after he missed last season for academic reasons; he started all 13 games in 2009. LeRibeus emerged from spring as a starter, which means incumbent Bryce Tennison now is a reserve guard/center. LT Kelvin Beachum will vie for all-league honors, and he and Brooks form the best tackle tandem in the league. As a group, the linemen have a combined 158 career starts, the most in Division I.
OVERVIEW: For all the (deserved) acclaim Jones gets for his offensive acumen, SMU has gone from a joke to a bowl team because of its defensive improvement. Coordinator Tom Mason, who was Fresno State's linebacker coach when Jones hired him at SMU, has done a phenomenal job and doesn't get enough credit. SMU was 40th nationally in total defense last season and allowed 352.9 yards per game. In 2007, that total was 498.7. Mason has presided over dramatic improvement - to 479.5 in '08 to 397.1 in '09 to last season. In a league known for high-powered offenses and awful defenses, Mason runs a 3-4 set and blitzes frequently.
LINE: All three starters return, and senior E Taylor Thompson has the talent to be special. He has great size (6-6/287) but must become more of a playmaker. The other end is Estonian native Margus Hunt, a junior who is massive (6-8/295) and a master at blocking kicks (he has 10 already). Hunt came to SMU as a track guy (discus, shot put) but has adapted nicely to football. Marquis Frazier is an active nose tackle who made 51 tackles last season. Depth looks good, too.
LINEBACKERS: The Mustangs have the best linebacker duo in the league with Ja'Gared Davis and Taylor Reed. Reed is a tackle machine; he made 145 last season, his first as a starter. Davis is a big-play guy. He led the Mustangs with nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss; he also scored twice on fumble recoveries. The other two starters are new, juniors Victor Jones and Cameron Rogers; they combined for just 18 tackles last season. Depth is a big concern, and a true freshman is going to have to make his presence felt at the position.
SECONDARY: Three starters are back from a unit that didn't make enough plays last season. SMU had just 10 interceptions, and three of those came against Marshall. CB Richard Crawford had a solid first season after transferring in from junior college, and he again should contend for all-league honors. FS Chris Banjo will be a four-year starter and is coming off a season in which he had 92 tackles, two picks and six pass breakups. Keep an eye on the corner spot opposite Crawford; that could be the weak link.
Matt Szymanski handled the kicking and punting duties last season, but he's gone. Redshirt freshman Mike Loftus is expected to be the kicker, while junior Matt Stone is the likely punter. Stone punted six times last season, averaging 31.7 yards and downing two inside the 20. Backup RB Darryl Fields did a solid job as a kick returner last season, averaging 24.9 yards per attempt. He's a big guy (6-2/215) with a burst. Crawford should be the punt returner. The punt coverage was good last season, but the kickoff coverage needs improvement.
A team with 18 returning starters doesn't need much help from youngsters, but Loftus could end up being vital. Szymanski was just 7-of-12 on field-goal attempts last season, and if Loftus proves early in the season he can handle the job, Jones might be inclined to attempt more field goals this season. Loftus is from a solid prep program in Anaheim (Calif.) Servite and generally was considered one of the nation's top 10 kickers as a high school senior.
Outside of the opener at Texas A&M, the rest of the early-season schedule is a breeze. But then comes a murderous four-game stretch: TCU, UCF, Southern Miss and Tulsa, with all but the UCF game on the road. Later, there's a back-to-back stretch that features a home game against Navy and a visit to Houston. That means three of the four toughest league games are on the road. But an upperclassmen-dominated team could be up to the task.
This might be the most talented team in Conference USA, but the schedule is a bear. Still, assuming Padron continues to develop, the offense could put up huge numbers, thanks to a veteran line and good skill-position guys. The defense looks good, too. Frankly, it all comes down to how well SMU plays on the road. SMU is 5-14 on the road in Jones' three seasons at the school. But six of the losses came in his first season and three of the wins came last season.
For more on SMU now and throughout the season, check out PonyPride.com
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.