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March 21, 2007

Ponies going extra yard this spring

He was a block away conducting spring football practice, but count SMU head coach Phil Bennett as one of the protesters during an anti-war march and demonstration near the SMU campus Monday.

Never mind the cause. Bennett only protested the noise of four helicopters circling the southeast corner of the SMU campus, directly above the Mustangs' practice field.

Bennett and SMU athletic officials had no prior knowledge of the protest that overtook Potomac Park at the corner of Fondren Lane and Airline Blvd., adjacent to Ford Stadium's east side. But the choppers that continually circled the southeast corner of the campus got their notice soon enough. Their presence shooting footage for the nightly news served as a nuisance during an otherwise ordinary practice Monday.

"(The noise) has been constant. You couldn't hear yourself out here," Bennett said following the two-and-a-half hour workout. "Talk about a distraction. You just can't get as much done when you got that kind of noise going on."

The distraction didn't keep the SMU coaches from running the Mustangs hard in Monday's first practice since last week's spring break. Off-season conditioning has been emphasized even more since former SMU player Vic Viloria took over as strength and conditioning coach earlier this year.

Bennett said the bulk of the attention in the first seven practices has been on defense, where the Mustangs must replace three starters on the line and find new contributors in the secondary.

An offense that is full of returning starters and players already set in the SMU system is running ahead of where its been in the past due to that experience.

The defensive line welcomed back Charlie Berry, who returns to the lineup after taking a year away to focus on academics. Berry is one of five players who Bennett projects to be contributors along the line.

Returning lettermen Kyle Griffin and Patrick Handy, both juniors, and sophomore Chris Parham worked with the first unit Monday. Senior starting defensive end Cory Muse is out during spring drills due to injury.

"Defensively, there's work to do on our front four," Bennett said. "The back seven are doing a good job. Berry has done some good things for us so far, and Parham is a nice player. He's trimmed down from 310 to 280 pounds, so he's able to do more things."

Bennett said the short-yardage offense hopes to do more things this season as well, and has been the emphasis of offensive work thus far.

SMU coaches want to be more definitive in their decision-making in short-yardage situations after falling short on crucial plays in losses to East Carolina and Rice last season.

"We've changed our short-yardage stuff and simplified it," Bennett said. "We may only run three or four plays out of those sets, but we'll be very good at them."

Bennett also mentioned an emphasis on improving its rushing yardage on first downs. SMU averaged 3.7 yards per first-down rush in 2006, short of Bennett's expectations.

"To be proficient, you've got to average four yards per play," he said. "That difference doesn't sound like much until you get down to playing ECU or Rice and you need that extra yard."

The offense has been hampered somewhat by Justin Willis' broken hand (metacarpal), which is affecting his ability to receive snaps from center. The sophomore has been taking snaps only in shotgun formations while the swelling goes down, though Bennett said Willis could take a limited number of snaps under center in Tuesday's practice.

Junior Corey Slater remains solid as the second-string quarterback, and Zach Rhodes has caught the coaches' eyes in the third-string slot. Rhodes missed last season following surgery to repair a shoulder separation.

Bennett said the position shifts along the offensive line has been smooth. Mitch Enright moved to center, taking the place of Ben Poynter, a senior and experienced center who moved to left tackle this spring. Joe Holmes has moved to guard for the moment to fill in for the injured Caleb Peveto.

Columbus Givens will miss the rest of spring practice while recovering from bacterial meningitis. Givens alerted SMU trainers of his lack of energy and 105-degree fever in the hours following the Saturday, March 3 practice. The trainers settled Givens' system, and later transferred him to Baylor Hospital.

At one point, Givens told Bennett he was so fatigued he couldn't walk. Bennett said doctors at the hospital credited SMU's training staff with their quick action handling the situation that night, perhaps keeping it from being a critical if not fatal case.

SMU will scrimmage at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Ford Stadium. This is the second scrimmage of the spring leading up to the annual Red-Blue Spring Game at 2 p.m. March 31, also at Ford Stadium.

The Mustangs and TCU Horned Frogs will renew their rivalry on national television this fall. CSTV will televise the first meeting between the schools since 2005. SMU will try to retain the Iron Skillet in the Sept. 22 game set for 7:30 p.m. at TCU's Amon G. Carter Stadium. The Horned Frogs will have a couple of extra days to prepare for the game as they play Air Force on Thursday, Sept. 13 in Colorado Springs.



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