SMU is changing conferences for the first time since 2005, but the expectations for June Jones’ program remain the same. The Mustangs left behind Conference USA, a league they had called home since 2005, to join the newly-formed American Athletic Conference, a circuit comprised of former Big East schools like UConn and Rutgers along with fellow C-USA expats like Central Florida and Houston.
Under Jones, SMU’s coach since 2008, the Ponies have gone to four straight bowl games, the longest streak in school history. He wants to see that streak continue and it could, especially considering SMU returns most of its offensive skill position players, including quarterback Garrett Gilbert, the former Texas starter who threw for 2,932 yards as a junior with 15 touchdowns and 15 interceptions while completing 53 percent of his passes.
“I think this past year was kind of a learning experience. I was getting accustomed to what we do at SMU,” Gilbert said during American Athletic Conference media day. “I’m very excited about the opportunity we have.”
And despite those disappointing numbers, his coach still expects him to finish his collegiate career on a high note. “Very productive kid,” Jones said of Gilbert. “I think what happened at Texas was unfortunate. But at the same time, it’s a plus for him that he’s involved at SMU now and doing what he’s doing. I noticed last year by middle of the season he was finally starting to get a little bit of his confidence back.”
Having a confident signal caller could be extra important as the Ponies also have a new offensive coordinator in Hal Mumme, architect of the vaunted Air Raid offense that Mumme posted big numbers with at Kentucky and a scheme later used to near perfection by Mike Leach at Texas Tech.
Last year, SMU threw the ball 56 percent of the time, but a big reason why the Ponies ran the ball 400 times was because senior running back Zach Line remained a force on the ground, rushing for 1,278 net yards and 13 touchdowns. Line is now in the NFL but former Texas recruit Traylon Shead, who ran for 1,194 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2012 at Navarro College is expected to take over as the Mustangs’ No. 1 option in the backfield.
Under Jones, SMU has employed the Run-and-Shoot. Having Mumme calling plays will be an adjustment but it won’t be a huge departure from what the Ponies have been doing the past few years. However, there will be some meshing of the schemes. “We’ve combined some of the approaches, and I’m going to kind of enjoy watching what happens this fall because I think we stumbled upon some pretty good concepts,” Jones said.
At wide receiver, SMU returns last year’s top pass catcher, Jeremy Johnson (67-679, 3 TD) as well as No. 3 Der’rikk Thompson (41-535, 4 TD) and Keenan Holman (25-311, 2 TD), who will look to have a strong senior year.
But there will be several new faces on the offensive line, where the lone holdovers are left tackle Ben Gottschalk, a senior from California, and sophomore center Taylor Lasecki, a Dallas-area product who started every game in 2012 and earned a spot on the C-USA All-Freshman Team.
However, on defense, it’s a much different story. SMU lost standout linebackers in Ja’Gared Davis, the team’s third-leading tackler, and Taylor Reed, who led the Ponies with 97 stops plus the 6-foot-8 Margus Hunt, who led the team with eight sacks and was a force on special teams. In total, the Mustangs lost five defensive starters from 2012.
But the group of returnees is rock solid. Senior cornerback Kenneth Acker, a preseason first-team All AAC pick who tied for the team lead with three interceptions, headlines this group, one also including linebacker Randall Joyner, second on the team with 93 tackles last season and experienced defensive backs Chris Park and Jay Scott.
Stephon Sanders, a junior who started 12 games at SAM linebacker last season, is another experienced player the Mustangs defense will lean on along with junior defensive back Hayden Greenbauer, who played in every game last season, including a start in the blowout win over Fresno State in the Hawai’i Bowl.
“We’ve got a lot of young players, Jones said. “We’ve lost six or seven guys on defense, but we have some young kids that are very talented that I think are going to be good defensive players.
SMU also appears to be squared away on special teams with the return of kicker Chase Hover and junior punter Mike Loftus. Thompson should be returning kickoffs once again in 2013. Sophomore defensive back Blake Poston and Acker handled much of the punt return duties last fall and should do so again for the Mustangs.