SMU finished their last season as a member of Conference USA with a 7–6 record. The Mustangs went 5–3 in conference play to finish in second place in the West Division. They were invited to the Hawaii Bowl where they defeated Fresno State 43-10. SMU will kick off spring practice today, March 25. The guys over at PonyFans.com provided us with some great information of the Mustangs for our SMU 2013 spring preview.
SMU’s 2012 record of 7-6, including a 43-10 rout of Fresno State in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, was not what many fans wanted to see after the Mustangs had been to three straight bowls, winning two, in the previous three seasons.
There were other winnable games in 2012 — most notably Tulane and Rice — but considering the Ponies were replacing a lengthy list of key players that included all five starting offensive linemen from 2011 (including two who went on to the NFL in Josh LeRibeus of the Washington Redskins and Kelvin Beachum, Jr., of the Pittsburgh Steelers), two starting defensive linemen (including Taylor Thompson, who was drafted by the Tennessee Titans as a tight end), their best 2011 receiver (Cole Beasley, now of the Dallas Cowboys), cornerback/return specialist Richard Crawford (now of the Washington Redskins) and four-year starting safety Chris Banjo, meaning a lot of previously unproven players were thrust into starting roles, the Mustangs’ record and school-record fourth consecutive bowl game were about what should have been expected.
While the strength of the SMU defense in recent years has been its front seven, the Ponies might well rely heavily in 2013 on the back eight.
The secondary that lost four players to season-ending injuries last season will be led by senior cornerback Kenneth Acker, a second-team All-Conference USA honoree in 2012 after he led the team in passes defended (15) and broken up (12), tied for the team lead with three interceptions and finished fifth on the team with 50 tackles.
He’ll be joined by senior safety Jay Scott, who was fourth on the team with 76 tackles. Also in the mix, along with a slew of athletic youngsters, is cornerback J.R. Richardson, who was projected as a 2012 starter — and future star, according to some teammates and coaches — before he went down for the year with a knee injury during two-a-days.
Defensive coordinator Tom Mason has shown an ability to recruit and develop linebackers, and he is very optimistic about a returning group that includes last year’s second-leading tackler in Randall Joyner (who had 93 stops last season), Stephon Sanders, (48 tackles and an interception return for a touchdown), Kevin Pope and a slew of promising youngsters that includes Robert Seals and Derek Longoria.
But it’s hard to call any unit that lost the productive trio of Taylor Reed (the team’s leading tackler with 97 stops last year), Ja’Gared Davis (like Reed, a three-year all-conference honoree) and Cameron Rogers (whose final season was cut short by a broken leg) a “strength.” That trio was incredibly productive for the Mustangs, but there is reason for optimism with the stable of talented young players stepping in to bigger roles.
Quarterback Garrett Gilbert arrived at SMU last summer with more hype than any transfer in school history — in any sport. The former national high school player of the year went through his share of growing pains as he adjusted to a new offense and its terminology, new coaches and new teammates, and he was plagued by more dropped passes than most quarterbacks endure, but he got progressively better as the season went along.
Now entering his fifth year of college (his second at SMU after three at the University of Texas), Gilbert finished the 2012 with 268 completions on 506 attempts (53 percent) for 2,932 yards, 15 interceptions and 15 passing touchdowns.
He also emerged in the latter part of the season as a better-than-advertised runner, picking up 346 yards on 94 attempts (3.7 yards per carry) with eight rushing touchdowns, including a 74-yard scoring run in the regular-season finale, a 35-27 win over eventual C-USA champion Tulsa.
Many predicted doom and gloom for the SMU offense after the five offensive linemen graduated in 2011, but three of them were replaced by seniors: Blake McJunkin, Bryan Collins and Jordan Free. Who replaces that trio in 2013 is much more unclear.
Senior-to-be Ben Gottschalk and sophomore-to-be Taylor Lasecki presumably will retain their starting positions at left tackle and center, respectively, but there are a lot of players — many of whom are young — vying for the other three spots.
Among those with a chance to earn a starting spot are sophomore Kris Weeks (a tackle who likely will get a look at guard), redshirt freshman-to-be tackle Seaver Myers and junior Ben Hughes, a highly-touted center in high school who has played multiple positions and will compete at right guard.
When SMU made the announcement that the school was moving to the Big East (which will be renamed before next year), it was trumpeted as a move that signaled the school’s move to the next tier of college athletics, as the conference included “automatic qualifier” status that allowed its champion to participate in a BCS bowl.
In the upheaval of the college football conference landscape since the announcement was made, the conference that awaits SMU’s arrival has changed dramatically.
Much of the change will be felt on the basketball court, but in football, SMU no longer will face Louisville, a Big East member through next season but not on the Mustangs’ schedule because of the way the conference schedule lines up in its first year.
There will be plenty of familiar opponents in the new conference — Conference USA foes Memphis, UCF, Houston, ECU and Tulane also are moving to the Big East — and the television money each school will receive will not approach the totals initially believed when the move was made.
But couple that with the fact that replacing schools like UAB, Rice and UTEP with Connecticut, Cincinnati and South Florida in a conference that announced March 19 that all conference games and non-conference home games will be broadcast on one of the ESPN networks, and the move to the 2013 version of the current Big East can only be viewed as a significant step up.
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