Yesterday was the Annual Kickoff Luncheon at the massive Hilton Anatole, south of downtown. I did not get to attend because of work and because I do not have the same connections and know how that Ty does. But that certainly will not prevent me from talking up the luncheon, analyzing the depth chart and previewing the upcoming season.
There was a feeling of genuine excitement for the upcoming season (this I gleaned from listening to the audio) and with new uniforms (available here: http://smumustangs.cstv.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/070208aaa.html, though I hear they look better in person), new personnel, new schemes on both sides of the ball, and a new coach it is not hard to understand why things are looking up in Pony nation. June Jones has mentioned several times that this year is a stepping stone. It would be, in my opinion, unreasonable for us Pony fans to expect a 9-3 team to emerge this coming year. The schedule features difficult road games (Navy in Annapolis in October? ouch) and matchups against teams that we haven't quite figured out how to play against (e.g. Tech).
There is also going to be lots of freshmen getting regular playing time; not the least of whom is Bo Levi Mitchell at QB.
Just prior to the luncheon yesterday, Jones and his coaching staff released his first depth chart (available here: http://www.ponyfans.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=33874). Notable as much for the names not on it as for those that are, this first glance at the rotations on both sides of the ball give us insight into what kind of player JJ and his staff favor and who is making the most progress in position development. June Jones is definitely a coach who believes in the players he brings in. This combined, with the Mustangs lack of depth at some positions (ahem, O-line) means that lots of true freshmen and players coming off of red shirt years will be thrust into starting roles.
DeMyron Martin and Andrew McKinney are both large for tailbacks and will be good blockers out of the backfield for Mitchell. They will both be an asset for an offensive line that faces a steep learning curve (I'll get to that in a minute). DeMyron has good enough hands and speed to move into the slot receiver position on occasion too.
Sean Lobo and Mitch Enright will be returning at LG and Center respectively. They should provide a steady, experienced influence on the other three positions. Josh LeRibeus should get good time behind Lobo and freshmen Zach Boyd should get lots of time backing up the inexperienced Bryce Tennison at RG in what may turn into a platoon situation as the season progresses. The tackles are intriguing in that Tommy Poynter barely beat out Kelvin Beachum Jr. for the LT position while converted TE Vincent Chase (who has hopefully bulked up in the off season) will try to anchor the right side of the line. Both ends of the line will have to capitalize on the experience they get early in the season from lesser opponents Rice and Texas State before meetings with physically more gifted defensive teams in Texas Tech, TCU, UCF and UH.
The receiving corps is not surprising. Emmanuel Sanders should continue his ascent to greatness in June Jones's pass happy Run N' Shoot offense. Aldrick Robinson will get his first serious playing time this year and should develop into a nice target for Bo Levi Mitchell. Personally, I would like to see E.J. Drewery (all 6-6, 210 lbs. of him) get some time in at receiver. His height gives him a built in advantage over half of the defensive backs in Conference USA. He is not listed on the depth chart currently, and this could be that the coaching staff believes that he needs some seasoning. But I would love to see him get playing time during the season to see what he can do.
On defense, the line was weakened by the graduation of Corey Muse. The starters on each end this year--Anthony Sowe and Adrian Dizer--will have a tall order against teams like Tech whose offensive linemen average 300 lbs. and provide a nearly impenetrable wall for Graham Harrell. Serge Elizee, who was a beast already, according to reports has made even more of his 300 lb. frame into muscle. Elizee, who will be lining up next to Patrick Handy at DT, gained lots of experience last year and I expect him to be the anchor on defense. Youri Yenga, who I think is better fit at LB due to his size, will be switching out with Dizer on one end while freshman Taylor Thompson will back up Sowe. Thompson was a TE in high school and his position on the depth chart speaks once again to the Ponies' lack of depth up front.
Will Bonilla will lead the linebackers from the strong side. Bonilla is slightly undersize for a LB, but his speed, instincts, and ability to finish tackles put him on the watch list for the Butkus Award this season. Justin Smart, who filled in at DE during the injury filled season last year, has moved back to his natural position of MLB. Jason Jackson mans the weakside on the first team. Julian Herron, Pete Fleps, and OSU transfer Alex Odiari should get into lots of games too at LB.
For the first time in years, the secondary has a chance to be a strength for SMU. Brian McCann looks to continue his development as a great coverage corner while Derrius Bell will be the other starting DB. McCann has been mentioned as one of the players with NFL quality talent on this team and his natural ability (the fumbled pick 6 last year not withstanding) has never been in doubt. McCann does need to improve his tackling though as far too many receivers were able to slip out of his grasp last year. Rock Dennis, who missed last year due to injury, will be able to provide coverage help to McCann and Bell that was missing last year. True freshman Chris Banjo should get into games at Free Safety behind starter Tyler Jones. Banjo was one of JJ's prime recruiting pickups in February.
Finally special teams (yes I am going for longest post ever). Thomas Morstead, who is already being looked at by NFL scouts, will handle punting and placekicking duties again this year. With June Jones's habitual dislike of punting, he may not amass as many attempts as last season (and who really wants him to?), but hopefully he will make up for this by increasing the amount of extra points he has to kick. Kellis Cunningham will handle kickoffs again while Jesse Henderson will be the prime kick returner. Punt returns, which were handled occasionally by Emmanuel "I don't know how to call a fair catch" Sanders last season, will be taken by Cole Beasely and Bryan McCann. Coach Frank Gansz has emphasized improved blocking and coverage on punts and kickoffs in spring and fall practice. I think our special teams will be improved based purely upon the fact that we finally have a coach who is devoted to special teams play. That also means no swinging gate for you Phil Bennett fans out there.
So the schedule: Rice and Texas State are both very beatable. Texas Tech has always given the Mustangs problems. It's been joked about several times how that game may be 7 hours long due to all the passing. TCU is winnable, but the Ponies will have to play mistake free football, which is something they could not do in Ft. Worth last year. Tulane is also a winnable game with the same caveat as TCU. UCF, Tulsa, UH, and Navy will prove to be a very rough stretch. Houston has lost most of their starters and will have a weaker offense than last year, but the Cougars remain dangerous defensively. The Mustangs face Memphis in Dallas this year and I expect revenge for last year's OT let down. UTEP has taken backwards steps in consecutive seasons under Mike Price, but remain dangerous on both sides of the ball against a young team such as the Mustangs. Southern Miss is a similar situation to UTEP: talented players that can maul an inexperienced opponent, but also a team coming off of a disappointing season and, in this case, with a new coach.
I predict a 5-7 season and a solid first year for Coach June Jones.
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