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Friday, February 20, 2009

New Class, New Faces, New Positions...A Look at the New Class

On the first Wednesday of February, June Jones signed his second class of recruits to Letters of Intent to play football at SMU. The reviews of the class, the first one where Jones had an entire year to recruit, are generally positive with some writers going so far as to say this is the best class that SMU has signed in 20 years. Another reviewer said that this class is a severe disappointment because it was light on linebackers and defensive linemen and too heavy on defensive backs and 'project' offensive linemen.

Generally speaking, I think this is a solid class. It is comparable to Phil Bennett's best class in 2003. But I think what makes most individuals feel warm and fuzzy about this particular class is that June Jones--quite unlike Phil Bennett--has a proven ability to get the most out of a player's level of talent. A few players are steals: Joey Fontana, Darius Johnson, and Chris Atchison are all three considered excellent recruits that will fit well into the Run N' Shoot offense. June Jones also mentioned at his Signing Day Press Conference that Johnson--nickname, The Truth!--may also return punts. I also personally have high expectations for safety James Scott out of Houston Strake Jesuit (my high school's archrival!).

Here is my breakdown of the class:

Chris Atchison, Joey Fontana, Darius Johnson, Mike Loftus, James Scott, Ryan Clark, and Marquis Frazier are all players that enter SMU with high expectations. Frazier and Clark were JUCO teammates at Navarro College and both should start this fall. Frazier has been enrolled on the Hilltop since January and Clark--a Rivals 4 star recruit--will enroll this summer most likely. Frazier and his huge 6-4, 260 lb frame should be at either DT or DE for the season opener depending on the results of spring practice and how Tom Mason and company decide to re-align the defense (rumor is that the Mustangs will be switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 but nothing has been confirmed yet). Clark will compete for time at safety right away and could supplant Rock Dennis.

With James Scott, I would not be surprised to see him red shirt but nor would I be surprised to see him get spot time, especially in nickel situations. He has great hands and size, and good enough speed to have played QB for Jesuit in 2008. June Jones has often said that he believes in putting the best talent on the field right away and if Scott proves himself in August practice, he could forego a red shirt year altogether. But because of the depth already extant in the secondary, he could just as easily take a red shirt and spend a year getting adjusted to college.

Atchison and Fontana are premiere offensive lineman. Atchison is a guard and Fontana can play anywhere on the line. Both have the skills to play right away, though Atchison could use some bulking up during the summer. Though the Mustangs offensive line played better than could have been expected in 2008, either Atchison or Fontana could challenge for playing time very soon particularly in running situations, the blocking for which was lamentably poor last year (which is part of the reason that the running game only netted 490 yards).

Mike Loftus is the heir apparent to the great Thomas Morstead. Loftus was graded in the top 10 of high school kickers in 2008 by ESPN and Scout and in the top 20 by Rivals. Loftus, however, will not be thrust into a starting role just yet. Kickoffs for next year will still likely be handled by Kellis Cunningham (who may also get time at safety in spring practice according to Jones...anyone who saw him level Memphis's kick returner last year knows why) and placekicking/punting duties will be handled by Matt Szymanski, who sat out 2008 after transferring to SMU from Texas A&M. In all likelihood, Loftus will red shirt and not even see the field in 2009. So Mustang fans should take heart that we will continue to be set at kicker "for 4-5 years" in the words of June Jones.

Finally, Darius "the Truth" Johnson out of Fort Bend Hightower should make it onto the field very quickly. Based on statements by Jones about Johnson's ability and talent, I would be extremely surprised not to see him starting in 2009 alongside Emmanuel Sanders and Aldrick Robinson. At 5-10, he has decent height, but will need to pack some more muscle onto his 160 lb frame in order to stand up to the more physical secondaries he will face in the NCAA. Johnson, with his great hands, blazing speed (he ran a 4.4 40), and excellent body control (see the one handed end zone grab he made in the state playoffs in 2008) will make a great target for Bo Levi Mitchell right away. He'll face a steep learning curve as the Run N' Shoot will be more complicated than any offense he has ever contemplated being a part of, but expect him to be a star for the Mustangs.

How does the rest of the class shape up? It is very light on defensive linemen and linebackers. Brandon Henderson and Braylon Williams are the only two high school lineman to have been signed and I would not be surprised to see either one of them gray shirt or red shirt. The Mustangs have little depth on defense, especially with the recent release of Anthony Sowe and the graduation of Serge Elizee and Patrick Handy. Moreover, Adrian Dizer had a terrible neck injury during the 2008 season and it is unknown if he will be able to return to football at all. Taylor Thompson has reportedly bulked up to 260 in the weight room since the end of the season and Evan Huahulu could see quite a bit of playing time at DT/NT. As mentioned previously, JUCO transfer Marquis Frazier will very likely start while Mickey Dollens will see more time as will Chris Parham. 2008 walk on (and Army veteran) Jesse Andrew could get on the field as well.

Margus Hunt, even with his 6-7, 280 lb frame and plaudits from Junes Jones (and JJ has been very free flowing with his praise), still has never put on pads or played a down of football in his life and so cannot be considered anything more than a project for the future at this point (he will have 4 years of eligibility). Justin Smart could move back to DE from outside linebacker, but this move is a wash as Youri Yenga is likely to move from DE to LB. So even with all of the unknowns surrounding the defensive line, I still expect both Williams and Henderson to sit out next year to develop physically and for Tom Mason's defense to rely on a strong, fast secondary for the foreseeable future.

Jones and his staff have, however, earmarked the defense as the area to focus on for 2010. This very day, SMU received its first commitment for the next recruiting cycle in the form of DT Michael O'Guin. O'Guin is already being called one of the best recruits that SMU has picked up in 20 years. It is early yet and players have been known to switch commitments, but this is a great start.

Other notable signees are Kyle Padron out of Southlake Carroll who provides much needed depth at QB, Beck Coulter, Deonte McDade, Chayse Joubert, Aron Franklin, Ben Hughes, and Jordan Favreau .

With Bo Levi Mitchell expected to start again, New Mexico State transfer J.J. McDermott sitting out 2009 per NCAA rules, Logan Turner and 2008 red shirt Winston Gamso transferring to other schools, only Braden Smith (who kept his red shirt intact throughout 2008) will be immediately available to back up. It will be interesting to see if Justin Willis is even listed on the depth chart as a QB after spring practice, but my feeling is that he will not be. I think June sees Willis solely as a receiver now and I cannot imagine Willis throwing the ball again outside of some sort of trick play. Additionally, with the emergence from the shadows of Michael Morse (who came in and got a couple of snaps in relief of Turner against Memphis last season) Padron will likely be red shirted, but I can see Jones not hesitating to burn the red shirt if the other QBs on the depth chart do not deliver.

McDade, Joubert, and Franklin are all receivers with excellent speed and athletic ability. Expect McDade to see the field in 2009 but Joubert and Franklin red shirting. With a decent amount of depth at WR between Sanders, Robinson, Bryant, Wilkerson, Medford (if he's fully recovered from his shoulder injury), E.J. Drewery (who did not lose his red shirt last year), and others there will not be a need to rush either one onto the field as was done with the Coles Loftin and Beasely.

Ben Hughes was listed by some writers as a potential heir at center to Mitch Enright, though I think it more likely that either Blake McJunkin--who performed admirably well as a slightly undersized true freshmen during the middle of the season--or Joey Fontana will eventually take over at center for Mitch Enright. Enright only played in 3 games due to a hand injury and so still has eligibility as he now pursues his MBA. It is rumored that Hughes has agreed to gray shirt along with Christian Miller, so the Ponies may not get their first glimpse of him until spring practice in 2010. Favreau is another lineman who has gained praise for his technique, if not his size. At 6-3 and 245, he has the height but not the weight he needs before he can effectively play guard at the NCAA level.

Beck Coulter is one of the most intriguing signees of the entire class. A late add to the commit list, Coulter hails from Pago Pago in American Samoa and was targeted early by recruiting extradonaire Jeff Reinebold. Coulter has decent size and great speed at linebacker (a place the Mustangs need immense help), but I have my doubts that he will be academically eligible to play. Coulter was forced to sit out his senior season in high school due to grades and if he has not found the ability to balance his time between football and class, it is unlikely that he will ever see the field as a Mustang. If he does, he will be a huge help to a linebacking corps that has struggled for two years and could, along with Evan Huahulu and new signee K.J. Vaifale, be the start of a great recruiting pipeline within the Samoan, Tongan, Polynesian communities.

Rounding out this recruiting class are LB's Byron Brown and Taylor Reed, OL's Christian Miller and Bryan Collins, DB's Kievon Gamble, JR McConico, Sterling Moore, K.J. Vaifale, and ATH's Ja'Gared Davis and Chris Frazier. Less is known about this group. Christian Miller is huge, 6-5 285, but apparently very raw and will need time to develop his technique. Byron Brown and Taylor Reed are the sort of quick, hard hitting LB's that June Jones, and by extension Tom Mason, have said they prefer, but what sort of impact either will have is difficult to predict. Any of this group could end up being a star as we have seen in the past and what positions each plays will slowly be sorted out in August practice. But until then, they are all wild cards with something to prove.

There will be a just as long post about positions and possible depth charts when spring practice starts in late March. More posts about subjects other than football will be coming in the next few days. Thanks for reading guys, don't forget to check back for updates.

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