The 2014 season will be a year of transition for head coach June Jones and his SMU Mustangs. The team ended the 2013 season with a two-game losing streak, and Jones must now find replacements for nine starters including quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who was able to revive his collegiate career in Dallas after struggling at the University of Texas. If the backups are able to make a smooth transition into their starting roles, SMU may be able to surprise some teams in the AAC, If not, Jones will be forced to play musical chairs with his lineup, which could make for a long season for Mustang fans.
Jones did well in reviving the career of Gilbert, which led to him being drafted in the 6th round of the NFL Draft despite many draft experts taking him off their draft boards during his time at Texas. The next quarterback project is sophomore Neal Burcham. The first thing that will need to be done is to implement a scaled-back version of the run-n-shoot offense that Jones has made so famous. In two games last season, it seemed as if Burcham was a deer caught in headlights when trying to execute the fast-paced, no-huddle offense against Houston. He was able to find some success in the season finale against UCF after the offensive staff slowed the pace of the game, though.
One thing that will help Burcham transition into the starter role will be a more productive running game. In a offense that saw its passing game average 341.4 ypg, the use of the running game was almost non-existence and it showed as the team only averaged 93.8 ypg. That will have to improve greatly this season. Despite naming former linebacker Kevin Pope the starter coming out of spring practice, the Mustangs will also look to use sophomore Prescott Line as well as true freshman Daniel Gresham to create a more balanced offensive attack.
The wide receiver unit has some experience returning with senior Der’rikk Thompson and junior Darius Joseph, but they also have two underclassmen to keep an eye on in sophomore Jeremiah Gaines and redshirt freshman Cedric Lancaster. Even though Lancaster is only listed as 5’8 166-pounds, he showed the speed and agility during the spring needed to be a big-play threat in the SMU offense this season.
The Mustangs ranked seventh in the AAC in total defense, giving up 412.6 ypg. While that isnt terrible, there has to be improvement in 2014 to compensate for the leveling off of the offense.
The front seven will be the strength of the defense as it returns five of seven starters including junior Zach Wood and senior Beau Barnes on the defensive line. Barnes led the defensive line with 13 tackles for loss and five sacks. Those stats will definitely put the Friendswood, TX, native at the top of most opponents scouting reports this season. Providing the defensive line some help at linebacker will be senior Stephon Sanders and junior Jonathan Yenga. Yenga had a breakout season in 2013, posting 49 tackles and a team-leading six sacks. If he can continue that progression this season he should be able to provide enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to compensate for the inexperience in the defensive backfield.
Only one starter, Hayden Greenbauer, returns from a defensive backfield that gave up 271.8 ypg and was ranked 113th nationally, so bringing in some new talent may not be a bad thing for defensive coordinator Tom Mason. Sophomores Darrion Richardson and Ajee Montes are expected to take on bigger roles this season and if they are able to avoid in-game “teachable moments,” this could be the surprise unit of the team.
The good news: the non-conference schedule has four games within the state of Texas. The bad news: three of those games are against Big XII members Baylor and TCU in addition to a home game against SEC opponent Texas A&M. Once they enter conference play, it gets no easier as they open the season on the road against ECU and at home against Cincinnati. Even if the offense plays decent and the defense steps up, this could be a tough season.
Just like with their NFL team, fans in Dallas will need to temper their expectations for the Mustangs.