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COLLEGE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TOP 25
American Athletic PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: June Jones, 31-34 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: June Jones, Jason Phillips | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Mason
A June Jones-led team ranked No. 62 in passing offense? That was the case a year ago, when quarterback Garrett Gilbert was force-fed the run-and-shoot offense in fall camp and became the opening day starter. Gilbert struggled with consistency but improved later in the season. He didn’t throw a pick in his final five regular-season games and showed some running ability that added a wrinkle to the offense.
Year 2 should be smoother, although the Mustangs lack a true NFL-caliber wideout. Starting corner Kenneth Acker may find his way into the wide receiver rotation in a limited role due to his athleticism. Look for Jeremy Johnson to be the go-to receiver for Gilbert, with Der’rikk Thompson fulfilling the role of stretching defenses as a deep threat.
At running back, former Texas Longhorn Traylon Shead has been impressive taking over for Zach Line, a three-time 1,200-yard rusher. Shead spent one year with the Longhorns and one season at a junior college before joining SMU this spring.
Up front, left tackle Ben Gottschalk could garner all-league honors, but the rest of the line is young and inexperienced. The unit’s development will be a key.
Consistency was also a big problem on the defensive side of the ball for the Mustangs in 2012. Four times, the defense surrendered 10 points or less, and four other times, opponents rung up 42 points or more. Getting a more consistent effort week-to-week is the top priority for defensive coordinator Tom Mason.
The three defensive line starters in the Mustangs’ 3-4 alignment are gone. Jones has spoken highly of defensive end Beau Barnes, who was in the rotation last season and will have to be productive as his linemates gain experience. Incoming freshman Zelt Minor, a 3-star recruit who picked SMU over Texas Tech, among others, is expected to come in and compete for time right away in August.
At linebacker, SMU lost two mainstays in Taylor Reed and Ja’Gared Davis, but this still may be the strength of the defense. Returning starters Stephon Sanders and Randall Joyner have potential to be all-league players, and new starters Kevin Pope and Robert Seals could be as productive as Reed and Davis. There is no drop-off expected from the linebacking corps.
In the secondary, Acker and Chris Parks return as starters at corner, with J.R. Richardson, a starter at corner last preseason before an ACL injury ended his season, taking on the nickel role. With strong safety Jay Scott also back, the Mustangs should improve their No. 109 national ranking in pass defense.
Both placekicker Chase Hover and punter Mike Loftus are back. Hover struggled from long range, going 3-of-10 from beyond 40, and he also missed a 23-yarder and a 27-yarder en route to his season total of 18-of-29. SMU was 79th in net punting, with Loftus handling the majority of the kicks. Acker and Thompson provide a pair of dangerous return options.
The Jones era has featured four straight bowl games. Reaching a fifth could be difficult as the program makes the move from Conference USA to the more challenging American Athletic Conference. A tough non-league slate that includes Texas Tech, Texas A&M and TCU means SMU likely will be 1–3 entering league play. For the bowl string to continue, the Mustangs would then have to go 5–3 in the American against some unfamiliar opponents. For that to happen, Gilbert must take a step forward as a senior, a leader needs to emerge in the receiving corps and some playmakers must develop on the defensive line.
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