2006 SMU Football Preview

Go C-USA! Joe Sturdivant
Joe Sturdivant

July 13, 2006

In 2005, the SMU Mustangs stampeded to new heights. SMU posted its highest win total in eight seasons, a win over a ranked team for the first time since 1986, a 3-1 record against Bowl teams, and a three-game win streak to end the season - SMU's longest since 1999. Seven Mustangs were named All-Conference USA and two were tabbed freshmen All-Americans.

As 2006 approaches, expectations are at their highest level in decades. The parity of the league makes a conference championship and a bowl-game bid attainable goals this season, but the Mustangs do face questions at key positions - questions that must be addressed if the Mustang program is to continue its growth into a football power.

Perhaps the biggest question mark is at quarterback, as SMU returns no signal caller that has ever taken a Division I snap.

At the top of the preseason depth chart is Justin Willis, a blue-chip redshirt freshman from Denton. Willis impressed coaches with his scout-team work in 2005 and his spring play in 2006, but the 6-1 signal caller has not seen game action since his last prep game in 2004. Willis did, however, firmly entrench himself as the favorite to win the job entering the fall.

Also getting looks will be redshirt frosh Eric Johnson and junior college transfer Corey Slater. Johnson made strides as a true freshman last season before suffering a hand injury late in the season, and Slater had an impressive season as a freshman at Dixie State Junior College in Utah. Both were solid in spring drills.

"It all starts with the quarterback, and we've got to find that guy," SMU head coach Phil Bennett said. "We have several guys that are capable, but we have to find who is most consistent."

Whoever wins the starting job will get considerable help from SMU's returning talent at the skill positions, as the Mustang starters at running back, wide receiver and tight end are all All-Conference-level players.

At running back, DeMyron Martin returns after a freshman All-America campaign in which he gained the third-most yards ever for an SMU freshman.

"After watching the cut-ups, DeMyron was probably even better last season than I thought he was," Bennett said. "His vision and pad level were great, but there are a ton of things he will tell you he needs to improve."

Joining Martin in the backfield will be a slew of talented runners - Cedrick Dorsey, Johnnie Fitzgerald, Jessie Henderson, James Mapps and Fred Turner, among others.

"Johnnie gives us another dimension at running back," Bennett said. "He and DeMyron are different types of backs and they keep defenses on their toes. We'll mix in the other guys as well and Cedrick is going to become our third-down back. We still think Fred Turner and Jessie Henderson can do some things back there, and we are going to find packages to get them the ball. We also have a freshman that we're very high on - James Mapps. I think he can be a special player. We've got a lot of talented guys back there and the guys that produce are the guys that are going to play."

Tight end is another stacked position for SMU, where All-Conference performer Ryan Kennedy and former prep All-American Vincent Chase are joined by redshirt frosh Jeff Brock.

"Getting the ball to our tight ends more is a must," Bennett declared. "Ryan and Vincent are too good not to utilize them. We've got to find ways to get them the ball. That is one of the things that we have looked at all off-season."

At receiver, SMU returns a wealth of experience as all four slated starters return from last season. Bobby Chase, Columbus Givens, Reynaldo Pellerin and Blake Warren are listed as SMU's top four, but they are followed closely by Jay'Mond Cleveland, Joseph Ferguson, Emmanuel Sanders and Zack Sledge.

"Bobby Chase made several big plays for us last season," Bennett said. "He's a fantastic team guy, and he's really consumed with getting better. He's a playmaker - he makes plays when we need them."

"Columbus Givens and Emmanuel Sanders both have exceptional quickness and an amazing ability to run after the catch. If they catch the ball on the run, defenses had better watch out. I think we have a lot of talent at receiver."

Of course any offensive success is predicated on strong offensive line play.

"I think having Darrin Johnson, Ben Poynter and Caleb Peveto helped our two new starters - Tommy Poynter and Kenard Burley - continue their development this spring," stated the head coach. "We're looking to improve our depth and play two different lines this year. I think it keep your backups working hard, knowing they are going to play, and it gives your first team the chance to stay fresh and get a different perspective on what defenses are trying up front."

Overall, Bennett acknowledges the stat that matters most is, of course, scoring.

"To win in this league, you've got to be able to score 28-30 points a game," he declared. "We were very good red-zone offense last season, but a lot of that had to do with our ability to kick field goals. We've got to get more touchdowns than field goals in the red zone."

Bennett's forte, however, has always been defense, where SMU has to replace five key starters.

At linebacker, SMU loses three-year starters D.D. Lee and Alvin Nnabuife, each of whom played big parts in the Mustangs' 2005 successes. Two-year starter Wilton McCray returns, though, as does part-time starter Reggie Carrington.

"We've thought Reggie Carrington could be an All-Conference player ever since he got here," Bennett said. "Last year he stayed healthy, played a little over a third of the time and played well. He's a heck of a playmaker, but he does have big shoes to fill. Wilton McCray is a two-year starter and I expect him to get better at WILL. We've got a new guy at SAM, Tony Hawkins. We moved Tony to linebacker this spring and he made an impact. He brings a lot of speed to that spot. One of the things about my system is you don't have to be big, but you have to be able to run and I think these guys can do that. We'll back those guys up with Will Bonilla, Paul Hiemenz and Damon Hurst. They all got better this spring. We've got some guys that understand our system, and I think linebacker can be a strength for us."

In the trenches, SMU brings back a pair of All-Conference players in Adrian Haywood and Justin Rogers. The tandem dominated offensive lines a year ago and should be even better in 2006. Bennett, however, also sang the praises of their linemates - Brandon Bonds and Cory Muse.

"Last year, Justin Rogers and Adrian Haywood got a lot of attention, but I think Cory Muse and Brandon Bonds made it easier for those guys. They're all good football players. I thought Brandon had his best season yet and Cory came off knee surgery to have a great season when Don Stansbury got hurt. Our front four was about as good as anybody in the conference. Last year we were able to sub in at tackle with Randy Denman. We've got to be able to do that at end as well. Troy Therien and Patrick Handy have to give us that depth."

The secondary, though, has the most holes as the Mustangs lose both corners and their free safety. The lone returnee, however, was an All-League player a year ago - strong safety Joe Sturdivant.

"Joe was great last season and I think he'll be even better this season," Bennett said. "Joe is a self-made football player. He has learned so much. He just absorbs what you coach. He watches tape. He won the UAB game for us by reading routes and calling things out. He's very passionate about SMU and very passionate about being a good football player."

"At safety, we have Randall Goode, who played some last year and has gotten better. He'll be backed up by Bryce Hudman, a very athletic guy who was a medical redshirt last year. I think they're both talented."

"At corner, Jonathan Lindley played a lot a year ago and David Haynes got in quite a bit as well. We'll have Cortley Blackmon and Devin Lowery, who we're moving over to defense, as backups. I think that we have some athletes there. We found our niche in our coverage schemes last year and we got better. We became a team that gave up very few big plays. We made people earn what they got and that is the kind of team we are going to have to be this year, too."

Coaches also preach the importance of special teams where SMU will have to replace two four-year starters - kicker Chris McMurtray and punter Ryan Mentzel.

"Chris and Ryan were key for us last year and finding guys who can perform under pressure will be important. At punter we've got Thomas Morstead, who was with us last season. That's one of the things that is different about our program now. These guys have been waiting their turn, when, in the past, they had to play from the minute they got on campus."

"Morstead is our placekicker right now, too, but Kellis Cunningham is coming in this fall and will get an opportunity."

In the return game, SMU is loaded with Blake Warren on punts and 2005 freshman All-American Jessie Henderson on kickoffs.

"Blake and Jessie are weapons," said Bennett. "If you look at our field position last year, they were big for us. I think Jessie will get better and better. We've got to help Blake more this season. People didn't kick as much to Blake last year, so we're looking at putting two returners back, so they can't kick away from us. Before he leaves here, Blake will have our punt return record."

"I'm excited about the season," said Bennett. "If you look at how close we were last season, it's clear that we're improving as a football team. Now we just have to take that next step. I think that we'll take that step this season."



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