It’s hard to miss the change in tone coming from Dallas these days—there’s real honest-to-goodness football happening on The Hilltop, and the attitude has improved with the play. "In the next two years, hopefully we'll put together a run like we had in Hawaii or a run like TCU had," head coach June Jones said during the spring. (TCU page, schedule, roster, stats) "We're real close to making a statement." Frog fans already have seen the Mustang defense make statements in the form of harder tackling and more passionate play. Might swagger accompany SMU to Fort Worth for its annual grudge-match for the Iron Skillet? SMU’s coach sees it already.
"Now we have guys who are acting like they belong instead of hoping they belong," Jones said. "When you come out of the tunnel, one team is hoping they're going to win and the other believes they're going to win. We're getting to the point where were' starting to believe. You can see that swagger, that walk."
Whether the Mustangs can put a product on the field that justifies swagger is still an open question. Running the run and shoot, swagger begins at quarterback, and instead of swagger, SMU is showing growing pains. Everybody thought Kyle Padron was a lock to lead SMU’s attack this season. He threw for 3,828 yards, 31 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season. "Every year a quarterback plays, they get better," Jones said.
With Padron’s experience, this was supposed to be the year SMU really launched offensively, but the starter since week 3 has been J.J. McDermott, the transfer from New Mexico State who backed up Padron last season. Both gunslingers turned in good fall drills, but Jones benched his returning starter after some interceptions in the first two games. As a starter, McDermott was arguably no better, although he did throw fewer interceptions. What he did not do in two games is throw touchdowns; in his third game, against Memphis, he finally threw a few.
Protecting the quarterback this season is the nation’s most experienced offensive line. Josh LeRibeus returned to eligibility this off-season, 70 pounds lighter and noticeably quicker. The first team line going into the season was LT Kelvin Beachum, LG Josh LeRibeus, Blake McJunkin and Bryce Tennison rotating at C, RG Kelly Turner and RT J.T. Brooks. These fellows call themselves the Goon Squad, and have 178 starts between them—the nation’s most. They’ve put their experience to good use, springing the run game for 125 yards per game (4.4 per carry) and 12 touchdowns this season. 2011’s SMU, much like 2010’s, is running (pun intended) the run portion of the run and shoot very well.
Line is the headline, byline, and summary at tailback in Dallas. The backup, however, is a position switch, Rashaad Wimbley, who came to SMU as a defensive lineman (and is a freak in the gym—this summer he did 32 reps of 225 pounds after a full two-hour workout). Wimbley has 7 carries so far this season, for 4.1 yards each. True freshmen Jared Williams rotates with Wimbley, and has 9 carries, 5.3 yards per carry. Williams is smaller and shiftier, and handy as a receiver out of the backfield, but has had only one catch to date. He began getting the second team carries midway through fall drills.
SMU is developing a full receiving corps—something new on the Hilltop, which has had a featured receiver many years, but never a bevy of them. Its passing game is off to a hot start, 15th nationally through four games. The starting four was Beasley, Holman, Johnson, and Terrance Wilkerson, but Beasley got hurt at Memphis, and is not likely to play this week. In Beasley’s absence, Darius Johnson rose to the fore, and now has a team-leading 27 receptions for 398 yards (also team leading) and two scores (again, team leading). Padron knew D.J. Johnson was going to be a threat this season,
"he has the potential to be so dangerous. You watch him in seven-on-seven, and he just makes plays. ...I can throw him a little bubble screen, and he can slip through a couple of guys and make them look stupid."
In two words, Johnson is SMU’s Josh Boyce.
Wilkerson was one of the expected starters last season who did not play because of academics. He spent time after practices fielding passes from the JUGS machine, and has been a key contributor this season, already fielding 13 passes for 183 yards.
SMU was high on Keenan Holman coming out of last season,
"Keenan improved so much last year, from the start of the season to the end of the season. I'm really proud of what he accomplished last year, in terms of how much he learned and his work ethic. By the end of the season, he was one of the key weapons in our offense. ... I know that I can look to him on third down, and he'll be in the right position to make the play."
These prediction is not turning out so well. Holman is a good blocker, but hasn’t been productive with the ball in 2011. To date he has 4 catches for 99 yards and a touchdown.
Another potential threat at receiver also is Der’ikk Thompson, who has 6 catches for 104 yards and a score to date.
SMU SUDDENLY HAS DEPTH on its defensive line. Last season’s reshuffling of the line because of tackle Torlan Pittman’s legal troubles has been unwound, and Marquis Frazier has returned to end, where he’s much happier.
"It’s really hard playing inside," Frazier said, "but ‘Pitt’ is going to be great in there. He’s shorter than I am (Frazier is listed at 6-4, four inches taller than Pittman). I had pretty good leverage for a taller guy, but you want to get under the guy blocking you, if you can. ‘Pitt’ is a little shorter than I am, but he also plays low, and he’s so strong. He’ll be able to plug up the middle. I’ll have to run more to get ready to play outside again, but that’s OK. I can’t tell you how excited I am to have him back."
Taylor Thompson is the other first-team end. This means Margus Hunt, the Estonian kick blocker (four this season already) returns to the second-team line, opposite Szymon Czerniak, and Aaron Davis at nose.
Pittman’s return to anchor the line is a big deal. Pittman is playing near 300 pounds, and says he knows better how to work, and how to conduct himself on and off the field.
Working behind all of that improved depth on the line are the heart of SMU’s defense: it’s linebacking corps. Taylor Reed, Ja'Gared Davis, Cameron Rogers, and Randall Joyner are the starting four. Former running back Kevin Pope backs up Rogers, and has drawn eyes since the position switch. Reed, Davis, and Rogers are first, fourth, and sixth in tackles to date for the Mustangs, with 70 between them.
The secondary is a typical four-man set-up, with corners Richard Crawford and Kenneth Acker (in place of the projected starter Keith Robinson) and safties Chris Banjo and Ryan Smith. That is, if Banjo plays; he did not suit up for the Memphis game, but that may have been just to get him healthy for TCU. Smith is second on the team in tackles. Banjo, if he’s playing at full tilt, is one of the better safeties the Frogs will face this season. His backup, Justin Sorrell, came to the fore in fall camp, and pushed pretty hard for the starting job.
Acker is not heavily experienced, and is sure to draw attention from Pachall and his receivers. Acker has made hay in the sunshine he’s seen to date, tallying 11 solo tackles.
SMU's starting kicker is walk-on Chase Hover, who walked-on the team late in August, leaving Blinn College for Dallas after his father read an article about SMU's concerns in the kicking game. Hover’s chase at this chance proved successful.
This is TCU's toughest test since the opener at Baylor; while SMU isn't as potent offensively, it has a vastly more stringent defense than the Bears. For the first time since the Revival, SMU may field a better defense than TCU, in fact. We'll find out Saturday.
It's hard to imagine TCU, with the defense seen to date, holding Zach Line and Darius Johnson under 400 yards and 30 points; if the Frogs can do that, they'll will, if by a whisker. If not, look for the season's second shoot-out, with no outcome more or less probable than another. TCU 38, SMU 35.