by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

In case you hadn’t noticed, coaching counts in college football. June Jones moved from a successful run at Hawaii to Dallas, Texas and the SMU job beginning with the 2008 season. Jones left Hawaii due in part to the fact he felt he’d taken the program about as far as was possible considering the limitations inherent in the school’s financially strapped athletic department. The Rainbows were limited in their anility to build a national title contender, although Hawaii was at least in the discussion under Jones’ watch after finishing the 2007 regular season 12-0 and ranking 10th in the nation before being thrashed by then fourth-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Jones got a $2-million offer from SMU that Hawaii wouldn’t and couldn’t match and he took the money and set up shop at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. After a disastrous 1-11 2007 season, it was apparent SMU still hadn’t recovered from the “Pony Excess” days of Eric Dickerson and Craig James that resulted in the one and only “death penalty” being handed down by the NCAA. Jones was up for the challenge.

How much difference can a coach make in just three seasons? SMU was 1-11 in 2007 and hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1984 (pre-death penalty). Now, the Mustangs are coming off back-to-back winning regular seasons and a pair of bowl appearances in the last two years. For those who think June Jones is strictly a wide-open offensive coach, consider that the Pony defense allowed 40 ppg and 5.0 ypc in 2007. Last season SMU yielded 25.6 ppg and held foes to just 3.7 ypc. And, oh by the way, the Mustangs won the C-USA Western division and gained a berth in the 2010 conference championship game.

Certainly, the offense has improved as well under Jones, as junior QB Kyle Padron earned honorable mention all-conference accolades after throwing for 3828 yards, 31 TDs with only 14 interceptions (in 508 attempts). Padron returns along with 9 other offensive regulars from a year ago, including five senior offensive line starters led by left tackle Kelvin Beachum (named best OT in Texas by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football). That big, experienced OL escorted jr. RB Zach Line to 1484 YR and 10 scores, numbers good enough to help Line to first-team all-C-USA honors. Although Padron’s favorite target (Aldrick Robinson) is gone, wideouts Cole Beasley (87 catches, 1060 yds.), Darius Johnson (78 & 845) and Bradley Haynes (35 recs.) give him plenty of options. Look for Haynes to step up his production sharply, as the 6-4, 237-lb. senior is a pro-sized target that stands out among the other “smurf” receivers.

Defense is where championships are won, and if SMU is to take the next step and win a C-USA title, its stop unit must continue the steady progress made under Jones. MLB Taylor Reed recorded 145 stops and ranked 16th in the country in tackles. Reed heads a list of eight returning starters that managed to rank 40th in total defense (not overly impressive unless you consider the Mustang defense was 116th and 118th in 2007 and 2008!). The three-man front of DE Margus Hunt (6-8, 295; 10 blocked kicks in 2 seasons), NT Marquis Frazier (51 tackles LY) & Taylor Thompson (6-6, 287; first-team all-conference) returns to give d.c. Tom Mason reason to believe SMU will be even tough against the run in 2011.

Reed is joined by another first-team all-C-USA defender in LB Ja’Gared Davis, who had 90 tackles and 11 sacks last year, as the linebacking crew figures to duplicate last season’s contributions. All-conference CB Richard Crawford and FS Chris Banjo (best safety in the state according to Texas Football) anchor an experienced secondary that needs to make more turnovers. A Mustang weakness last season was turnover ratio, as SMU ranked just 111th in net turnovers, recovering just 5 fumbles (tied for fewest in the nation) and intercepting just 10 passes.

SMU can run, throw and defend...what about the special teams? The Mustangs ranked 103rd in punt returns, 85th in net punting and made just 7 of 12 field goals a year ago, so Jones made a change. SMU hired Frank Gansz Jr., who coordinated the Baltimore Ravens’ special teams in 2006 & 2007 before moving to UCLA the last two years and guiding the Bruins to the top spot in the nation in net punting a year ago. He also was instrumental in the development of star Bruin PK Kai Forbath. Gansz has tabbed redshirt freshman Mike Loftus as the combo kicker, although it remains to be seen if he can scare up a return game.

Summary...Jones is on schedule and has brought the SMU program back to respectability quickly. Recruiting Texas blue-chippers is big business, and there is a lot of competition for the product. That being said, it was a good sign when three incoming Mustang frosh (OL Kris Weeks, DL Zach Wood and DB Rodney Hubert) were on display in the Texas High School Coaches Association game in late July. “I think all of them have a chance to potentially be starters for us,” Jones said. “[Kris Weeks and Zach Wood] have a chance to get on the field this year for us.” No wonder offensive line coach Adrian Klemm was named C-USA Recruiter of the Year by Scout.com and Fox Sports.

One negative for Jones is that SMU has a bit tougher schedule this season, as the Ponies will probably be favored in just one of six road games. However, every home game is winnable, and another 7-win season will get Jones and the Mustangs back to the bowl scene for the third straight year. The last time that happened, Ronald Reagan had recently been elected to his second term and the Soviet Union had just boycotted the Los Angeles Olympic games.

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