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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...SMU MUSTANGS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Whoa! That was some five-week period at SMU between early December and early January! Even by the standards of the always-colorful Mustangs, it was one of the most-eventful periods in the history of this storied program.

In rapid-fire succession, SMU thought it had lost head coach and resurrector extraordinaire June Jones to Arizona State...only to find out that it didn’t. Then came the bombshell news that the Ponies, along with Houston, Memphis, and UCF from Conference USA, were going to move to the Big East for the 2013 season. (If Houston and SMU seem out of place in the Big East, consider that Boise State and San Diego State are going to be new conference members, too.) Finally, SMU got back to business on the gridiron and whipped Pitt at Birmingham’s aging Legion Field in the BBVA Compass Bowl, 28-6.

Just another five-week slice of time for what has been one of the country’s most interesting programs over the last seventy years. And one that even prompted a famous quip from President Eisenhower over a half century ago. “An atheist,” said Ike, “is someone who watches a Notre Dame-SMU football game and doesn’t care who wins.”

Touche’, Mr. President!

Holding on to the progressive Jones was probably the most important short-term development last December for the Mustangs, although for a while it sure looked as if ‘ol June was out the door and headed to Arizona State. Lots of Sun Devil backers were thinking the same thing with news from Tempe in the first week of December that an announcement of Jones’ hiring was imminent.

Just as suddenly as the ASU job seemed to be Jones’, however, agent Leigh Steinberg got word that the Sun Devils were pulling their offer. Although the official word from ASU was that the process was taking “too long” to consummate, and Jones himself claimed to have pulled out of negotiations on his own because of a commitment to an inner-city ministry he has been developing in Dallas, don’t believe either...they’re both hooey. Pac-12 sources instead indicate that it was a handful of influential boosters not keen on Jones who pulled the plug on the deal in a ruthless display of behind-the-scenes power, one that rendered ASU AD Lisa Love as an embarrassed bystander in the process, and Jones and Steinberg with egg on their faces.

SMU, understandably, was thrilled that Jones wasn’t going to leave for the Valley of the Sun, but one must wonder if Mustang administrators are going to be sleeping with one eye open regarding their coach, who could easily be targeted by another high-profile suitor if SMU returns to another bowl game for the fourth straight year this fall.

Jones, of course, is a Mouse Davis disciple and one of the early proponents of the spread or “Red Gun” looks that really became en vogue for Jones when he was coaching at Hawaii between 1999-2007. The high-powered Warrior attack was the best show in Honolulu since Don Ho and even qualified for the BCS and the Sugar Bowl after an undefeated regular season in 2007. Jones, already in demand, decided the time was right to move after that season and became a very rich man when subsequently signing a five-year deal at better than $2 million per year with the win-starved Mustangs.

Few programs, however, have as much to talk about in their histories as does SMU football, whose past transgressions are well-documented and well-known, even by Erin Andrews types and the new-wave ESPN generation that was able to get up to speed on Mustang history by watching the recent “Pony Excess” made-for-TV film on the worldwide sports leader. The narrative detailed the excesses of SMU football, particularly in the Eric Dickerson-Craig James era of the early ‘80s under coaches Ron Meyer and Bobby Collins and AD Russ Potts, and the program’s subsequent “death penalty” from the NCAA after the 1986 campaign.

What Pony Excess bypassed, however, was the barren period SMU endured after resurrecting its program in 1989 all of the way until Jones’ hiring after the 2007 campaign. During that period of time, SMU could crack the .500 barrier just once (and barely so at 6-5 under former Georgia QB Mike Cavan in 1997) and never qualified for a bowl game. Not until Jones’ arrival and a breakthrough campaign in 2009, resulting in a Hawaii Bowl romp past Nevada, did the post-“D.P.” (Death Penalty) Mustangs qualify for the postseason.

And now the Ponies can’t get enough of bowls, qualifying for three of them in a row on Jones’ watch.

While the Twitter generation might be aware of SMU football as it was during the Reagan administration, thanks to Pony Excess, it might not have much of an idea of some of the important historic storylines in college football that were authored on the Hilltop. Eric Dickerson’s Pony Express years weren’t the only colorful ones for SMU football.

The Ponies have occasionally, but not always, won big in their history, and some of the gridiron’s most-fabled names are SMU alums. The great RB/DB/PK Doak Walker (right) starred in the late ‘40s, named to All-American sides all three of his varsity seasons and winning the Heisman Trophy in 1948. Another versatile halfback, Kyle Rote, also earned All-American honors before starring in the pro ranks with the New York Giants. Future Green Bay Packers Hall-of-Fame OT Forrest Gregg, and another HOFer, non pareil Colts WR Raymond Berry, are other famous ex-Ponies, as was the late Dandy Don Merdeith, maybe the most colorful of the bunch and an All-American QB in the late ‘50s.

Besides the Walker-Rote teams and the Dickerson-James editions, some of SMU’s most-entertaining squads came in the mid ‘60s under HC Hayden Fry, who took three Pony editions to the postseason in the decade, including the 1966 Cotton Bowl version featuring QBs Mac White and future Kansas City Chief Mike Livingston. The 1968 team, with the balding QB Chuck Hixson, that year’s Sammy Baugh Award winner, won one of the all-time exciting bowl games that season when outlasting Chuck Fairbanks’ Oklahoma by a 28-27 count in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl (highlighted in photo at left; the bowl added the name “Astro” when moving from Rice Stadium to the Astrodome in ‘68). The 4th Q was one for the ages as SMU led 7-6 entering the final stanza before all hell broke loose under the dome. Hixson threw a pair of 4th-Q TD passes on that New Year’s Eve, one of them to electric WR Jerry LeVias.

The name LeVias, however, ought to be a familiar one to those who know college football history. Even the Erin Andrews types ought to pause and learn the story of the Beaumont native, in retrospect one of the most-important and influential gridiron performers in the history of the region, if not the nation.

In our recent Houston Cougars preview, we relayed the background of the color line in the region and the story of Warren McVea, whose recruitment in 1964 (before UH officially aligned with the old Southwest Conference) served as the unofficial trigger to finally break the color line in the SWC. One year after McVea signed with Houston, SMU head coach Hayden Fry, with the approval of school president Willis Tate, began to lay the groundwork to become the Branch Rickey of the SWC, talking with players, assistant coaches, faculty and alumni about getting a young man who could not only help the Mustangs win football games but take the pressure of being the first black player in the storied Southwest Conference.

Fry soon focused upon LeVias, a decorated prep from Hebert High School in Beaumont. Although just 5’9 and 170 pounds, LeVias was a halfback/receiver who ran, passed and caught, putting up huge numbers in high school for his team, which twice advanced to the title game of the Prairie View Interscholastic League, the black version of the University Interscholastic League, and which would be merged into the UIL in less than a decade. The lightning-fast LeVias could run 100 yards in 9.6 seconds, but football was his specialty.

Nearly 100 schools wanted LeVias; his cousin from Beaumont, Mel Farr, was then a star at UCLA, and urged Jerry to join him in Los Angeles, but LeVias was swayed by Fry, despite the Mustangs’ 1-9 record in 1964. Despite his parents’ misgivings, LeVias was going to Dallas.

Nine years after Abner Haynes (also mentioned in our Houston preview) enrolled at North Texas, and with the civil rights movement ongoing, LeVias still faced considerable problems getting into and through SMU. “Cultural sensitivity” was an unknown concept, much less put to use. In his first scrimmage with the freshman team, several varsity players came over to watch, and LeVias put on a show, making a series of spectacular catches and scoring repeatedly. But then a frustrated defender, who happened to be a teammate, blindsided him and caused three broken ribs.

Yet LeVias would be ready for his varsity debut in 1966, and in his first game caught TD passes of 5 and 60 yards from aforementioned QB Mac White (both shown at left in a '66 promo photo) as the Ponies whipped a startled Illinois at the Cotton Bowl, 26-7. LeVias then made two highlight-reel punt returns the next week in a 21-3 victory over Navy, and comparisons to the immortal Doak Walker were already beginning. LeVias almost single-handedly won the game against Rice by throwing a 47-yard touchdown pass and catching the winning TD with nine seconds left, and his 83-yard punt return beat Texas A&M Aggies. SMU won the Southwest Conference crown for the first time in 18 years and played Georgia in the Cotton Bowl.

It was the conditions under which LeVias played, however, that must be mentioned. As the Jackie Robinson of the SWC, LeVias suffered much of the same kind of treatment that Robinson had endured when breaking the MLB color line in 1947. In Texas circa mid ‘60s, it’s very believable that some of LeVias’ teammates and coaches weren’t happy to have him around. Opponents routinely taunted and sought to hurt LeVias, various referees were biased against him, some fans screamed racial abuse, and there were countless mean-spirited letters and phone calls. In one game 1966 against TCU, in Fort Worth, there was a death threat serious enough to warrant the presence of city, state and federal law enforcement officers on the lookout for snipers.

LeVias endured all of this and more in his career at SMU. When the Ponies played Baylor in 1967, linebacker David Anderson threw a menacing forearm at LeVias, resulting in profuse bleeding and an injury of his eye socket that later required surgery. Nonetheless, LeVias went back into the game and caught five more passes. After one of them, practically the entire Baylor defense drove him out of bounds and over the Bears’ telephone bench, causing a dislocated finger. Still, no penalty was called. And in his senior year of 1968, when the Mustangs were back in Fort Worth to play TCU and when LeVias had caught nine passes in a game that was tied midway through the fourth quarter, a TCU player knocked him to the ground, uttered a racial epithet and spat in his face. LeVias took himself out of the game, threw his helmet down and announced loudly, “I quit!” Fry even saw fit came over to console an angry, miserable, and sobbing LeVias on the bench.

Late in the 4th quarter, by the time TCU was about to punt the ball, LeVias agreed to return to the field but he also told Fry, “Coach, I’m going to run it back for a touchdown.” Most fans know about Babe Ruth’s legendary called-shot home run in the 1932 World Series, the legitimacy of which has long been questioned, but the LeVias guarantee was no fictitious gimmick. LeVias indeed guaranteed Fry the TD. Jerry subsequently caught the punt at his 11-yard line, charged upfield, spun off would-be tackler, angled toward the right sideline, then cut back to complete an 89-yard TD that won the game, 21-14, after the Mustangs had trailed 14-3 early in the 4th quarter.

LeVias’ career numbers at SMU included 155 receptions, 25 TD, three All-SWC honors and a consensus All-American in 1968. At that point, it could have been argued that LeVias was the greatest player in the history of the Southwest Conference, Doak Walker included. As well as the most significant, leading the way for the likes of black stars such as Earl Campbell, Dickerson, Mike Singletary and others in subsequent years. LeVias also advanced the civil rights cause as did few others in Texas, a hero to folks who had been in the Jim Crow straitjacket for too long. Moreover, LeVias was on the Dean’s list at SMU and an academic all-American, and proceeded to a successful pro football career with the Oilers and Chargers before entering private business in Houston.

LeVias, however, still wears the emotional scars of his playing career. While well aware of his significance in the social progress he helped foster in his own state, LeVias often wonders about the emotional tool. When asked a few years ago if he would do it all over again at SMU, LeVias didn’t hesitate and offered an emphatic “no” as his answer.

By that point, however, it was far too late for his cousin Mel Farr to talk him out of SMU and convince him to attend UCLA and the more-tolerant racial climes of the L.A. area.

(As an aside to the LeVias tale, it should be noted that Baylor’s John Westbrook, a walk-on, briefly participated for the Bears in a game vs. Syracuse the week before LeVias’ SMU varsity debut vs. Illinois. LeVias, however, was the first black football player in the SWC to receive a scholarship, and, obviously, the first black football star in the conference.)

Enough of the history lessons, what about the upcoming 2012 version of the Mustangs, one that will be depart C-USA after this season and looks to net what would be a school-record fourth straight bowl bid?

As usual for the Jones Red Gun, early focus is on the QB position, which this season has a few different twists. Former starter Kyle Padron, who was supplanted by now-graduated J.J. McDermott at the QB spot last season, has transferred to Eastern Washington, which not long ago welcomed another former Pony QB, Bo Levi Mitchell, who piloted the Eagles to the FCS title two years ago.

The odd SMU-Eastern Washington connection aside, Jones had to move fast to find another option at QB, when, lo and behold, former Texas starter Garrett Gilbert (left) dropped into SMU’s lap. Gilbert, who struggled as the Longhorn starter in 2010 when tossing 17 picks and just 10 TD passes, was supplanted in Austin last season and sought a quick transfer, which required he cram 27 units into the spring at UT to secure his degree and become immediately eligible when enrolling in the summer at SMU, where he will have two seasons remaining.

While working on all of those units at Texas in the spring, however, Gilbert was prevented from enrolling at SMU and missed the Mustangs’ spring practices save for a couple of sessions watching from the sidelines. The summer will thus be a cram course for Gilbert in the nuances of the progressive Jones offense, and the coach didn’t sidestep the importance of Gilbert’s role. “Obviously,” said Jones to the Dallas News, “the quarterback is going to be the key to the whole deal.”

Young arms RS soph Stephen Kaiser and RS frosh Connor Preston took most of the reps in spring at QB, but neither appears ready for anything beyond a backup role in fall.

Gilbert will also be working behind one of the greenest offensive lines in the country, one that must replace all five starters from last season, including a pair taken in last April’s NFL draft (G Josh LeRibeus by the Redskins, and G Kelvin Beachum by the Steelers). Some returnees saw action in reserve duty last season, and Jones was hurriedly mixing and matching all sorts of combinations in spring, looking for the right fit. And a potential problem arose at the end of spring when well-regarded 6'7, 300-lb. RS frosh Taylor Reich suffered a broken ankle, although he was on the mend in summer and could be available for the opener at Baylor.

How the line solidifies could also impact the numbers of productive sr. RB Zach Line (right), who has perfected the art of “downhill running” in the Jones spread, gaining nearly 2700 YR and scoring 27 TDs the past two seasons. At 6'1 and 230 lbs., Line is projected as a possible feature back at the next level. Also expect Jones and new co-o.c. Jason Phillips (from Houston) to look for ways to get frightening 6'0, 280-lb. soph blaster Rishaad Wimbley (who also has light feet!) some extra carries this fall.

Gilbert will at least have an array of fast, athletic receivers as pass targets this fall, led by smallish (5'10) but slithery sr. WR Darius Johnson (left), who caught 79 passes for 1118 yards and 8 TDs a year ago. A brief scare at the start of spring work when Johnson and LB Taylor Reid were suspended by Jones quickly passed, and both were back on the field for scrimmaging later in the April sessions. Regional sources say to watch explosive 5'11 soph Der’rikk Thompson (30 catches in 2011), who could be ready to shine now that Cole Beasley and Terrance Wilkerson (130 combined catches last season) have graduated.

Meanwhile, jr. PK Chase Hover displayed decent accuracy (8 of 10 FGs) but didn’t connect on a field goal beyond 40 yards a year ago.

With the offense appearing to be a work in progress, especially during the first portion of the season as Gilbert gets comfy in his new digs, it might be up to the “D” to keep the Mustangs afloat in a tricky September slate featuring the aforementioned Baylor contest and home dates vs. Texas A&M and revenge-minded Metroplex rival TCU. The good news is that the platoon performed better than expected a year ago when ranking a very respectable 27th in the country in total defense.

Mustangs d.c. Tom Mason’s aggressive 3-4 schemes are keyed by an active quartet of LBs led by the previously-mentioned ILB Taylor Reid (shown right with a well-dressed friend at the bowl game last January; Reid was the Ponies’ leading tackler a year ago) and OLB Ja’Gared Davis, who lead SMU with 12 tackles for loss in 2011.

All totaled, seven stop unit starters will return to the fold, though Jones thinks one of the newcomers to that mix, pterodactyl-like 6'8, 295-lb. DE Margus Hunt, could emerge as the platoon’s most-dominant player if he performs as he did in the bowl game vs. Pitt when making three sacks. Mason also likes his corners, where soph J.R. Richardson displayed lots of potential upside as a frosh last fall and will team with glue-like CB Kenneth Acker on the other edge.

If there’s one thing that Mason would like to see more this season from the stop unit, it’s opportunism, as SMU forced just 16 turnovers last fall, contributing to a -16 TO margin, the nation’s worst in 2011 season, which makes the Ponies’ eight wins from a year ago seem all the more remarkable. Merely leveling out the turnover count this season should prove a major benefit.

Pointspread-wise, Jones has not proven as reliable as he was at Hawaii, when his teams routinely overachieved vs. the number; SMU is only 11-16 vs. the number the past two seasons, and had a four-game spread losing streak in each of the last two seasons. Reflecting the solid defense, note the Mustangs’ 11-4 “under” mark in their last 15 games entering 2012.

Summary...With many of the expected CUSA contenders also going through various stages of rebuilding this fall, SMU is not alone in having several question marks entering the 2012 campaign. The jury is also out on QB Garrett Gilbert, unconvincing the last time we saw him performing at Texas, although the Jones offense is very QB-friendly and usually brings out the best in his signal callers. But the Mustangs’ bankable assets of established skill-position weaponry and a solid, experienced defense should partially camouflage any shortcomings. Still, we need some convincing on Gilbert, but if he merely picks up where the departed J.J. McDermott left off a year ago, the Ponies likely get back to another bowl before the “big” move to the Big East next year.


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