SMU starting to believe

SMU has had one of the youngest teams in the country the past several years as coach June Jones has relied on talented freshmen and sophomores to rejuvenate the program.

While Jones plans on doing the same at some positions in 2011, he can rely more on returning starters who have been in the program for several years and finally understand what it takes to win. The Mustangs are coming off an appearance in the Conference USA championship game and the next step is to win a title.

Could it happen in Year 4 under Jones?

“In the next two years, hopefully we'll put together a run like we had in Hawaii or a run like TCU had,” Jones said in a phone interview. “That's what the goal is. We don't have the depth at some of the positions that you have to have to really do that, but we're real close to making a statement.”

Jones anticipates playing 15 freshmen once again, especially on the offensive line, which is still an area of concern because of a lack of depth. The Mustangs gave up 34 sacks last season, ranking No. 86 in the nation, and that had an impact on quarterback Kyle Padron, who was hit and knocked down more times than any coach wants.

Padron had another good season, throwing for 3,828 yards with 31 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. But his completion percentage and quarterback rating were down, and he made questionable decisions at times. As SMU goes into its final spring practice with a scrimmage Saturday, Padron won’t see a lot of reps.

But he has worked on plenty. One of the areas of emphasis has been taking advantage of big plays when they are there.

“Every year a quarterback plays, they get better,” Jones said. “The biggest thing is accuracy on the vertical throws down the field. We had many opportunities to make big plays. It's hard to get big plays in this day and age so when you have them, you have to hit them. From now until the fall, he will be throwing the deep ball. You have to do it over and over and repeat it until you don't have to think about it.”

SMU will have to get those big plays without leading receiver Aldrick Robinson. But Cole Beasley and Darius Johnson return. Der’rikk Thompson has taken many reps at Robinson’s position and will probably replace him. Jones said Thompson can run a 4.3 40-yard dash, so he could be exactly what the Mustangs need.

Leading rusher Zach Line hasn’t practiced this spring, but he does return to help give the offense an added dimension. His emergence led to Darryl Fields and Kevin Pope playing both running back and linebacker this spring, and Jones anticipates both contributing on defense this season.

As for the growth of his team, Jones has been pleased. Expectations have been raised with back-to-back bowl appearances, and this season SMU is expected to contend for the West Division with Houston and Tulsa.

“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.”