UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas -- Quarterback Kyle Padron looks a little different in practice these days than he did last season in leading SMU to its first bowl game since the death penalty. The Mustangs won that game, smashing Nevada 45-10 and fueling expectations for 2010, a season in which June Jones and his staff hope SMU can contend for the Conference USA championship.
Padron was thrust into the starting role when he went in for an injured Bo Levi Mitchell during the Houston game Oct. 24. The next week, against Tulsa, the then-true freshman completed 20 of 34 passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns. He didn't throw an interception and quickly excited the SMU faithful.
But for the program to take another step forward, the 19-year-old sophomore behind center has to continue to grow up. It appears he's doing just that as he prepares for Sunday's season opener in Lubbock against Texas Tech.
Padron always has been a quietly confident guy. He looks others in the eye when talking to them, including teammates in the huddle. And he's not comfortable talking about himself, a trait that when combined with his drive and work ethic makes him extremely coachable.
This fall, Padron is bigger and stronger. His ball has more zip coming out of his hand. He has the look of a more assured signal-caller, one who trusts his receivers will be where they should be.
"Kyle's had an exceptional camp," Jones said after a recent morning practice. "I think Kyle has really applied himself. He's in shape and he's worked real hard. He's got a good arm and nice touch, and he's a tough guy, and all of those things make for a good quarterback."
Padron put that work in this offseason. First, he hit the weight room in an effort to gain weight in muscle. He figures he put on 15 pounds, something his thin frame needed after the hits he took in his first action as a starter.
"I got thrown around a little bit last year," Padron said. "I had a bunch of bruises after every game, and this year that probably won't be as bad. I can create more plays physically and on the move and pick up some yards. I feel like I'm a much better athlete."
Padron also was on the field, throwing hundreds of balls. He practiced specific passes and routes with his receivers and built up his arm strength.
He spent time in the film room, poring over video of the SMU offense to gain a greater understanding. Whatever the coaches asked of Padron to get better, he did.
"He has matured so much," said SMU assistant head coach Dan Morrison, who oversees the quarterbacks and assists Jones with the offense. "He's getting a grasp of the offense. He's stronger. He's growing in to his body. He's still very young and is blessed with his body type. But the biggest thing for him is that he understands in this system that his accuracy has to be there and it is really improved."
Morrison, who makes you feel smarter after 10 minutes of listening to him, stressed to Padron that he needed to know where everyone was and trust his teammates. It's natural, of course, for a true freshman quarterback thrust into a starting job to be unsure of himself and then hesitant to throw certain passes because he doesn't have the confidence his receivers will be in the right spots.
"We wanted to see good, accurate throws, and to do that, he had to work on his understanding of where the decisions had to be made and where he had to throw to ball to give his guys the most room to work and gain those extra yards," Morrison said. "He doesn't have that uncertainty about where a guy might be. He knows those guys will be where they are supposed to be."
Morrison believes the increased understanding of the offense and overall trust in his abilities and those of the team around him have helped Padron's arm strength, too.
"Obviously, throwing the ball a lot built that up," Morrison said. "But I see better control because he knows this offense. He has a better release, and the ball gets there faster. He's such a bright kid and naturally intelligent. Now he has a body that's bigger and stronger and a year under his belt. All of that should make him better."
Padron said the biggest advantage is that he got a chance to play in meaningful games in the second half of 2009. He was put in difficult situations on the road in close conference games knowing that every win was important in trying to achieve the school's goal of going to a bowl game for the first time in decades.
"Seeing those teams like Nevada, Houston, Tulsa really helped," Padron said. "You can never practice game speed. Those games built my confidence. Sometimes I know you can take two steps forward and one step back as you learn, but I'm getting there. I'm playing the game faster, seeing things a lot quicker and the defense is slowing down for me. My presnap reads are easier. I think I'm just understanding the game of football better."
Jones and Morrison are careful to mention that Padron still hasn't reached his 20th birthday and the maturing process is ongoing. But both see a quarterback who reminds them of some of the good ones they had while at Hawaii.
Morrison said Padron has the maturity and intelligence of Dan Robinson, who was 24 years old when he was a senior at Hawaii. He sees in Padron the accuracy of Colt Brennan, who led Hawaii to the Sugar Bowl just before Jones decided to head to Dallas.
Both of those quarterbacks were good leaders, and Padron is showing those same qualities now. Morrison said he quizzed the players in the offensive huddle after Padron went into the Tulsa game and became the No. 1 quarterback last season.
"From the start, his teammates said he had no problem stepping up," Morrison said. "He was poised and calm. And he had that right from the beginning. He's earned the respect of the players because of how hard he works. He's not a screamer and yeller. It's not his style. But if he says something, they do it because they respect him."
Padron senses that, too, and is excited about the possibilities in 2010. His first test won't be easy, as he travels to a full house in Lubbock in coach Tommy Tuberville's debut at Texas Tech.
"I want to keep learning and growing and do whatever I can to help this team win," Padron said. "Our team is focused on getting better."