Philadelphia, PA – 38 14 loss to Army in the Armed 5 record and second consecutive bowl winning year into an unfinished body of work.
Jones' run-n-shoot offense flourished at times last year behind sophomore running back Zach Line and sophomore quarterback Kyle Padron, who had a good touchdown to interception ration (31-14) and threw for 3,828 yards. The Mustangs turned a huge corner midway through 2010 when they upset Tulsa by three, but Jones' club still struggled to hold onto full control of the C-USA West after losing to a Keenum-less Houston team and UTEP in a three-week span.
Still, the Mustangs found their way to the conference title game, and should have another opportunity to return based on the offensive scheme developing over the past three years under Jones, and the 3-4 defense returning plenty of starters from a unit that was statistically one of the best in the entire conference in 2010.
OFFENSE: Line is among the best running backs in the conference, and he proved it last year by rushing for 1,494 yards and 10 touchdowns, the only player in the conference to rush for 1,000 yards or more. Padron has an NFL body (6-4, 233) and a decent arm, although his accuracy was slightly lower than most expected in 2010 (302-508, 59.4 percent). Still, SMU is looking for the junior to have a breakout season. He'll have to do it without his most productive wideout from 2010 in Aldrick Robinson, who had over 1,300 yards receiving and 14 touchdowns.
Cole Beasley and Darius Johnson are back however, and will be packing plenty of punch. Beasley caught 87 balls for 1,060 yards last season, while Johnson caught 78 for 845 yards. Jones will have the most experienced line since he took over the program, with the entire starting rotation and backups returning to the fold. That means 158 starts will be up front for Padron and company to go to work.
DEFENSE: Just like the offensive line, the entire two deep is back for the Mustangs' defensive front, including a pair of menacing ends in Marcus Hunt and Taylor Thompson. The senior Thompson (6-6, 287) has extraordinary size and athletic ability off the edge, and showed it last season with an all conference season that included 4.5 sacks in 14 starts. Senior Marquis Frazier should anchor the nose tackle position after posting 51 tackles in 12 starts a year ago.
"We have alot of veterans on defense. Our front seven is going to be pretty good," said Jones. "Weve added some young kids, six or seven freshman d- lineman. I think probably, maybe three of them will rotate in. So for the first time we have some depth this year."
Ja'Gared Davis was a First-Team all C-USA pick after his 2010 campaign, which included 90 tackles (16 for loss) and is back for his junior season. Three other juniors should be in the mix to start beside Davis, including middle linebacker Taylor Reed, who had 145 tackles in 14 starts in 2010.
"I feel that Taylor Reed and Ja'Gared Davis might be as good of linebackers as I've had since i returned to college football," said Jones. "They add alot of speed and quickness, and they're explosive players."
The secondary gets three starters back, and will be especially strong at corner. Former junior college transfer Richard Crawford was a First-Team All Conference pick in 2010, and senior strong safety Chris Banjo is a returning Second-Team All C-USA selection after a 92-tackle effort in 2010 and has started since his freshman season. Free safety Ryan Smith is back for 2011 after starting 12 games in the defensive secondary last year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A lot is riding on the shoulders of redshirt freshman Mike Loftus, who is likely to handle both the kicking and punting duties in 2011, replacing the booming leg of the graduated Matt Szymanski. SMU will need an instant upgrade in the return game, where they were very mediocre a year ago (25 yards per kickoff and 4.9 yards per punt return in 2010.)
OUTLOOK: SMU has 18 starters back from a team that is likely motivated after to heart-crushing defeats in the final two games last season. Padron isn't Keenum or Kinne, but he's still a talented player who will thrive in the run- and-shoot this season. SMU's middle season schedule is a gauntlet: at TCU, UCF at home, at Southern Miss and at Tulsa. They will travel to Houston on November 19.
"I'm excited for SMU," said Jones. "I'm hopeful that we can continue to win. We were 7-7 last year, and I thought we were better than our 8-5 year the season before. I think we will be better this year. But you have to prove it on Saturday afternoons and Saturday nights."
SMU can reach another conference title game and another bowl if they can survive that stretch and find a way to beat Tulsa or Houston in hostile environments, while hoping for help from around the league.