2014 CFN Preview - SMU Mustangs
SMU LB Stephon Sanders
SMU LB Stephon Sanders
Posted Jun 2, 2014

CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - Year One in the American was okay, but now there's work to do. (Getty Images)

SMU Mustangs

Preview 2014

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By Rich Cirminiello
- 2014 SMU Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players
- VOD: College football breakdowns on Campus Insiders

Head coach: June Jones
7th year: 36-41
16th year overall: 112-82
Returning Lettermen
Off. 18, Def. 28, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 15
Ten Best SMU Players
1. LB Stephon Sanders, Sr.
2. WR Darius Joseph, Jr.
3. DE Beau Barnes, Jr.
4. LB Jonathan Yenga, Jr.
5. RB Kevin Pope, Sr.
6. C Taylor Lasecki, Jr.
7. WR Der'rikk Thompson, Sr.
8. QB Neal Burcham, Soph.
9. S Hayden Greenbauer, Sr.
10. DE Zach Wood, Jr. .
2014 Schedule

Aug. 31 at Baylor
Sep. 6 at North Texas
Sep. 20 Texas A&M
Sep. 27 TCU
Oct. 4 at East Carolina
Oct. 18 Cincinnati
Oct. 25 Memphis
Nov. 8 at Tulsa
Nov. 15 USF
Nov. 22 at UCF
Nov. 28 Houston
Dec. 6 at Connecticut

The Run N' Shoot has an empty chamber.

No one seems to be mentioning—or even noticing—the fact that SMU head coach June Jones has hit a wall on the Hilltop. The Mustangs were a feel-good story back in 2009, but that was a long time ago. The program has reached a plateau, even slipping below the .500 mark in 2013 for the first time in five years. Yet, Jones received a three-year contract extension through 2017 just last December. What gives?

The most perplexing development in Dallas is that Jones' trademark high-powered has been inconsistent and often unable to carry the team when the D struggles. The Mustangs have averaged less than 30 points during their inventive coach's tenure, and the 2013 squad sputtered. Even worse, Garrett Gilbert, who provided a spark at quarterback last season, is trying to make it in the NFL.

Welcome to the spotlight, Neal Burcham.

Burcham is the 2012 recruit from Greenbrier (Ark.) High School, who's the likely successor to Gilbert behind center. While he was erratic in four appearances last year, the staff believes he has a bright future running the offense. The sophomore will bear much of the burden for an attack that too often fizzled in the red zone in 2013. Burcham will be surrounded by an average supporting cast that'll be looking for help from newcomers, such as blue-chip rookie RB Daniel Gresham and redshirt freshman WR Cedric Lancaster.

The Ponies' defense is a tale of two different narratives. On the one hand, the front seven shows potential, with LB Stephon Sanders and ends Beau Barnes and Zach Wood. On the other, the secondary is in disarray. SMU is replacing three starters, including top cover corner Kenneth Acker, from a defensive backfield that yielded 272 yards a game through the air in 2013. The team will build around safeties Hayden Greenbauer and Shakiel Randolph, while breaking in a pair of green cornerbacks. Since Jones' offense is far from a sure-thing these days, there's more pressure than ever on the D to create takeaways and momentum-changing plays.

Jones deserves credit for breathing life into a once-fading football program. Job well-done, coach. But now that he's hammered down the base, it's time to begin building toward new goals and achievements. SMU is in a mini-rut, one it's hoping to escape with a return to the postseason in 2014.

What to watch for on offense: The arrival of FB Daniel Gresham. Gresham could be the second-coming of Zach Line, the power back who helped give an added dimension to the Mustang passing game. The nation's top-rated fullback turned away offers from Texas, Florida State and Alabama to play for SMU, and he won't wait long to play in 2014. Keeping a player of Gresham's caliber in the DFW area is impactful in ways that extend beyond the obvious. It could become a game-changer in Jones' recruiting efforts.

What to watch for on defense: Making sense of the cornerbacks. The pass defense was a mess a season ago, despite the presence of gifted CB Kenneth Acker. Now that Acker and Chris Parks are gone, though, the program is starting over at a key position. Junior J.R. Richardson will play a key role in the secondary this season. Although he struggled in 2013 in his return from an ACL tear, the team believes he has the coverage skills to develop into a stopper this fall.

This team will be far better if … it trades more field goal attempts and stalled drives for touchdowns. One of the nagging problems that SMU has faced in recent years is an inability to deliver in the red zone. In fact, the program ranked 109th in the country in red-zone touchdown efficiency in 2012 and 99th a year ago. For a school that plays in so many close games, it's imperative for the Mustangs to end a higher percentage of drives with six points this season.

The Schedule: The Mustangs had better be ready to gear it up right away with Baylor in the opening weekend and Texas A&M coming after dealing with North Texas. The conference slate isn't too bad with three home games in a four week stretch in the midseason, but the league's most dangerous teams - East Carolina and UCF - have to be dealt with on the road. Closing out at Connecticut in December won't be fun if the weather kicks in.

Best Offensive Player: Junior WR Darius Joseph. For the Run N' Shoot to hum, SMU needs a passer with a quick trigger and quick little receivers who can exploit the seams of a defense. Joseph fills the latter requirement. He was one of a dozen players to catch at least 100 passes in 2013, repeatedly bailing out his quarterback when a play began to break down. The coaching staff wants to put Joseph in a position to make more big plays this season by better utilizing his speed and quickness.

Best Defensive Player: Senior LB Stephon Sanders. Traditionally, SMU is undersized and quick at the second level. Sanders is the exception in Dallas. He's a punishing 6-3, 250-pound enforcer, who imposes his will on opposing running games and passing attacks. Sanders not only has next-level size and range, but he's instinctive as well. He's the most important cog in a D that's trying to build off last season's success, despite losing a number of key back seven regulars to graduation.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Neal Burcham. The quarterback position is always going to be important. It's downright essential when June Jones is in charge of the program. The Mustangs are pining for someone who will not only amass gaudy numbers, which is the easy part, but also run the attack with clutch efficiency in the second half of close games. Burcham must grow up quickly and become the new face of an offense that's underachieved in recent years.

The season will be a success if ... the Mustangs bounce back with a return to the postseason. The program that had been to four bowl games in a row can't afford to regress with back-to-back sub.-500 seasons. The schedule is going to be challenging, especially in the first-half, when Texas A&M, TCU and Cincinnati visit, and trips to Baylor, North Texas and East Carolina will be made. SMU has to start pulling out the tight ones after falling to Rutgers, Cincinnati and UCF by a total of ten points in 2013.

Key game: Sept. 27 vs. TCU. Since the September and October schedule is so daunting, the Mustangs might need to author an upset to avoid a debilitating start to the year. A rare upset of the Horned Frogs in the battle for the Iron Skillet could serve as a catapult throughout the rest of 2014. SMU has defeated TCU just twice since 1998, but the Horned Frogs are coming off an uncharacteristically bad season. And the Ponies will be out for revenge when the two square off at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Points per game: SMU 26.8 – Opponents 33.3
- Pass attempts: SMU 619 – Opponents 441
- Red-zone touchdowns: SMU 54% - Opponents 74%

- 2014 SMU Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players