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AAC preview: SMU

The SportsXchange

DALLAS -- As Southern Methodist transitions its football team into the American Athletic Conference -- largely a group formerly known as the Big East -- the Mustangs will have to fill plenty of holes and gel quickly in order to keep their bowl streak alive.

A program infamously decimated by the "Death Penalty" in 1987 has found new life under June Jones. If he can get SMU back into the postseason, it will be his finest job yet.

The Mustangs have a brutal non-conference schedule, which is considered one of the toughest in the nation. SMU opens with Texas Tech before traveling to Texas A&M and TCU. Montana should be a guaranteed win, but taking at least one game against an old Southwest Conference foe is a must.

And it doesn't get much easier heading into conference play. The AAC opener against Rutgers could make or break the season and road games against Houston and South Florida will be extremely tough tests for a team notoriously known to struggle away from home.

"There is no question the competition level is going up," Jones said. "There are some very good teams so we have to get better."

Jones is working towards that by adding a few wrinkles to his pass heavy, Run 'N Shoot offense. This offseason, he brought in former Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme, who is known as the architect of the Air Raid offense, made famous by Mike Leach and Texas Tech.

Mumme should help spark SMU's humdrum offense and serve as a mentor to quarterback Garrett Gilbert.

Although he has not lived up to his high school All-American billing, the Texas transfer has all the intangibles to succeed in the system and showed flashes of what he's capable of late in the season. But he must cut down the turnovers.

While Gilbert is returning, the Mustangs lost their second all-time leading rusher in Zach Line. He will be replaced by Traylon Shead. The ex-Texas running back put up monster numbers at Navarro JC and Jones says he is "maybe the best running back that I've had play the position."

The offense is certainly undergoing changes but so is the defense, which tied for third in the country in total takeaways. The Mustangs will have a new front three and can no longer lean on the leadership of linebackers Taylor Reed and Ja'Gared Davis or the athleticism of defensive end Margus Hunt.

But last year's breakout star, linebacker Randall Joyner, believes there is reason for optimism with no only his unit but the entire team despite being picked to finish in the bottom half of the league by the media.

"We have the talent and the potential, but potential is nothing if you don't put the action with it," he said. "We have just as much talent as we've had here. We just have to prove it."

There are plenty of intriguing and talented freshmen on the roster. And although Jones doesn't play first-year guys often, he might be forced to this season.

With the offense undergoing a makeover, Red Oak product Jeremiah Gaines could see time at wide receiver, tight end and H-back. He was one of two monster lands in SMU's 2013 class. Defensive end Zelt Minor was the other. Minor led Houston Lamar to the state title game last season and should compete for playing time on a thin defensive line.

Wide receiver JaBryce Taylor is in store for a special career on the Hilltop after breaking all of Dez Bryant's school records at Lufkin. The Mustangs also feature two freshmen well-known for their lives off the field. Safety Myles Crosby was a nationally ranked Calvin Klein model while wide receiver Deion Sanders Jr. is the son of "Prime Time."

KEYS TO SUCCESS: The offensive changes shouldn't be too drastic, but the Mustangs are going to have to adjust on the fly and lean on Garrett Gilbert to limit turnovers. But he needs help. Last season, the wide receivers struggled under first-year position coach Jason Phillips and dropped multiple balls per game. If SMU is going to see any kind of improvement, the receiving corps is going to have to look like it has stick'em on its gloves. Defensively, the new-look front three will have to grow up quickly and apply pressure on talented quarterbacks such as Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and TCU's Casey Pachall.

AREAS OF CONCERN: SMU will have one of, if not the most inexperienced defensive lines in the American Athletic Conference. The Ponies have no returning starters and no seniors on the current two-deep. The starting defensive ends are projected to be Beau Barnes and Zach Wood. Barnes is a walk-on who missed the entire spring with a shoulder injury while Wood is a strong edge rusher who set the team power clean record but needs to get faster. Walk-on Andrew McCleneghen and redshirt freshmen Elie Nabushosi along with true freshman Zelt Minor should see time in the rotation but are also unproven. On the interior, junior Darrian Wright will start after impressing in limited playing time. Nose tackle is the thinnest position on the roster. The often-injured Nick Reed is behind Wright followed by greyshirt freshman Brian Cramer, who added 60 pounds to his frame and now weighs 280, and walk-on Gareth Riley-Ayers.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.

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