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Team countdown: No. 47 SMU

This is the final season for SMU in Conference USA, as the Mustangs are headed to the Big East starting with the 2013 season.

SMU has a chance to make a splash in its final season in C-USA, thanks to its defense. SMU again should vie with Houston and Tulsa for the C-USA West title, and a big positive for the Mustangs is that their defense will be the best in division.

The offense has some issues, most notably along the offensive line (five new starters) and at quarterback. Former Texas starter Garrett Gilbert is expected to be the new quarterback, but his tenure at Texas did not go well and he will have only a short amount of time to pick up coach June Jones' offense.

The particulars

Last season: 8-5 overall, 5-3 in Conference USA (3rd in C-USA West)
Coach: June Jones (24-28, 5th season at SMU; 100-69, 14th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (3)—WR Darius Johnson, RB Zach Line, WR Der'rikk Thompson. Defense (6)—CB Kenneth Acker, LB Ja'Gared Davis, NT Torlan Pittman, LB Taylor Reed, LB Cameron Rogers, SS Ryan Smith. Special teams (1)—K Chase Hover.
Fast fact: Coach June Jones has hired Jason Phillips to be his co-offensive coordinator. Phillips had been the OC at Houston, which changed coaching staffs. Jones never has had a co-OC before.

Offense

The key guy is RB Zach Line, a big, bruising back (6 feet 1/230 pounds) who has run for 2,718 yards and 27 touchdowns in the past two seasons. Line rushed for 1,124 yards and 17 TDs last season despite missing the final three games with foot and shoulder injuries.

SMU is breaking in a new quarterback and Line's presence should be comforting for the new guy, who likely will be Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert. He lost his starting job with the Longhorns and transferred to SMU. Gilbert, a junior, has immediate eligibility because he graduated from Texas.

Gilbert has all the needed physical tools to thrive in coach June Jones' run-and-shoot offense, but he struggled grasping the nuances of Texas' offense. He threw 13 TD passes but 23 interceptions in his time at Texas. Another issue for Gilbert: He missed spring ball while finishing up his academic requirements at Texas, so he will not have much time to learn Jones' offense, which requires exquisite timing from the quarterback. Sophomore Stephen Kaiser, who threw one pass last season, looks to be the other main contender for the job.

The receiving corps is headed by senior Darius Johnson, who caught 79 passes last season and 78 in 2010. He has scored 15 TDs in his career. The No. 2 receiver will be Der'rikk Thompson, who was the No. 4 guy last season; can he handle the increased responsibility? Keenan Holman and Jeremy Johnson also will be important members of the rotation.

The line is undergoing a total makeover after the loss of all five starters. One positive is the return of G Blake McJunkin, a former two-year starter who missed all but three games last season with an ankle injury. He also can play center. Some young linemen have to come through with solid play this fall.

Defense

Despite Jones' reputation as an offense-only guy, his SMU teams have had success because of a tough, aggressive defense coordinated by Tom Mason. SMU should have one of the league's top two or three defenses this season, and the Mustangs have the best linebacker corps in the league.

The Mustangs play a 3-4, and the lone returning starter up front is NT Torlan Pittman, who is tough against the run. But keep an eye on senior E Margus Hunt, a native of Estonia who has freakish athletic ability. Hunt arrived on campus as a hammer thrower, but has become an accomplished football player; indeed, he is considered a potential early-round NFL draft pick because of his combination of size (6-8/295) and speed. He had three sacks in SMU's domination of Pitt in last season's BBVA Compass Bowl. The other end is expected to be senior Kevin Grenier, an experienced hand who missed all but four games last season with various injuries.

Ja'Gared Davis and Taylor Reed are one of the best linebacker duos in the nation. A senior, Davis has 16.5 sacks and 30 tackles for loss in his career to go along with 226 tackles. Reed, also a senior, made 101 tackles last season and added four sacks and three pass breakups.

Cameron Rogers is another returning starter at linebacker and he, too, is a senior. The fourth starter is sophomore Stephon Sanders, a rising star who became a starter late last season. Depth looks good, especially Randall Joyner and Kevin Pope.

CB Kenneth Acker and SS Ryan Smith lead the secondary, and both should vie for all-league honors. Acker is active in run support (63 tackles) and also had an interception and four pass breakups. Smith had 65 tackles and four breakups. JC transfer Daniel Roundtree is expected to see a lot of playing time at safety; at the least, he needs to be a competent backup.

Mason and Jones wouldn't mind more plays being made by the secondary. SMU had just six interceptions last season, but the Mustangs also allowed just 15 TD passes.

Special teams

K Chase Hover returns after going 8-of-10 on field goal attempts last season. But his longest kick was just 34 yards and he attempted only one from beyond 40.

SMU will have a new punter; it likely will be junior Mike Loftus, who also will be the backup kicker.

SMU's coverage teams were good last season, but the Mustangs definitely need a new punt returner and could use a more explosive kickoff returner as well.

Schedule

SMU certainly isn't shy about playing tough non-conference opponents. Yes, there is a game against FCS program Stephen F. Austin, but the other non-conference games are against Baylor, TCU and Texas A&M; the A&M and TCU games are at home, but a rebuilt offense doesn't have much time to gain traction because all the non-conference games are in September.

A big positive in league play is that three of the four toughest contests will be in Dallas: Houston, Southern Miss and Tulsa. The Mustangs do have to play at East Division favorite UCF.

Overview

SMU's emphasis on defense should serve it well this season. There are numerous questions about the Mustangs' offense, Jones' background notwithstanding, but the defense should be stout, especially at linebacker.

Despite the questions and the tough non-conference schedule, the Mustangs should qualify for their fourth consecutive bowl game as they prepare to depart C-USA for the Big East. That would be the longest such streak in school history.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 77th nationally
The buzz: From a recruiting standpoint, losing offensive line coach Adrian Klemm to UCLA was one of the biggest blows taken by any team. Klemm was the Rivals.com Non-AQ Recruiter of the Year in 2011 and had quite a few big names locked up, especially from the West Coast, for the class of 2012 when he departed. Once he left, the Mustangs' class weakened. Rivals100 WR Gabriel Marks, who would've been a huge coup for SMU, decommitted and signed with Washington State. SMU also lost a few offensive line commitments. – Brian Perroni, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

QB Garrett Gilbert. Gilbert, a former starter at Texas, had a rough end to his Longhorns career, capped off by season-ending shoulder surgery. Now, after graduating from Texas and undergoing rehab for his shoulder, Gilbert will look to make a fresh start on a SMU team that desperately needs a quality starting quarterback. It is not going too far to say that the Mustangs' season depend on how Gilbert performs. – Sam Erwin, PonyPride.com

For more on SMU throughout the season, check out PonyPride.com

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