NEW ORLEANS – Judging by the traffic at SMU's table at the Conference USA Media Days, the Mustangs will likely fly under the conference media radar to start of the season. But the Mustangs drew some national attention from C-USA TV partner CSTV Monday night during the nationally-broadcast interviews and analysis on the cable channel.
"I think SMU will win Conference USA," said CSTV analyst Brian Curtis from the studio desk in New York. "Eight starters are back on offense, they have a dynamic quarterback, and they have winnable road games. There's a whole lot of karma surrounding this team."
Back at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on historic Bourbon Street, it was a relatively quiet Tuesday morning for SMU head coach Phil Bennett, senior defensive end Cory Muse, and sophomore wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Only a handful of media outlets outside the Dallas area came by to gather comments about the Mustangs' season.
"It's not a big deal. They'll all know about us soon enough," said Sanders, one of two SMU players named to the preseason All-Conference USA team along with punter Thomas Morstead.
Bennett kept coming back to the same theme in addressing most reporters' questions.
"The difference in this team is going to be in its chemistry," SMU's sixth-year coach said. "We're either going to get better or get worse. The choice is ours as coaches and players together. You have to do what you haven't done before, in order to get where you haven't been."
There's a sense of urgency in the program now, Bennett said, as SMU's seniors, all of them his recruits, want a payoff on their shared investment in the program. Offensively, Bennett said the playbook has lessened as SMU better defines its strengths, and utilizes fewer plays but with more efficiency. Sophomore quarterback Justin Willis' decision-making will be simpler, and require less for him to make plays.
More depth and experience in the offensive line will allow for the simplication, while also helping convert short-yardage situations where SMU failed last season as well as other "special down" situations, as Bennett called them.
"Last season we were a jack-of-all-trades offense, and master of none of them," he said. "We took things out of the offense because we were trying to do too much.
"We're going to decide what we do well, and then make defenses try and stop us."
Defensively, a concern resides in the secondary. But Bennett downplayed the adjustment the line must make in returning only one regular starter, senior end Cory Muse. SMU actually returns three starters along the line, but not all of them are last year's starters. Left end Patrick Handy started two games in 2006 and was a well-used reserve in the other 10. Senior tackle Charlie Berry started games in the 2005 season before sitting out last year.
The starting secondary remains somewhat in limbo, but Bennett said there is enough athleticism and playmakers to find the right mix by the start of the season. His familiarity with the personnel has Bennett projecting a better year for the secondary than 2006.
Conference USA Media Day Notebook
What a difference five yards makes: Keeping SMU's special teams play among the NCAA's best may require some tweaking under the NCAA's new kicking rules this season. With kickoffs moving back to the 30-yard line, Bennett said he expects opponents to pooch kick more to the Mustangs, or even deliberately kick out of bounds in order to avoid kicking to return men Jesse Henderson and Emmanuel Sanders. Bennett said he expects to put more skill players on the return teams, putting as many as five players in position to field a kick.
"Everybody's looking at different designs," Bennett said.
The coach said Sanders will return punts, but needs to show more consistency in practice.
Players banded together: The Mustangs' players and coaches are sporting blue wristbands with red "WWNBD" lettering in a show of unity heading into the season. Some of SMU's seniors brought the wristband idea to Bennett back in January with the mantra "We Will Not Be Denied." The idea stuck.
"I'm not a gimmick guy, but it's something they believed in and wanted to rally around," Bennett said.
"It's part of the new Mustang attitude," Muse said. "We saw how we failed last year, and wanted to focus on not letting that happen again. It's a reminder to us to stay motivated through the offseason."
Bennett deflects question on job status: A radio reporter asked Bennett if he's feeling heat, as the season's outcome may determine his job status.
"I'm never worried about my job," Bennett said. "This is my sixth year here. Everybody I loved told me that I was a nut for taking this job, and it's been a humbling job for me. I'm a good coach, and I'm vested in this program. I know what I've done here."
Defensive returnees ready to shine? As he often does, Bennett drew a comparison between his present team and ones from his coaching past. This time, it was SMU's defensive returnees on the line and in the secondary that drew Bennett's comparion to the top defenses he ran earlier in his career at Kansas State.
"One year we were replacing eight starters on defense, and everyone wondered how good it could be," he said. "No one knew about Terence Newman at that point. But Newman was a guy just waiting for a chance to play. There were others on that defense that ended up in the NFL. We were fourth in the country because there were talented players who finally got their chance on the field. That's how I see this defense. They're getting their opportunity."
Let the linebacker competition begin: Redshirt freshman Ryan Moczygemba and senior Damon Hurst are expected to compete for the middle linebacker spot left by Reggie Carrington's departure. Bennett praised Moczygemba, or "Moxie" as he called him, for his toughness coming back within a week after suffering a rattlesnake bite on his hand during his 2006 redshirt season. Bennett put Moczygemba in the Dat Nguyen mold, a high comparison to the player Bennett coached at Texas A&M.
Moczygemba, at 6-1, 205, is slightly undersized, but Bennett likes his nose for the ball and his efficient footwork. Hurst, who played two years at Navarro Junior College, had eight tackles in 2006, mostly on special teams.
Media guide cover praised: SMU media relations director Brad Sutton said he's getting plenty of props for the media guide cover featuring SMU's new "Pony Up" logo. The cover has the Mustang logo and a black arrow pointing up as the only images against a white background.
"It has built a buzz around the room today," Sutton said during the C-USA Media Days. "I've had two people say it's the best cover they've ever seen. It's simple, but it's the message we wanted to present."
Stacked on a table among the other 11 C-USA guides, SMU's cover was a stark contrast to the rest of the C-USA schools, nine of which featured the usual assortment of players' action photos and coaches.
SMU AD excited about marketing push: Steve Orsini said the timing of former marketing director Richard Sweet's resignation was unfortunate, but would not derail SMU's plans for its football marketing.
"We are better off now having had him work with us for nine months than we would have been had he not worked here at all," SMU's athletic director said in his first public comments about Sweet's departure.
"He's made a big difference, and him getting the Richards Group joined with us makes the transition easier as we go into the season.
"He told me when he left he wanted to stay involved. I said 'Can you be 90 percent involved?' Southwest probably wouldn't allow that, but we'll be checking in with him often."
Sweet, an SMU graduate who worked in Southwest Airlines' marketing department before coming to the Hilltop last November, announced he was returning to the airline earlier this month, seven weeks prior to the season opener.
C-USA television package largest yet: The 42 national broadcasts of C-USA games this fall is the most the league has ever had. Add in the conference's bowl games and an east coast regional package, and more than 50 games will have national coverage. More games could join the package before the season begins.
"The last two years, our conference games have had the lowest margin of victory of any conference in the nation," C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky said. "We play exciting games, attendance has been up, and people around the country have taken notice."
SMU plays five nationally-televised games, beginning with the Sept.3 opener against Texas Tech on ESPN.
Around the league: Houston will have a new starting quarterback for the first time in four seasons this fall. The Cougars just don't know who it will be yet. Sophomore Blake Joseph and redshirt freshman Case Keenum competed for the starting job in the spring. And Oklahoma State transfer Al Pena, a sixth-year senior, came on board over the summer. Head coach Art Briles said he's not in a hurry to designate who will replace Kevin Kolb, who was drafted in the second round by the Philadelphia Eagles. ... UTEP coach Mike Price was all smiles Tuesday and calling himself "refreshed" after having a stent implanted to relieve a blocked artery in his heart earlier this month. Price, 60, said he has a lot more energy now after surgery by-passed a 95-percent blocked artery. ... Rice still holds a grudge against its former head coach Todd Graham, who left the school after one year to go to Tulsa, and it showed Tuesday. Rice officals and players didn't acknowledge Graham at all, not that Graham had much social time while addressing plenty of attention at Tulsa's table. ... Marshall will host in-state rival West Virginia for the first time since 1915. They'll try to avenge that season's 92-6 loss to the Moutaineers. ... Central Florida, which visits SMU on Nov. 17, has reversed its helmet design from last year, going with an all-white helmet with the block "UCF" logo on the side.