Spring football scrimmages are best left as an evaluation tool, and not as a preview of what's to come for a team. Awkward rules, gambling plays, and three weeks of familiarity from practice make for an odd display for fans wanting to come to something that looks like a football game.
But for the 900 fans in attendance at Ford Stadium for SMU's Red-Blue game Saturday, they saw effective quarterbacking, a ready-to-play defensive front, offensive line changes, the usual strong punting, and a special teams unit that may still scare Mustangs fans on every punt return.
The highlight players didn't disappoint in their final action before preseason work begins in August. Sophomore quarterback Justin Willis threw for 158 yards on 15 completions, and the four-headed beast that is the Mustangs' backfield ran for a combined 170 yards on 31 carries, an average of 5.5 yards per carry led by James Mapps' 69 yards.
Otherwise, it was a sketchy offensive performance although the statistics look good with the offense rolling up 251 rushing yards and 266 passing on 34 possessions.
The offense beat the defense, 38-7, but it was the defensive front four that stood out in the controlled game under picture-perfect conditions.
The first-team defensive line made it hard on the quarterbacks, consistently chasing them out of the pocket. The quarterbacks were not allowed to scramble far, and were considered down with the touch of a hand per scrimmage rules. But there was little escape from sophomore left defensive end Adrian Dizer and freshman Anthony Sowe, who each had two sacks, and the grasp of senior tackle Charlie Berry, junior right end Patrick Handy, and freshman left tackle Ryan Leonard, who also got sacks.
SMU coach Phil Bennett still pictures a multiple rotation of starters along the defensive line, but had the first-team playing with Kyle Griffin and Patrick Handy at the ends, with Berry and Chris Parham getting the most reps at tackle. Freshman Adrian Dizer rotated in on the end, and Justin Smart and Leonard played with the first team tackles as well.
Bennett has praised the work of Parham, a sophomore, during spring drills, and the return of Berry in the middle has given more depth and other options for the defensive coaches. Berry sat out the 2006 season while improving his academic status.
Tony Hawkins, Reggie Carrington and Wilton McRay were the three linebackers starting with the first unit, with Will Bonilla, Damon Hurst and Taylor Bon playing with the second team.
The first secondary played a part in those sacks, as cornerbacks Bryan McCann and Brandon Jones kept SMU's receivers in check for most of the scrimmage along with safeties Bryce Hudman and Rock Dennis. The second-team secondary struggled against deep passes with La'Cori Johnson and Tim Crosby at the corners, and Tyler Jones and David Haynes at safety.
Back on offense, Zach Zimmerman, a 6-1 sophomore wide receiver, made an impression in the second quarter with consecutive touchdown catches. Willis found Zimmerman on a long ball down the right side for a 45-yard touchdown for the offenses' third touchdown in 11 possessions. On the next play, junior backup Corey Slater found Zimmerman again on a deep post for a 41-yard touchdown.
Those were the only catches Zimmerman made all day.
Those were the highlight plays as the first-team offense found a groove, scoring touchdowns on three-out-of-four possessions in the first half. Slater engineered two of the scoring drives, starting with a 10-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders caught the quick pass on the right side, bounced off two tacklers and fell into the end zone.
Willis had the offense on the move again on the possession following Zimmerman's second grab, but senior linebacker Reggie Carrington recovered a fumble in the backfield and returned it 53 yards for the defense's only score.
The defense continued to shine in the first half, with most of the first- and second-teamers facing one another. Pressure in the backfield contributed to Willis and Slater completing only two of their first 11 combined pass attempts. Willis would later have a string hitting seven-of-nine passes, and Slater hit three-of-four after snapping his incompletion string.
Third-string quarterback Zach Rhodes finished 5-of-13 for 29 yards in the second half. But even Rhodes suffered under the rush of the reserve defensive line, getting sacked three times for 24 yards.
Sanders led the receivers with six catches for 34 yards and the touchdown. Zach Sledge finished with 47 yards on four catches, but was open deep on three other occasions where the quarterbacks couldn't reach him. Freshman D.J. Emerson caught four passes for 14 yards.
Good crowd on a brilliant day
About 900 fans came out to watch the Red-Blue game on a picture-perfect afternoon at Ford Stadium. The severe storms that blew threw the Dallas area Friday night were a faded memory by kickoff, giving way to temperatures in the 70's under a clear sky.
• Best offensive play: James Mapps' 44-yard run in the second quarter. Mapps broke off the line of scrimmage, and wasn't touched while cutting to the left sideline for the big gain before being run out of bounds. It was the longest run of the day for SMU.
• Best defensive plays: On the seventh play of the scrimmage, David Haynes picked off a Justin Willis pass and returned it 15 yards. The pass was tipped at the line, and Hayes, a junior defensive back, chased the ball down for the interception. Also, Reggie Carrington picked up a fumble in the backfield in stride and ran 51 yards for a defensive touchdown.
• Best special teams play: Not much to choose from here, but of note was Thomas Morstead's 53-yard punt after the first possession, his longest of the day, and Morstead's 27-yard field goal in the second quarter.
Givens on track to return in the fall
Bennett said junior receiver Columbus Givens, held out of most of spring practice while dealing with bacteria the causes meningitis, should return for preseason workouts in the fall. Given will likely withdraw from school this semester and pick up the missed classes by taking six hours of summer school. His recovery kept Givens out of classes as well as practice.
Slater bounces back
It was a rough start for Corey Slater, who had five incompletions and two sacks on his first seven pass attempts. But the junior found a rhythm after that, hitting on four of his next five for 66 yards and two touchdowns. The junior backup quarterbacks' best pass of the day was the one that broke the streak, a 17-yarder to Zack Sledge on a slant-in to the left. Slater suffered one of his two interceptions on a tipped pass after that, but threw the 40-yard bomb to Zimmerman on his next attempt.
Slater finished 7-of-18 for 77 yards and the two touchdowns. Bennett remains high on Slater, and doesn't rule out finding situations in which Slater will take the field in place of Willis as he did at times last season.
Martin bigger, stronger
His off-season work in the weight room showed dividends on the field and in the appearance of running back DeMyron Martin. The junior has added about 10 pounds to his 6-2 frame, but doesn't appear to have lost a step after a series on injuries kept Martin off the field in 2006.
The backfield starter broke off right tackle for 13 yards on his first carry, and finished with seven carries for 35 yards and a touchdown. His eight-yard scoring run was a flashback to his freshman season, as he bolted up the middle, ducked his shoulders, and ran over two defenders at the 3-yard line to get to the end zone. Martin finished with seven carries for 35 yards and the touchdown.
Defensive backs still pose a concern
Bennett had to pause for a moment while thinking how to answer a post-game question about the secondary. SMU's defensive backs gave up two long touchdown passes, and quarterbacks just missed completing three other bombs to wide-open receivers two steps ahead of their defenders.
"Our first secondary crew looks pretty good. But the two-deep in the secondary is not good," Bennett said. "Too many deep balls were open. We just have to keep working with them."
Redshirt freshman defensive back Tyler Jones got picked on quite a bit by the offense, but came up with a fumble recovery just before halftime with the offense entering the red zone.
Punt team – good; punt return team – not good
The scrimmage rules prevented a full punt rush, and there were no coverage teams downfield on punting plays. But credit the SMU punters with a solid day. Not so for the punt returners. Junior punter Thomas Morstead averaged 47 yards on his five punts, and landed one of them inside the 20. Junior Andrew Galloway boomed eight punts for an average of 36 yards, with one inside the 20.
SMU's scrimmage began poorly when Josh Bryant muffed the first punt of the day. The coaches tried other players back deep on punt returns, but with some of the same results as players couldn't find the handle. Unofficially, the returners muffed or fumbled four of the 10 punts they fielded.
Kickoff changes expected to have big effect
The kickoffs that usually boom out of the end zone off the foot of kicker Thomas Morstead were noticeably short during the scrimmage. A new rule change has NCAA kickoffs taking place from the 30-yard line this season. The kickoffs by Morstead and junior kicker Andrew Galloway were falling anywhere between the 5- and 15-yard lines Saturday.
"It's a big adjustment for the kickers to make," Bennett said. "But you turn that around, and it will enhance our kick returns that much more. We were the best in the conference last year and led the nation two years ago. With Jessie Henderson back there, plus (freshman recruit) Aldrick Robinson coming in, I expect to be among the best again. You can't kick away from them or over them this year."
Name tags a-plenty
SMU coaches reported 200 recruits were in attendance at the scrimmage. Most of them came on the field following the game patched with their nametags to talk to players and coaches. Many of SMU's recruits who signed letters-of-intent in February were on the sidelines watching the game as well.
Five of the recruits on-hand came from Denton Ryan, the high school home of quarterback Justin Willis. SMU signed Ryan defensive lineman Ben Goldthorpe this spring, giving the Mustangs at least two Ryan Raiders on the 2007 roster, and apparently looking for more.
Redshirt freshman Anthony Sowe attended Denton High, another plug into the Denton ISD system.
Early starts benefit recent signees
D.J. Emerson is getting plenty of looks on offense even though the freshman was recruited as a defensive back Emerson caught four passes for 14 yards Saturday as a slot receiver. Moving positions is nothing new for Emerson, an all-state defensive back who played eight different positions at Brookshire-Royal.
Emerson enrolled early so he could take part in spring drills, along with Ryan Leonard, a defensive tackle who spent last year at the Naval Academy Prep School. Leonard had a sack and plenty of tackles along the defensive front.
Rock Dennis, a junior college transfer from Garden City Community College, also enrolled early and played with the first-team defense for most of the first half.
Short yardage improvement
Short-yardage failures played pivotal roles in SMU's 6-6 record last season. Getting the one- and two-yard gains in short-yardage scenarios has been an emphasis for the offense this spring. For what it's worth in a controlled scrimmage, SMU was 0-for-1 facing third down and two or fewer yards Saturday, but 2-for-2 on fourth down facing the same distance.
SMU faced long yardage situations more often in the scrimmage. The offense faced second or third down with 10 or more yards to go 23 times.
SMU adds to more national TV games
SMU's games against UTEP (Sept. 29) and at Southern Miss (Oct. 13) were part of the 2007 television schedule released by Conference USA and CSTV last week. Those two games, plus three others announced earlier, give the Mustangs five national TV appearances this fall. SMU's opener Sept. 3 against Texas Tech and road game Nov. 4 at Houston will be broadcast by ESPN. CSTV previously announced it would air the SMU at TCU game Sept. 22.
"I think it shows that there are expectations for our team beyond what we have for ourselves," Bennett said of the added TV games. "There are people outside the program who saw last year's games and recognize that we're an exciting team. Others want to see us because we're fun to watch."
SMU also released kickoff times for its home games:
Sept. 3 vs. Texas Tech, 3 p.m.
Sept. 8 vs. North Texas, 7 p.m.
Sept. 29 vs. UTEP, 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 20 vs. Tulane, 2 p.m.
Nov. 10 vs. Rice, 2 p.m.
Nov. 17 vs. UCF, 2 p.m.
A new pipeline to Arlington Lamar
SMU produced a roster for the Red-Blue game showing five Mustangs players hailing from Arlington Lamar High School, 20 miles west of Dallas. Senior running back Fred Turner and senior offensive lineman Ben Poynter are well-known to Mustangs fans. But former Lamar Vikings K.J. Ellis, a sophomore linebacker, and sophomore tight end Austin Michelsen transferred in this year from Texas Tech. Chase Kennemer is another transfer, and enters as a sophomore linebacker after redshirting one season at Texas A&M.
Together Turner, Poynter, Michelsen, Kennemer and Ellis represent SMU's largest player base from one high school. In all, SMU has seven players and two incoming recruits who played in the Arlington ISD.