The chemistry head coach Phil Bennett said he likes so much about this SMU team made into a stronger mix Monday at the start of preseason workouts. From the coach's view, the first day of practice visibly separates the players who are totally committed to the program and those that aren't.
"You're always curious what kind of shape they'll come back in," Bennett said after the Mustangs finished a late-afternoon practice in helmets and shorts but no pads. "Their conditioning is what it should be at this point, based on what I saw. We got a good tempo going in practice."
Coaches reported that around 95 percent of the team stayed in Dallas this summer to work out together in the Mustangs' weight room, which got new flooring installed recently.
"To be able to focus when you're fatigued is very difficult," Bennett said. "That was a good sign today. I could tell they were anxious and tired toward the end, but they pushed through it."
The team's biggest position battle at this point in the preseason is at middle linebacker, where as many as four players are competing for the starting spot left by senior Reggie Carrington's departure. Damon Hurst, a senior who excelled on special teams last year after transferring in from Navarro Junior College, topped the depth chart heading into the fall. But Bennett continues to praise redshirt freshman Ryan Moczygemba, who will compete along with redshirt freshman Pete Fleps and sophomore Texas A&M transfer Chase Kennemer, who moved to the middle from the weakside spot.
"I think all four of them all capable there, we just have to find which of them is going to be the top line guy," Bennett said. "They have to show some toughness and leadership. I think we'll see one or two of them come through."
Bennett called sophomore quarterback Justin Willis "a little rusty" in the initial practice, but defended last year's conference Freshman of the Year after his summer full of classes and not practicing at game speed. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Zach Rhodes and true freshman Logan Turner split snaps as reserve quarterbacks. The number two quarterback spot is open to whoever performs better in the preseason.
"Logan can really throw the ball. He's got a whip of an arm," Bennett said. "And Zach has so many intangibles. He threw the ball well today. We'll see how that develops."
The rest of the week will be spent working on players' knowledge of their respective systems and technique. Bennett said he's seeking a five percent improvement at every position, which he expects to compound itself into better overall units from last season.
SMU practices Tuesday and Wednesday from 3:30–5:30 p.m.
No more injury talk for Martin, please: DeMyron Martin showed no effects from last season's injuries on Monday, except for a hint of disdain to keep answering questions about them.
"All I've been doing all summer is working out," said the junior running back, who is sporting some serious chops with his sideburns. "No summer school this summer, just football. As for the injuries, there's no ankle problem, no knee problems, and nothing with the shoulder. I'm done with that."
Martin said his summer workout regimen dropped 10-20 pounds off his frame and improved his endurance. He weighed 228 at the start of preseason workouts.
Givens back on the field: The best news of the day came with Columbus Givens, who was back at practice for the first time since last season. Givens, a junior receiver, missed most of spring practice while dealing with bacteria that causes meningitis. His weight is back up and he is easing into his conditioning, Bennett said.
His practice time will be monitored closely, but he is expected back at full strength by season's start.
Sad days for Butler: All players were present for the first day of practice except Chris Butler, who returned home to Brusly, La., to be with his family after losing his mother, Mildred, to diabetes Friday. Bennett said he expects the redshirt freshman to return Sunday.
Injury update: The Mustangs will start two-a-days later this week. But for now senior defensive end Cory Muse (knee) and junior tight end Andrew McKinney (hamstring) will only practice once a day while recovering from their injuries.
Frosh starting fresh: The incoming freshmen worked out in a separate practice Monday morning, with the exception of Turner. Bennett said it's the first time he's done the separate practice. But he maintained that he expects to redshirt the entire freshman class, so he's not in a hurry to mix them into the veteran players at the start of preseason workouts.
"It's quite a class," Bennett said of the freshmen.
Other notes: A handful of television crews and a few newspaper photographers were shooting the start of practice Monday. Former linebacker Brian Bischoff also made an appearance.