The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Mustang offense big winner in Red Blue game

 Mustang offense big winner in Red Blue game
Photo by Brittany Oswald, The Daily Campus
Mustang offense big winner in Red Blue game

Mustang offense big winner in Red Blue game (Photo by Brittany Oswald, The Daily Campus)

Redshirt freshman Justin Willis threw for 160 yards, connecting on 16 of 21 passing attempts and ran for a touchdown on his way to decisively claiming the starting quarterback position for 2006.

“He’s done it for us all spring,” head coach Phil Bennett said of Willis after the game. “He’s smooth.”

Listed at just over 6 feet, Willis managed to make several pinpoint throws over the top of his offensive line. While the quarterbacks were all off-limits for defenders, Willis also evaded pressure well and showed patience in running the option SMU so heavily relies on in the red zone.

The Red team, more heavily loaded with starters, won the game 34-3. There were no injuries.

The battle for the number two quarterback appears wide-open at this point. Transfer Corey Slater and redshirt freshman Eric Johnson each completed 10 passes on 16 attempts. Johnson’s completions included the most impressive of the day, a 46-yard laser to senior Zack Sledge that was caught in triple coverage.

Both Slater and Johnson struggled most when playing for the Blue team, which had to face the majority of SMU’s first team defense — including defensive tackle Adrian Haywood, who had 1.5 sacks and was part of a mob who stripped Slater on his first possession.

 

Receivers

 

All three quarterbacks benefited from the return of SMU’s talented receiving corps of 2005. Seniors Blake Warren, Reynaldo Pellerin and Bobby Chase all recorded catches. In the first half Chase made a highlight reel catch, and on the next play had a wide-open touchdown opportunity, similar to his TD grab at Texas A&M last year, go through his hands. Junior Zack Sledge led all receivers with six catches for 90 yards.

“We’ve got a lot of experienced people coming back bigger and stronger,” Chase said of the receivers.

Making their presence felt for the first time at SMU were redshirt freshman Emmanuel Sanders, who caught two passes for 15 yards, and Joseph Ferguson, a senior transfer student from Northwestern who impressed with five catches for 33 yards.

At tight end, sophomore Vincent Chase showed flashes of why he was such a highly sought-after recruit with two catches for 29 yards, on the second of which he was narrowly denied a touchdown by a smart, knee-level tackle.

Converted quarterback Chris Phillips also made his debut at tight end. He was only thrown to once but made it count. On fourth and 12, the Red team went for it and Eric Johnson found Phillips over the middle. The pass came in high, and Phillips had to slow down and leap straight up for the ball, which he caught and for a first down. Fred Turner would score the game’s final touchdown a few plays later.

 

 

Running Backs

 

With freshman All-American DeMyron Martin sidelined with a sprained ankle (Bennett: Nothing serious, he could have played), several Mustangs got an opportunity to earn their fall playing time.

Most successful at raising his stock was senior Johnnie Fitzgerald, who led all rushers with 67 yards on 10 carries and two touchdowns. Fitzgerald, a converted defensive back, is considered by some to be the team’s best athlete but had yet to find his niche for the Mustangs. Running back fits him nicely.

Redshirt freshman James Mapps also drew attention to himself Saturday with 40 yards on five carries. Mapps is generously listed at 5-foot-9 inches, 175 pounds, but despite his size he managed to move defenders he couldn’t avoid with his shifty footwork.

Junior Fred Turner also proved he could carry the load if need be. He had 31 yards on nine carries with two touchdowns and caught a swing pass from Willis for a handful of yards out of the backfield.

Bennett said he considered Willis’ ability to throw to the backs one of his biggest assets, considering how often screens are used in SMU’s offense.

“He throws a very catchable ball,” Bennett said. “He can lead them.”

 

Defense

 

After losing several defensive stars from 2005, SMU premiered a rebuilt front seven that Bennett praised highly.

“Our front seven, in this conference, is as good as it gets,” Bennett said.

Anchored by 2005 standout Adrian Haywood, who recorded a sack and a half Saturday, the defensive line looks to be the strongest part of the defense in 2006. Bennett said defensive end Cory Muse, who was hampered by injuries in 2005, was the most improved player over the spring. Defensive tackle Brandon Bonds weighs every bit of the 300 pounds he is listed at and stymied the run all afternoon.

Finding replacements for graduate linebackers D.D. Lee, Rico Harris and Alvin Nnabuife had been a spring priority, and Bennett thinks he has succeeded. He calls this year’s linebacker corps possibly his best at SMU, the same praise he laid on 2005’s group.

Junior college transfer linebacker Damon Hurst made his official entrance to SMU football in the third quarter when he demolished wide receiver Jim Beckner and drew shouts and applause from the players and crowd.

On the strong side, Bennett moved former wide receiver Tony Hawkins to linebacker this spring and said the move may have been the best of the spring. Hawkins has experience as a defensive back from high school and seems to fit Bennett’s hybrid linebacker mold.

Bennett has had a harder time reshaping his secondary. Senior safety Joe Sturdivant returns to anchor the defensive backfield, and junior Jonathan Lindley is a solid corner, but Bennett admitted to needing another corner to step up.

Sophomore L.J. Johnson and redshirt freshman Connor McKay took turns laying out Zack Sledge in the first half, and may compete to fill the hole left by Rolando Humphrey’s graduation.

 

Outlook

 

The secondary will be tested early with SMU opening on the road at pass-happy Texas Tech. That game will also be a crucible for Willis, who will play his very first game as a Mustang in front of a hostile crowd. Bennett admits that opening on the road is a challenge but said he has faith in Willis’ ability to keep his head.

The second road game will be at University of North Texas, which will be a homecoming for Willis, who led Denton Ryan to the state championship game in 2004. In 2003, he lost only two games, both to eventual state champ Southlake Carroll.

SMU will open at home against Arkansas State, and then embark on it’s C-USA schedule. When asked to give his assessment of SMU’s chances to win the conference in 2006, Bennett’s answer exuded confidence.

“Why not us?”

 

What did you think about the spring game? Have a prediction for 2006? Tell us about it and click Sports to comment.

Mustang offense big winner in Red Blue game (Photo by Brittany Oswald, The Daily Campus)

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