One of the most exciting things at SMU this spring is new wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Jason Phillips.
Where most coaches stand and give orders, Phillips is out there sweating alongside his players—acting as quarterback, defensive back, wide receiver…anything and everything.
The guy is 45 years young.
"He thinks he's Peyton Manning," junior wide receiver Jeremy Johnson said, laughing. "He wants to catch everybody. I think he misses the game."
Right now June Jones isn't having his players run sprints at the end of practice because they spent the last six weeks conditioning and getting ready for the spring season, but once they do, it'd be a safe bet that Phillips will be lining up, too.
"He'll probably run the first few and then he'll get tired," Johnson said, still smiling. "He's got a little age on him."
Phillips has brought a newfound energy and enthusiasm to first and foremost the receiving corps, but also the offense and team as a whole. When guys see him running and grinding, it rubs off.
"I like how he pushes us," Johnson said. "He ain't going to let anyone slack at all."
Johnson admitted that last season things got lackadaisical at practice. That of course was evident about halfway through the year when, after starting 5-1 and almost breaching the Top 25, the Mustangs lost four of their last six regular season games.
It's only been one week of spring training and there's already a new attitude on this team.
"We gotta practice hard everyday," Johnson said. "We can't just come out here and go through the motions. Every route has to be crisp and full speed. We need to concentrate more.
"[Last year] we were not where we should have been," he continued. "I feel we could have been practicing harder last year."
Now with Phillips at the helm, work ethic should not be a problem. As soon as he arrived on the Hilltop, Phillips brought the receivers together to discuss team and individual goals. He had everyone write down what they wanted to achieve on a sheet of notebook paper and then he looked over all of the responses and gathered everyone again to talk about their assignment.
"We had a come to Jesus meeting," Johnson said. "He laid down the ground rules and let us know what we'd be doing and how we need to get better. We set goals for the season and discussed where we want to be."
So where does this group want to be?
"We want to be a family and be the best corps in the nation," Johnson said.
Some may find that laughable, but Phillips had the best trio of wideouts in the nation last season at Houston, so this is not as farfetched of a goal as it may have been in the past at SMU.
Johnson said that along with the new coach has come more of a sense of togetherness just within the corps itself. He said the guys are constantly hanging out and bonding, many a time over video games.
"We go out to eat, go to each other's houses and play games," Johnson said. "I'm not a video gamer, but I go just because everyone else goes. I actually need to go buy an X-Box because I'm tired of losing and need to practice."
Johnson said the guys mainly play NCAA (he picks SMU every time because he likes playing himself and throwing to himself on every play) and Call of Duty. And which player is the best?
"Ryan Walker, he never loses. I've never seen him lose. He's really smart though, too," Johnson said.
Aside from the games, Johnson said that the receivers are regularly calling position meetings, too.
"We talk about what we expect out of each other," he said. "We did that a little bit last year, but we've met with each other more this spring than we did last year. We have higher standards. We've been to bowl games, but we want to do something more like win a conference championship and go to a bigger bowl game."
Most of those guys come in at about 6-feet tall, with a few taller, a few shorter, but luckily Phillips is one of the best at teaching smaller players to excel and play bigger than their measurements.
Just look at Patrick Edwards of Houston. He stands at 5-foot-9, 175 lbs. and averaged 125 yards receiving per game last year as an integral part of the nation's No. 1 offense.
Johnson said Phillips tells them of bigger players, "When you step on the field, they're just like you. They're playing football just like you, put on their pads just like you…there's no difference."
The time period between the Compass Bowl and the start of spring this week was probably one of the hardest off-seasons, according to Johnson. And he feels the work is paying off already as he can tell his speed and strength have improved.
"The running was tough," he said. "Lots of speed work. It was the hardest it's ever been. But we stuck through it. We're ready to get the season going hard."
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