SMU's Final Spring Practice
The mood for SMU's final spring practice session was heavy today after a prayerful reminder of the recently hospitalized Special Team's Coach Frank Gansz. Apparently, Gansz suffered complications during knee replacement surgery and remains in critical condition. Both offense and defense appeared lethargic at the beginning of practice, clearly distracted by the worry of one of their inspirational leaders on the coaching staff. But as the practice progressed, the team began to play their way out of the emotion funk. "Each kid handles it differently," said Defensive Coordinator Tom Mason. "I know all of those kids had him on their minds, while they were out there today."
Starting quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell had an outstanding spring session, his first as a collegiate. The heavy passing load has done wonders for his confidence and ability, since he was chasing high school girls and attending prom at this same time last year.
As a senior at Katy High School, Mitchell only attempted between 10 to 15 passes per game in Katy's run oriented offense. After winning the starting quarterback job as a freshman at SMU, Mitchell had to make the transition, not only to a higher level of competition, but to a shotgun, pass first offense. Head Coach June Jones' offense required Mitchell to attempt 34.1 passes per game in his debut season. The combination of more passes against better defenses in a new offense resulted in a predictably tough year for Mitchell. "We knew we were going to take our lumps with him the first year, which we did," said Jones. "But we also knew he would get better as the year progressed, which he did also."
Mitchell threw the most interceptions of any quarterback in the Football Bowl Subdivision last year with 23. Don't expect a repeat next season. "It's a lot different [this spring] because we come out here and we already know the plays," said Mitchell. "Now we are refining it, getting the details. Last year we were still trying to learn the stuff and complete some passes. This year we are going through our four reads."
Sitting in the stands, watching both skeleton drills and scrimmage, you see Mitchell making the right reads quickly, then throwing accurate balls. As anyone who doesn't watch all their football from a coach knows, during a game, the offensive and defensive coaches are matching wits on every play. Some plays, the offense gets the right play called and there are two or even three open receivers. Some plays, the defensive coach has everyone covered plus two players sacking the quarterback. What has been impressive about Mitchell is watching him find the most open receiver and throwing the ball in a place where the receiver can make the catch and make a move.
"He is one of the most accurate throwers I've ever had," said Jones. "We don't need him to chuck it. I call it chucking it when they throw it as hard as they can. Our offense requires the quarterback to be a passer." Mitchell has clearly blossomed under Jones' tutelage. Another fall practice session of work and the lead pony should be in full stride by kickoff next fall.
The other big takeaway from SMU Spring Football 2009 is the new 3-4 defensive scheme being implemented by the coaching staff. Defensive Coordinator Tom Mason says the 3-4 is still a work in progress and is only about 10 percent implemented to this point, but the spring results are positive and the players love it. Seemingly to a man, each player feels the new defense frees up space for them to run around a make plays. The unpredictable nature of the fourth rusher in the scheme creates a frenzied pre snap look by the linebackers , as they jump around and stunt, pretending to be blitzing, whether they actually do or not.
"With this offense you've got to create turnovers," said Mason. "That's the big emphasis. That the thing we'll do. We'll create turnovers." So far this spring, the defense has registered at least one turnover in each scrimmage, including several interceptions for touchdowns. Granted, some of those came against second and third teamers, and the defense is learning the offensive tendencies, but the aggressive nature of the defense stands out.
The offense has shown the swagger that comes from success, while the attacking defense has declared their intention of creating turnovers. The two sides of the same team will square off in a 40 play scrimmage this Saturday, April 24th at 1 P.M. at Ford Stadium.