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When Phil Bennett inherited the head coaching job on the Hilltop four years ago, he remembers encountering more than a few peers who thought he was crazy for accepting the position at SMU.
"There were a lot of people who told me taking on the challenge at SMU was committing career suicide," Bennett said. "But I honestly believe we can win here."
The school has put the same faith in Bennett. Despite a 6-29 career record, Bennett, who is entering his fourth season, had his contract extended an extra two years through 2008.
The program, which will begin its first season in Conference USA in '05, has had only one winning season since being reinstated from the Death Penalty in '89 and hasn't been to a bowl game in 21 years.
Bennett hasn't let three losing seasons on the job shake his optimism and believes his program will show signs of turning things around this season after a 3-8 campaign in '04.
"Since I arrived here, I've been pointing towards this season as the year we're looking to show the most improvement," Bennett said. "We've got six home games for the first time since I've been here and we've grown up. Now, we just have to find a way to win."
Bennett would like to avoid the quarterback shuffle he endured last season with three different starting quarterbacks, but he heads into the preseason without a firm grasp on who will begin the season under center.
Tony Eckert and Jerad Romo will spend preseason camp auditioning for the starting job and could end up splitting time early in the season. Bennett's decision will likely come down to what kind of quarterback he needs on the field. Eckert, who might be the best fit for SMU's multiple offense, is a pure pocket passer, while Romo's strength is making plays with his feet. He was the Mustangs' leading rusher last season, with 434 yards and four rushing touchdowns.
Romo shouldn't be SMU's top ground option this year with Cedrick Dorsey around. He could help out either signal caller if he can emerge as the every-down back Bennett is desperately seeking. Dorsey picked up five yards per carry last season and showed off some game-breaking ability with a game-winning 25-yard touchdown run against Tulsa in overtime last season.
While the backfield has more questions than a game of Trivial Pursuit, the Mustangs will have plenty of talented targets roaming the secondary this season. Wideout Bobby Chase is an emerging 6-foot-4, 210-pound talent who averaged 15.6 yards per catch last season. Tight end Ryan Kennedy, who is an all-conference candidate, is a reliable target.
SMU returns five starters on the offensive line, but the group needs to provide more running room and protection than last season. Depth is also an issue.
Don Ieremia-Stansbury made the switch from linebacker to defensive end in the spring and spent practice sessions hassling SMU's quarterbacks. The Mustangs have their fingers crossed he'll keep doing it on game day. The defense recorded a mere 10 sacks last season and SMU doesn't return a player who had more than 2.5 sacks in '04. Bennett knows it can't happen again for his team to win consistently.
Bennett has a talented group of linebackers and will consider using more 3-4 defensive sets this season because of the unit's depth. D.D. Lee, who returns from an elbow injury, will begin the season in the middle with Alvin Nnabuife (switched from safety in the spring) and Wilton McCray filling the outside spots.
The Mustangs have been inconsistent in the secondary over the past three seasons, but the defensive backfield should be a strength this season. Cornerback Rolando Humphrey and safety Jamey Harper are starters for the fourth straight season, and the newcomers to the lineup have plenty of speed.
Punter Ryan Mentzel has turned into a formidable specialist, but Bennett wouldn't mind seeing him less this season. He punted 48 times last season. Chris McMurtray returns as the school's placekicker after connecting on 7-of-8 attempts last season.
While Bennett is confident the Mustangs are finally ready to turn the corner in his fourth season, the Ponies will have to overcome several personnel question marks -- most notably at running back and on the defensive line -- and an unforgiving schedule to pull off a stunning turnaround season.
In all likelihood, the Mustangs will be a better football team than last year's 3-8 squad, but the record may not prove it.