I’ll have much more on this in next week’s column in the dead-tree version of The Sportatorium, but it commands addressing right here and right about now.
Justin Willis won’t be SMU’s starting quarterback next Friday when the June Jones era kicks off at Rice. And the reason isn’t another suspension.
Nope, despite entering his junior season already holding SMU’s all-time record with 51 touchdown passes, despite last year being voted All-Conference USA honorable mention, despite producing four of the top 15 most prolific total yardage games in school history, despite starting 22 of the Mustangs’ 24 games over the last two years and despite being the team’s most athletic, most talented, most experienced quarterback and arguably its best overall player, Willis has somehow been beaten out of the job.
By true freshmen.
I confess I haven’t been to an SMU practice, so it could be that Bo Levi Mitchell (Katy) and Braden Smith (Rockwall) are the second comings of Colt Brennan. Or perhaps Jones realizes that even Willis can’t make this team a winner, and therefore is willing to take his lumps and bypass instant gratification for long-term success.
Whatever, a lot of SMU fans will be disappointed by this news. They were salivating at the marriage of Willis’ skills and Jones’ system. When I was at Ford Stadium recently the talk was again buzzing about playing in a bowl game for the first time since 1984. I’m not even a Mustang and I admit I was looking forward to seeing Willis, who reminds me of a young Donovan McNabb, operate Jones’ famed Run ‘n Shoot offense.
Willis has been suspended twice, but was reinstated in May. But unless Jones’ announcement this week is some sort of warped motivational play, the quarterback has probably thrown his last pass at SMU.
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Sorta sad, because when I talked with Willis a couple weeks ago he was so upbeat. About the season, and about Jones.
“Coach has changed my life without even picking up a football,” Willis said then. “He’s taught me how to do things the right way. He’s really explained life to me. Because of him I’m a changed person.”
Jones, of course, has shocked college football before. Just eight months ago he left a 12-1 Hawaii team and Waikiki Beach for Hell on the Hilltop. The benching, er, burying of Willis, however, is perhaps even more jarring.
If I have Willis’ talent and pedigree yet find myself behind two freshmen on the depth chart, only one word would describe my feelings: Transfer. -- Richie Whitt