SMU Turns to Jennings in Championship

SMU Football players
SMU Football players I Image by SMU Football/Facebook

When the SMU football team takes the field at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans for the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, the Mustangs will do so without their starting quarterback.

Sophomore Preston Stone left Saturday’s win over Navy during the second quarter with a broken leg and will miss the rest of the season after having surgery earlier this week.

“Unfortunate for him. He was having a fantastic season and maybe playing his two best halves — the second half against Memphis and the first half last week,” head coach Rhett Lashlee told the media during a video press conference earlier this week. “He was just really clicking. I think his growth and development all year has been exceptional. We’re really proud of how he performed this year. We’ve got some great quarterbacks in this league, but I think you could argue he’s just as good as any of them.”

Stone threw for 275 yards in the first quarter of last week’s game, the most of any quarterback since 2019, and finished his first season as the starting quarterback with 3,197 passing yards (third in the AAC), 28 touchdown passes (tied for second in the AAC), and six interceptions.

Former South Oak Cliff High School quarterback Kevin Jennings will make his first career collegiate start in place of Stone. While it is a different role than he has had all season, he did come close to starting for an injured Stone against North Texas earlier in the year, which could help him in this situation.

“Every experience you can get is valuable,” Lashlee said. “Up until really our day before the game run-through, he repped like he was the starting quarterback that entire week. Preston wasn’t able to do anything until the day before the game. That’s just a little thing, but every little thing helps.”

SMU has preached confidence in its roster depth all year, especially at the quarterback position. Lashlee has said many times this season that he feels like his team has multiple starting quarterbacks, and he doubled down earlier this week.

“We’ve got so much depth on our team, we felt like we’ve had co-starters at a lot of positions,” he explained. “Quarterback is one of those positions where it’s hard to do that, but if you could, [Jennings is] talented enough to have been playing. You don’t always think that about a backup. There’s usually a reason they’re a backup.”

Jennings led South Oak Cliff to the 5A Division II state championship in 2021, stopping a 63-year championship drought for Dallas. Because of the pressure of that situation, Lashlee believes Jennings has the experience necessary to excel in a collegiate championship setting.

“That’s pressure,” Lashlee told the media on Wednesday. “I’m going to be honest. There’s no more pressure in a conference championship game in the American [Athletic] Conference than that. If you’re a competitor, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing or where you’re playing. The pressure’s the same.”

Despite having yet to make a start in college, Jennings has been exposed to the college game in doses over his first two seasons with the team, and his play has done nothing but emphasize his team and coaches’ belief in him.

“He’s played in big-time moments this year already,” Lashlee explained. “He came in when Preston got knocked out in the Rice game and led us on a big scoring drive in the last few minutes that was necessary to secure that win. Last year, [he] came in at Tulsa and played the whole half after Preston got knocked out, and then last year when Tanner [Mordecai] got knocked out, he came in and led us on a touchdown drive against Memphis.”

Part of that confidence comes from Jennings’ demeanor, which Lashlee said has been a critical aspect of the redshirt freshman’s success since high school.

“He’s very even keel,” he told the media. “He’s the same guy every day. That’s what helped him win the first DISD state title in 50 or 60 years his senior year at South Oak Cliff High School here in Dallas. It’s what turned us on to recruit him when we got hired for the job. He’s been that way ever since he got here.”

Stone and Jennings influence the team and the game in different ways, but Lashlee said letting the two players be themselves and do what they do best is a recipe for success.

“You can’t replace the experience and production and how Preston was playing, but that’s not what we’re asking Kevin to do,” Lashlee said. “We feel like we have a good team, and we feel like, if Kevin will just show up and be Kevin, that he’s more than enough, and we’re excited about it.”

SMU (10-2, 8-0 in the AAC) will face No.22 Tulane (11-1, 8-0) at 3 p.m. CT on Saturday.

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