From a thousand-foot view, SMU has been on a rocket ship to rebrand itself since head coach Rhett Lashlee took over in November 2021. It's like they saw the college football landscape diving into the uncharted waters of NIL money, transfer portal and conference realignment and channeled Lord Petyr Baelish from "Game of Thrones" - Chaos is a ladder.
Over 65 of the 85 scholarship players on the 2023 roster joined SMU within the past two years, recruited by Lashlee either from high school or the portal. In September, they entered the ACC after agreeing to forgo conference media rights for their first nine years because Power Five conference status was that valuable. A $100-million endzone complex under construction will be ready for the move next season.
But for SMU, this isn't a quest to level up. It's a campaign to get back to where they belong. Their program has lain dormant for 40 years because today's college football norms were grave sins in the early 1980s when the Pony Express rode to three Southwest Conference championships in four years. They've repeatedly witnessed the top high school recruits from the DFW hotbed leave to play big-time college ball as they struggled to climb back from the NCAA's 1987 death penalty verdict.
But Quarterback Preston Stone and safety Jonathan McGill, the leaders of this 5–2 SMU team tied for first place in the American Athletic Conference, are Dallas-born and bred. Stone starred at Parish Episcopal from 2017-20, becoming the Dallas area's all-time leading passer with 13,159 yards and 145 touchdowns. He became a trailblazer when he committed to his hometown team at the 2020 All-American Bowl because most of the city's top recruits historically went elsewhere. Just two years before him, McGill was a District Defensive MVP at Coppell who decommitted from SMU to play Power Five football at Stanford.
But McGill returned home after four seasons on the West Coast for a final year where he could try to build SMU into a program he might've stayed committed to five years ago. This team isn't full of hired guns. It's guys who love Dallas trying to create a brand Dallas will love. Just look at the defensive backs room McGill captains. McGill is a proud Coppell alum. Strong safety Isaiah Nwokobia came from Dallas Skyline. Brandon Crossley is a Little Elm grad. Corner Charles Woods hails from Dallas Kimball.
"It's like we truly are Dallas's team," McGill said. "You have players on our team from almost every school. Guys (are) still talking trash to each other in the locker room about who's high school is going to win on Friday night."
For Stone and McGill, however, their relationship - and trash talk - extends farther back than high school. The pair sit together now in SMU's dining hall, the focal points of the Mustangs' mission to become Dallas's college, and remember how this city wove their lives together.
The McGill and Stone families have been connected since the early 2000s youth football circuit in Coppell. Jonathan's older brother, former Texas Tech wide receiver Jarel, and Stone's oldest brother, former Virginia quarterback Lindell, were the same age. Jonathan and Stone's middle brother, current SMU student offensive assistant Parker, played on the same flag football team when they were six. Preston was the youngest brother watching those games from the sidelines, but he later played basketball with McGill on a squad called the Ballers.
They're now asked the softball question of who was better at hoops back then. McGill quickly points out he got more minutes before Stone jumps in.
"It was... I mean... yeah, he was probably better," Stone admits.
Stone's family moved away from Coppell in second grade, but the two of them kept in touch as they started achieving the goals they set for themselves in elementary school.
Last summer, Stone donned a red camp counselor shirt and posed for pictures at his lifelong friend's youth football camp. This was when McGill was still a senior safety at Stanford who'd returned home to Coppell hoping to inspire the next generation on the same Buddy Echols Field he'd once starred. It was Stone's second youth camp in 12 days. He'd hosted his own on the same blue turf where he'd piloted Parish Episcopal to back-to-back TAPPS Divison I State Championship appearances.
Over a year removed, Stone maintains those camps did him a thousand times more benefit than any kid who attended. Surely, he's just being modest. Stone gifted a bunch of future accountants, lawyers and maybe even journalists like myself a lifelong memory with their football hero. But those few hours when the elementary schoolers pretended to be Division I quarterbacks transported Stone back to the period in his life he was just like them.
Because those kids and Stone share, at their core, an unbridled love for football. When Stone remembers the fire in their eye, he's reminded to guard that love as he leads an SMU team trying to ascend college football's mountain top. When the focus on outcomes and outsider expectations heaped upon him threaten it.
There have been moments in SMU's run to the top of the conference standings where Stone experienced that pure joy while playing football he cherishes. The season-opening drubbing of Louisiana Tech at Gerald J. Ford Stadium, where he used to cheer his football role models on, the son of an SMU alum. Even the trip to Norman, Oklahoma, where SMU played the No. 18 Sooners to the wire in a loss. And, of course, in last Friday's 55-0 thrashing of Temple when Stone threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns.
McGill's presence at SMU this season reminds him of his passion for football as a little kid as well.
After earning his Stanford degree in December 2022, McGill began FaceTiming his old youth teammate to ask about SMU. The Mustangs had everything McGill needed to thrive for a year. Scott Nady, SMU's senior assistant for player development, had established a solid nutrition regimen. The school had a 'Life After Ball' program, which helped recent student-athletes get a job postgrad.
And SMU's roster had undergone a two-year overhaul under Lashlee, leaving them only a few pieces shy of contending.
"When you've known someone for this long, you're not going to have to, for lack of a better term, BS somebody about the opportunity that they have," Stone said. "All you really had to do was speak on the truth – which is that we have an incredible opportunity to do something special here. Win a championship here."
Stone had known McGill almost his entire life, but even he didn't expect how quickly McGill established himself as a team leader when he first came to SMU during winter workouts. In three years of college ball, the quarterback hadn't witnessed someone carve a vocal presence that soon without forcing themselves upon new teammates awkwardly. McGill's journey to team captain was seamless.
That's because McGill learned years ago as a freshman at Coppell that there are three stages to gaining respect. Early in his freshman season on Varsity, his older brother Jarel. then a senior, pulled him to the side and instructed him to keep his head down. Jarel taught him he first needed to gain the respect of guys in the locker room. Then came gaining the respect of the coaching staff. The final piece was earning the respect of opponents.
That sequence of respect ran through McGill's mind daily in SMU's competition-based winter workouts. If he could be at the forefront of the drill, he could first gain his teammates' confidence.
"If you don't have credibility in the locker room, then what are you really playing for?" McGill said.
Once he'd earned his teammates' respect, McGill asked to join strength coach Shawn Griswold's roughly 20-man leadership council for summer seminars with military personnel. Stone and SMU's other veterans welcomed him because he'd proven himself a dog throughout the winter and spring. There was no guarding of leadership positions. McGill had yet to play a down for SMU but had a veteran experience to bring.
And McGill's defensive savvy has helped evolve SMU's culture. All throughout the summer, Lashlee reminded his team they had the talent to compete for SMU's first conference championship since 1984. But they hadn't finished within the top 40 nationally for total defense in 40 years and needed to change the narrative. So the Mustangs' secondary, headlined by newcomer McGill, brought a different swagger to fall camp competing with the offense.
"There was a good week or two during fall camp where we weren't really friends," Stone said.
But now, seven weeks into the season, that fall camp rivalry has morphed into trust between the two lifelong friends as the leaders of their respective units. SMU's offense is again in the top 15 nationally, averaging 36.4 points per game, but the defense has propelled them into championship contenders. They're surrendering just 14 points a game behind a secondary that's blossomed into the nation's 11th-best passing defense. McGill's been an enormous factor, tied for the team lead with five pass breakups and breaking a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown two weeks ago against East Carolina.
McGill and Stone are the faces of what the new SMU hopes to be: a balanced team chock-full of DFW guys competing at the sport's highest level. They understood how important this season was for the future of the program. The foundation they as leaders set would propel them to contending for a conference crown. It'll also serve as the foundation next year when SMU returns to the Power Five where they belong.
"There’s really no room for egos when it comes to trying to build the culture that we have here," Stone said.
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