DALLAS — As blue-chip signees in recent recruiting classes at Texas, the trio of quarterback Garrett Gilbert, running back Traylon Shead and offensive tackle Thomas Ashcraft envisioned taking part in high-profile matchups against Texas Tech.But they never expected to be doing it while wearing SMU uniforms.At least, that was not the plan until the former Longhorns were reunited as Mustangs during SMU’s fall camp. Now, all three project to be in the starting lineup when the Mustangs meet Tech at 7 tonight at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.SMU coach June Jones said he expects “very productive” years from all three, with Shead (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) and Ashcraft (6-5, 315) preparing to make their Mustangs’ debuts against the Red Raiders. Gilbert joined the program last year, leading SMU to a 7-6 record and a bowl victory after graduating from Texas to earn immediate eligibility for the 2012 season.“Sometimes, stuff doesn’t always go your way. You just have to learn to deal with it,” said Shead, summing up the circuitous journeys to Dallas taken by the reunited college teammates. “I was frustrated. It was kind of a numbers game (being buried on Texas’ depth chart). But it’s just the business of football. ... You have to wait your turn. And my turn has finally come around. I’m happy for the opportunity. I have high expectations.”So does Jones, who signed Shead after his lone season at Navarro College, where the record-setting high school rusher (10,291 career yards, 141 touchdowns at Cayuga) ground out 1,194 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2012. Shead, a four-star recruit who had zero career carries for the Longhorns, enrolled for spring drills and Ashcraft followed in June, ending a period of semi-retirement for the four-star signee from Cedar Hill. Ashcraft played in 35 games for the Longhorns but never cracked the starting lineup. He is expected to start at right tackle tonight for SMU.After graduating from Texas in December with a bachelor’s degree in corporate communications, Ashcraft announced plans to bypass his final season of eligibility. He spent four months seeking full-time employment while enrolled in graduate-level courses to strengthen his résumé. But a tight job market altered those plans.“If I’d found a comfortable position down in Austin, I would have taken it. I’d mentally prepared myself that I was done with football,” said Ashcraft, whose interest in the sport rekindled after watching several peers selected in the 2013 NFL Draft. “At that point, I figured, ‘I still have the ability and I have that one year.’ I didn’t want to leave a ‘what if’ about whether I could have done this,” Ashcraft said. “If I play good enough to make it to the NFL, then I’ll take that opportunity. If not, then I’ll finish school and get my master’s.”Jones, a former NFL coach, believes all three players will get their opportunities to shine in NFL training camps. But this season, they will strut their stuff as Mustangs. And Gilbert (6-4, 223), the first to arrive at SMU, played a role in helping reunite the group when Shead and Ashcraft approached him about transfer alternatives.“I talked to Traylon before he came here and … I was very excited” to take Ascraft’s call that led to his transfer in June, Gilbert said. “It’s great to be back with those guys. Traylon is a big, fast athlete who is going to be very good for us. Thomas is able to come in and play right away and that’s going to be big for us to have him on our line.”Among the former Longhorns, Gilbert – a five-star signee and the 2009 Gatorade Male High School Athlete of the Year – earned the most playing time at Texas. But the son of former NFL quarterback Gale Gilbert struggled to produce on the field, posting a 7-7 mark as the Longhorns’ starter. He threw more interceptions (23) than touchdown passes (13), finishing his Texas career with a 56.7 percent completion rate and a quarterback efficiency rating of 107.7.After being injured during the 2011 season, Gilbert opted to have season-ending shoulder surgery and elected to transfer to SMU. While rehabilitating his shoulder, he completed his bachelor’s degree at Texas in order to gain immediate eligibility for the 2012 season.But Gilbert’s efficiency rating dropped in his first season at SMU (105.5), where he joined the team in fall drills and made his first start roughly one month after his initial practice. He finished with a 53 percent completion rate and offset 15 touchdown passes with 15 interceptions. He also rushed for a career-high 346 yards and eight touchdowns, with most of it coming during a 5-2 closing stretch capped by a 43-10 rout of Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl.Jones said he expects significant improvement from Gilbert in his senior season, calling last year’s stats misleading because SMU receivers had a high number of dropped passes. Jones also said Gilbert is showing intangibles that were not evident at this juncture last season.“This fall, he’s a leader. He’s taken command,” Jones said. “He’s a great kid and he has the skills to go to the next level. He’s throwing the ball more accurately down the field this camp.”But it is Gilbert’s demeanor in the SMU huddle — more vocal, more relaxed, more self-assured — that has impressed teammates who saw a more tentative quarterback at Texas.“I’ve seen him grow from then to now,” Ashcraft said. “Here, he looks like he enjoys the game more and he’s more into it.”Shead described the SMU version of Gilbert as “a lot more relaxed” than the one he saw in Austin.“His arm is a lot stronger. He’s a lot more decisive, too,” Shead said. “He’s telling the receivers when there is something wrong with the script or the play. He’s telling the coaches, too. The pressure is off of him and he’s just having fun.”Gilbert agreed with perceptions that he’s a changed quarterback at SMU. “In all areas of my game, I feel like I’m more comfortable and in a better spot,” Gilbert said. “As a quarterback, as a leader, within the offense and with my ability to speak up both to coaches and players. I think it’s just maturity level. Both as a quarterback in general, and specifically in this offense, there’s a greater comfort level I feel with it.”SMU coaches hope that translates to a strong debut in the American Athletic Conference, the Mustangs’ first season as part of a league with a BCS bowl berth for the champion. The biggest wild card in that equation is Shead, who redshirted at Texas in 2010 and transferred after being bypassed on the team’s 2011 depth chart by freshmen Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron.Although a standout in Class 1A football, Shead’s undeveloped blocking skills and small-school pedigree concerned Texas coaches during his time in Austin. Shead said he made strides in his all-around game at Navarro and seeks to join his former Cayuga teammate, Texas A&M receiver Malcome Kennedy (26 catches, 285 yards, two touchdowns last season), in proving small-school talents can thrive in Division I football.“We’ve talked about it all summer and we’re still talking,” Shead said. “We’re pushing each other. We tell each other, ‘It’s time for a 1A kid to step out and show what we can be.’ The mindset I have is that, if you can play football, you can play football.”Jones shares that perspective, identifying Shead as someone expected to make a major impact as a rusher and receiver in the Mustangs’ run-and-shoot offense.“He has great vision. And he has little-man quickness for a big guy,” Jones said. “In our offense, little-man quickness goes a long way.”Asked about the uniqueness of having a 230-pounder with “little-man quickness” in a spread offense, Jones said: “You usually don’t have it at the college level. And you’re lucky if you do. Usually, you find it in the National Football League.”Eventually, Gilbert hopes the NFL will be his post-college destination. But he admits he has much to prove to scouts who question why he has yet to morph into a dominant player at the FBS level.“That’s always been my dream. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Gilbert said of an NFL career. “I feel like in order to achieve that, we have to be successful this year. So my goal as a quarterback is to put us in the best position to win every week, however that might be. We’ve got a chance to do something very special this year. We think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good.”How special SMU’s 2013 season turns out to be will depend heavily on how well three transplanted Longhorns perform in Mustangs’ uniforms. Shead, who will be replacing the departed Zach Line — a three-time 1,200-yard rusher — considers this team capable of earning a BCS bowl berth. Like Gilbert, Shead said he is “most definitely” more relaxed in the SMU program and expects to reap the benefits on the field.“Oh, yeah,” Shead said. “I’m real anxious to see how the first game turns out. When I got here, my confidence boosted up because my coaches had so much trust in me.“In my mind, we’re going to have a great season. SMU, they’ve just been inclining every year with the football program the last few years. Since we’re in the BCS conference, I think this is the year people really take SMU a lot more serious.”How serious will depend on how much impact the Mustangs get this season from Gilbert, Shead and Ashcraft.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch