Small-town Pope making big impact at SMU

Texas A&M tight end Hudson Prioleau (80) splits SMU defenders Chris Castro (13) Jay Scott (7) and Kevin Pope (3) to score a touchdown during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011, in College Station, Texas. A&M beat SMU 46-14. Pope, a Mount Enterprise product, will contribute greatly as a backup linebacker for the Mustangs this year as they contend for a Conference USA title. (Dave Einsel | Associated Press)

DALLAS — The question wasn’t meant to be a brain tease. All a reporter did was ask Kevin Pope if he could remember the last time a Mount Enterprise football player earned significant playing time on a FBS football team.

One would assume that Pope, a Mount Enterprise standout running back and linebacker, would be able to answer that question definitively.

“None,” said Pope, a junior at Southern Methodist University. “Not at all that I can recall. I don’t think I know any.”

It underlines the difficulty players from small Texas high schools face when it comes to playing at college football’s highest level. Mount Enterprise, population 447 as of 2010, plays in Class 1A. Some Bearkats make their way to nearby Stephen F. Austin or smaller colleges like East Texas Baptist. But playing a role for an FBS school that has designs on a conference championship can be daunting for players like Pope.

But Pope has made the transition. As he enters his junior year he’s a backup linebacker behind one of Conference USA’s top linebackers in Taylor Reed. He expects to play 20 to 30 snaps this season. Pope’s ability leaves his position coach Tom Mason with one regret.

“I wish we had redshirted him last year,” Mason said. “He would have ended up starting two years for us. He’s a really productive member of this defense.”

Pope didn’t start out on defense when he arrived at SMU in the summer of 2010, though he played linebacker at Mount Enterprise. In fact, Pope was one of the best two-way players in East Texas his senior year, putting up big statistics in eight games before a torn ACL ended his season. Pope rushed for 1,401 yards and 17 touchdowns on offense and made 76 tackles on defense. Heck, he even punted, averaging 39.6 yards per attempt. It was more than enough to earn him District 19-1A Offensive Player of the Year honors.

Pope played one game at running back in 2010, gaining six yards on three carries against Alabama-Birmingham. With a glut of talent at running back, Mason approached Pope about moving to defense.

It didn’t take long for Mason to give Pope a nickname — One Speed.

“I call him ‘one speed,’ because that’s all he knows — one speed,” Mason said. “He’s a great athlete. It (playing linebacker in high school) helped him some. It wasn’t totally foreign to him.”

Pope said the transition was made easier by SMU’s overall defensive scheme. The Mustangs play a 3-4 and Pope works at the Mike linebacker position (better known as weak-side linebacker). Pope played in a similar position in Mount Enterprise’s 5-2 defensive alignment. So that gave him experience to draw upon.

“Trusting my instincts and my speed was the hardest part of the transition,” Pope said. “Coach Mason is always telling me to trust my speed.”

Even if Mason had wanted to redshirt Pope, the former Bearkat’s player wouldn’t have allowed it. Pope quickly moved into a backup role behind Reed, playing in 13 games last season and finishing with 40 tackles and a sack. Part of the reason Mason is so high on Pope’s future was his career-high 11 tackles against Tulsa, a game in which Pope didn’t start. He did all of that damage as a backup.

That’s part of the reason why Pope admits he feels blessed to be on The Hilltop, playing for the Mustangs and getting an education. It’s a combination of opportunities afforded to few top players from small East Texas towns.

Pope e admits to some na￯vet← during the recruiting process. In a sense, he ended up at SMU because he didn’t know any better.

“I really didn’t know much about college football,” Pope said. “I just played it because I thought it was fun and I was pretty good at it. The recruiting thing was new to me. I only took one official visit and that was here. I never knew you could take five more.”

When he first started playing, he said the atmosphere on gameday reminded him of home games back in Mount Enterprise. But as the Mustangs have gotten better, that’s changed dramatically.

SMU has played in three straight bowl games under head coach June Jones, notching a 2-1 record and earning a berth in the 2010 Conference USA championship game. It is, by far, the program’s best three-year stretch since its Pony Express days in the 1980s.

Next year, the Mustangs will move to the Big East Conference, along with one of its former Southwest Conference rivals, Houston.

Pope is happy to be on the ground floor of helping the program change minds around the nation.

“It’s a great feeling, especially coming from the death penalty and bringing this program back up to a different level,” Pope said. “Going to the Big East is a big step for us. We’re setting a standard for younger players coming up.”

SMU is a legitimate Conference USA contender this season, thanks to a defense that returns a plethora of All-Conference USA talent and an offense that should receive a boost from Texas transfer quarterback Garrett Gilbert.

Pope will be a big part of that this season. Next season he should slide into a starter’s role as the Mustangs roll into the Big East. Mason has no worries about Pope one day replacing Reed, paying the small-town star an enormous compliment.

“The thing about him is that he does everything right,” Mason said. “He’s right off the field, on the field and has great leadership qualities. If you have to have someone for a son you would want him to be like Kevin Pope.”

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