SMU Season Preview: Dreaming of '83

Wins are hard to come by but SMU is better and better every year. This season the Mustangs will field their most talented roster since the early 80's with top flight skill talent and improving offensive and defensive lines. The architect is Chad Morris. Now if SMU can only insure that Morris sticks around to see the build to fruition. 

Joe Craddock and Morris will oversee an offense with perhaps the best receiver in college football in Courtland Sutton and a number of excellent pass catching options around him. Add to that three viable options at running back and this offense is stacked. The question mark is at quarterback where bonafide QB whisperer Morris has hit a drought, his longest since his Texas High School prep coaching days. If SMU can improve their lot in that area, this team could shock the AAC. If not, six wins might be the ceiling.

On defense Van Malone's unit improved from 127th to 111th in points allowed from 2015 to 2016. It's a nice bump but if SMU is going to compete with the elite of the AAC they'll need to prove they can stop opponents at a higher rate. The positive take away from 2016 were actual take aways, where the Mustangs thrived with eighteen picks - good enough for ninth in the country. 

Key Numbers

Scoring Drive % (AAC Rank) Touchdown Drive % (AAC Rank) Scoring Drives % Allowed (AAC Rank) Touchdown % Allowed (AAC Rank) 3rd Down Conversion % (AAC Rank) 3rd Down Defense (AACRank) Turnover Margin (AAC Rank) Total Adjusted Run Rate (NCAA Rank)
32% (8) 22% (8) 41% (10) 32% (10) 43% (5) 38% (6) 2 (6) -1.114 (104)
  • Scoring Drive %: Percentage of offensive drives that end in points.
  • Touchdown Drive %: Percentage of offensive drives that end in touchdowns. 
  • Scoring Drives % Allowed: Percentage of drives allowed that ended in points. 
  • Touchdown % Allowed: Percentage of opponent's drives that end in a touchdown. 
  • 3rd Down %: Offensives success on 3rd down. 
  • 3rd Down Defense %: Can a defense get off the field.
  • Turnover Margin: Total number of giveaways minus total number of takeaways. 
  • Total Adjusted Run Rate: Taking the national average of yards per carry and yards allowed per carry and comparing that to the relative team. Teams that end up with a plus Total Adjusted Run Rate average 8.4 wins per year. Teams with a negative Total Adjusted Run Rate average 5.5 wins per season. The top 20 teams in Total Adjusted Run Rate Averaged 9.7 wins per season over a five year period. 

Quarterback

SMU is a rarity, as they enter 2017 with an incumbent, who may not give the Mustangs the best chance to win. Ben Hicks was up and down, or rather down then up, as 2016 carried on. Hicks failed to complete more than 59% of his passes in any outing through his first nine games, eight of which were starts. In those first nine games Hicks threw as many touchdowns as he did interceptions, eleven. He threw for more than 250 yards just twice. 

Ben Hicks

Ben Hicks

Then in his last three games Hicks caught fire, completing 64% of his passes and throwing for over 300 yards twice. Two of those three games were against bowl qualifiers. You have to wonder what Chad Morris' offense can do with an efficient quarterback. In his three season Mustang quarterbacks have completed an average of 54% of their passes with 39 interceptions and 47 touchdowns.

Is this the year the Mustangs finally get some decent quarterback play? Is Hicks the quarterback to do it? We'll find out. This is the first season that there's real quality quarterback depth, at least on paper. 

Rafe Peavey was a highly regarded recruit out of Missouri who signed with Arkansas in 2014. He had offers from every corner of the college football world including USC, Auburn, Ole Miss, Iowa, Nebraska and Louisville. Peavey has yet to throw a collegiate pass, stuck behind one of the Allen brothers for two seasons. Peavey entered fall camp in 2016 as the backup to Austin Allen. When he lost that spot to true freshman, Peavey jumped to SMU. Peavey moved into at least the number two spot coming out of spring practice.

While Hicks left spring with a slight edge, Peavey clearly staked a claim. In the spring game Peavey completed 16 of 18 passes for 173 yards with two touchdowns. 

D.J. Gillins is another intriguing prospect out of Pearl River Junior College. Gillins originally signed with Wisconsin out of high school and spent two seasons with the Badgers as a quarterback and receiver. Gillins transferred to Pearl River and started exactly on game before a knee injury cut his season short. Regardless, Gillins was the number seven rated quarterback in the JC ranks with offers from Arizona, Boston College, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Vanderbilt, and West Virginia among others. Gillins is healthy and will compete for the starting job in the fall. 

Runningbacks

SMU returns almost all their skill talent from 2016. Every significant contributor in the rushing game is back and that's great news for Chad Morris and whoever plays quarterback. The group was pretty productive, even behind a less than stellar offensive line. This is a rushing game by committee with no real bell cow, but instead the talents of several backs will come together to form what should be a decent ground game.

The most decorated of the returning plays is Braeden West, a sophomore from Katy who broke the 1,000 yard barrier in 2016. West looks smaller than his 5-10, 170 listed size, if that's possible. He gets lost in the wash at times and is a great one cut back. He finds a hole and glides north/south. West is a pretty good asset in the pass game, excelling on screens.  

Ke'Mon Freeman

Ke'Mon Freeman

Ke'Mon Freeman is more of a thumper with great forward lean. As a true freshman in 2016, he broke out with over 600 yards rushing and adding nearly 200 yards receiving. Xavier Jones had a much better 2015 than 2016. His 2016 was decimated by injuries. In 2015, he ran for 634 yards and ten scores. Last season those number fell to 140 and one touchdown. If he's healthy and fully operational, the Mustang's running options are a lot deeper. 

Kayce Medlock, a true freshman from Arp and Alphonso Thomas a redshirt will also get a look in fall camp. Medlock was recruited by several Power 5's. His speed makes him special. Thomas was a late flip from Nebraska in 2016. 

Receivers

Courtland Sutton

Courtland Sutton

Courtland Sutton might be the best player at SMU since, we don't know when. If he stays healthy and continues to be productive he'll be drafted in the first two nights of the NFL draft. Assuming the NFL doesn't stretch the draft into a month long extravaganza. 

Sutton caught 76 passes for a whopping 16.2 yards a catch. He added ten touchdowns as well. He also grew up. Sutton started using his 6-4 frame to impose his will on defensive backs. He exercises great body control and catches the ball away from his frame. With the ball in hands he's very good after the catch. 

SMU's receiving group is deep and talented. James Proche erupted onto the scene last season. Proche's an explosive playmaker as well who can make the amazing catch look routine. He's joined by Kevin Thomas, another bigger target who should be a bigger part of the offense, provided he catches the ball at a  higher rate. SMU fans have been predicting greatness for RS sophomore Alex Honey since last spring. He answered those predictions with two catches last season. Honey is 6-4, another big target who should play a bigger role in the offense. 

LSU transfer Trey Quinn will also factor in. He should make a lot of plays from the slot. SMU signed one receiver this spring, a three star recruit from T.K. Gorman in Tyler, Judah Bell. He's another tall rangy athlete to add to the fold. For the first time in a long time SMU has those guys in numbers.  

Tight Ends

Mitchell Kaufman has played linebacker, fullback, and tight end at SMU. The Highland Park product has settled in at the latter, catching seven passes last season. Chad Morris' offense uses the tight end as an H-back, to cross block/lead on zone reads and run underneath routes. Kaufman has the talent to do all these things, maybe a little more. He's developing as a blocker, not an easy skill to master with SMU's offense which requires a lot of blocking in space. 

Ryan Becker started one game as true freshman. The 6-5 230 pounder from Marble Falls should continue to fill into a very nice tight end. The Mustangs picked up a grad transfer in the form of Raymond Epps out of Arizona State. 

Redshirt freshman Corey Rau, from Katy Cinco Ranch, was a highly recruited prospect. He had a very good spring and was singled out by Morris for his production. Even if Rau or one of the other prospects develops, SMU may never actually use them. 

Offensive Line

Once Jerry Saena found his spot on the SMU offensive line, he made the most of it. After playing defense for two seasons Saena's athletic and physical gifts came to together at guard on the offensive line. He's joined by Rimington Watch List member Evan Brown. Brown has started 34 games at guard and most recently center for the Mustangs. Those two form a very good base on the interior for the Mustangs. 

Nick Natour started 10 games, all at left tackle last season. He came into his own on the field. He's a long lean tackle and a better athlete that one might think on first impression. Natour does a good job using his arms to extend and get into defenders' frames. He may move inside to guard where he played as a redshirt freshman. Inside as well Braylon Hyder brings thirteen career stars to the table. Hyder is listed at 326 pounds and he's a stopper in the middle of the offensive line. 

On the outside Chad Pursley will return from a broken leg that cost him his 2016 season. He started nine games at left tackle in 2015. Bryce Wilds will also get a look. He made one start as a redshirt freshman in 2016. He and redshirt freshman Kadarius Smith will battle it out for playing time. 

Defensive Line

Justin Lawler

Justin Lawler

Justin Lawler has made himself into one of the best pass rushers in the AAC. The senior from Pottsboro earned first team All-AAC for his 2016 performance. Lawler made a living in opposing backfields with fifteen tackles for loss including six sacks. He added 65 total tackles, good enough for second on the team. 

At the other defensive end Delontae Scott is a raw but athletic option. Nick Horton missed ten games last season due to injury. Scott and Horton will fight for playing time in fall camp. 

Inside the Mustangs are trying to piece together a rotation from players that have played all over the front. Demerick Gary  played inside and out during his true freshman campaign. He looks like he'll stay at defensive tackle. Gary flashes a lot of ability on film, but he's still a bit light to hold up against bigger interior players. Redshirt sophomore Chris Biggurs will play DT as well. Biggurs played a lot of minutes in 2016. 

Mason Gentry, a senior, started 22 games from 2014 to 2015 but was supplanted in 2o16. He's back at the top of the depth chart at nose guard. Fellow senior J.T. Williams will fill that role as well. Gentry and Williams give two very different looks. Gentry is 6-6 with long arms who needs to play with leverage. His length gives SMU an advantage against the pass. Williams goes 6-1, 280 pounds and can be a one-gap defender in the middle of the line. 

Linebackers

SMU will have some issues on the back end of their defense. They must rebuild a secondary and try to improve at linebacker. Key to those efforts will be development of Kyran Mitchell. Mitchell started all twelve games last season and led the team with 67 stops including six tackles for loss. 

He teams with Anthony Rhone to form the linebacking starters. Rhone started ten games in SMU's 4-2-5 alignment. He finished with sixth on the team in tackling. Behind Mitchell and Rhone depth is an issue.

Jordan Williams is undersized at 207 pounds but he was a decent rotation player in 2016. Matt McNew saw action in all twelve games last season but registered just two tackles. SMU is pretty high on Shaine Hailey a true freshman from Bishop Dunne. He was a three star recruit who plays well in space but will need to learn to take on blocks and play inside the box. 

Secondary

SMU is replacing two giant playmakers from the 2016 squad in Darrion Millines and Horace Richardson. Jordan Wyatt is a nice place to start in terms of replacement. Wyatt made all twelve starts and had four picks. He's made nineteen total starts as a Mustang and he's a player.  

True sophomore Eric Sutton gets his chance at the other corner. He's a Cedar Hill product who saw limited action last season. The Mustangs are holding out hope that senior Cedric Lancaster can stay on the field and contribute, something he's struggled to do because of injuries. Lancaster is undersized but was once considered the most explosive player on the Mustang roster. 

Christian Davis and William Jeanlys are both vying for playing time at corner. Jeanlys is a big athlete at the position and started four games as a true freshman in 2015. 

At safety Rodney Clemons  is back after starting all twelve games as a redshirt freshman. Clemons from Katy, finished fourth on the team in tackles. He's backed up by Kevin Johnson a sophomore from Waskom who finished eighth on the team in tackles last season in spot duty. At the boundary safety the Mustangs are young and inexperienced by comparison. Mikial Onu played in parts of twelve games as a true freshman. Behind him a true freshman Elijah McQueen is listed. 

Specialists

Josh Williams has made a nice transition from punter his freshman year to placekicker the last two. The junior from Rowlett connected on 77% of his field goals with a career long of 44 yards. As a kickoff man 13% of his kicks went for touchbacks. 

At punter SMU went and found themselves an Australian and then overused him. Jamie Sackville punted 71 times in 2016, he may have the deadleg if Aussies are prone to it. He put together a nice season, average 39.6 yards per punt and putting 21 inside the 20. According to his bio he lettered in cricket and lawn bowling at Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne. 

James Proche and Kevin Johnson each averaged 18 yards per kickoff return last season. Proche wasn't as effective returning punts, averaging 3.2 yards. 

2017 Schedule

Best Case

The Mustangs find a dynamic signal caller. The defense is better with an improved front four and young speed on the back end. Morris is once again the quarterback whisperer and all the young skill talent on offense benefits. 8 wins are in sight. 

Worst Case

Quarterback continues to hold the offense back. The defense gets worn out from being on the field too long. By late in the season the speculation of Morris to Ole Miss or A&M or who knows starts making headlines. SMU struggles to get to four or five wins. 

Stephen F. Austin Win

Opener vs. an FCS opponent, albeit one with a TCU transfer at QB. 

Get 2017 off on the right foot with a decisive win. 

North Texas Win

The Hippogriff Trophy Rivalry continues (in our dreams).

These games have been closer than SMU would like. 

@ TCU Loss

The Iron Skillet game in Fort Worth is a great opportunity for the Mustangs. 

Last year the Frogs won a 30 point blowout. 

Arkansas State Win

The Red Wolves are the last SMU non-conference matchup. 

Beware ASU: a classic trap game. 

UConn Win

Randy Edsel's UConn 2.0 come to Dallas. 

A must win for SMU's bowl hopes. 

@ Houston Loss

Mustangs rushed the field after upsetting the Coogs in '16.

SMU should be 4-1 heading to Houston.

No sneaking up on the Coogs this time. 

Cincy.png

@ Cincinnati Loss

Bearcats have a new coach in Luke Fickell. 

Cincy will be tough at home. 

Tulsa Loss

Big game vs. an AAC Western favorite. 

Phillip Montgomery's squad can score, can SMU keep up? 

Central Florida Pick'Em

AAC wins are hard to come by, UCF at home is a great opportunity.

Mustangs scheduled homecoming vs. the Fighting Frosts.

@ Navy Loss

Midshipmen ran over, around, and through the Mustangs in the season finale last year. 

Can SMU figure out a way to slow down the flexbone?

@ Memphis Loss

At Navy and Memphis in back to back weeks is brutal. 

AAC Western favorite Tigers win big. 

Tulane Win 

Green Wave visit SMU in the season finale. 

A bowl trip should be on the line. 

Projection 6-6

The Roundup...

Posted on August 8, 2017 and filed under SMU, Southwest Round-Up.