Credit Chad Morris, he's a builder. He built SMU into a serviceable Group of Five squad with aspirations and abilities to compete with the best the AAC has to offer. We suspect he'll go to Arkansas, find that mediocrity isn't enough and get sent back to the G5 in three or four years. Maybe he elevates Arkansas past 75% of the SEC West, Jesus walked on water right? It's doable.
In his stead, SMU went with another offensive guru in former Cal, Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes. Dykes is the son of the late Spike Dykes, so he's royalty in this state. High school coaches will give him a shot and recruiting won't fall off and should improve. The product on the field is mostly a mystery heading into 2018. These fifteen spring practices are essential.
Sonny Came Home With a Vengeance
What we know is that Sonny Dykes can coach offense. He coached under staffs that were innovators, and they paid him to innovate. When he took over Louisiana Tech, the Bulldogs became the greatest show on turf, almost upsetting Johnny Manziel's Aggies and dominated the WAC for two seasons. Then Dykes took the odd job at Cal. When you think of Cal head football coaches, you don't think of Dykes. He was a square peg in a hippie hold in Berkeley. The administration felt it as well and looked for an excuse not to pay him and took the first chance to run him off. We can overlook most of Dykes' time at Cal, the Golden Bears and the UC system aren't designed to compete with the Oregon's and Washington's of the world let along cross-Bay rival Stanford.
Dykes was able to prove his offensive system traveled, as the Bears became an offensive juggernaut in a league known for shall we say a liberal offensive point of view. He follows Morris at SMU, so the beats are similar even if the lyrics are different. Morris recruited well and to a system that will benefit Dykes. Now Dykes has to figure out which assets fit where. He'll be able to do that by next fall, and the offense shouldn't fall off much.
The Mustangs return Ben Hicks who might be one of the most underrated quarterbacks in college football. Or he might be smoke and mirrors. We reckon it's a little of both, but even if Hicks struggles, SMU has quarterback depth and lots of it. Assuming D.J. Gillins and Rafe Peavey remain at SMU beyond spring drills, Dykes will have a healthy quarterback room. Sonny Dykes with a quarterback will cause the AAC a lot of problems.
About That Defense Though
Dykes made a great hire in Kevin Kane, a young defensive coordinator from Northern Illinois. Kane was a GA at Wisconsin under Defensive Coordinator Dave Doeren, so he understands physical, containment defense. Of course, Wisconsin's defense had the benefit of a clock bleeding offense. SMU won't play at that pace, not even a little bit.
Northern Illinois gave Kane the chance to run his own defense in 2016 his unit ranked 98th in total defense, in 2017 the Huskies improved to 26th. All that with an offense that played a breakneck pace similar to SMU.
Kane's 2017 defense was built on speed and disruption with undersized defensive linemen creating moving targets. At SMU the strength of the defense will be a secondary led by Jordan Wyatt, who probably won't be available for spring ball or will be severely limited. Rodney Clemons and Michael Onu return at safety, along with Christian Davis and Eric Sutton at corner. Once Wyatt's back the entire secondary two-deep from 2017 is in play.
Kyrian Mitchell and Jordan Williams return at linebacker and Kane will need to find reliable depth and rotation. The biggest issue will come up front where Justin Lawler, perhaps the best SMU defensive lineman since Jerry Ball is of to the NFL and Mason Gentry, the Mustang's best interior player, is gone as well. Delontae Scott started to look the part last season and Demerick Gary is ready for prime time as well.
Inside Chris Biggurs and Pono Davis give SMU experience but the real talent might come from younger players like Shabazz Dotson and Darren Brown, but they won't be vetted until fall camp.
The secondary can make up for a multitude of sins but unless SMU can find consistent pass rushers pass coverage will be a Herculean task. Kane must find players that fit into his attacking defense. If SMU can get anything productive out of their 2018 defense, the Mustangs will be hard to deal with.
Courtland and Quinn
SMU waves a fond farewell to Courtland Sutton Sutton and Trey Quinn. The best pass-catching duo in recent SMU memory. Sutton is a day one draft pick while you just get the feeling if Bill Belichek ever gets his hands on Quinn, he'll catch passes until Tom Brady's 50.
In their wake, SMU has some pieces, but those pieces will have to come a long way to make up for the loss of Sutton and Quinn's production. James Proche was built to play the slot. He's the most electrifying Mustang will the ball in hands with space. New OC Rhett Lashlee knows how to get the ball to playmakers in green grass. After Proche, we'll all be surprised.
Myron Galliard caught nine passes last season, and he's slot-ish in size as well. Brandon Benson caught a pass, so did Alex Honey. Honey looks the part getting off the bus, but on the field, he's been unable to put anything together. Redshirt Freshman Judah Bell looks the part as well; he'll need to have a big spring to prove himself to SMU coaches.
SMU signed Treveon Johnson from Brenham in February, the last time SMU signed a receiver from Brenham his name was Courtland Sutton, and he developed into a first-round draft pick.
Run the Dang Ball
The strength of SMU's offense might well be the trio of running back ready to and willing to contribute. Xavier Jones, Braeden West, and Ke'Mon Freeman are all back. Jones had some interesting thoughts on Twitter about the coaching search, but he's since smoothed things over.
He rushed for over 1,000 yards last season at 5.91 yards a carry and nine touchdowns. West ran for 1,000 yards last season after Jones' injury. He's explosive and catches well out of the backfield. Freeman might have the most talent of any back on the roster given his size and feet. West and Freeman each rushed for over 500 yards in 2017.
Lashlee sat as understudy to Gus Malzahn at Auburn for several years, watching Auburn's zone-read scheme operate. If Dykes truly turns the keys over to Lashlee, the Mustangs will be a ground and pound team at least while the receiving corps grows up. The spring will serve as an interesting foreshadowing of which way the 2018 SMU offense turns.
Dykes' Cal teams never finished better than 87th in rushing, but those teams never had the rushing depth that this SMU roster has. Getting run out of town can cause a coach to contemplate some things, reevaluate certain ideas. Dykes' decision to bring in Lashlee might signal a progression based on that reevaluation. Then again Lashlee's decision to break away from Malzahn to go to UConn of all places might be a similar reevaluation. Time is a square flat circle.
Dykes' system and Lashlee's aren't markedly different, it's not like Lashlee ran the wishbone at UConn, but he's had exposure to more zone read, downhill offense while Dykes cut his teeth with Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. Dykes' Cal teams threw the ball 60% of the time, always among the top ten in the FBS. In 2017 UConn ran on 52% of its offensive plays. At Auburn Lashlee's offense ran the ball between 60% and 70% of the time, consistently behind only the Service Academies and the Georgia Techs of the FBS.
Does Dykes' have the confidence to become more of a CEO-type and give the keys to Lashlee? Can either system co-exist with the other?
SMU can succeed in either system; Dykes has never suffered to put points up. This spring choosing which direction this program will go based on the available talent will be a storyline to watch.