No. 65 SMU
SMU football has been on a roller coaster for most of the last three decades. Periods of stability and optimism are immediately followed by decline and skepticism. Then comes back hope, followed more decline.
The Mustangs are currently in a period of hope with a dramatically improved team in just two years under head coach Chad Morris. They've transformed from FBS laughingstock into legitimate AAC contender.
2016 Record: 5-7 (3-5, AAC)
This season is all about closing the gap between them and the upper-tier programs in the AAC and other respectable programs across the country.
Head Coach: Chad Morris (3rd year, 7-17 overall)
Eight years ago, Chad Morris was a high school football coach at Lake Travis High School in Texas. Now he's one of the hottest coaches in America.
He has improved SMU's win total in each of his two seasons, going from one before he arrived in 2014 to two in 2015 and five last year. Morris clearly understood the gravity of the rebuilding job and took his time, identifying under-the-radar players who could help the Mustangs long-term.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Ben Hicks, RB Braeden West, RB Ke'Mon Freemon, WR Courtland Sutton, WR James Proche, OT Nick Natour, G Braylon Hyder, C Evan Brown
Ben Hicks returns are a promising, albeit up-and-down, freshman season. He started 11 games after Matt Davis suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the opener and completed 56 percent of his attempts for 2,930 yards and 19 scores.
The problem were interceptions (15) and a 6.9-yards-per-attempt average. Offensive coordinator Joe Craddock needs Hicks to be more responsibly aggressive at all three levels so the Mustangs' loaded receiving corps can stretch defenses.
This is all assuming Hicks keeps the job during fall camp. Head coach Chad Morris acknowledged he's the leader but wants competition.
"I would say so, yes, especially coming out of spring and knowing all the ball that he played in the fall," Morris told the Dallas Morning News when asked if Hicks is the front-runner. "I expect it to be a great quarterback challenge and controversy going into our first fall camp scrimmage."
Their skill players are led by All-American receiver candidate Courtland Sutton. The 6-foot-4, 218-pounder had 76 catches for 1,246 yards and 10 touchdowns last year and sits atop the HERO Sports' 2018 draft receiver rankings. He, sophomore James Proche and LSU transfer Trey Quinn could combine for 200 catches.
Braeden West and Ke'Mon Freeman are back at running back and though they lost two linemen in Daniel McCarty and Chauncey Briggs, SMU returns three starters and a lot of young talent.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Demerick Gary, DE Justin Lawler, LB Kyran Mitchell, LB Anthony Rhone, LB RC Cox, CB Jordan Wyatt, S Rodney Clemons
It's impossible to ignore those five blowout losses — including yielding 600 yards and 75 points to Navy — but the SMU defense was not as bad as the numbers suggest. And they return nearly everyone, led by senior defensive end Justin Lawler.
The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder led the team in both tackles for loss (15) and sacks (six). However, like the entire front seven, he needs to be consistent. After posting 3.5 sacks in the season opener, he had just 2.5 the rest of the season. Having rising sophomore tackle Demerick Gary on the inside should help alleviate pressure.
SMU's three upperclassmen linebackers — Kyran Mitchell, Anthony Rhone and RC Cox — need to eliminate missed tackles and botched coverage assignments. All three have all-conference potential and are the key to a unit that ranked 103rd in total defense.
Corner Jordan Wyatt and safety Rodney Clemson return in a secondary that led SMU's interception party. The Mustangs more than doubled their interception total from 2015 to 2016 (eight to 18). Wyatt had four picks and seven passes defended.
Notable Player Losses
OT Chauncey Briggs, G Daniel McCarty, CB Horace Richardson, S Darrion Millines
As is the case with a rebuilding program going in a positive direction, SMU will improve despite the loss of some key players. The right side of the offensive line will need time to gel after losing Briggs and McCarty, and the secondary must replace Horace Richardson and Darrion Millines.
Richardson had a terrific season as a fifth-year senior, ranking first on the team in both interceptions (six) and passes defended (eight).
Notable Player Additions
QB Rafe Peavey, QB D.J. Gillins, WR Trey Quinn, OT Braxton Webb, S Elijah McQueen
SMU adds two quarterbacks in JUCO transfer D.J. Gillins — who previously spent two seasons at Wisconsin as a receiver — and Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey. Though Hicks sits atop the depth chart, both will challenge him for the job.
“Once [Peavey] picked up on the offense, it was just a matter of playing fast,” Craddock said in April. “He’s done a heck of a job this spring, really coming on, learning the offense and playing at a fast pace.”
Another SEC transfer, receiver Trey Quinn from LSU, will see immediate playing time. The 6-foot-1, 197-pound junior had 17 catches for 193 yards as a true freshman in 2014 before missing most of the 2015 season.
Elsewhere, redshirt freshman Braxton Webb is battling for time at the offensive tackle spot vacated by Chauncey Briggs, and redshirt freshman Elijah McQueen should see time at safety.
If all goes well, their Nov. 18 trip to Memphis could be huge in the American West race.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Stephen F. Austin|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. North Texas|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||at TCU|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Arkansas State|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. UConn|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at Houston|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Cincinnati|
|Friday, Oct. 27||vs. Tulsa|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Central Florida|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Navy|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||at Memphis|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||vs. Tulane|