The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 96 SMU.
Previewing SMU’s Offense for 2014
Having revived the passing game just in time for Garrett Gilbert’s departure, the Mustangs must do the same with new quarterback Neal Burcham. The playbook will undergo significant revision. Burcham does not have the running ability or arm strength that made Gilbert No. 2 nationally in total offense. Burcham at least started the final two games for the injured Gilbert last season. Although he struggled in the no-huddle scheme in his first start against Houston (three interceptions in a 34–0 loss), he looked much better in the finale versus UCF with the offense tailored for him.
The young quarterback could benefit from an experienced line, but the Mustangs are thin up front with the loss of starters Ben Gottschalk and Sam Rice. Coach June Jones is counting on some freshmen, such as William Barns, to fill gaps.
The Mustangs also lack a proven running threat. Prescott Line, whose brother Zach ranks second on SMU’s all-time yardage list, averaged 3.7 yards per carry as a freshman. But Kevin Pope, No. 2 in tackles at linebacker last season, finished the spring as the top back. He was granted another year of eligibility because of a medical hardship. True freshman Daniel Gresham, a powerful runner who was rated as the nation’s No. 1 fullback, could make an immediate impact. Gresham originally committed to Louisville.
With the loss of two 1,000-yard receivers, senior Der’rikk Thompson and junior Darius Joseph will be Burcham’s primary targets. Speedy Cedric Lancaster made a big impression in the spring. He and Jeremiah Gaines, who played a lot as a freshman, will assume bigger roles.
Previewing SMU’s Defense for 2014
Inexperience figured heavily in last year’s defensive woes. With lessons learned from surrendering big plays, the secondary will at least have depth. Youngsters Darrion Richardson, Ajee Montes and A.J. Justice have flashed positive signs. At 6'5", 201, junior Shakiel Randolph has the tools to be among the league’s best safeties, and senior Hayden Greenbauer provides a security blanket with his smart play.
The loss of leading tackler Randall Joyner was big because of his leadership skills. Linebackers Stephon Sanders, Jonathan Yenga and Robert Seals have the speed to force turnovers at the line or by dropping into coverage. Sophomore Nick Horton takes over for Pope at one of the middle spots.
Up front, Beau Barnes had a breakout junior season, spending much time in opposing backfields. He led the team with 13.0 tackles for a loss. Barnes and fellow veterans Zach Wood and Darrian Wright will blend well with sophomores Zelt Minor and Elie Nabushosi. Both of the youngsters got experience as rookies and should flourish in more prominent roles.
Previewing SMU’s Specialists for 2014
Aside from kicker Chase Hover, who tied the school record for field goals (18), the Mustangs were brutal on special teams last year. The loss of Hover means they must improve in every area while breaking in a new kicker and punter. Cody Rademacher is a candidate to take over both roles. A transfer from Air Force, he played in six games as a holder last season.
The Mustangs came close to playing in their fifth straight bowl game despite a porous defense and virtually no running game in 2013. But they face even tougher obstacles with a new quarterback, a patchwork line and no proven running back. Best-case scenario, the defense plays over its head, buying some time for Burcham to develop, and the incoming class is better than advertised. A tough non-conference schedule complicates matters. The Mustangs open at Baylor’s new stadium and then face other former Southwest Conference rivals Texas A&M and TCU.