SMU more than doubled its win total (from two to five) in head coach Chad Morris’ second season, but back-to-back losses at the end ruined a shot at a bowl game. The Mustangs are aiming for at least six wins this fall and the offense has a chance to be better than last year provided a consistent quarterback emerges and the offensive line comes together. The defense is the side of the ball that really needs to improve if the SMU wants to take another step forward under Morris.
Previewing SMU Football’s Offense for 2017
Thrust into the starting lineup in the first game last season, quarterback Ben Hicks performed well in place of the injured Matt Davis. Hicks overcame early struggles, transformed into a leader and took control of an offense that improved in all areas.
But even with the departure of Davis, who opted to turn pro instead of return for a possible sixth collegiate season, Hicks will get challenged for the starting job by transfers Rafe Peavey (Arkansas) and D.J. Gillens (junior college after two years at Wisconsin).
The eventual starter will have the luxury of a talented corps of receivers that can spread the field. Courtland Sutton, a projected first-to-mid-second-round draft pick, chose to return for his junior year. He finished last season with a team-high 76 catches, 1,246 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. He will be joined by James Proche, confident after a strong first season, and transfer Trey Quinn, who started nine games in two years at LSU. Braeden West rushed for 1,036 yards as a sophomore and had 100-plus yards in five of his last seven games.
For a deep group of skill players to be explosive, the Mustangs must be stronger up front. Evan Brown provides a stable anchor after a remarkable junior year. His leadership will be vital as young players fill spots vacated by the graduation of mainstays Daniel McCarty and Chauncey Briggs.
Previewing SMU Football’s Defense for 2017
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The bend-but-don’t-break unit improved last year, particularly in forcing turnovers. The Mustangs tied for ninth nationally with 18 interceptions, up from 10 the previous season, and added eight fumble recoveries.
Justin Lawler has become a major force on the defensive line after starting every game the last two years. He anchored the defense, finishing fifth in the AAC in tackles for a loss (15.0) and tied for eighth in sacks (6.0). But no other lineman coming back registered more than 25 tackles last season. Watch for Demerick Gary, who posted 21 tackles and 4.0 sacks as a true freshman, to blossom.
Much help will be needed from a linebacking crew that has struggled the past two seasons. Kyran Mitchell, RC Cox and Anthony Rhone have flashed strong potential, but the entire group must reduce the number of missed tackles and mental errors. They have plenty of freedom in the defensive scheme to become playmakers.
The secondary welcomes back Jordan Wyatt and Rodney Clemons but must replace a leadership void created by the graduation of Horace Richardson and Darrion Millines.
Previewing SMU Football’s Specialists for 2017
Struggles on kick returns and coverage put pressure on the SMU offense and defense in terms of field position. Proche, Kevin Thomas and Kevin Johnson have the tools to succeed as returners. One of them needs to own the job. Jamie Sackville averaged 39.6 yards per punt and pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 21 times as a freshman. The Australian should be better with a year of experience. The same goes for placekicker Josh Williams, who made 17-of-22 field goals but has yet to flourish from distance.
In his third season, Chad Morris has SMU positioned for success. After going 2–10 in 2015, the Mustangs were on the verge of bowl eligibility at 5–5 last season, but they lost the final two games to South Florida and Navy.
Morris has made big inroads in changing the program’s culture with dramatic leaps in recruiting, depth and overall performance. Tweaks in the power spread scheme, including a faster pace, bolstered the offense, which ranked 55th nationally last year (427.3 ypg). Mobility at quarterback, or better protection for Hicks — if he wins the job — will be needed. The defense also must take another step forward after ranking 103rd nationally a year ago.
National Ranking: 82
AAC West Prediction: 5
(Courtland Sutton photo courtesy of SMU Athletics)