Can #PonyUpTempo avoid becoming #PonyDownTrodden?
It's been a rough couple of decades for SMU, who finally seemed to rid themselves of the considerable stench of June Jones when they hired former Clemson assistant and Texas High School coaching legend Chad Morris in December of 2014, shortly after the Ponies finished a one win campaign. Morris quickly endeared himself to the students of his new school, blasting big talk over social media and recruiting the country's only all-Texas football class. After struggling through a brutal 2015 campaign, that saw the new offense flash moments of brilliance but the inability to string together enough moments to produce in the win column, the Ponies enter 2016 with the most talented roster they have had in years, but burdened by youth and higher expectations.
Back for Chad Morris' crew this fall is the uber-talented one-two punch of QB Matt Davis and WR Courtland Sutton, who accounted for nearly 4,000 yards of offense between them. Davis, a dual threat behind center who passed for 2,263 yards and 16 touchdowns in addition for rushing for 761 yards and ten more scores, should improve on his accuracy issues with another year in the offense. He will also be pushed by a couple of young arms; redshirt freshman Ben Hicks was a four star recruit out of Waco Midway, and has an electric arm - if Davis struggles, he will be waiting in the wings to take over.
As far as who is going to catch passes, Sutton was one of the most exciting players in college football a season ago, and should only improve as a sophomore. His combination of size, speed, and ridiculous catch radius make him an imposing figure for opposing defenses. The problem becomes who will step up next to him - he out-gained SMU's number two receiver 3 to 1 a season ago, and the Ponies will need a true number two to come alongside him to maximize Sutton's complete potential. Watch for a pair of talented young receivers, redshirt freshmen James Proche and true frosh Brandon Benson to make an impact; the two young pass catchers are incredibly talented and could be difference makers in their first season on the field.
The running game will look different this fall for SMU, if even just for the lack of a Line boy toting the rock. Prescott Line, younger brother of Zach, has graduated, but Xavier Jones and Braeden West both return. The pair of true sophs accounted for over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, led by Jones' 696 yards and ten scores.Freshman Jordan Carmouche is a name to watch for the fall; the high school linebacker could get carries this season, as he provides a bigger back style and solid pass blocking potential out of the backfield.
The offensive line will need to improve to give the Ponies a shot - the 38 sacks surrendered a season ago won't help the offense move the ball with any consistency.
This is the achilles heel on the Hilltop; SMU's D has been plain bad for the last several years, with little hope of seeing a dramatic improvement this fall. In 2015, the D surrendered a horrifying 46 points per game, allowing over 500 yards to opposing offenses on 7.1 yards per play. They forced only 10 interceptions and allowed 75 touchdowns.
Leading tackler Justin Lawler returns; the defensive end accounted for 64 stops, five sacks, and nine TFLs. DBs Jordan Wyatt and Horace Richardson are also back, having picked off two passes a piece a season ago.
The Ponies have three kickers and two punter/kickers on the roster, but they are all young. Josh Williams was the primary punt specialist as a true freshman last year, averaging nearly 39 yards per attempt. There is not a player on the roster that attempted a kickoff or field goal last season, redshirt freshman Alex Melvin, Davis Luster, Will Moore and sophomore Michael Armstrong will compete this fall for that job. SMU also has a new holder with a famous pedigree, Sean Tuohy, the younger brother of NFL player and "Blind Side" inspiration Michael Oher, transferred to SMU and took up football after playing basketball for Loyola University. So, there's that.
Ultimately, SMU is probably a year away from being competitive in the AAC, especially with the continued rise of conference mate Houston. Desperate to be heard in the Big 12 expansion conversation, the Ponies just aren't good enough on the field to be taken seriously. Chad Morris may very well get them there, or use an improvement on the Hilltop as a springboard for a better job next fall. I'm calling it here first... Morris to Baylor in 2017.