If you have been reading this preview series regularly, you may remember us talking about how Cincy made a perfect hire by hiring the most Ohio guy possible: Luke Fickell. SMU went with a similar strategy when they hired Sonny Dykes before last season.
Dykes doesn’t have Fickell’s insanely singular background but is the son of a Texas coaching legend (Spike Dykes). He was also an assistant under Air Raid ‘elders’ Mike Leach and Hal Mumme before being the head coach at Louisiana Tech and Cal from 2010-17. At his stops he has rarely eschewed that offensive philosophy.
With 2019 being Dykes’ 2nd season on the Hilltop, its far too soon to make any big picture judgments on whether this hire was a good or bad one. The returning offensive personnel did not match up well with what Dykes and the staff wanted to do last year, and this exposed an SMU defense that still surprisingly over performed expectations.
The coming year is an interesting one as the offensive personnel is starting to fit more of what Dykes wants to do and last year’s better than expected defense returns nearly everyone and is now senior heavy.
There are a couple serious questions about this team and whether Dykes and his staff can answer those questions will determine if this team can do something no SMU team has done and seriously push for an AAC title.
The Pony Offense:
Give credit to Dykes for straying from the Air Raid coaching tree a bit to hire Rhett Lashlee as his offensive coordinator. Lashlee was the OC at UConn for the 2017 season but spent almost his entire career prior as an offensive assistant under Gus Malzahn. His ties to Malzahn run so deep that he played for Malzahn as a high school QB back in Arkansas
The point being, other than operating with tempo, Dykes’ more traditional Air Raid offense and Malzahn’s HUNH (‘Hurry Up No Huddle’) offense aren’t very similar.
Whatever the scheme, it was obvious watching last year’s Pony offense that the QB was not a good fit. Ben Hicks leaves a complicated legacy at SMU as he is the program’s all time leader in passing yards, touchdown passes and a host of other stats. But he struggled last year in the new offense and elected to play his final year for his previous head coach Chad Morris, at Arkansas.
That departure made the arrival of Shane Buechele as a grad transfer even more critical. Buechele broke the Texas-austin program freshman passing yards record in 2016 and was only the 2nd ever true freshman to start a season opener. Buechele never was able to separate himself from Sam Ehlinger in 2017 and lost the job last year.
He was an accurate passer (62% career completion) and at least can occasionally take off and run, two weak spots for his predecessor. Getting a former 4-star with extensive college experience as a grad transfer is a nice haul. Getting one with 2 years of eligibility left, like Buechele has, is a game changer.
The cupboard isn’t totally bare behind Buechele either! Sophomore William Brown played a bunch last year as the 2018 primary backup QB and for a brief stretch in the middle of the season was the starter. Brown completed 62% of his passes and threw for 7 TDs.
One thing that really surprised me was how bad SMU was at running the ball. It wasn’t just that the Ponies were a pass-first offense, but they were bad often whenever they chose to run the football.
They broke lots of big plays in the run game, but those numbers were skewed by having horrendous UConn, HBU and Houston run defenses on the schedule. They returned every back from a great 2017 offense and still regressed by over 70 yards per game.
The good news of sorts for Pony fans is they return 2 of the top 3 backs from last year: seniors Xavier Jones and Ke’Mon Freeman. They both averaged exactly 4.5 yards per carry and around 6-7 carries per game. Redshirt freshman TaMerik Williams, a mid-3-star recruit, could be used in a 3rd down back role.
Whatever questions linger about the running game, the receiver group on paper is one of the best in the conference.
Senior James Proche was one of the more frequently targeted receivers in all of college football last year, finishing 2018 with 93 receptions for 1,199 yards and 12 TDs (all team-highs). Proche was a 1st team All-AAC selection, the team’s only 1st or 2nd team all-conference pick. His numbers will obviously benefit from the improved play at QB I think this team will get from Buechele.
Alongside him will be one of the team’s most explosive receivers: junior Reggie Roberson Jr, who averaged 15.4 yds/catch (2nd on SMU). Roberson also missed 2 games last year, so better health and QB play could mean SMU easily has 2 1,000+ yard receivers this fall.
There’s also an intriguing, if somewhat unproven, group behind Proche and Roberson. Junior Tyler Page had an outstanding 19.5 yards per catch, but only had 12 receptions. Senior CJ Sanders (perhaps the only player in this preview series with an IMDB page), a Notre Dame grad transfer, will primarily be used as a return specialist, but should also see some action at slot receiver.
I mentioned earlier there are questions with this team and the offensive line is the biggest one. The Ponies dealt with a lot of injuries and instability as 9 different linemen started at least 2 games in 2018. Only 2 players started all 12 games and one of them returns: junior C Hayden Howerton (a product of Katy HS).
The bad news is 2 regulars and 3-year starters (Chad Pursley, Nick Natour) and a reliable grad transfer (Larry Hughes) have exhausted their eligibility. Someone who will be asked to step in immediately is Charlie Flores, a grad transfer from Columbia who has 23 career starts (side note: 2 different teams in this preview series so far have had grad transfers from Columbia, of all places).
One of last year’s top performing true freshmen was sophomore Jaylon Thomas, who started the last 6 games of 2018 at right tackle. Incoming high 3-star Danielson Ike is an enormous player (6’7” 350 pounds) and could play immediately with all the uncertainty this team has up front. Ike was SMU’s #6 recruit all-time according to 247Sports.
Even with the question marks on the offensive line, I have a hard time seeing them getting less lucky with injuries than they were last year and on the whole I am confident this offense will improve at least somewhat.
The Pony Defense:
Looking at standard metrics like points per game and total yards per game would tell you the 2018 SMU defense was a bad one, which wasn’t really the case. Part of the reason for the recent rise in advanced statistics is a lot of the standard ones are no longer reliable due to the dramatic increase in offensive tempo across football.
Now I wouldn’t go the opposite direction and say SMU was great last year, but they allowed opponents to average 5.4 yards per play, 54th (out of 130) in Division 1 FBS. By contrast the Pony defense was on the field an average of 77.58 plays per game, 122nd in Division 1 (Houston was dead last nationally in this category).
Simply, the SMU defense was an middling to pretty good defense stuck on a team with an offense that tried to go up-tempo all the time and hung their defense out to dry, a lot.
The fact that I can make an argument that the 2018 SMU defense wasn’t bad is a huge endorsement of 2nd year DC Kevin Kane, who inherited a defense that was awful in 2017. Kane’s defense returns most last year’s key players and they were good enough to hold good Memphis and Houston offenses under 30 points by the end of last year.
Starting up front just about everyone who played a significant number of snaps is back. The returning interior linemen with starting experience: seniors Pono Davis and Demeric Gary, will be pushed by Rice grad transfer Zach Abercrumbia. On a bad Rice defense Abercrumbia had 55 total tackles, despite playing exclusively at an interior defensive line position and made 28 career starts.
Last year’s defensive line sacks and TFLs leader senior defensive end Delontae Scott is back, along with sophomore Turner Coxe who started 10 games at DE as a true freshman last year.
One of the only notable departures was last year’s #2 tackler at linebacker: Kyran Mitchell. The team’s top tackler senior LB Richard Moore (92 total tackles, 13.5 TFL, 5 sacks) returns after transferring in from Texas A&M in 2017. Moore was the top ‘havoc creator’ (sacks, TFLs etc.) for the Ponies last year.
This defense was pretty multiple but used the 4-2-5 alignment as a base defense more often than not. I expect we’ll still see a fair amount of interchangeability from the linebackers and safeties in this scheme. Senior Patrick Nelson is now listed as a linebacker after playing safety last year and was 4th on the team in total tackles (65) despite missing 2 games.
The secondary loses a couple rotation safeties but returns the unit’s top tackler: senior Rodney Clemons. A 12-game starter at safety, Clemons is #2 among returners in total tackles and had a team-best 4 pass breakups last year.
After starting 8 games at linebacker last year junior Trevor Denbow is now listed as a safety, but like Nelson will probably play a hybrid kind of role.
As you can gather by now, this is a senior-heavy defense but the safety position has some interesting players that’ll be in the mix for 2020 and beyond: Nebraska transfer Cam’ron Jones (sitting out 2019) and sophomore Treveon Johnson, SMU’s #4 recruit all-time according to 247Sports.
The top 3 most experienced corners from last year: seniors Christian Davis, Robert Hayes Jr. and Kevin Johnson are back. They also may get some immediate help from Chevin Calloway, an Arkansas transfer petitioning for a waiver to play this year. Calloway, a 4-star recruit from Dallas, started the first 2 games of last year but sat out the remainder of the year with intent to transfer. If ruled immediately eligible he should have 3 years of eligibility remaining.
The biggest factor affecting this defense’s success or failure will likely be the offense. Even if the Lashlee/Dykes offense is working well it still won’t operate at a tempo friendly to the defense. But there is a good chance it will go ‘3 and out’ less and that alone would be a tremendous help for a defense trying to take the next step.
The Pony Special Teams:
About all aspects of Pony special teams were perfectly middle of the road. The primary placekicker, senior Kevin Robledo was 11-14 on field goals and only missed 1 extra point last season. But Robledo was only 2/4 on kicks of 40+ yards and was bad on kickoffs.
Aussie senior punter Jamie Sackville made up for only averaging 39.7 yards per punt by having about 2/3 of his punts get downed inside the opposing 20-yard line or get fair caught.
The kick return game was good and basically everyone who had a return last year is back. Punt returns weren’t good, but primary return man James Proche returns. On the flip side they allowed 2 kick returns and a punt return for a touchdown, so the coverage side of things needs work.
And Shane Buechele wasn’t this program’s only grad transfer from the Texas Longhorn program. Michael Poujol, a former Longhorn walk-on, transferred in to compete with freshman Cole Voyles to be the starting long snapper.
The Season Outlook:
The 2nd year for a coach and their staff usually isn’t a pivotal one when we talk about places where its hard to win, like SMU has proven to be over the years. Usually we're talking about 4-5 year cycles with harder jobs.
But Dykes was able to bring in a grad transfer QB in Shane Buechele who’s a good fit for his system and probably had no shortage of interest from schools with more recent success than SMU. They were the thinnest of margins (3 points) from being bowl eligible last year with a QB who was a terrible fit for this staff’s scheme.
The offensive line is a big, unanswered question but they got hideously unlucky with injuries last year and that probably doesn’t happen 2 years in a row.
Its also clear Dykes aced his defensive coordinator hire with Kevin Kane. Now they return the vast majority of what’s become a senior-heavy defense.
In the short term this is all great news for SMU. But after 2019 there’ll be a serious rebuild on defense and if the year went well enough Kane will probably be hired away by another school.
The schedule is tricky too. They open the season at Arkansas State, who usually aren’t slouches, and get tough Metroplex opponents UNT and TCU in non-conference.
The conference schedule has the Ponies making roadies to Memphis and Houston, but they miss both UCF and Cincy in cross-division games. The conference opener at USF will be a good test of where this team is at.
If I had to guess, they’ll finish with 7 regular season wins and improve incrementally but not dramatically on both offense and defense. But there are scenarios where this team is a serious contender for the AAC West division and scenarios where they stay home for the 2nd straight bowl season.
Matching Up with Houston:
I’ve spent a lot of the last 2,000 words or so talking about how last year SMU was a super inconsistent offense and a middle of the pack defense.
But on an October night the Houston Cougars made SMU look near super-human. Kane used some combination of alignment trickery and Jedi mind trick to bait Kendal Briles into calling 47 run plays with a supposedly healthy D’Eriq King and his defense held the Coogs to 24 offensive points.
A cratering Cougar defense was more than accommodating and allowed SMU to run and pass all over them in a 45-31 SMU homecoming victory. Ben Hicks for one night looked like a good college quarterback again.
I feel reasonably confident UH will have a better plan for SMU than what they did last year in Dallas. But that game should be a reminder for any Cougar fan who underestimates this SMU team. The Cougars will be better in some key areas, but so will the Ponies.
Getting the pass defense figured out will probably the most important thing for the Coogs. If they are still struggling, this could get uglier than last year’s loss as I think SMU will be a better passing team in 2019.
However, if the Cougar defense is as aggressive as Joe Cauthen’s history suggests they’ll be, the fact that SMU has an inexperienced line looms a lot larger.
Like a lot of these 2nd half of the season UH match ups, there’s still so much we can’t know about what these teams will look like. Whatever this game does look like, I suspect it will be a closely matched contest.