Pony NATE-tion: Mustangs in unfamiliar role heading into Denton
SMU kicks off Sonny Dykes era at North Texas
Posted on 08/29/2018 by PonyFans.com
His name already all over the SMU record book, quarterback Ben Hicks will have to bond quickly with his new corps of receivers (photo by Patrick Kleineberg).
PonyFans.com is proud to have 17-year-old Nate as a guest columnist. This week, he looks at the start of the 2018 season, including his preseason awards and a breakdown of Saturday's opener at North Texas.

Feel free to post comments and constructive criticism, ask him questions, and/or give suggestions for upcoming columns! (He can be followed on Twitter at @Pony_NATE_tion.)


@ North Texas

It’s time to begin a new era in SMU football yet again. After Chad Morris came to the Hilltop and brought the program back to relevance, he bolted for Arkansas right when SMU seemed to be getting over the proverbial “hump.” As encouraging as the turnaround Chad Morris spearheaded was, there was and is still work left to do.

Enter the Sonny Dykes era. After Morris bolted for Arkansas before the Frisco Bowl, Dykes was hired and oddly enough, coached the Mustangs in the bowl game. Did he really coach? Obviously not, as there is no conceivable way a new coach can step in on that short notice. The purpose of him being on the sidelines for that game was twofold: to show the fans he is all in, and to show the players he is all in. Although the game itself was a disaster, the message was sent. Dykes is all in.

Dykes brought in two outstanding coordinators on his new staff. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee is a phenomenal offensive mind who comes from the Gus Malzahn coaching lineage. Lashlee was a part of the Tre Mason read option attack that led Auburn to within seconds of a national championship. There’s no question, Lashlee can coach. With Dykes classically leaning to an Air Raid style, Lashlee knows how to incorporate running backs, which in SMU’s case, is the most talented position group on the team with three bodies all more than capable of starting. Kevin Kane was brought in from Northern Illinois to be the defensive coordinator and is another young, bright mind that had a ton of success up north.

With all the changes surrounding the program, 2018 will be an interesting season with so many new faces, schemes and so many talented players graduating and/or getting drafted.

First, some preseason predictions and awards:

Offensive MVP: Ben Hicks

This is usually an easy call, and I wish I could go further out on a limb here, but Ben Hicks is unequivocally SMU’s most important offensive player. He made leaps and bounds last year and blossomed into a pretty reliable quarterback amid a bit of quarterback controversy at the beginning of last season between him, Rafe Peavey and D.J. Gillins. His most encouraging step was bringing the completion percentage up to 58.2 percent from 55 percent in his sophomore season. He also improved in almost every statistical category in 2017. I’d contend a lot of his success was due to having a second-round draft choice and the nation’s leading receiver in his receiver room, but that doesn’t change the fact that Hicks holds the school record for career touchdown passes. The 2018 receiver group also could be much better than some expect. Coming off a season in which he threw for 3,569 yards (second-best in school history) and 33 touchdowns (another program record), expect big things from the junior signal-caller.

Defensive MVP: Kyran Mitchell

Contrary to my offensive MVP, this wasn’t an easy choice. Jordan Wyatt is the most talented and probably has the brightest professional future of any other defender. But Mitchell can play. Coming into his senior season, he has been a mainstay at linebacker for some time. Undersized at 6 feet tall and 225 pounds, Mitchell is a multi-use linebacker who can cover well and has good speed, while at the same time being able to play the run at a high level. He led the defense last season, starting all 13 games while being third on the team in tackling with 73 stops. His versatility brings a lot to the defense, and look for him to make the big impact that we’ve been awaiting in his senior season.

Breakout Player: Reggie Roberson

With Sutton and Quinn heading out, James Proché is the only significant returning contributor in the wide receiver corps. Roberson was a huge get for Dykes, as he was a highly touted recruit from Mesquite. Roberson’s journey led him to West Virginia for his freshman season in which he didn’t contribute much, and he transferred to SMU. The NCAA granted him a waiver and he is immediately eligible for the 2018 season, with three years of eligibility remaining. The 6-foot receiver represents another big-play threat with speed and explosiveness on the outside. It will take some time for Hicks to develop chemistry with Roberson, but with time, Roberson could prove to be the best wide receiver on the roster.

Time for kickoff

The Sonny Dykes era officially kicks off this Saturday at Apogee Stadium in Denton as the Mustangs take on crosstown rival North Texas. SMU has been a double-digit favorite going into its previous two matchups with the Mean Green, and backed up expectations both times, with 13- and 22-point wins in 2016 and ’17.

The conditions have changed a little bit. SMU has gone through much turnover on the roster and coaching staff this year, while North Texas returns 17 starters and is still under the guidance of Seth Littrell, who is entering his third season. Expected to be a power player in the Conference USA, the Mean Green are primed to back up its nine-win season a year ago. The Ponies enter this game as an underdog, which has been unfamiliar territory for SMU against North Texas.

UNT had a lot of success in 2017, and Mason Fine was a huge reason why. He set school records for passing yards and touchdowns, coming off a huge season in which he threw for more than 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns, completing an impressive 63 percent of his passes. Fine enters 2018 on the watch list for almost every imaginable award besides the Heisman. Fine is accompanied by pretty much the same receiving corps as 2017, returning five of his top six receivers. There isn’t a top threat, but rather a group of receivers that are deep and tough to cover. The biggest threats are Michael Lawrence (62 receptions, 819 yards, 4 touchdowns), Jalen Guyton (49-775-9) and Rico Bussey (47-677-7), all three of whom have looked very good in camp by all accounts. Replacing an all-conference running back won’t be easy for the Mean Green, as 1,000-yard rusher Jeffery Wilson is gone. But Nic Smith is expected to bear the load for UNT, as he showed promise in 2017, averaging five yards per carry.

Defensively, the Mean Green struggled in 2017 to say the least. UNT was often involved in shootouts, giving up 35 points per game and repeatedly getting gashed by opposing offenses. This season, however, UNT returns nine starters on defense and I expect nothing but improvement from this unit. Up front, the defense is deeper than ever, returning five of its top seven, including the top tackler from a year ago, E.J. Ejiya, who had 109. The back end of the UNT defense struggled a lot in 2017, ranking 107th in pass defense. Returning playmaking safety Khairi Muhammad, who is a physical player and had 94 tackles, should improve the passing game as well. A unit that only had four interceptions, there are yards to be had against the back end of this defense.

The keys for the Ponies to kickoff the season with a win are many, but here are a few:

1. Get the new-look receivers going in a different way: open up the passing game by establishing the run early. UNT struggled to stop the run consistently in 2017. Setting the tone with a strong ground game with the three-headed monster of Ke’Mon Freeman, Xavier Jones and Braeden West naturally will sink in the defense. A key to this season is getting the new receivers going early and developing a chemistry with Hicks.

2. Dominate special teams. The Ponies struggled mightily in this area last season, to the extent that Dykes didn’t hire a special teams coach, choosing instead to coach them himself. A possible spark to this problem is the grad transfer from Notre Dame, C.J. Sanders, a lightning-fast kick-returner who can change games with his game-breaking speed.

3. North Texas Mason Fine is going to get his. It’s not about stopping him, but rather slowing him down as much as possible. I imagine Kevin Kane will trust his front four and linebackers enough to consistently drop five or six into coverage. Kane will need big-time performances from the defensive line. Linebackers Richard Moore and Kyran Mitchell will have to be difference makers. The Mustang secondary will need as much help as it can get.

4. Silence the crowd. It’s the home opener and North Texas hates SMU and hopes to take down the Ponies for the first time in four years. SMU must limit mistakes and try to jump out to an early lead to take the crowd out of it. I anticipate the crowd being a large factor in this matchup.

This game will be a shootout and an entertaining game to watch. Both are high-powered offenses with a lot of talent going up against very suspect defenses. Expect the Mustangs to be fired up and ready to go with its new-look cast, but consistency is king, and Littrell has the Mean Green primed for a big season. I don’t trust the SMU secondary enough to slow down Fine very much. Apogee Stadium is expecting a packed house for Saturday, and the hostile environment will only compound things. Fine will have a huge day, and if the Mustang offense struggles through some growing pains and is unable to keep up, SMU will begin the Sonny Dykes era 0-1.

Nate’s Take: UNT 41 SMU 34

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