Headed in a new direction
SMU coaches shift attention from roster evaluation to game preparation
Posted on 08/22/2022 by PonyFans.com
Since they arrived on campus, new SMU football coach and his staff have been evaluating their new team. They watched game film from 2021, and got to know their returning players, before leading them and the newcomers who enrolled early through spring drills. Since preseason camp opened during the first week of August, it has been more of the same.

That evaluation period, Lashlee said, is pretty much over.

When he met the media after Saturday’s workout, the last preseason practice that members of the media were allowed to attend, Lashlee said he and his staff have shifted most of their focus from evaluation to game planning.

Head coach Rhett Lashlee (photo by SMU athletics).
“Our guys are getting ready to go to school (Monday),” Lashlee said. “We’ll have a big personnel meeting as a staff, and (the team’s depth chart) will start to really take shape. We’ll go into next week knowing the starters, or at least the two guys rotating here … these guys can help us, maybe, as the year goes on, and who’s not quite ready.

“(The season opener at North Texas is) two weeks away, it’s time to start getting the pecking order.”

Not surprisingly, the Mustangs’ first-year head coach did not offer a position-by-position breakdown of what the lineup will look like when his team takes the field in Denton, and some positions already are known. Top starters from a year ago should retain significant roles in 2022. Lashlee already announced that Tanner Mordecai will open the season as the starting quarterback, although he added that Preston Stone also will play.

One area in which Lashlee addressed the depth chart — sort of — is the kicking game. Brendan Hall returns after a freshman season in which he averaged 41.72 yards on 36 punts, including a season long of 67 yards. He also averaged 63.0 yards on 80 kickoffs, including 49 touchbacks. In addition, the Mustangs added former Texas punter Ryan Bujcevski, who averaged 40.3, 41.7 and 43.3 yards per punt in his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons at UT, respectively, as well as freshman Collin Rogers, who was ranked among the premier high school placekickers in the country last year.

“I think it’s been good,” Lashlee said. “(Assistant coach) Craig Naivar does a great job (with the special teams). I mean, I can tell you … we’re going to be organized, we’re going to be prepared. From a kicking standpoint, obviously, bringing in Ryan — lot of experience punting. Bringing in Collin, a true freshman kicker — we think he has a lot of promise. True freshman … he’s had some great days, he’s had some not-so-great days — that’s part of it — and then having (Brendan) Hall back … I mean, he can do it all. He can kick off, he’s got a big leg, placekicking and punting. It’s a matter of consistency and some things. So we feel fortunate to have those three specialists.”

Lashlee stopped short of announcing which duties would fall to which specialist, but said he and Naivar have an idea how the next two weeks will play out.

“We have a pretty good idea of how we think it’s going to be,” he said. “Obviously, the last two weeks, we’ve been kind of gauging that — that’s another thing we’ll discuss (in the staff personnel meeting), if we still want to go with the route we kind of thought we would, or if things will tweak. So by the time we start (this) week, we’ll have a pretty tentative plan in place.”

Another area that will have a decidedly different look in 2022 is the offensive line, after three regular starters from last year’s group — Hayden Howerton, Beau Morris and Alan Ali — moved on. During the team’s spring workouts, new offensive line coach Garin Justice acknowledged the talent of those no longer with the team, but insisted that there were “pieces still in place that can help us win a lot of games” … a statement he made before the arrival of two transfers, former Georgia tackle Owen Condon and former Virginia guard Joe Bissinger, arrived as transfers.

The line, Justice said, would benefit greatly from the presence of Jaylon Thomas, whose decision to return gave the 2022 line instant flexibility because of his ability to play multiple positions.

“It’s nice to have a guy like Jaylon Thomas, who is so versatile,” Justice said. “We had him at center, he’s got probably 30 starts at tackle, (and) he has started some at guard, so having a guy like that helps.”

Lashlee said Saturday that the bumps and bruises some of the linemen have suffered in camp could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Mustangs, because it allowed other players more repetitions, and the chance to show coaches what they can do. Players who sit out detract from the development of timing and chemistry that is crucial to the success of an offensive line, but gave some backups critical opportunities to perform for the new coaching staff.

“I think we’re close,” Lashlee said. “We’ve had some of those guys … are some of those guys that have gotten banged up, missed some time, but none of them for the season. So I think we’re starting to have a pretty good idea. That’s probably the only negative: when you have guys out, you don’t get as much of the continuity in fall camp as you would like. But fortunately, as well, I think we’re going to have them all healthy.

“So now it’s about ‘what’s best now?’ but also projecting Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, what we think the best group would be. The positive is that with some guys being out, we’ve developed some depth, too. You need about eight guys you feel like you can put in the game and win with, to feel somewhat comfortable going into the season.”

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