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The Athletic's Deep Dive Analysis of SMU Football

Postby South Bay Mustang » Tue May 26, 2020 8:40 am

This piece was posted in the Athletic this morning. Can't say enough about the site; well worth the subscription. It's a cut and paste job so apologies for the formatting and lack of graphics that were in the original piece.

When Memphis hosted “College GameDay” last fall, it was largely a celebration of the Tigers and their recent stretch of success. But it was also a stamp of legitimacy for their opponent.
SMU entered that game ranked No. 15 in the country, the program’s highest ranking since 1985. After more than three decades in the wilderness, SMU had finally become respected again. The Mustangs started the year 8-0 and spent six weeks ranked in the AP poll.
Although the season didn’t end well, with three losses in the final five games beginning with that trip to Memphis, that newfound success is expected to continue in 2020.
“What we’ve been able to do so far, we’ve just gotten better every year,” third-year head coach Sonny Dykes said. “That’s what you want to do. I think we have a better understanding of what we have to work with SMU. … I just think we have a lot of momentum right now in our program.”
SMU went two decades without a bowl appearance following the NCAA Death Penalty in 1987. June Jones turned things around with four consecutive bowls from 2009-12, but he left amid a 1-11 season in 2014. Chad Morris turned it around in three years with another bowl appearance in 2017, but Dykes took over a program in 2018 with a lot of holes and a lack of an identity.
In three years, recruiting has picked up, the Mustangs have become a popular transfer destination and an indoor practice facility opened last year. In the difficult American Athletic Conference, SMU has been in contention for a division title late into November twice. Now it wants to get over the hump, and the tangible success of a 10-3 season a year ago has people believing it’s possible.
“You hear the players talking about it instead of us,” defensive coordinator Kevin Kane said. “Once you’ve got those guys doing that, you’re on the right path for success. Those guys have seen what we can do.”
For that to happen, last year’s explosive breakthrough needs to be sustained, and the defense needs to cut down on allowing big plays. The schedule may look tough, but the Mustangs will bank on experience.

Roster analysis

Quarterbacks: Shane Buechele didn’t arrive at SMU until last summer after transferring from Texas, but he was still voted a team captain by his new teammates. He followed through by lighting up defenses. Buechele threw for 3,929 yards, 34 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and 8.0 yards per attempt while completing 62.7 percent of his passes, earning first-team All-AAC honors. His 16 completions of at least 40 yards were eighth-most nationally. He also became a run threat in short-yardage option situations, rushing for 105 yards and two touchdowns.
Though Buechele was a graduate transfer, he arrived with two years of eligibility. Dykes expects SMU’s offense to be more pass-oriented in an Air Raid style this year with new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, and he says Buechele is the perfect quarterback to handle it.
“I think Shane’s one of the top quarterbacks in college football. I really do believe that,” Dykes said. “I trust him to make decisions and I think that the Air Raid approach is really good for him because it puts a lot of onus on him to make plays and to make decisions and to distribute the ball. What I like about that system is it goes through your quarterback to show a lot of freedom, and we’re comfortable with Shane making those decisions.”
Behind Buechele, there is not much experience. No one else threw more than three passes in 2019. Sophomore William Brown started three games as a freshman in 2018, but he played in one game a year ago and redshirted. Redshirt freshman Terrance Gipson completed all three pass attempts and ran for 37 yards.

Running backs: This is clearly the biggest question mark on offense going into 2020. Gone are 1,200-yard rusher and first-team All-AAC back Xavier Jones and 500-yard rusher Ke’Mon Freeman. The 2020 spring roster had only five running backs on it.
Dykes points to redshirt freshman Ulysses Bentley IV and sophomore TJ McDaniel as the running backs who will take over. The 5-10, 184-pound Bentley had seven carries for 36 yards and a 30-yard catch in four games in 2019, and Dykes expects him to be a big-play threat. The 5-11, 194-pound McDaniel had 236 yards and three touchdowns on 41 attempts (5.7 per carry) over 11 games as a freshman. Dykes sees him as an all-purpose threat who can be used in the passing game as well
“Between those two, we’re fired up about the position,” he said.
Dykes also listed 235-pound sophomore TaMerik Williams as someone who will have a power-running role in the backfield. Sophomore Tyler Lavine, at 220 pounds, is another power option. He had nine carries and 10 tackles on special teams.
Last year’s SMU team ran the ball 534 times and passed it 503 times. Don’t be surprised if the offense skews more toward passing in 2020.

Reggie Roberson averaged 18.7 yards per catch before his injury last season. (Timothy Flores / USA Today)

Wide receivers/tight ends: James Proche became a first-team All-AAC receiver in 2019 with 111 catches and 1,225 yards, but former West Virginia transfer Reggie Roberson was on track to put up similar numbers. Proche is gone, but Roberson opted to return for his senior season, giving Buechele a clear No. 1 option. In eight games before a foot injury, Roberson had 43 catches for 803 yards and six touchdowns. That included a 250-yards performance against Temple. Roberson’s 13 catches of at least 30 yards still finished sixth-most nationally in just eight games.
Behind Roberson, expect a breakout year for Rashee Rice. As a freshman last season, Rice had 25 catches for 403 yards in 10 games, and coaches love his potential.
“I thought Rashee Rice played out of sight as a true freshman last year,” Dykes said. “Had to come in when Reggie got hurt. Didn’t play like a freshman. He’s got a huge upside, made some big catches in big games.”
Other receivers expected to have bigger roles include Calvin Wiggins, a 6-4 redshirt freshman who was a state-runner-up sprinter in high school. Senior Tyler Page has played in 33 games and will be a veteran to lean on, while sophomore Judah Bell is back healthy and junior college transfer Danny Gray will be a valuable addition.
Tight end will quietly be a deep position. Kylen Granson returns as a senior after recording 43 catches for 721 yards and nine touchdowns, earning second-team All-AAC honors. But Dykes also pointed to senior Tommy McIntyre, junior Ben Redding and former Alabama transfer Kedrick James as guys who could have expanded roles.
“I think we’ve got three, maybe four tight ends that are big-time guys,” Dykes said.

Offensive line: Two years ago, SMU barely had enough offensive line bodies to run team drills in spring practice. Now it’s the deepest position on offense. Four starters return, and a load of new bodies add depth.
Second-team All-AAC left tackle Jaylon Thomas, left guard Hayden Howerton and center Alan Ali started all 13 games last year, and right tackle Beau Morris started 11 games. Right guard Cobe Bryant started five games, and Kadarius Smith started two. There are also seven offensive linemen coming in from the 2020 recruiting class.
SMU finished No. 14 nationally in fewest sacks allowed per game (1.3). Though the Mustangs’ average of 4.4 yards per carry ranked No. 66 nationally, it was a massive jump from No. 121 (3.4) the year before.
“To me, that’s the biggest change in our program,” Dykes said of the line. “We’re bigger, we’re longer, we’re more physical, we’re tougher, we know how to play better. We’ve started to figure things out as a group. I really like the group. I don’t care what level of football you’re at. You’re not going to win a championship without a championship-level line, and this is one.”
Mustangs Returning Production
CATEGORY % RETURNING TOP RETURNER
Pass yds
100%
Buechele, 3,929
Rush yds
23%
McDaniel, 236
Rec yds
56%
Roberson, 803
OL starts
100%
Three with 13
Tackles
46%
McBryde, 98
TFLs
46%
McBryde, 9.5
Sacks
39%
Two at 3.5
Ints
44%
Johnson, 2

Defensive line: This is SMU’s biggest question on defense. Gone are three starters from a line that helped SMU finished third nationally in tackles for loss. The only returning starter is junior end Turner Coxe, who led the line with 50 tackles last year, including 8.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks.
Junior end Toby Ndukwe could slide into the other starting end spot. Ndukwe had four tackles last year, but three were tackles for loss. Kane also said junior college early enrollee DeVere Levelston showed in three spring practices that he has the tools to play end at 245 pounds.
Inside, 5-foot-11, 315-pound junior Terrance Newman is expected to take over the starting nose tackle spot. Kane likes what sophomore Elijah Chatman showed at times as a true freshman, but he needs to do it for longer stretches. Overall, the Mustangs must find more bodies on the line.
“The reason why we were so successful up front last year is we had so many, and we were able to rotate, keep guys fresh, so when they were in the game, they were able to produce at a high level,” Kane said. “That’s what we’re going to continue to do. We don’t have the size or overall talent yet where we can line up for 60-plus snaps a game and be successful. We’re going to rotate. We’ve got to find guys. We’ve got guys coming in to help us out. I think we’ll be able to reload.”

Linebackers: This position will be the anchor of the defense, with experience and leadership returning. Two starters return in sixth-year senior Richard McBryde inside and senior Delano Robinson outside. McBryde led the Mustangs with 98 tackles, including 9.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks, and Robinson had 76 tackles, six TFLS and 2.5 sacks.
At the other outside spot, Patrick Nelson and his team-high 18 TFLs are gone, but starting safety Trevor Denbow will move back to linebacker, coaches said. Denbow initially played linebacker when he transferred to SMU from junior college, but he was moved to safety so he and Nelson could be on the field together. Now he’s in a more natural spot.
The group was also boosted in May with the announcement that Richard Moore had received a sixth year of eligibility. Moore started all 12 games in 2018 and led the Mustangs with 92 tackles, but he had a season-ending injury three games into the 2019 season.
Reserve linebackers to watch include junior Brian Holloway (22 tackles in 2019), senior Shaine Hailey (13), junior Jimmy Phillips Jr. (9) and junior JC Rispress.
“At linebacker, there’s a lot of experience coming back,” Kane said. “Those guys know that, and they’re taking that leadership role.”

Ar’mani Johnson had 11 pass breakups and two INTs in 2019. (Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

Defensive backs: SMU hopes health and experience on the outside will help a pass defense that gave up too many big plays. The 27 pass plays of at least 30 yards allowed were eighth-most nationally. The Mustangs’ aggressiveness often led to TFLs up front or big plays allowed on the back end.
“We want to get after people, get in the backfield, but we’ve got to win the one-on-ones on the outside,” Kane said. “We did pretty well in the early half of the year. Toward the latter end, we didn’t win those. Whether it was a jump ball, a tackle in the open field, we’ve got to continue to build depth. We can’t play with two corners out there the entire game. We’ve got to sub them and keep them fresh.”
At cornerback, both starters return in junior Ar’mani Johnson and senior Brandon Stephens. Johnson was one of two Mustangs with multiple interceptions. Stephens is still relatively new to the position, but Kane likes what they have in the pair. Juniors Sam Westfall and Justin Guy-Robinson are also likely to see playing time at corner.
At safety, two spots are open with Denbow moving to linebacker and Rodney Clemons graduating. Former Arkansas transfer Chevin Calloway is expected to take one of the starting spots. The junior recorded 20 tackles and an interception in 11 games a year ago.
“He had a great winter,” Kane said. “The first three practices of spring, he showed he’s able to handle one of those spots.”
Players in contention for the other safety spot and more playing time will include sophomore Chace Cromartie, redshirt freshman Roderick Roberson, sophomore Cam’ron Jones and redshirt freshman Donald Clay.

Special teams: Kicking has been bit of a liability for SMU. Last season, the Mustangs missed seven extra points. Kicker Kevin Robledo went 10-for-13 on field goals, but his long was just 34 yards and he missed three extra points. He graduated, and Luke Hogan is also no longer on the team. Dykes expects to add a kicker from the transfer market, but it hasn’t officially been announced yet.
At punter, Denbow pulled double-duty as safety/punter last season when Jamie Sackville got hurt and Warren Scott struggled. Sackville entered the transfer portal and Scott is still on the team, but Dykes says SMU plans to bring in an Australian to punt. So the specialists are not yet public, but they’re in the plans, according to the coach.
SMU will also need new returners with the departure of C.J. Sanders and James Proche. Receiver Tyler Page had five kick returns and a punt return a year ago.

How the Mustangs have recruited from 2017-2020

Judging recruiting at SMU can’t solely be based on the class rankings. Under Dykes, the classes have generally been in the middle of the pack in the AAC, but no FBS program has jumped into the transfer market as much as SMU, treating it like its own separate recruiting project.
For example, when SMU signed 19 high-schoolers and had the No. 3-ranked class in the AAC in 2019, it also signed 16 transfers. That included Buechele. Nearly all transfers SMU has brought in are multi-year players, like Buechele and Roberson, and not one-year stopgaps. With so many Dallas-area players interested in returning close to home, going after the transfer market makes sense.
Maybe SMU doesn’t beat a Power 5 school for a high school prospect, but it can beat one for a transfer.
“We’re recruiting better,” Dykes said. “We’re a significant player in the transfer market. I feel like we’re starting to become a player with the high school kids, where we can go and recruit against the traditional powers and have an opportunity to beat them. That’s what you want to get to, to be a top-25 program and to be a consistent bowl representative and a team that plays for championships.”

Impact of coaching changes
Dykes’ SMU staff has seen minimal change through the first two years, but the biggest change came this offseason came when offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee left for Miami (Fla.). Under Lashlee, tempo was everything for SMU. The Mustangs finished No. 2 nationally with more than 79 plays per game in 2019. With Buechele directing the offense, SMU ranked No. 7 nationally in scoring at 41.8 points per game.
To replace Lashlee, Dykes turned toward familiarity and the Air Raid coaching tree, hiring Appalachian State running backs coach Garrett Riley as offensive coordinator. He’s the younger brother of current Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley, who worked with Dykes at Texas Tech.

In his second season, Sonny Dykes led SMU to 10 wins for the first time since 1984. (Ray Carlin / USA Today)
“I felt like it was time to hire somebody who had a real strong alignment with me in terms of what we wanted to do,” Dykes said. “And Rhett did to a degree. But guys that kind of come up in the Air Raid system, you’re just trained a certain way, you think a certain way. It’s more of an emphasis on fundamentals and emphasis on execution, on players not plays. I just felt, for us to take that next step as a program, that’s what we needed to focus on. Rhett did a great job for us, gave us a different approach, which we needed.”
Asked if the offensive change meant more passing or less tempo, Dykes didn’t commit to that. But the idea is to put more on the shoulders of Buechele’s playmaking ability and less on tiring out a defense with tempo.
Seven of SMU’s 10 assistants have been with Dykes for all three years. That consistency has helped the program’s sustained growth.
“I feel really good about our coaching staff,” Dykes said. “We’re really solid with that group. We had a lot of coaches that had opportunities in the offseason to move on, probably in the double-digits in terms of support staff and paid assistant coaches. We were able to keep a lot of the coaches, which is important. Having staff continuity, I believe, is just about as important as anything you can do when it comes to building a program.”

Schedule analysis
DATE OPPONENT
Sept. 5
at Texas State
Sept. 12
Stephen F. Austin
Sept. 19
at North Texas
Sept. 26
TCU
Oct. 1
Memphis
Oct. 17
at Tulane
Oct. 24
Cincinnati
Oct. 31
Navy
Nov. 5
at Temple
Nov. 14
at Tulsa
Nov. 21
Houston
Nov. 28
at East Carolina
SMU’s nonconference schedule is typical with a heavy emphasis on in-state opponents. The win at TCU last year was the first sign of a breakthrough for the Mustangs. The Horned Frogs are looking to improve on a disappointing 5-7 record.
The real intrigue comes in AAC play. The league has scrapped divisions following UConn’s departure, and the teams with the top two conference records will play for the championship.
“I think it’s different,” Dykes said. “If you compare the sides, I felt like the West was a little stronger than the East was this past year, but I don’t know that it really makes that big of a difference. Bottom line is you’ve got to play well in the league.”
SMU opens with three of the top teams in the conference, including playing both defending division champions at home with Memphis and Cincinnati. Both are expected to contend for the championship again. Those games are sandwiched around an idle week and a trip to Tulane, which is coming off consecutive bowl games. SMU is 3-0 against Tulane under Dykes, but the wins have come by a total of 24 points.
Navy won 11 games last year, including a tight one against SMU, but it’s looking for a new quarterback with Malcolm Perry gone. Then the schedule ends with three road trips in four weeks, including far trips to Temple and East Carolina in what would have been division crossover games in the past. Temple won eight games last year, Tulsa led SMU by 21 in the fourth quarter a year ago before a wild comeback and Houston should be better in the second year under Dana Holgorsen.
Overall, it’s a pretty difficult schedule, with that early AAC stretch likely to determine if SMU can compete for the conference title. The AAC West division was stronger than both ACC divisions a year ago in the Sagarin Ratings, so perhaps scrapping divisions and having two spots to play for instead of one helps the Mustangs’ chances.
“The one thing I do like when you look at our home schedule, we’ve got Houston home, Memphis at home, Cincinnati at home, Navy at home,” Dykes said. “Those are four of the top teams in the league. I think it’s going to help, hopefully, playing those games in Dallas.”
Final assessment
SMU went 35 years between 10-win seasons, and there’s no reason to believe last year was a flash in the pan. Since Dykes arrived, the indoor facility has been built, the locker room renovated and the talent taken up a notch. SMU has always felt like a program that should be among the best in the Group of 5, given its proximity to talent. Now the investment is in place.
Heading into the 2020 season, SMU should have similar explosiveness to last year’s offense, which was among the best in the nation. Defensively, it wants to keep the aggressiveness and propensity for TFLs without giving up so many big plays, but that’s always the risk with that style.
With an experienced quarterback and offense, a familiar coaching staff and the big games at home, the Mustangs have a chance to make this season an even bigger one.
(Top photo of Shane Buechele: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)
SMU Class of 1993
1989: 2-9
1990: 1-10
1991: 1-10
1992: 5-6
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Re: The Athletic's Deep Dive Analysis of SMU Football

Postby ponyboy » Tue May 26, 2020 11:02 am

Posting the entire article is probably going to result in this thread being pulled, but I'll go ahead and jump in.

Great read for sure. My gut is we will be an improved team overall in 2020, with the only question marks at RB, DL, and the kicking game. (I can't see the latter doing anything but improving, so kicking has to be a net plus). Shane, Reggie R, Granson, Moore, and McBryde are legit stars in my book. Maybe add Coxe to that as well.

And the schedule. This is beyond a doubt the best home slate ever at Ford with TCU, Memphis, Cincinnati, Navy, and Houston here.

I see 10 wins, a top 25 ranking, and a bad-ass recruiting class, even if (as can reasonably be expected) we have a little bit of attrition before signing day.
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Re: The Athletic's Deep Dive Analysis of SMU Football

Postby JasonB » Tue May 26, 2020 4:30 pm

First time I have read that we are pulling in an Aussie P to go along with the K from UT...
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Re: The Athletic's Deep Dive Analysis of SMU Football

Postby leopold » Tue May 26, 2020 8:33 pm

Great article.

Didn't realize that we actually ran the ball more than we threw it last year - should be fun to watch Shane let lose to run the offense based more on his talents this year.
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Re: The Athletic's Deep Dive Analysis of SMU Football

Postby JasonB » Wed May 27, 2020 10:31 am

leopold wrote:Great article.

Didn't realize that we actually ran the ball more than we threw it last year - should be fun to watch Shane let lose to run the offense based more on his talents this year.


I worry about this a bit. Being able to run the ball on 4th and 1 when you really have to is incredibly important. That doesn't happen in the traditional air raid. I also love the role our TEs play in the offense, which again isn't traditional air raid. And physical practices don't happen in the traditional air raid.

I hope that we don't completely abandon the power spread/air raid combo, because I think it could be really effective.
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Re: The Athletic's Deep Dive Analysis of SMU Football

Postby ponyboy » Wed May 27, 2020 11:59 am

I would imagine we'll go pretty close to 100% air raid with three quarters of our plays being passes. It will be interesting to see how Shane adjusts.
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Re: The Athletic's Deep Dive Analysis of SMU Football

Postby White Helmet » Wed May 27, 2020 2:20 pm

ponyboy wrote:I would imagine we'll go pretty close to 100% air raid with three quarters of our plays being passes. It will be interesting to see how Shane adjusts.


How many teams in the last 10 years have had 75% passing plays for a season? Any guesses? 2, Wash St. twice. In those years there are only 2 other teams over 65%, 2010 Hawaii and 2013 SMU. I dont think you realize how much 75% of your plays would be...
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Re: The Athletic's Deep Dive Analysis of SMU Football

Postby ponyboy » Wed May 27, 2020 9:27 pm

You're right: I did not realize that. Great stats. Where did you look them up?
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Re: The Athletic's Deep Dive Analysis of SMU Football

Postby malonish » Thu May 28, 2020 10:19 am

Power spread + air raid...

Poweraid

We need a photoshop of this pic :lol:

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