To continue our preview of the Bears upcoming opponent, SMU, BearsIllustrated spoke with Patrick Engel of SMU Scout, to answer 5 questions heading in to the Bears 2:30 PM Saturday match-up at McLane Stadium.
1. With rumors circulating, is there an updated status on Matt Davis?
Chad Morris said Monday night on his radio show and Tuesday at SMU’s weekly media luncheon that Davis will be a “game-time decision” for Saturday at Baylor. That’s all he has provided on the injury and he’s listed as the starter on the depth chart released Tuesday, though that doesn’t mean much given his official status. If he can’t play, redshirt freshman and Waco native Ben Hicks would make his first career start. Even if Davis does play, Morris said Hicks will still play in the game. against North Texas, Hicks entered in a planned substitution on SMU’s fourth offensive series.
2. How would you grade Ben Hicks' performance and how do you see the offensive identity changing if he is the starter on Saturday?
Hicks had a tough spring season in which he looked overwhelmed as a passer. His accuracy was poor, his decision-making was rushed and he struggled to make reads at the fast pace required. His performance against North Texas was a significant improvement. He looked calm and had a much easier time making reads and delivering clean throws, even with rushers closing in. The coaches have been impressed with his improvement in recognizing defenses and making reads faster this fall. Hicks doesn’t present quite the run threat Davis does, but he’s functionally mobile and can still run the offense. He’s more patient as a passer and won’t bail to scramble early like Davis occasionally can.
3. After a full year of recruiting and the Chad Morris culture, what was the approach of the coaching staff towards this season?
Morris has signed two recruiting classes that significantly upgraded the roster. In the 2016 class, 17 of the 25 signees held at least one Power Five offer. Two of Morris’ main points of emphasis this offseason were building depth and playing faster on offense. In the win at UNT, SMU played 31 of the 47 total players who signed with SMU in 2015 and 2016. That’s the turnover needed to create depth in a rebuilding job, even if the young players make mistakes as they learn on the go. SMU ran 73 plays at UNT, but Morris wants to run between 80 and 85 plays per game. With more offensive depth, especially at wide receiver, SMU can expand its playbook too. Last year, Morris said he only used about 35 percent of his playbook at Clemson.
4. With youth on the defensive side of the ball, who are some key players that could make some noise this year?
SMU signed a defensive-heavy 2016 class and redshirted all but one of its 2015 defensive signees, so there’s a lot of turnover there. The turnover is important for a team whose defense gave up more than 45 points per game. SMU’s best defensive player is junior defensive end Justin Lawler, who notched 3.5 sacks at UNT, but there’s a lot of younger guys who contribute. True freshman Michael Badejo is a stand-up rusher and linebacker in an even-man front who brings speed and agility off the edge. True freshman safety Mikial Onu impressed the coaches with a strong fall camp. He can play both safety spots but is the main backup at boundary safety. Redshirts freshmen Rodney Clemons and Kevin Johnson are the primary field safeties. They bring range and speed SMU didn’t have there a year ago. Other veteran guys to know are senior linebacker Jackson Mitchell and senior safety Darrion Millines.
5. Although the Bears have gone through, the system is still in place. With SMU improved, how do they approach this game against Baylor? How do you see things playing out?
I think SMU approaches it like last year – aside from the all the hype surrounding Morris’ SMU’s coaching debut – as an opportunity. Morris and his staff don’t usually get too caught up in hype of other teams. It’s not a slight to those teams, but rather Morris’ preference to focus on the areas his team can control and not unchangeable outside situations. SMU still looks at the game as an opportunity to prove it can play with a good team. Morris said this game will be a good gauge for SMU’s progress from last year to this year. The coaches aren’t expecting much change in Baylor’s offensive and defensive identity and they recognize there’s still plenty of talent on the roster. I think it’s a lot to ask of SMU to win this game and I don’t see that happening, but it’s realistic to expect SMU to play a more complete game than last year’s matchup, where the Mustangs were close for a half and then fell apart in the second half. I think it’s much closer than 2015 just because SMU has made good progress since then, but I’m still expecting Baylor to win.