After a tough season in 2014, the youth movement has begun in SMU’s receiving corps. But a couple veterans will still play key roles. Patrick previews the wide receivers and tight ends for the 2015 season.
Returning Players: Deion Sanders Jr. (JR), Cedric Lancaster (SO), Shelby Walker (SO), Ryheem Malone (SO), Courtland Sutton (RS FR), Darius Joseph (SR), Nate Halverson (JR), Anthony Buffini (JR), Arrius Holleman (SR), Jeremiah Gaines (JR), Christian Holloway (JR)
Incoming Players: Kevin Thomas (FR), James Proche (FR), Xavier Castille (FR), Myron Gailliard (FR), Hunter Herndon (FR), Chase Schultz (transfer from La. Tech), Cam Winter (FR, walk-on), Austin Percy (FR, walk-on), Alex Honey (FR)
Given that SMU is on the dawn of a new era, I’m among the many that wants to stop talking about the disastrous 2014 season. Here’s the short version recap: The wide receivers struggled (and tight ends didn’t exist). The offense was in shambles all year and the quarterbacks and receivers never clicked. The wide receivers averaged 9.6 yards per catch, a sign of the offense’s transparency and the lack of overall playmakers. The new coaching staff knew the receiving corps needed an upgrade, so SMU signed five freshmen receivers and one tight end in its 2015 recruiting class.
The freshmen bring much-needed talent and add depth to the receiving corps. Expect Xavier Castille, Kevin Thomas and James Proche to have a big impact right away. The offense has a new look at wide receiver too. Instead of four receivers all the time in the old Run ‘N Shoot, SMU will trot out three receivers and a conventional in-line tight end. Jeremiah Gaines, a big-time recruit in 2013, shifts back to tight end after playing two years at wide receiver. He looked uncomfortable and couldn’t crack the rotation there. But he looked like a natural back at tight end during spring practice and is a phenomenal athlete and a tough cover.
Chad Morris hasn’t been shy about the freshmen seeing lots of early snaps and even getting starting jobs. He’ll give the guys he specifically recruited every opportunity to pass up the older guys. What does this mean for the rest of the group, especially the June Jones holdovers? They’ll really have to compete for snaps. Not everyone will crack the rotation. That’s just how it goes for a team with 17 wide receivers. But the competition will show which players really want to contribute.
SMU will start three wide receivers: The ‘X’, ‘Z’ and slot. The ‘Three-Back’ will be a conventional tight end, unlike in the Run ‘N Shoot. Courtland Sutton was a member of Jones’ final recruiting class and redshirted last season. But he tore up the spring game with 140 yards and three touchdowns and saw a lot of time at X receiver. He should have a solid hold on the starting spot there. At Z, senior Darius Joseph was the only SMU receiver who was close to consistent in 2014. He’s dependable, but not overly fast or explosive. He will likely open camp as the starter at Z, but expect freshman Kevin Thomas to get every chance to push him for the spot. Thomas is a physical target and an excellent run blocker. Xavier Castille was born to be a slot receiver in Morris’ offense. He’s sure-handed shifty, and great with the ball in his hands. He’s been working out with the team since signing day and will be the guy in the slot. Gaines had a good spring too, and he will start at tight end.
Should Thomas take a starting spot from Joseph, the senior would still have a role. He’d back up both Thomas and Castille. Proche, Thomas’ high school teammate, will likely see time at all three receiver spots, and he’s a dynamic playmaker in his own right. He’s most comfortable in the slot. His biggest impact may come on special teams, where he’s an electric punt returner. That top five is at much talent as SMU had at receiver in a while. Honey was a bit thin when he signed, but he’s gained nearly 20 pound since and is a long strider with a big catch radius. He’ll play behind Sutton. Halverson was flipped from defensive back last season and did a decent job. He has some speed and should see some snaps at the outside spots.
Ryheem Malone and Shelby walker are a bit small, but have a little speed and can make a few plays. They’re best suited in the slot and outside, respectively. Cedric Lancaster will fight for snaps in the slot too. He’s speedy, but isn’t that refined as a route-runner and had some issues with drops a season ago. Gaines will start at tight end, and freshman Hunter Herndon and junior Christian Holloway will battle for the number two job. The staff loves Herndon and his plus size (6-4, 235), so I’d give him the early edge.
Holleman is back after leaving the team before last season. He’s a big body but could not separate and looked very slow in spring practice. I don’t think he’ll have much of a role. Sanders Jr. is one of many smallish receivers Jones recruited at the end of his tenure. He just doesn’t offer a lot of upside at wide receiver. He will see very limited offensive snaps but be in the mix for kick return duties. Buffini barely played in 2014 and will probably best contribute on special teams. Schultz is in the same boat. Winter and Percy are walk-ons. Gailliard could offer some long-term appeal as a running back/slot receiver hybrid, but he is a solid bet to redshirt this year.
There really isn’t a glaring unknown here (I’m leaving out competition for snaps because that’s expected and we know who the contenders are). My one unknown was if Honey had put on enough weight to contribute. He weighed in at 194 pounds and stands 6-foot-4. So I don’t think that will be a concern. With Sutton's emergence and SMU expected to rely on Xavier Castille and others right away, Honey has time to develop.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
X receiver1: Courtland Sutton
X receiver 2: Alex Honey
X receiver 3: Shelby Walker
X receiver 4: Nate Halverson
Z receiver 1: Darius Joseph
Z receiver 2: Kevin Thomas
Z receiver 3: James Proche
Z receiver 4: Nate Halverson
Slot receiver 1: Xavier Castille
Slot receiver 2: James Proche
Slot receiver 3: Ryheem Malone
Slot receiver 4: Cedric Lancaster
Three-Back 1: Jeremiah Gaines
Three-Back 2: Hunter Herndon
Three-Back 3: Christian Holloway
Three-Back 4: Mitchell Kaufman