After an explosive start to the Chad Morris era against Baylor by scoring a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, SMU's offense has seen some injuries hit hard along the offensive line, up-and-down play and has yet to really put together a full game. That being said, it's a much-improved unit that has a bright future with two young, talented backs, a receiver that's becoming a star, and a quarterback now in an offense that fits his skillset much better.
Without further delay, I hand out grades to the offense.
Matt Davis has played almost every snap this season with Darrell Colbert getting some time when Davis was injured during the Baylor game and mop up duty in another. Davis has taken major steps forward like we saw in the spring and in fall camp as a quarterback. That development has continued through the season, but developing consistency in the offense is ultimately falling on Davis' shoulders. His decision making has vastily improved, leading to a now five-game streak without an interception after throwing two vs. Baylor.
Davis has had no problem tucking the ball and running with it when something isn't there. The staff and Davis admits he tries to do too much at times, which results in sacks and three to four yard losses from time to time instead of throwing the ball away. That's the next step in his progression. It'll be one of his biggest areas of potential growth the rest of the season along with his decision making for when to slide or not.
The offensive line needs to help out Davis as well, but there's only so much SMU can do in that regard. With upcoming games against AAC teams (USF and Tulsa), that haven't been that great this year, SMU will have a measuring stick now against the bottom of the conference. So far though, Davis has improved tremendously since last season, is playing with confidence, and as long as he steps out onto the field, SMU is absolutely a threat to score.
For me, running backs have to be able to contribute in all phases of the game to really be special and so far, SMU's running backs are on a trajectory to be that. Prescott Line has seen his carries diminish with the emergence of Braeden West and Xavier Jones, but as a group they are still a few steps away from being elite. That will come with experience in my mind. The future of the SMU backfield lies in West and Jones, but they must clean up some errors such as fumbling and continue to improve in pass protection.
With SMU's struggles along the offensive line, the backs will be asked to do their part in pass protection. That will help Davis and the passing game develop even more this year. Improved pass blocking from West and Jones would allow Chad Morris to leave them in the game in more obvious passing situations, allowing the threat of screens, swing passes and draws to really have a chance to go for big yardage.
What's hurting the backs the most this year are ill-timed fumbles and consistency. Where they're really impressing is pass-catching, with Jones and West averaging over seven and nine yards a catch respectively. That's the type of versatility that SMU needs in the backfield. As the season goes along, I'd love to see one or the other really grab a hold of the job and force SMU to stick with one or the other. Both are great talents, but have a go-to back will help this offense I believe even with the second one getting plenty of touches.
SMU has seen the emergence of Courtland Sutton as the No. 1 target for Davis, but is still waiting on a No. 2 receiver to step up. I would say SMU is getting closer to seeing that happen though. Xavier Castille is a name to watch. After totalling just three receptions total in the first three games, has caught eight in the last three games. Crazy improvement I know. That being said, there are so many ways SMU can get Castille the ball via fly sweeps, bubble screens and routes. He's versatile and that should help him when Davis decides to look his way.
Along with Castille, fellow freshman Kevin Thomas seems to be getting more snaps each game. His talent is undeniable and as he continues to pick up the offense and do other things better outside of catching the ball, the receiver position will see a little more clarity. With Ryheem Malone and Shelby Walker seeing their snap counts come down a little bit and targets as well, there's still clear competition at the receiver position.
The little things that need to be done to make this group great are the same as what the freshmen have to do to see more snaps. They all need to block better (especially on screens) and do the little things when the ball isn't coming their way to help them when the time comes for Davis to look their way. As for Sutton, I haven't mentioned him much. Why should I? What he's done has been incredible. SMU has a true No. 1 target for years to come. He's something special and everyone knows it.
Grade: B (A for Sutton)
This is a position that has a lot of different responsibilities so it's imperative that they be on the same page as the quarterbacks, running backs and offensive linemen. Jeremiah Gaines is the starter and biggest threat out of the group. The problem has been that he's been getting the ball inconsistently. That's partly on defenses and partly on the playcalling, which is fine. Gaines has done his part, but as far as the gamebreaker in this offense a lot thought he'd be, it's been a little disappointing.
Keyfer Roberts and Mitchell Kaufman have provided good enough depth to keep freshman Hunter Herndon as a redshirt. Herndon has also been injured, but Kaufman especially is good enough in the offense to get some snaps. Once you add Herndon and Rau into the mix at this spot next year, SMU is going to have a versatile offense with different sets, unbalanced lines, etc. This year though, if SMU is looking for a safety valve for Davis, Gaines can be that or Gaines can be a playmaker. He's versatile enough to do both, but right now, he's not getting enough looks in my mind.
I only drop the grade for the line to a C because of their play as of late. Against Baylor and TCU, I was very impressed with the line. Those are two fronts that have some serious talent (even if TCU was shorthanded) and for the most part, SMU held their own. That allowed Davis to make plays and the running game to be there. Baylor eventually locked it down, but those two games set high expectations for this season.
Where I take issue is the nastiness taking a big dip in my mind. There wasn't that swagger you saw in the first couple games. SMU has seen some injuries pile up and guys get nicked up, but it goes back to the mentality that Morris has talked about. When something bad happens, the sideline deflates immediately. That has to change and it starts with the trenches and the effort and tone set by both sides of the big guys for SMU.
Dustin Fry has done an outstanding job with the group he inherited. I'm told that the truth meetings with him were rough following the spring. Many were told they shouldn't be here at all and the group collectively responded with work ethic and commitment. The work he's done so far this year makes me believe the future will be bright along the line after a couple classes. Right now, the current crew has to do a better job of passing off linemen to pickup blitzing linebackers. Anyone who has watched a game so far this year can see that linebackers are getting almost free reign on Davis.
This offense has somethings it certainly needs to clean up to be an elite unit in the AAC. Most can see the progress made from last year (of course) and the creative playcalling SMU fans were expecting when it hired Chad Morris. There are little things this group can do to make a run of wins to end the season — quit fumbling and improve blitz pickup. With young running backs, it will take time to really get how huge ball security is, but it will be stressed and it should get better.
The bltiz pickups are the key to give Davis time to make the reads he needs to instead of being under fire all game. Teams have a good blueprint for how to beat SMU now and that is to bring the heat. If the line can make reads quicker and come off of double teams better to pick up blitzes, that will help Davis.
I don't think there will be an issue finding a No. 2 receiver to pick up the slack when Sutton is being held in check. With all the competition and new talent there, SMU will be fine. As SMU continues to bring in depth in recruiting, this will only get better. Competition and depth does some incredible things. As for this year, SMU is a few fixes from playing that complete game that Morris is desperately searching for. They have a huge opportunity in Tampa to play that full game.