Matt Visinsky

SMU position preview: Wide receivers

PonyStampede previews the SMU wide receivers and tight ends and answers important questions about the unit heading into the 2016 season.

Returning players

Wide receivers: Kevin Thomas (So.), Xavier Castille (So.), James Proche II  (rFr.), Shelby Walker (Jr.), Ryheem Malone (Jr.), Alex Honey (rFr.),  Courtland Sutton (rSo.), Myron Gailliard (rFr.)

Tight ends: Jeremiah Gaines (Sr.), Mitchell Kaufman (So.), Dylan Dickman (Sr.)

Incoming players

Wide receivers: Brandon Benson (Fr.), Eric Hawkins (graduate), Trey Quinn (rSo., will sit out 2016), Joshua Shelmire (Fr.)

Tight ends: Corey Rau: (Fr.), Ryan Becker (Fr.)

Departed players

Wide receivers: Darius Joseph, Nate Halverson, Anthony Buffini, Arrius Holleman

Tight ends: Hunter Herndon (injury), Christian Holloway, Derek Longoria

2015 recap

Sutton emerged as the team’s best receiver and most exciting player, earning freshman All-America honors. With Sutton’s emergence and a talented five-man true freshman class, SMU turned over its receiving corps quickly. 

The youngsters had some freshmen moments. Thomas, as skilled as any other receiver on the team, struggled with missed assignments and concentration. Castille had issues with drops. Sutton had only 143 yards and zero touchdowns in his final four games. Proche had to redshirt due to issues with high school credits and Honey redshirted to develop his body and route tree.

SMU did not find a consistent second option in the passing game behind Sutton. Sutton led the team with 862 yards, but the next closest receiver (Malone) had 258. Joseph, Malone and Walker were the only non-freshmen to have any role in the offense. 

At tight end, Gaines saw a majority of the snaps, but registered only 16 catches for 249 yards and was inconsistent as a blocker. Other tight ends combined for seven catches.

2016 outlook

SMU possesses as much talent at the receiver position as it has had in a long time, but it needs to develop. That includes Sutton, who faded a bit at the end of the year and still showed his route tree is still a little limited. Thomas and Castille need to keep developing after up-and-down freshmen seasons. The group is deeper than last season, with Proche and Honey now active. Speedy freshmen Brandon Benson and Joshua Shelmire are on campus and will have a chance to crack the rotation. SMU brought in Arkansas graduate transfer Eric Hawkins to compete with the youngsters and have a role on special teams.

Gaines showed more awareness and mobility as a blocker in the spring and should be the main tight end again, but Rau will immediately push for playing time.

The starters

Chad Morris made clear at the start of spring ball that no one’s starting spot is safe, but realistically, no one was going to unseat Courtland Sutton. He’s locked in at the 9-man (X receiver) spot. The rest of the group is not settled at all. Malone (four starts) and Walker (seven starts) were the most frequent compliments to Sutton at the 2-man (Z receiver) and 5-man (slot) in 2015, respectively. They have more experience, but offer less upside than Thomas, Castille, Proche, Benson and Shelmire. Thomas saw most of his action at the 2-man spot and Castille played at both the 2-man and 5-man spots. If both can be more consistent and become reliable targets, they are the better options to take starting spots, along with Proche. The coaches have praised Proche since he arrived. He’s polished, explosive in space and has potential as a field-stretcher.

Gaines should start as the top tight end, which SMU calls the 3-back. SMU wants to involve the position and Gaines needs to build on a good spring and become a consistent option in the passing game. He was highly recruited out of high school and has plenty of athleticism. If he struggles and doesn't display a good feel as a pass-catcher in his second year in the offense, Rau will be waiting to take his spot.

The backups

Honey (6-foot-4, 200 lbs.) will back up Sutton at the 9-man, giving SMU the second big presence it didn’t have there last year. He's a boundary player with a big catch radius. He's improved his ball skills and tracking ability since coming to SMU, though they are not quite as polished as Sutton's. Only two of Thomas, Castille and Proche can start, but the one who doesn’t start will still have a major role. SMU wants to rotate in a lot of receivers and it has enough talented players to do it.

Hawkins has not caught a pass in a game since 2013, but he will have an opportunity to be a backup. Malone and Walker, while not as skilled, should still have a role even if they are overtaken as starters. Gailliard could find a role as a gadget player who can line up in the backfield or the slot. Benson and Shelmire turned down Power 5 programs in favor of SMU, but unless the players above them underwhelm, SMU can redshirt both without fear of damaging its depth. Both bring excellent speed and are talented enough to play right away if needed.

Rau may have the easiest path to snaps among any true freshman at SMU, especially after Herndon’s departure. He’s the more natural receiver and can play in two-tight-end looks with Gaines, either on the line or in the slot as a seam threat. Becker is starting out at tight end and could be used as more of a blocker, but he’s likely to redshirt and try to develop his frame into that of an offensive tackle. Kaufman is more of a receiver and moved back to offense after playing linebacker in the spring. Dickman is more of a blocking specialist.

The unknowns

How much progress will Thomas actually make? In the spring, Morris said he has as much, if not more, talent than anyone on SMU’s roster. He has plus ball skills, a large catch radius and showed he was an elite run blocker in high school. But he can’t continue to have the mental lapses that led to missed assignments and sloppy routes as a freshman. If he focuses, there’s no reason he can’t be as effective as Sutton was last year and be the reliable second option SMU lacked last season. 

Bold prediction

James Proche and Kevin Thomas are the starters opposite Sutton. In each of his spring press conferences, Chad Morris singled out Proche’s skills and his positive attitude. He is going to have a role if he is a starter or not, but his explosiveness will prove too important to take off the field for long, and he can play in the slot or outside. Receivers coach Justin Stepp and the rest of the offensive staff have worked on Thomas’ attitude and mental preparation. With a better attitude and concentration, he’s one of SMU’s best players.

Projected depth chart

9-man 1: Sutton

9-man 2: Honey

5-man 1: Proche

5-man 2: Castille

5-man 3: Walker or Gailliard

2-man 1: Thomas

2-man 2: Castille (sometimes Proche)

2-man 3: Malone or Hawkins

3-back 1: Gaines

3-back 2: Rau

3-back 3: Kaufman

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