Changes in the RB approach
SMU's running back rotation isn’t what the coaches expected before the season. Xavier Jones has played in two games and is out indefinitely. Braeden West has 35 more carries through six games this season (97) than he had all of last season (62). Ke'Mon Freeman started the season as a running back, but shifted some of his attention to quarterback back after Darrel Colbert was injured in the week after the season opener.
With Colbert expected back from injury, Freeman won’t need to sacrifice some of his running back snaps in practice to work as the backup quarterback. That’s going to help SMU find some more balance in its backfield.
“That’s what we’re ultimately going to do, find the hot hand early in the game,” offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said. “In my opinion, we need to take a little bit off of Braeden. He’s had a huge workload. Now that Ke’Mon is starting to come on a little bit, we have to get him the ball a little bit more. We have to be able to trust him in critical situations in the game as well.”
Freeman has rushed for 286 yards on 68 carries this season. He scored his first career touchdown in the Oct. 7 43-40 overtime loss at Tulsa. West had 22 carries against the Golden Hurricane, his second game this year with more than 20 carries. SMU used the bye week to give West and some other high-usage players some lighter work during practice.
“I don’t think he’s wearing down, I feel it’s more of how big Braeden is in stature," Craddock said. "He’s only 170 pounds. I don’t think he can carry the ball 25 to 30 times per game and be effective. I think we have to use some other guys we have and keep Braeden fresh.”
Houston’s explosive offense and stout defense
The Cougars entered the season as an overwhelming favorite to earn the Group of Five’s spot in the New Year’s Six. After an Oct. 8 loss to Navy, they need help just to win their division.
Houston is ranked No. 11 in the AP Top 25 and is 6-1 this season. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. totaled 38 total touchdowns in 2015 and has 16 so far in 2016 for the AAC’s second-highest scoring offense (42.7 ppg).
“Greg Ward makes them right. He covers for any deficiencies they might have, though I haven’t seen any deficiencies,” Morris said. “He’s everything and more you expect in your quarterback. No one has stopped him yet. No question he’s one of the best players, if not the best player, in our conference.”
Under the direction of defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, Houston allows the fewest points per game (19) and yards per game (298.7) in the conference. No other AAC team allows fewer than 300 yards per game.
“They’re very multiple in what they do. They do a good job of disguising,” Craddock said. “They bring a lot of pressure from everywhere. Sometimes the pressure comes from the second row of the stands. It just comes from everywhere.”
In February, defensive tackle Ed Oliver became the first five-star recruit to sign with a Group of Five team since recruiting rankings started. The Houston native leads all defensive linemen in FBS with 43 tackles and five pass breakups (first and second on his team, respectively). He has nine tackles for loss and plays the interior lineman spot in Houston’s odd-man front.
“They have who I feel like is the best defensive player in our conference and one of the top guys in the country, and he’s just a true freshman,” Morris said of Oliver. “He’s all that he was built up to be in recruiting. He’s disruptive, he’s active and he’s relentless. He’s definitely a difference-maker.”
Struggles on third-and-short
SMU converted only four of 19 third-down chances vs. Tulsa. The Mustangs ran the ball on three different third or fourth downs with 2 or fewer yards to go – and didn’t convert any one. Since the start of the Temple game, SMU has converted three of eight such situations using run plays and committed a false start on another.
“If we just do our job, we’re going to get a yard. It’s not that hard to get one yard, or as we say, one American yard," Craddock said. "If everybody does their job, we get one American yard. In the bye week when you turn on the TV and you watch guys, they’re running the same thing we’re running. It’s about doing your job with excellence, and we’ll get one yard.”
For the season, SMU is converting 34.3 percent of its third downs, which ranks 104th in the nation.
“I want to see us run harder, I want to see us block harder, I want to see us coach harder, I want to see us do everything a little bit more,” Morris said. “Our motto is ‘One More.’ And we needed one more yard. We were unable to get the one more yard at the opportune times.”
This and that
- SMU gave up 315 rushing yards in the loss to Tulsa. Even though the game was close, defensive coordinator Van Malone isn’t treating it like any kind of victory. “When you get on that bus and you didn’t win, the sandwiches just don’t taste good, no matter how you lose,” Malone said. “There’s no relief that you played well, that you played them close. It’s all the same to us.”
- Morris said the locker room was “as hurt as I’ve seen (it) in 18 games” after the overtime loss.
- Craddock likened Ed Oliver to current Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who played at Clemson was Craddock was a graduate assistant there. “He’s fast-twitch, quick-twitch. He’s very quick off the ball.”
- Morris said on his radio show Monday night that left tackle Nick Natour and reserve guard Braylon Hyder will return vs. Houston. Natour’s return allows Chauncey Briggs to move back to right tackle and Jerry Saena to move from right tackle back to right guard.
- Morris and Craddock called out some players during team meetings and film review after SMU’s Oct. 1 loss at Temple. They responded with a 43-40 overtime loss at Tulsa, which the coaches called SMU’s best offensive performance. “That’s what I was most proud about with our whole offense, is that everybody responded,” Craddock said. “We called some guys out and they took it personally, which they should have, and they did more…We ask for a little bit more every day, and I think we got that last week."
- Darrel Colbert missed five games with a hand injury suffered in an “off-the-field” incident. He hasn’t taken a snap this season. In the season opener vs. North Texas, SMU played Ben Hicks on one series in the first quarter to get him some meaningful game reps. He had not appeared in a college game. Craddock said SMU will consider doing the same with Colbert, even though he attempted 21 passes in 2015. “It depends on how he practices. He’s going to be rusty coming off his injury,” Craddock said. “He hasn’t practiced in a while. He got in very sparingly last week.”
- West is one of three players who flipped from Houston to join Morris’ first recruiting class. Ben Hicks and Bryce Wilds are the other two. “I would say it’s just as big as any other game,” West said. “Of course I want to win it, especially because I didn’t have my best game last year (against Houston.”
- Asked to name some players who stood out in practice during the bye week, Morris named some who aren’t going to be playing in games this year. He said transfers Rafe Peavey (Arkansas) and Trey Quinn (LSU) are practicing full after sitting out earlier in the season with injuries, and according to Morris, have practiced well. “Trey Quinn is going to be a phenomenal player for us,” Morris said. “He had an opportunity to get out there and get more involved.”