James Proche's big game
In 2015, as Courtland Sutton went, so did SMU's passing game. Quiet game from Sutton? SMU probably wasn't productive throwing the ball. Sutton had his lowest statistical output of the season (2 catches, 25 yards) in Saturday'd 35-31 win at Tulane, but SMU's passing game didn't suffer.
SMU redshirt freshman wide receiver James Proche had a career high 164 yards and caught two touchdown passes in Saturday's win at Tulane. He had two touchdown catches in SMU's previous seven games this season. After he was forced to sit out last year due to credits not transferring over from his former high school, Prime Prep, he's now SMU's leader in receptions, with 41.
"I was so ready. I worked so hard this offseason," Proche said. "I wanted to come in as a true freshman and make the impact that I planned to make since I was in eighth grade, that was taken away from me. It was so exciting. I just felt so blessed to be able to come in and play this game. I struggled a lot last fall just being away from the game mentally."
Proche was one of SMU's higher-ranked recruits in the 2015 class, Chad Morris' first at SMU. He committed to SMU under the previous staff but stayed with his pledge during the coaching change. He was one of the first recruits Morris visited when he got the job.
In SMU's spring game, he had 5 catches for 48 yards. On the first day of spring practice, Morris mentioned Proche as one of the younger players he was excited about and whom SMU needed to contribute opposite Sutton.
"To see James have the success that he had the other night was something that we've seen flashes of this year," Morris said. "We were just waiting for that breakout game. We were able to get that the other night."
Proche may be SMU's receptions leader, but that's not any indication of Courtland Sutton ceding any work to him. After SMU's second-leading receiver had 258 yards in 2015, the offensive coaches sought any production from others. That's a way to take attention off Sutton, but also a way to take advantage of the attention put on him.
"We were trying everything we could to get (Sutton) the ball," offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said. "It makes it tough when you see certain coverages. But on James' touchdown, you see the safety drop on the underneath route on Courtland. If the safety doesn't do that, James doesn't catch a touchdown pass."
Now, the staff's challenge to Proche is to see that performance consistently. He's also not done improving on some technical aspects of his game.
"His depth on routes, not peeking at the top of his route, coming in and out of the break and sharpening his route where he's not drifting, not allowing it to get undercut," Craddock said. "Stuff that fans watch but don't pay attention to, but coaches like us with no life, when watching film over and over, we see it over and over. That's ultimately going to make him a better receiver."
Defensive line depth keeps helping
SMU held Tulane's option-based offense to 80 first-half yards, but then gave up touchdowns on three straight drives in the second half. After SMU came back with two fourth-quarter touchdowns to take a 35-31 lead, the defense had to protect the lead with 1:16 left. After failing in similar spots last season, SMU prevented Tulane from reaching the end zone. That's twice this season SMU's defense has succeeded in protecting a one-score lead in the final 90 seconds.
"I've said it all year long, I think our depth up front has helped us stay as fresh as possible through the course of the season," Morris said. "Coach Wyatt and coach Malone have done a good job and how they've subbed early in the year has kept our guys fresh."
SMU has signed nine defensive linemen in Morris' two recruiting classes, but holdover players have been the most important part of the rotation. Jarvis Pruitt had 3 sacks against Houston. Deon Green had a fourth-down tackle of Dontrell Hilliard that prevented Tulane from reaching the red zone. Zelt Minor has 6 tackles for loss this year, which is second on the team. All three were part of a defensive front that struggled mightily last season.
Defensive coordinator Van Malone attributes their improvement to the depth behind them, supplied from the younger players. Freshman end Demerick Gary has 5.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. Michael Badejo, Chris Biggurs, Delontae Scott and Michael Scott have all logged reps on the defensive line this year after either redshirting or playing in high school last year. Junior college transfer J.T. Williams has played in the middle at times too.
"Those guys came on not to be superstar players this year, but to give guys like Deon and Zelt rest so they could be at the high level, when we needed Deon to be on the fourth-down stop," Malone said. "When those big guys have played 60 to 70 plays, it gets to be tough."
Malone admitted that he's been impressed, and a little surprised, with some of the true freshmen, who have earned themselves roles on the line early in their careers.
"Fortunately at different points this season, we've been able to depend on those young guys," Malone said. "But in fall camp, you can't check their name off as guys you know will come through for a full season."
The defensive line didn't play perfectly last weekend, though. Tulane ripped runs of 67 and 44 yards on consecutive second-half drives, plus a nine-yard touchdown run, on which its offensive line pushed SMU's defenders off the ball and created huge holes. SMU allowed 311 yards in the second half.
"I thought we tackled really well in the first half," Malone said. "Then around the 4:14 point in the third quarter, we missed a tackle. In that style of offense and that system, everybody has to be in their gap. Then there comes a person who is ablate get off a block or is unblocked, and that guy can't miss a tackle because they have everyone accounted for. If you have someone miss a tackle, there's not a lot of overlap."
"They were able to break a tackle, we'd miss a tackle, somebody would jump out of his gap, and they'd make a play. You watch the NFL, that happens in the NFL. What our defense needs to be able to do is limit those occurrences."
Morris, Norvell share a past
After spending 16 years as a high school coach, Morris' first year as a college coach was in 2010 at Tulsa, where he was offensive coordinator. His wide receivers coach was Mike Norvell, who is in his first season as the head coach at Memphis. At 35, Norvell is the youngest head coach in the FBS.
After 2010, Morris left to become the offensive coordinator at Clemson. Norvell followed Tulsa head coach Todd Graham to Pittsburgh and Arizona State as his offensive coordinator.
"When he was at Arizona State and I was at Clemson, we'd get together and talk ball, talk periodically through the course of a year, whether by call or by text message, just asking, 'hey what do you like in this, how would you defend this,'" Morris said or Norvell. "Just the way he game-plans, the way he sees defenses and sees coverages, he's just a really smart football coach."
At Memphis, Norvell took over for Justin Fuente, who left to be the head coach at Virginia Tech after building Memphis from a doormat into a 10-game winner. Memphis enters this week's game at 5-3, but has dropped its last two games against Navy and Tulsa.
Memphis' defense leads the AAC (and ranks third in the nation) with 20 turnovers forced. But the Tigers ranked ninth in the conference in total defense, allowing 432.1 yards per game. In their last two games, they gave up 42 points to Navy and 59 to Tulsa.
"They force you to put the ball in jeopardy a bunch, they force you to make impulse decisions, and they capitalize on interceptions," Morris said. "Very aggressive, very solid at the linebacker position."
The two teams met in Memphis in the last game of the regular season, with the Tigers winning 63-0. Memphis quarterback and current Denver Bronco Paxton Lynch threw 7 touchdowns in the first half, tying an NCAA record.
"We're not going to harp on that ball game. That was a different year, different team," Morris said. "Just outside of the logos, we're not really comparing anything. Some of the same guys on that team a year ago are playing some of the best football of anybody in the country. It's two totally different teams. For me to come in and focus all our attention on the emotions of last year's game and what we felt would be doing our players an injustice and our staff an injustice.
"Do they know that and do they remember that ball game? Yes. Do I have to remind them of that every day? No way. They know that a lot of our respect was taken away from us in that game 11 months ago."
This and That
- Morris said SMU's ability to shake off two first-half Ben Hicks interceptions and score two fourth-quarter touchdowns reflected the team's growing confidence in Hicks. "After the Temple game, he took a beating and just got back up. He gained a lot of respect that week. They've gained so much confidence in him and that's boosted his confidence even more."
- Craddock said that Braylon Hyder's snaps at right guard in the second half were scripted and a chance to limit Jerry Saena because of some minor injuries. He said both played well enough that the starter at right guard this weekend has not been determined yet.
- Craddock said Myron Gailliard has handled his transition to playing some running back admirably: "That kid is doing really, really good at picking it up. Very unselfish. He could be complaining about the transition to running back to help us. He hasn't griped. He hasn't complained one bit. He's gone to work every day."
- Though SMU gave up four sacks on Saturday, Craddock said all the blame doesn't fall on all on the offensive line: "You can look at sacks all you want and try to grade the offensive line, but we try to look at everybody. Ke'Mon gave up a sack. Ben gave up one or two, or really kind of a half."
- Morris said linebacker Blake Carlisle has been placed in the concussion protocol and is unlikely to play this week. Linebacker Carlos Carroll was a game-time decision last week and did not play, but should be ready vs. Memphis.