Billy: Offensive Line
I'm pretty lucky that I get to attack the offense line, but it's also the position with the most uncertainty. Left tackle Chad Pursley was out for the season and that was a major blow to the unit this season. Nick Natour started nearly every game at left tackle instead. SMU had Jerry Saena at right guard and Daniel McCarty and Braylon Hyder at left guard step in and start for much of the season, but consistency again was the biggest issue. At right tackle, Chauncey Briggs will depart after starting most of the season out there. The only consistent starter was Evan Brown at center, who was the strongest SMU offensive lineman all season.
Next year, McCarty, Briggs, Saena and Travis Fister all depart and an influx of talent is expected off of redshirts and Alan Ali and Hayden Howerton in the 2017 class right now. Evan Brown will anchor the middle again, but other than that, SMU will have four new starters along the offensive line potentially if Natour gets beat out by Pursley. Bryce Wilds is expected to compete for that right tackle position and the staff expects him to continue to develop enough to start even with the addition of as many as three offensive tackles in the class along with Braxton Webb coming off his redshirt season. At the two guard spots, SMU will have as much competition as ever before with Kadarius Smith, Jacob Todrora and Keaton Bates. SMU will have plenty of competition along the offensive line and with another year of development, stands to be improved again.
Patrick: Defensive leverage and discipline vs. run
SMU’s biggest improvement defensively from 2015 to 2016 was forcing turnovers. Naturally that decreased the yardage allowed per game, but SMU still gave up 453 yards per game and 6 yards per play. A big reason for it was allowing lots of chunk plays. On many, an SMU defender displayed poor leverage against the run by failing to take good angles, keep the outside shoulder and arm free, and taking bad or inefficient angles to the play.
The overrunning and lack of leverage created missed gap assignments that allowed running lanes to open. Bad angles created cutback lanes and a lack of eye discipline allowed plays over the top. Against Temple, SMU had a problem with leverage and tackling in space, particularly from the back seven. Against Navy, defenders routinely fell for the triple option’s eye candy, creating running lanes and open receivers.
SMU’s coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for creating a more aggressive and takeaway-oriented mindset with the defense. Even with some of the discipline and leverage issues, SMU improved in that area from a season ago. Defenders played with more consistent technique that’s appropriate for their assignment on a given play. Van Malone cited Horace Richardson’s trust in his technique as a reason for his improvement this year. So SMU improved with defensive discipline, but it still has to improve even more in that area to cut down the yardage totals.
Hatts: 4 Over 4 Moments
One of coach Morris’ biggest messages in his first two season has always been the 4 minutes before halftime and right after half. For the second straight season, although there was improvement, the Mustangs struggled in this area getting outscored 89-48. Only three times all season did SMU come out on top during this stretch, against Liberty, Houston and East Carolina, which resulted in three of SMU’s five wins. Their other two victories came; SMU was able to tie this period which coach Morris said was also acceptable.
Turnovers hurt SMU in these moments and set good offenses like Tulsa and USF up in great scoring opportunities heading into half or coming out of half. This wasn’t always the case though, even when SMU was able to pin a team back, like against Navy, they had the tendency to give up long scoring drives in a minute or less that can simply be a backbreaker at the end of the half.
SMU will return with a lot of players that learned the hard way in these moments and heading into year 3 this will be one of the biggest things for them to focus on as they look to take that next step in getting to a bowl. It’s about focus and attention to detail which were two things SMU was still learning this past year.
Demo: Rush Defense
Next season SMU needs to improve its rush defense if it hopes to continue improving under Chad Morris. The Mustangs gave up 242.5 yards a game in 2016 and allowed 30 rushing touchdowns. Opponents averaged 5.1 yards per carry and attempted 90 more rushes than passes against SMU. The Mustangs weren’t very good defensively by any means, but when your defensive strength is creating turnovers in the passing game, you need to force teams to throw the ball. Why would anyone throw when they know they can probably move the ball just fine on the ground?
Phil: Special Teams
SMU’s special teams were a problem throughout the 2016 season. The kick coverage teams were gashed throughout the season, leading Chad Morris to try pooch kicks towards the end of the year, which did not go well. Opponents were constantly getting big plays on special teams to start a drive, leaving them with a short field to work with. Towards the end of the year, Morris began to put studs such as Courtland Sutton and Jordan Wyatt on the kick coverage unit, and Wyatt made a play, stripping a Navy return man. However, that cannot continue next season, as those players are too valuable to be put on special teams, which would risk injury. On the other side of the ball, SMU was unable to spring a big return throughout the season. Kevin Thomas, Kevin Johnson and James Proche shared return duties, and did not do much with the ball in their hands. Punting and field goal kicking were not terrible for SMU, but also were not areas of strength. Jamie Sackville averaged less than 40 yards per punt and Josh Williams was 3-8 on field goals over 29 yards. SMU clearly needs to put a greater emphasis on special teams next season, as last season’s performance cannot continue.