Billy: Running Backs
Usually, I get the scraps for these types of things. Forced to make a case for something that might not actually be "the best." This time, I was shocked that none of the staff picked running backs. Not many programs can be lucky enough to return this type of talent, production and potential — at least at SMU's level especially. Running back Xavier Jones will be back after pretty much missing the entire season. After running for over 600 yards and 10 touchdowns behind a rough offensive line. Big things were expected from Jones. Instead, he played in two games and rushed for 140 yards. SMU will get him back and that's a huge boost for the Mustangs. Jones will join Braeden West and Ke'Mon Freeman, who combined for nearly 1,700 yards this season. Aphonso Thomas will come off his redshirt year and Jordan Carmouche might be in the mix as well. SMU has plenty of running backs and they're getting older, more mature and have a good bit of experience. SMU should easily top the 2,000 yard mark next season between its top two running backs. If things go really well, that number should creep in on 2,500 yards. There's plenty of reasons to be optimistic and excited about this group.
Patrick: Wide Receivers
There’s as much talent at wide receiver as anywhere else on SMU’s roster, and SMU will return everyone important as long as Courtland Sutton stays in school. Wide receiver should be one of SMU’s strongest position groups, provided the unit keeps improving as it has the last two seasons. James Proche gave SMU a needed threat opposite Sutton. He is a downfield threat and dangerous in space, but he needs a little more consistency. Xavier Castille had problems separating in his freshman year, but improved his separation and route running during his sophomore season. He has to cut down drops, but he’s already good chain mover for SMU who Ben Hicks grew comfortable targeting. Kevin Thomas and Alex Honey need more overall consistency, but both have always had the size and ball skills.
The newcomers in the group aren’t really true newcomers. That’s a luxury. Each redshirted last season and practiced with the team. Don’t be surprised if Trey Quinn starts right away and gives SMU consistent production. Once he was healthy, he looked great in practices in the fall. Brandon Benson and Josh Shelmire are speedy downfield threats who can play multiple receiver positions. At worst, they’ll provide competition to keep the guys above them sharp.
Chad Morris’ offense has had deep receiver rotations before, and SMU’s should consist of six or seven more consistent players in 2017. SMU spent a lot of time transforming the receiving corps in its first two classes. Now it’s time for those results to show.
Hatts: Defensive Line
Just a couple years ago, SMU’s defensive line was one of the softest parts of the team. However, this 2017 group has a chance to be a real asset next season with Justin Lawler coming back for his senior year to lead this young but talented group of defensive lineman. The d-line group is filled with some shifty pass rushers and some big bodies in the middle to help stop the run. Of the younger core, sophomore Demerick Gary could be ready for a big second season on the Hilltop after coming on strong late in the year. This group also has some nice depth with the likes of Chris Biggurs, Mason Gentry, Ken McLaurin, Patrick Jones and others ready to capitalize off the attention that will be paid to Gary and Lawler. Noah Jones is also a guy that could come in early next season and contribute right away to help make this group be even stronger. With solid depth and some of SMU’s key playmakers returning from last season, this defensive line has a chance to wreak havoc on offenses as the Mustangs look to return to bowl play in year 3 of the Chad Morris era.
One of the brightest spots for SMU in 2016 was its ability to cause turnovers-particularly through the air. And While 12 of the Mustangs’ 18 interceptions came from seniors, Jordan Wyatt, who picked off four passes and forced four fumbles last season, returns next season and should only get better with another offseason under his belt. SMU finished the season with a +2 turnover differential but it easily could have been greater. The Mustangs forced 19 fumbles in 2016, but only recovered eight. If SMU can continue to give itself opportunities to create takeaways, SMU‘s yearly win total will continue to grow.
Phil: Passing game
Whether or not Courtland Sutton returns, SMU’s passing should be productive in 2017. If Sutton returns, SMU has the best receiver in the AAC and one of the best in the country. If Sutton decides to forgo the rest of his SMU career and enter the NFL draft, SMU still has a skilled, deep receiving core. James Proche had a solid freshman season, catching 57 balls for 709 yards and six touchdowns. He will be the number one receiver if Sutton leaves. SMU also has Xavier Castille, Shelby Walker, Alex Honey and Kevin Thomas returning. LSU transfer Trey Quinn is also eligible to play for SMU in 2017. If one of those players steps up next year, SMU will have a scary set of receivers.
At quarterback, SMU will have a healthy competition. Last year’s starter Ben Hicks will be joined by Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey, Wisconsin transfer D.J. Gillins, freshman Charlie Brewer and potentially Matt Davis, if he can get a medical redshirt. Whoever emerges from that deep pool of quarterbacks will have to play well to win the job, and SMU is better equipped to deal with an injury at that position. SMU’s offensive line should also be improved. Chad Pursley is coming back from a torn ACL and there are a number of redshirt freshmen who can step in and play next year.