It is late February. Which means it is college basketball season. It’s also still winter. But whatever, SMU is starting spring football practices on Tuesday anyway. That’s kind of important, even though it comes in the middle of SMU basketball’s conference title and NCAA tournament bid chase.
Looking beyond the 5-7 record and those home losses to Memphis to Navy that were basically a football version of Ronda Rousey’s last fight, SMU did a lot of good things in 2016. The defense finished ninth in the country with 18 interceptions. Only 17 teams had more takeaways than SMU’s 26. SMU even finished in the top 40 in sacks. The offense wasn’t a mess for the entire year after it lost the starting left tackle in fall camp, quarterback in the season opener and running back for all but two games. SMU still had a 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver. And the five wins, after all, were two more than SMU had in 2014 and 2015 combined.
So, what does SMU need to do to reach its first bowl game since 2012? Start with these five questions that SMU should answer by the end of the spring.
How wide-open is the quarterback spot?
Ben Hicks' first few games after replacing the injured Matt Davis were shaky. Just how shaky? Spanning four games, SMU had 13 straight possessions inside the opponent 18-yard line and didn’t score a touchdown. But he looked increasingly comfortable and confident as the season progressed. He had four interception-less starts in SMU’s last seven games. But SMU also has Rafe Peavey, D.J. Gillins and possibly even Matt Davis at quarterback. Davis is still awaiting word on a sixth year of eligibility and Gillins will not be a full-contact participant until the fall, but SMU has a really skilled group of quarterbacks either way. Will Chad Morris hold a wide-open competition at quarterback, despite Hicks’ improvement? If so, will it still look wide-open way at the end of the spring, or will one emerge? The final answer on a starting quarterback probably won’t come until late in fall camp – and that’s fine – but the spring will be a good gauge for the competition. Will SMU have multiple QBs who look ready?
Are the young offensive linemen ready to play?
SMU has not played a true freshman offensive lineman since Chad Morris took over. It’s not an easy position to learn as a freshman and the coaching staff’s preference is to redshirt guys there. But now no one in SMU’s four-man 2016 offensive line class is a true freshman. SMU came very close to playing Jacob Todora and Kadarius Smith last year. Now, are they actually ready and push for a starting spot? Can Braxton Webb and Harrison Barton push as well? If they all look comfortable in spring, SMU should feel good about the offensive line.
What does SMU have at tight end?
Historically, Chad Morris’ offense targeted the tight end a lot in the passing game. At SMU, not so much. SMU did use the tight end for blocking assignments on some pass plays and on others as a decoy, while other times he just wasn’t targeted. Still, no SMU tight end caught more than 10 passes in 2016, and none more than 16 in 2015. Jeremiah Gaines had some designed plays for him, but wasn’t a crucial part of the passing game. Now, he’s gone. SMU has Arizona State grad transfer Raymond Epps, junior Mitchell Kaufman, sophomore Ryan Becker and redshirt freshman Corey Rau. They have a combined 12 career catches. Will Epps offer much as a pass-catcher? Will Rau’s blocking improve to get him out there? Can Kaufman’s experience and athleticism help him snag the job? Is Becker a good enough receiver to be the main tight end? The position may take a while to settle, but it’d be a concern for SMU if none of those four shows much in spring.
Can younger linebackers push the veteran guys?
SMU’s defense had the most issues and least depth last season at linebacker. Now, Noah Spears is coming off a redshirt year and Jordan Ward should be more in the mix after playing mostly special teams last season. Jordan Carmouche is moving over from running back to linebacker, the position he was once committed to play at Arkansas. Will they be depth guys, or serious contenders to start? Will any impress enough to play over Anthony Rhone, Matt McNew or R.C. Cox? If they don’t, will any of those older guys look noticeably improved from last year? SMU needs to leave the spring with clarity at linebacker. The answer to at least one of those questions needs to be yes.
Will there be any clarity at running back?
Braeden West ran for 1,000 yards, held his own in pass protection and played though various injuries in 2016. And yet he’s not the obvious choice to be SMU’s primary back. That’s a good problem to have. SMU has everyone except Carmouche back from last year’s running back group, which at times went underappreciated. That includes a healthy Xavier Jones, plus Aphonso Thomas off a redshirt season. This isn’t a critical question that would spell trouble if unanswered at the end of spring. Maybe it’s better if not answered until fall camp. But the question remains: How will (or won’t) SMU work West, Jones, Thomas and Ke'Mon Freeman into a rotation? Will one be a primary back, or will SMU have a committee/situational backfield? This group has a chance to be really, really good next year. The question is how each will be used. Will SMU even try and play one more than the others this spring, or just give all equal work? If all four have a strong spring, the usage question might not be answered until deep into fall camp. The coaching staff would welcome good spring seasons from all four, even if it makes their decision in the fall tougher.