SMU faced plenty of adversity in 2016 on offense, losing starters Matt Davis and Xavier Jones (pretty much) in the opening game and left tackle Chad Pursley in fall camp, but still managed to total 5,127 yards and average nearly 5.5 yards per play. Turnovers killed the offense at times along with protection issues.
In Year 3 under Chad Morris, that'll be the difference in another season without a bowl appearance or making SMU's first bowl since the 2012 season. This spring will show just how far the offense has come in some of those areas of concern.
It's now or never for Ben Hicks at SMU.
That's a harsh way of putting it, but SMU quarterback Ben Hicks has to step up in a big way this spring. The Mustangs' starter for nearly the entire 2016 season when Matt Davis went down with a torn ACL, Hicks threw for 2,930 yards and 19 touchdowns, but also threw 15 interceptions. Nine of those 15 interceptions came in his first four starts and four of his 15 interceptions came in his last two starts. Hicks was inconsistent for much of the season is the best way to put his 2016. SMU saw flashes of what made him highly-touted out of high school, but there were also moments when Hicks would throw blind into double or even triple coverage.
This spring, Hicks has a chance to prove he's still the man to lead SMU's offense. If he doesn't, the rising redshirt-sophomore will be relegated to a backup in all likelihood by the end of fall camp when D.J. Gillins enters the quarterback race in addition to Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey, who will be able to compete this spring. SMU isn't likely to name a starter out of spring, but it's no secret that Gillins and Peavey were brought in to provide depth and win the starting job. Hicks can prove it's still his job. From Year 1 to Year 2 as a starter, Hicks has to show more consistency to win the job. A solid spring for the Waco Midway product would go a long way.
Offensive line competition continues at a few spots
Will SMU have left tackle Chad Pursley back for spring after a torn ACL sidelined him in fall camp before the 2016? If so, SMU will have one of its questions along the offensive line answered during spring, but if not, who steps up there? Nick Natour started at left tackle for the Mustangs and the team also worked in Jerry Saena at left tackle too. Evan Brown is the unquestioned starter at center, having one of the better seasons for a Group of Five lineman and dominated Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver in SMU's upset win over the Cougars. Harrison Barton and Rex Printz figure to get time at backup there. Next to Brown, there will be a battle at left guard that will feature the likes of Natour, Kadarius Smith, Braylon Hyder and others. At right guard, if Pursley is back, expect Saena to be the starter there in spring, but more competition will come from Jacob Todora and others too. Right tackle is Bryce Wilds' to lose, but he struggled at times as a redshirt freshman so Todora, Braxton Webb and Natour figure to get looks there as well. There's competition at all positions outside of center for the most part and how the line shakes out coming out of spring can say a lot about where SMU will be at heading into the fall and 2017 season.
"Loaded" SMU backfield with a lot to prove still
Jeff Traylor takes over an SMU backfield that has plenty of playmakers and in reality, experience now. Traylor continuing to develop what SMU has in the backfield will be key to this offseason. Running back Xavier Jones is expected back, but how limited will SMU keep him in the spring? Jones had rushed for 117 yards against North Texas before going down with a hamstring injury. Big things were expected from him and that remains the same. 2016's backfield duo of Braeden West and Ke'Mon Freeman will have something to say about how much time Jones gets. The pair combined for around 1,700 yards last season behind an offensive line that was inconsistent in opening holes. Add redshirt freshman Aphonso Thomas to the mix, who tore up the spring game last year and SMU has plenty of options. Jones will be in bubble wrap for spring for the most part, but a huge opportunity remains for Freeman and Thomas to make big strides as running backs heading into their second year on the Hilltop.
Tight end may be biggest mystery for SMU outside of OL
SMU brought in Arizona State transfer Raymond Epps to compete for the starting spot vacated by Jeremiah Gaines' graduation along with Mitchell Kaufman, Ryan Becker and Corey Rau. Former quarterback Jordan Severt is listed with the tight ends again, but will he be a factor at all? SMU needs improved production on the blocking front, somewhere Epps can help with along with another year in the weight program for Kaufman, Becker and Rau. Expectations were high for Rau and now with a redshirt year under his belt, will need to show that improvement on the field to challenge for the starting tight end position. In Morris' offense, the three-back is a key cog in the offense in the running game. SMU needs the biggest overall from its tight ends.
Opposite of Courtland Sutton, talent and competition at 2-man and 5-man spots
SMU knows what it has in future NFL wide receiver Courtland Sutton, but behind him, Alex Honey and Kevin Thomas continue to battle for game reps. That's something to watch, but not nearly as big as the battle at the 2-man and 5-man spots. James Proche II and Xavier Castille will continue to battle along with Trey Quinn for reps at the 2-man spot. The staff is excited about what Quinn will bring as far as speed comes and he does have some of the more reliable hands on the roster, despite getting put in the doghouse at LSU for a couple drops against Alabama while he was at LSU. Brandon Benson and Josh Shelmire are coming off redshirt seasons and are expected to also see plenty of reps at the 5-man spot. SMU has as much talent at receiver as the staff has had since being on campus. How does everything shake out especially after Proche's breakout year? They'll move guys around as well to see what the best mix of talent and production they can get on the field at once.