Young secondary hungry for more big plays
While SMU's offense exploited a few big plays, especially late in the spring game, through the air on SMU's secondary, it's a unit that's in flux. Gone are Horace Richardson and Darrion Millines, who were not only key players, but leaders in the secondary. Rising sophomore Eric Sutton is one of the biggest beneficiaries of early playing time and a whole year in the weight room. Sutton came in at just below 155 and is now at 170, the Cedar Hill product told Scout after the game. That's an impressive jump and will help him play more physical at the line of scrimmage. Safeties Rodney Clemons, Mikial Onu, Christian Davis and Kevin Johnson are all vying for time on the backend of things. William Jeanlys is the elder statesman of the secondary in a way along with Cedric Lancaster, but Lancaster still has to step up to earn more time. There's plenty of opportunity and competition can bring out the best in players. SMU needs that in a big way if they're to improve on their No. 9 finish in the country in interceptions (T-9th).
Veteran defensive line helped by young versatility
After talking with veterans Mason Gentry and Justin Lawler after the spring game, it's clear that the defensive line is the strength of Van Malone's defense heading into his third season at SMU. With Gentry and Lawler returning along with defensive linemen Demerick Gary, Nick Horton, Chris Biggurs, J.T. Williams, Michael Badejo and others, the dropoff from starters to backups shouldn't be too much according to the players. Gary continues to grow his game, playing more of a 3-tech defensive tackle, Gentry said, after spending time at defensive end last year. Getting Horton back healthy while continuing to develop Patrick Jones and Ken McLaurin gives SMU plenty of competition along the defensive line. With Badejo and Delontae Scott in addition to the freshmen coming in, SMU has a wealth of players to move around to strongside or weakside defensive end and maybe slide inside like Gary is doing. The depth coupled with versatility is something that should serve SMU well heading into the 2017 season. That's not mentioning defensive end Hunter Thedford's two sacks in the spring game to add to Williams' sack on the day.
Elijah McQueen could be the next young star of this defense
With Myles Duke, Jordan Carmouche, Noah Spears and Kyran Mitchell all out, plenty of options at linebacker were on the shelf. The true freshman Elijah McQueen stepped into the Star and played extremely well all spring. Getting time with both 1's and 2's, McQueen moved well out there and was directing traffic and communicating well with the linebackers and secondary. The coaches have been quick to sing praise on the Terrell, Texas product and with this huge spring and a whole summer ahead, it's not out of the question to think McQueen could start or play a ton to start the year. Staying healthy is part of the game and a few of the guys competing with McQueen have had trouble doing that. His versatility will help him earn more playing time as well, being able to potentially slide back to just safety too.
SMU should feel really good about its quarterback situation
This isn't a surprise, but more of a confirmation of a feeling that was evident on paper. Ben Hicks threw 15 touchdowns and six interceptions over his final seven starts in 2016. This spring, he still looks comfortable running the offense. His teammates gravitate toward him much more than they did during the season. In the spring game, he completed 11 of his 17 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. He was not intercepted. He connected with Trey Quinn for a 6-yard touchdown on a run-pass option, then again for about 25 yards down the sideline and in a tight window. Hicks will need to keep improving his consistency, but he still had a good spring and took the first snaps on Saturday. Rafe Peavey, who sat out last season, looked comfortable running the offense all spring. That's impressive considering he came from Arkansas, which runs a much slower, pro-style, run-heavy offense than SMU. He adds the quarterback run dimension to the offense as well. Both ended their spring seasons with good performances in the spring game, and didn't even have SMU's best receiver in Courtland Sutton (healthy inactive) to throw to. D.J. Gillins will join the competition in the fall. He was not cleared for full participation for the spring, but in every scrimmage, he stood about 20 yards behind the quarterback, practicing his dropback and progressions for the play that was called.
Depth at receiver looks even better
Receiver was one of SMU's best units a year ago. This year, if the spring is any indication, it looks even better. Courtland Sutton's role and abilities are obvious. SMU sat him a lot later in the spring so less experienced guys could play. James Proche II, unsurprisingly, was among the most frequently targeted receivers all spring. His numbers will really increase if he can be a little more consistent making moves and cuts in the open field. Trey Quinn is as advertised. The former four-star recruit admitted he hated last season because he couldn't stand being forced to redshirt due to transfer rules. He's been consistently separating all all spring and playing multiple receiver positions. It's now or never for Kevin Thomas, but he's been consistently on the field, getting a lot of snaps and producing. He caught a game-high six passes for 61 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. SMU wants to give him the chance, and so far, he looks like he's eared it. Now, he has to keep it, but early signs are positive. http://www.scout.com/college/southern-methodist/story/1769440-smu-spring...
Chad Morris keeps raving about Myron Gailliard all spring. He earned the co-Most Improved Player for the offense during the spring. Morris complimented him a lot during fall camp last season, but he caught only five passes all season. Shelby Walker, the rising senior who seemed destined to get phased out of the offense, was a co-Offensive MVP for the spring season. He stood out in SMU's two previous scrimmages.
All of this activity came without Xavier Castille (63 catches in the last two seasons), who missed most of the spring with an injury. Offensive coordinator Joe Craddock told Scout after the spring game that the coaching staff has emphasized position versatility in SMU's receivers. Gailliard, Proche, Thomas, Castille, Walker and Quinn can all play multiple spots. In the past, Morris' offense has rotated a lot of receivers. Now, SMU might have the ability to do that as well.
SMU might actually have some depth at tight end
Another Chad Morris offensive staple is the tight end. Clemson used the the position heavily when he coached there, and it still does. SMU, though, had 18 total catches from its tight ends last year. That number doesn't tell the whole story, since sometimes they were used to block, were not part of plays, or were a fourth or fifth read on a play. But SMU has a legitimate competition at tight end now. Arizona State grad transfer Raymond Epps didn't play in the spring game as a healthy inactive and Mitchell Kaufman missed the game with an injury, giving Ryan Becker and Corey Rau all the snaps at tight end. Both had good games, an extension of their spring seasons. The staff liked Becker's physicality last fall, and that allowed him to see the field over Rau. He showed it off right away in the spring game, using a kick-out block to open up a hole for Ke'Mon Freeman's long run on the game's second drive. He has also lined up in the slot and split out wide, where he can block smaller payers and be a receiving option. He has been more active in the passing game this spring. Rau too looks more comfortable blocking, though he still could finish blocks better. His receiving ability has been on display all spring. He caught a 58-yard touchdown from Peavey on an out route, during which he put a double-move on a defender to get open. SMU needs more consistency from the tight end spot, both as blockers and receivers. This group looks equipped to produce more than 18 total catches.