The biggest story of SMU's offseason is its quarterback position -- who will become the leader, sophomore Neal Burcham or former Texas A&M transfer Matt Davis -- and just how effective will they be with the run-and-shoot offense?
SMU coach June Jones, in his seventh season with the Mustangs, has decided on the arm of Burcham to lead the team in its season opener at Baylor on Aug. 31.
Burcham, who started two games last year in place of the injured Garrett Gilbert, has the experience to be a factor for SMU, at least early in the season. Burcham went through spring practice as the No.1 quarterback and continued that role in fall camp.
"He has been waiting his turn to get in there," Jones said. "I have been impressed watching him the last couple of years. He's prepared himself, he's worked hard. It's just getting familiar with the offense and knowing where to go with the ball quickly and knowing your reads."
Some in the Dallas media believe that although Burcham may start early in the season, it will be Davis (with more mobility) who will lead the Mustangs back to a bowl by the end of the year.
"Davis might not be the ideal fit for this offense, but his upside is through the roof and his dual-threat ability adds another element to SMU's pass heavy Run N' Shoot offense," E.J. Holland of the Dallas Morning-News reports. "His explosiveness will equate to eight victories and a trip back to a bowl game."
That's a bold prediction inasmuch as Davis has never taken a snap in major college football biding his time behind Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M before transferring to Tyler (Texas) Junior College.
The next significant storyline is SMU's struggling defense from a year ago having to face Baylor's potent offense in the opener.
The Mustangs ranked No. 100 nationally in points allowed (33.3 a game) last year. Jones and defensive coordinator Tom Mason have praised SMU's young talent in the secondary and the Mustangs' experienced defensive line that returns all three starters.
SMU is deep enough to move senior Beau Barnes, who had 13 tackles for lost yardage last season, from defensive end to outside linebacker. Despite his production last year, Barnes might have to actually split time at the linebacker spot. That's a good predicament for Jones.
Not so good is SMU opening against Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, a Heisman candidate. The Mustangs must battle against two other in-state schools from Power 5 conferences -- TCU of the Big 12 and Texas A&M of the SEC.
No wonder Jones implied in a radio interview in July that schools such as his (not among the Power 5) should play each other in the spring while the big boys battle it out in the fall.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--RB Daniel Graham -- SMU sophomore Prescott Line has the most experience in the backfield starting eight times last year, but he rushed for only 332 yards. Gresham, a former Texas commit, was rated as the No. 1 fullback in the country out of high school. Gresham appeared to be a solid challenger for 1,000 yards rushing as a true freshman, but a recent knee injury may keep him on the sidelines this season if it requires surgery. He was offered a scholarship by Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Ohio State and Texas, among many others.
--TE Jeremiah Gaines -- The sophomore continues to develop his impressive raw talent. The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder was used sparingly as a true freshman last season but is slated to take over for Keenan Holman on the outside. Gaines was one of the top tight ends in the nation coming out of high school in Texas. A big, physical wide out, he will be a prime target for quarterback Neal Burcham starting in the season opener at Baylor on Aug. 31.
--LB Cameron Nwosu -- The senior transfer from Rice will be an immediate starter for SMU. He started his previous 25 games with Rice before redshirting last year while rehabilitating a knee injury. He has a clean bill of health heading into his lone season with SMU. How explosively fast and powerful is Nwosu? He blocked three UCLA point-after attempts in a 2012 game. He also has great instincts behind the defensive line, intercepting two passes for Rice in 2012.
SERIES HISTORY: SMU and Baylor, old Southwest Conference rivals, are deadlocked at 36-36-7 dating back to 1916.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It has been (tough) since I got here. It almost makes it so you almost have to go undefeated in your conference to get to a bowl game. Fortunately, we've been able to handle it for the six years that I've been here. It's going to be challenging this year because we are going to be young but at the same time, we're more talented than we've been." -- SMU coach June Jones commenting on a non-conference schedule that includes Baylor, TCU and Texas A&M.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: SMU should have a more productive running game after a dismal attack last year. In a run-and-shoot offense that had 341.4 yards passing per game, the running game only averaged 93.8 yards. Despite naming former linebacker Kevin Pope the feature back coming out of spring practice, coach June Jones will also look to use sophomore Prescott Line and true freshman Daniel Gresham. Gresham, a powerful, bruising runner with athleticism, may be lost for the season with a recent knee injury that may require surgery.
Scouting the passing game: Sophomore QB Neal Burcham is the starter, beating out Texas A&M transfer Matt Davis for that role. Burcham will operate in reportedly a scaled-back version of the run-and-shoot for Jones. Last season, Burcham was most effective against Central Florida when the offense was slowed, but he is capable of running a no-huddle offense. The wide receiver unit has some experience returning with senior Der'rikk Thompson and junior Darius Joseph. Two underclassmen to keep an eye on are sophomore Jeremiah Gaines and redshirt freshman Cedric Lancaster. Although Lancaster is listed only as 5-8 and 166, he has the speed and agility to be a big-play threat for SMU.
Scouting the run defense: The front seven will be the strength of the defense as it returns five of seven starters including junior Zach Wood and senior Beau Barnes on the defensive line. Barnes, who will also play outside linebacker, led the defensive line with 13 tackles for loss and five sacks. Providing the defensive line some help at linebacker will be senior Stephon Sanders and junior Jonathan Yenga. Yenga had a breakout season in 2013, posting 49 tackles and a team-leading six sacks. Rice senior transfer Cameron Nwosu is immediately in the mix is an extremely quick defender on the outside as a linebacker.
Scouting the pass defense: Only one starter, senior S Hayden Greenbauer, returns from a defensive backfield that gave 271.8 yards per game and was ranked 113th nationally. Bringing in new talent for defensive coordinator Tom Mason was essential. Sophomore cornerbacks Darrion Richardson and Ajee Montes are expected to take on bigger roles this season. Each had an interception last season.
Scouting the special teams: SMU's special teams struggled under first year position coach Carlos Barocio-Leon last season and 2014 might be the same. The Mustangs must replace graduated Chase Hover, who handled both kicking and punting duties a season ago. Jackson Koonce will likely take over a similar role as a true freshman. SMU had trouble returning kicks to its own 20 last year. SMU might turn to Deion Sanders' son, Deion Sanders Jr., to electrify the dormant return game.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):
--OLB Stephon Sanders (No. 27 outside linebacker, 377th overall) ? The senior started all 12 games for the Mustangs last season and ranked third on the team in tackles with 86. Sanders registered 13.5 tackles for loss (first on the team), and posted 3.5 sacks. He also tallied SMU's only safety of the season against Montana State when he collected a career-high 11 tackles in that game.
--DE/OLB Beau Barnes (No. 49 defensive end, 812th overall) -- The senior played and started in all 12 games at defensive end last year but because of SMU's depth on the defensive line, he will also play at outside linebacker. He was second on the team with a career-high 13 tackles for loss, including five sacks for 35 yards, last year. A versatile defender, he also had his first career interception at Memphis, which he returned for 19 yards.
--ILB Cameron Nwosu (No. 33 inside linebacker, 682nd overall) -- Nwosu sat out the 2013 season at Rice while rehabbing from a knee injury. He made a big impact as a junior for the Owls, setting an NCAA record by blocking three extra points in the first half against UCLA and recording 92 tackles. He was named honorable mention All Conference-USA. Since Nwosu completed his undergraduate degree at Rice, he will be eligible immediately for the Mustangs.
--WR JaBryce Taylor, a primary punt and kickoff returner for SMU as a freshman last year, has been dismissed from the program for undisclosed reasons.
--RB/LB Kevin Pope has been granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and will complete his fifth season in the SMU program this year. Pope played in only one game as a freshman before suffering a season-ending injury.
--RB Daniel Gresham, slated to be a potential feature back for SMU as a true freshman this year, may have to redshirt if his recently injured knee requires surgery.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football