'How did we even get here?': SMU seniors leave lasting legacy

By Samuel De Leon

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DALLAS -- SMU’s turnaround goes back to second period engineering class at Taylor High School in Katy. Safety Rodney Clemons, never much of an engineer, would go on the computer in his high school class and look up pictures of the SMU 2015 signing class on 247Sports. 

At the top of the list was a smiling wide receiver named James Proche, who picked SMU over multiple Power Five offers. Scroll down a little and you find Spring running back Xavier Jones, who turned down an offer from rising power Memphis to stay in the state. 

“At the time, I didn’t know the bond I’d build with them,” Clemons said. “I didn’t know that James and Xavier would be my best friends for life. Just going back and looking at that, time has flown by.” 

These three committed to SMU as the Mustangs finished off a 1-11 season, the seventh such season since SMU received the Death Penalty in 1987. They committed to a new coaching staff led by Chad Morris, one that would not last their entire collegiate career. For some reason – brashly, perhaps – this class felt it could change things. 

The last time SMU reached the 10-win plateau? 1984, more than a dozen years before this recruiting class was born. The program had not won every home game since 1968. Even during an undefeated 1982 season, the Mustangs tied Arkansas. 

Actually getting there? Actually flipping a 2-10 record in their first season to 10-2 just four short years later? It’s still a little hard to believe.

“You couldn’t write this,” Clemons said. “We all stuck to the plan. We all said we’re going to do this when we came in. To actually do it meant the most.” 

There was a time where it seemed unthinkable. Jones and Clemons both suffered injuries during their freshman season. The NCAA forced Proche to redshirt after declaring him ineligible for his freshman season. The frustration culminated with a 63-0 loss to Memphis in the season finale, where everyone in the program had to do some soul-searching. 

“I’m sitting there like, did I make the wrong decision? Is this place for me?” Jones said. “I rode it out and good things happened."

And ride it out they did. Proche bounced back from the redshirt year by becoming a legitimate NFL prospect. Clemons started 49 games after tearing his ACL. Jones, especially, fought through nagging injuries almost his whole career. At one point, he considered quitting football. But after it all, he finished his career off with one of his best games, posting an easy 125 yards and two touchdowns to help the Mustangs pull away from Tulane. 

“[The seniors] set the standard,” Dykes said. “They’ve upped the standard, raised the standard. Everyone who sits in these meeting rooms see how they practice and prepare. They sit there and say, this is how it’s supposed to be done. That’s when you know you have something special as a program, when the older guys are coaching the younger guys.” 

Finishing Strong

One year ago, SMU suffered one of its most disappointing losses in recent memory in a 27-24 loss to Tulsa. It cost SMU a bowl game.

“I’d never felt so low at any point in my life,” said senior safety Patrick Nelson, who transferred to SMU in 2018. “I just felt like we had the game but made so many mistakes. Next week, we were back in the weight room, everyone grinding extremely hard. It really started in the offseason.”

Those experiences came out in the season finale against a pesky Tulane team. With SMU only up 21-17 entering the fourth quarter, a host of familiar faces helped put the game away. 

On the first drive of the fourth quarter, SMU quarterback Shane Buechele completed three passes for 40 yards to Proche alone, capped off by a 26-yard bomb on third down to create some separation. After Clemons’ defense forced a three-and-out, Buechele completed a 10-yard pass to Proche. Jones ran for a 25-yard score on the next play, and the rout was on. 

It was a fitting end for three of the most important players in program history. Ultimately, the Three Horsemen rewrote the SMU record books. 

Proche leaves as the career leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He passed Emmanuel Sanders, Cole Beasley and Courtland Sutton to get there. 

Jones passed Eric Dickerson with his record 20th rushing touchdown of the season. He ranks top-five in both rushing yards and rushing scores. 

Clemons posted 50 tackles in all four full seasons he played defensive back at SMU. He closed out with 265 career tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 26 passes defended and seven interceptions. 

Another member of that 2015 class, quarterback Ben Hicks, left as the leading passer in program history. He started multiple games for Morris at Arkansas after grad transferring. 

“We just look back at it like, how did we even get here?” Jones said. “It took a lot for us to come to a 1-11 program who had been in a slump for a while. But we believed in this school and we believed in each other. Ever since we got here, this is what we always wanted to do. What better time to do it than our senior year?” 

SMU is a program that has experienced tremendous success before. Now, it wants to be the college football program of Dallas once more. Winning 10 games in one of the hardest Group of Five divisions ever, with a shot to win 11? That’s a hell of a legacy to leave behind.

“You hope that the trajectory of the program continues upwards,” Dykes said. “You hope you look back in 20 years and we’ve won a lot of football games and had a lot of success and you look back on this group and say they’re the ones who changed SMU football and got it back on the map.” 

SMU will have a hard time replacing this senior class, but there are good players left. Quarterback Shane Buechele will return for his senior season, and wide receiver Reggie Roberson could too. Linebacker Richard McBryde is among a handful who will campaign for a sixth season of eligibility. The standard is now set: SMU is a winner. 

“We set a culture that we want to live on forever,” Proche said. “It’s crazy to think about, 50 years, my entire life, SMU has never been good. I came here on blind faith and people didn’t even know where I was going.

“The fact that we brought SMU back to prominence is an amazing feeling.”

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