SMU's offense needed a big play to earn some positive momentum in the waning moments of its first full-pads practice last Friday.
There was no question about it - the defense was getting the better of them. But, that's exactly how it should be this early in fall camp, according to head coach Rhett Lashlee. The offense is still installing the basics of the playbook and thinking through the concepts, giving a reactionary defense a leg up. The secondary had just secured a pick-six, and the entire defensive personnel had rushed onto the field, hooting and hollering while the offense trudged to its respective sideline.
A couple plays later, SMU quarterback Preston Stone had grander plans than converting the third-and-one.
The redshirt sophomore took the snap and threw the ball up for his newest receiver, TCU transfer Jordan Hudson, toward the end zone. Cornerback Charles Woods frantically sprinted to catch up and grabbed Hudson as soon as he touched the ball, but Hudson wrestled it down for a touchdown. Now it was the offense's turn to mob the field in jubilation.
"It’s good energy," Lashlee said after practice. "The biggest thing we talk about with our guys that I like about this team, and we’ve got to continue to do this, is we compete with each other and not against each other. That’s a small detail that matters. We’re not trying to show each other up. We’re competing with each other because it makes us better."
This is the competitive atmosphere Lashlee created in a roster overhaul that started when he took the job in November 2021. Sixteen of the 22 projected starters in our 2023 Magazine have transferred into the program. Jordan Hudson and Charles Woods are no exception. Hudson caught 14 passes for 174 yards as a freshman last season during TCU's storybook College Football Playoff run before taking his talents to the HIlltop. Woods, meanwhile, starred at nearby Dallas Kimball High School before suiting up for three seasons at Illinois State and two at West Virginia. Hudson might've bested Woods at the end of Friday's practice, but Woods got redemption the next day.
The influx of transfer talent has cultivated competition, and nowhere is that more evident than in the defensive secondary. Senior Brandon Crossley tied for the team lead last season with five passes defended, but he's had to hold off Fresno State transfer Cale Sanders Jr. to retain his nickel back position in the Mustangs' 4-2-5 scheme. The same goes for returning starter Bryan Massey, who's been pushed by former Stanford captain Johnathan McGill.
Lashlee said Crossley has responded to the challenge. Whereas he took chances in coverage last season that led to boom-or-bust outcomes, Crossley this fall has let the play develop and picked when to swarm on a route. Crossley said in 2023, unlike years past, there are no presumed starters based on playing time from last season.
“It’s really iron sharpens iron," Crossley said. "If the guy next to you isn’t pushing you, or the guy behind you isn’t pushing you, it’s not like you’re going to get better. Because you’re not scared of losing your opportunity.”
The secondary, however, isn't the most crowded room on the team. That designation goes to the running backs, where five guys legitimately have a case to start. After notching just 17 carries in the first seven games of last season, Tyler Lavine gave SMU's offense a shot of adrenaline in the back half of the year with 567 yards and eight touchdowns in six contests. SMU won four of its last five games. Senior Velton Gardner also returns.
But once again, the Mustangs have brought a horde of transfers to share the load. Miami transfer Jaylan Knighton led the Hurricanes in rushing two years ago with 561 yards and eight touchdowns when Lashlee was the offensive coordinator. SMU also has two top-five running back recruits from the class of 2021 in Camar Wheaton and Texas A&M transfer LJ Johnson. After transferring from Alabama, Wheaton was third on the team with 322 yards last year. Sure, SMU can't possibly split carries evenly between five backs, but SMU now has more depth if injuries arise like they did last season.
Lavine played through a torn patella tendon. Tre Siggers was hampered throughout the year by a groin and other nagging injuries. Wheaton spent the year getting up to speed after a torn meniscus in 2021. In the wide receiver room, Jake Bailey played in only four games due to a season-ending shoulder injury.
"We’re going to need everybody at some point," Lashlee said. "If you end up being that fourth or fifth guy, it takes a really mentally tough person to be able to push through that knowing that maybe week three, week seven or even the last game when you’re called upon, you’ll be ready and you’ll take advantage of it."
The good news? SMU's fourth or fifth guy now has either played major college football at another school or is a former four-star recruit.
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