SMU 2024 Roster Autopsy: Mustangs revved up for ACC move with mix of transfers, returners

Phot by Jim Klenke

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2023 finish11-3, AAC championship, Fenway Bowl 
Off. PPG: 38.7 (8th in FBS) 
Def. PPG: 17.8 (11th in FBS) 
Key losses: DL Jordan Miller, DL DeVere Levelston, DL Elijah Chapman, OL Branson Hickman, OL Marcus Bryant 
New faces: 10 signees, 12 transfers 
Top additions: Edge Omari Abor (Ohio State), OT Savion Byrd (Oklahoma), DL Jonathan Jefferson (Georgia), WR Ashton Cozart (Oregon), DL Anthony Booker Jr. (Arkansas)


An improved running game and strong offensive line were unheralded storylines from an SMU offense that averaged the eighth-most points in FBS last season. The three-pony stable of Jaylan Knighton, LJ Johnson, and Camar Wheaton averaged over five yards a carry and accounted for 16 combined rushing touchdowns. All three return for SMU’s move to the ACC in 2024. 

That’s not to say the passing game wasn’t explosive and effective. As a team, SMU threw for 3,897 yards and 33 touchdowns with Preston Stone as the starter and Kevin Jennings as a reserve who played in eight games, including a start in the AAC championship game win over Tulane. The pair only threw a combined eight interceptions in 449 attempts. Stone and Jennings remain on the Hilltop, as do their top six pass catchers from 2023, including tight end RJ Maryland. 

The offensive line is the only concern, at least on paper. The Mustangs lost two starters – center Branson Hickman and tackle Marcus Bryant – from a unit that placed three players on the Dave Campbell’s All-Texas College teams. Rhett Lashlee & Co. did add transfers Savion Byrd and Nate Anderson from Oklahoma. Justin Osborne will get a look at center in the spring.

Projected Starters
  Player Year
QB Preston Stone Jr. 
RB Jaylan Knighton Sr. 
WR Jake Bailey Sr. 
WR Jordan Hudson Jr. 
WR Moochie Dixon Sr. 
TE RJ Maryland Jr. 
LT PJ Williams Soph.
LG Logan Parr Sr. 
OC Justin Osborne Sr. 
RG Jakai Clark Sr. 
RT Savion Byrd Jr. 

Breakout candidates

WR Brashard Smith – The Miami transfer is a Swiss-Army knife that Lashlee, who recruited Smith when he was the OC in Miami, can utilize as a running back, wide receiver, and returner. The former four-star recruit is a 5-10, 196-pound athlete who can be a real wildcard for the Ponies. 

QB Kevin Jennings – Starting quarterbacks rarely make it through the entire regular season without missing at least one game due to injury. Stone wasn’t healthy when the Mustangs played Tulane in the AAC championship game, but Jennings was there to lead the team to its first conference championship since the early 80s. Of the 13 FBS teams in Texas, only three started the same quarterback in all 12 regular season games of 2023. Having a quality backup is paramount and Jennings might be the best No. 2 in Texas. 

WR Ashton Cozart – The Oregon transfer is returning home to the Metroplex after a one-year stint at Oregon. Cozart played high school football at Flower Mound Marcus and was a four-star recruit who some saw as a Top 100 prospect nationally. At 6-3, he has size that can make him an instant weapon on third down and in the red zone. 

Key unit 

Running back – Balance is the name of the game for SMU. The rushing attack not only helped the offense increase its points per game average by a point, it allowed the defense to play fewer snaps because the Ponies could control the pace of the game. Moving to the ACC means a more physical brand of football. If Knighton, Johnson, and Wheaton take another step forward, that makes life a lot easier for Stone and the offensive line. 

Biggest question mark 

Can the OL handle the jump up in competition? SMU was 0-3 against the Power Five in 2023 and 11-0 against G5 squads. One of those losses was in the Fenway Bowl to future ACC opponent Boston College. The Mustangs bullied the AAC. They were bullied at times against TCU, Oklahoma, and Boston College on both sides of the line of scrimmage. SMU lost two of its best offensive linemen in Hickman and Bryant, but the unit should be more athletic this season.


Ask your buddies which college football team in Texas allowed the fewest points per game in 2023 and listen to how long it takes to say SMU. But that’s the right answer. The Mustangs’ 11-win season and conference championship was directly tied to the massive defensive improvements for Scott Symons’ unit in year two. SMU allowed 33.8 points per game in 2022 – 119th in the nation. That number plummeted to 17.8 last year – 11th in the country and tops in the Lone Star State by over a point (Texas at 18.9).

The unit brings back plenty of faces responsible for those improvements. The secondary will be led by Jonathan McGill, Isaiah Nwokobia, and Jahari Rogers. The linebacker duo of Ahmad Walker and Kobe Wilson return after leading the team in tackles last year. Defensive end Elijah Roberts anchors a defensive line that added six P5 transfers through the portal. 

Projected Starters

  Player Year
DE Elijah Roberts Sr.
DT Kori Roberson Jr. 
NT Anthony Booker Jr. Sr. 
Bandit Isaiah Smith Jr. 
LB Ahmad Walker Sr. 
LB Kobe Wilson Sr. 
CB Jahari Rogers Sr. 
CB Smoke Robinson Soph.
Nickel CJ Sanders Sr. 
FS Jonathan McGill Sr. 
SS Isaiah Nwokobia Jr. 

Breakout candidates

FS Ahmaad Moses – The Mansfield Summit product will battle for the free safety position in spring ball and should be an important cog in the secondary and on special teams again for the Mustangs. Moses played in all 14 games last year, including one start. He had four games with at least five tackles. Now a junior, Moses taking the free safety spot would free up McGill to play more nickel. 

LB Alexander Kilgore – Finding snaps at the same position as Walker and Wilson is a tough chore for the young linebackers on the roster, but Kilgore is too talented to keep off the field for long periods. His 36 tackles last year were good for seventh on the team. His ability to make plays (6 TFL, 3.5 sacks) will get him on the field on third downs and in other passing situations. 

Bandit Jahfari Harvery – The biggest losses for SMU were felt on the defensive line, but the Mustangs reloaded through the transfer portal. Harvery is another Miami transfer that Lashlee was familiar with from his time as an assistant coach in Coral Gables. The senior recorded 10.5 sacks in 50 career games for the Hurricanes. He’ll compete with Smith and Cam Robertson at Bandit. 

Key unit 

Secondary – The improvements in the defensive backfield unlocked the potential of the SMU defense. McGill is a leader who can play all three safety positions. Rogers grew into a No. 1 cover corner throughout the season. Nwokobia was a playmaker who made the No. 23 jersey proud. Then there are guys like CJ Sanders at nickel and Robinson at corner. Cornerback Deuce Harmon from Texas A&M could also figure into the starting lineup. SMU needs to commit seven or eight players to the run in the ACC, so its ability to play solid pass defense is crucial. 

Biggest question mark 

Stopping the run – The Ponies allowed at least 189 rushing yards in all three losses last year. They allowed 262 rushing yards to Boston College in the bowl loss. SMU did replace losses like Chatman and Levelston with major talent. All six of the defensive line transfers came from Power Five programs, including one from Georgia, Miami, and Ohio State. Defensive tackles such as Mike Lockhart, Jonathan Jefferson, and Anthony Booker must plug gaps, take on blocks, and let the talented linebacker core eat. 

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