Rhett Lashlee avoided the usual headaches associated with taking over a college football program. The first-year head coach was familiar with SMU given his two-year stint as offensive coordinator at the turn of the decade. He was calling plays for the Mustangs in 2019 when the program won 10 games for the first time since 1984.
Lashlee knew how to navigate campus and recognized the faces in administration. He knows the city of Dallas, and even recruited more than a third of the roster.
“The familiarity helped,” Lashlee said. “A lot of the guys on the roster knew me, and even the ones who didn’t could go ask the guys who did. I feel I had a better understanding of who we are as a program when I stepped on campus than maybe I would have at another school.”
That doesn’t mean change is easy. Lashlee spent the first month of the job meeting with his current roster whereas previous generations of new coaches hit the ground running on the recruiting trail. The advent of the transfer portal requires coaches to recruit their own roster before worrying about additions. The Mustangs lost a few key players from the 2021 roster due to transfer portal, namely Alan Ali and Ulysses Bentley IV. But those losses were offset by new additions and a roster that bought in quickly.
The quarterback room is set with returning starter Tanner Mordecai and Preston Stone, who the staff believes is a future star. The Mustangs added former five-star running back Camar Wheaton on a transfer from Alabama to add to a room that includes Tre Siggers, Tyler Lavine, and a healthy TJ McDaniel. Rashee Rice returns for his fourth season destined to become the No. 1 target on offense.
The Mustangs return a talented defensive line led by Elijah Chatman and DeVere Levelston. Jimmy Phillips, who is moving inside in the new 4-2-5 defensive system, is an NFL talent according to the staff. Isaac Slade-Matautia, an Oregon transfer, returned to form in the spring. SMU added Minnesota transfer JaQwondis Burns at linebacker.
“With the guys we have on the current roster, plus the transfers and freshmen we’re adding to it in the summer, we should expect to compete with every team on the schedule,” Lashlee said. “As a coach that is all you can ask for. Our hope is to be in the mix for a conference title.”
Talent wasn’t the issue for SMU under former head coach Sonny Dykes. The Mustangs built a footprint in Dallas and relied heavily on the transfer portal to lure DFW products back home after their first stop failed. SMU went 8-0 to start 2019, 7-1 in 2020, and 7-0 in 2021. The problem was the Mustangs’ closing ability. SMU was 3-9 down the stretch of the last three seasons.
“Guys want to come to SMU. They want to come to Dallas,” Lashlee said. “We’re on the verge of doing some great things here with the city behind us. Our home state is the metroplex; the ‘State of Dallas’, as we like to call it.”
Lashlee is tasked with taking SMU a step further into conference championship contention. SMU hasn’t won a conference title since 1984. The American Athletic Conference is set for change in the upcoming years with programs such as Houston and Cincinnati heading to the Big 12. That shift allows the Mustangs to rise to the top of a new-look AAC. Dykes helped SMU build a bigger brand and return to relevance on the football field.
“It takes time to build a winning foundation and that is what Sonny did here, and I was blessed to be part of it for two years,” Lashlee said. “That was our best four-year stretch since the Death Penalty. Our job is to build off that and make it even better.”
The schedule sets up favorably for SMU, which starts the season at North Texas before a home opener in Week 2 against Lamar. Games against Maryland and TCU mark the end of the out of conference schedule. SMU has the luxury of hosting Cincinnati and Houston – the two betting favorites in the AAC.
SMU overcomes recent late-season woes to be a surprise contender for the AAC title thanks to an explosive offensive and improving defense.
SMU falls out of AAC contention and struggles to reach a bowl game under first-year head coach Rhett Lashlee.
Game of the Year
SMU vs. TCU — September 24
The 101st rendition of the “Battle for the Iron Skillet” is extra spicy with Sonny Dykes returning to Gerald Ford Stadium as the head coach of the TCU Horned Frogs after leading SMU for the last few years. SMU is on a two-game winning streak over its crosstown rivals, but Dykes was in charge for those wins.
The SMU offense shouldn’t skip a beat despite losing the offensive-minded Sonny Dykes to crosstown rival TCU. New head coach Rhett Lashlee called plays for the Mustangs during their 10-win season in 2019. He’ll ask the offense to be more vertical and up-tempo under his direction in 2022 as he calls plays.
Lashlee inherits a talented quarterback room led by returning starter Tanner Mordecai. The Oklahoma transfer, and Waco Midway product, threw for a school-record 39 touchdowns in his first season at SMU. Mordecai passed for 3,628 yards last season, which is third-most in program history. His backup, Preston Stone, is a future star that Lashlee recruited to SMU for over two years. Lashlee won’t name a starter at any position, including quarterback, until a few weeks before the season opener.
“I feel like we have two guys that we can win with when a lot of programs are trying to find one,” Lashlee said. “That position was one of the brighter spots of our team in the spring.”
The running back room suffered a blow when Ulysses Bentley IV transferred to Ole Miss in the offseason. The Mustangs return Tre Siggers, Tyler Lavine, and a healthy TJ McDaniel to replace that production. SMU also added Alabama transfer Camar Wheaton, a former five-star prospect from Garland Lakeview Centennial.
Wide receiver is another position that suffered losses in production with Danny Gray and Reggie Roberson Jr. departing for the NFL. Rashee Rice is expected to be the No. 1 option; he’ll move outside after spending the last two seasons in the slot. The position unit added transfers Beau Corrales (North Carolina) and Jake Bailey (Rice). Bailey is expected to play in the slot.
SMU also lost four of its five starters along the offensive line. Starting center Alan Ali followed Dykes to TCU. The only returning starter – Jaylon Thomas – is moving from left tackle to right guard to help his draft stock. The additions of Owen Condon (Georgia) and Joe Bissinger (Virginia) from the transfer portal should provide the Mustangs with a new starting left tackle and left guard, respectively.
Offensive MVP: Tanner Mordecai
Mordecai put up video game numbers in his first season at SMU following a transfer from Oklahoma. He’ll need to learn a new system again in 2022.
Offensive Name to Know: RB TJ McDaniel
The running back room at SMU is crowded with the addition of former five-star Camar Wheaton from Alabama, and the return of Tre Siggers and Tyler Lavine. Still, McDaniel provided optimism that his once-injured ankle is healed after making it through spring ball; he was the starter in 2020 before suffering an injury that also cost him the 2021 season. McDaniel rushed for over 100 yards in two of the four games he started back in 2020.
Tanner Mordecai returns after a record-setting season at SMU that included 3,628 yards and 39 touchdowns. A young, talented Preston Stone provides quality competition at the position.
RUNNING BACKS: B
The addition of former five-star prospect Camar Wheaton eases the blow of losing Ulysses Bentley IV. Tre Siggers, TJ McDaniel, and Tyler Lavine provide the Mustangs with a stable of options.
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: B+
SMU replenished the ranks at wide receiver with transfers Beau Corrales (North Carolina) and Jake Bailey (Rice) after losing Danny Gray and Reggie Roberson to the NFL.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C+
Starting center Alan Ali followed former head coach Sonny Dykes to TCU. The Mustangs averaged 4.6 yards per rush in 2021 and only allowed 16 sacks.
A new-look SMU defense enters the 2022 campaign with one goal in mind.
“When you think about SMU, you think about offense,” starting linebacker Jimmy Phillips said. “Our goal is to make the defense the strength of the team. It is time for a change.”
The unit will base out of a 4-2-5 formation after allowing 28.42 points in 2021. An even-man front should play to the strengths of the Mustangs given an experienced and talented defensive line led by Elijah Chatman and DeVere Levelston. Gary Wiley and Turner Coxe add athleticism off the edge. New head coach Rhett Lashlee was excited about young players such as Je’lin Samuels to help provide depth.
“Based on who we are returning, I feel like the defensive line is the strength of our defense,” Lashlee said. “If you have a really good front, that helps the linebackers in the run game and the defensive backs because they don’t have to cover for as long.”
The linebacker unit pleasantly surprised Lashlee in the spring. Phillips’ move from outside to inside should pay dividends. Keeping Isaac Slade-Matautia, a former Oregon transfer, on campus was a win for the new staff. He struggled in 2021 to adjust to a new system but looked like an impact player in the spring. The position group also added JaQwondis Burns and Shanon Reid from the transfer portal.
Depth in the secondary is a concern for the new coaching staff. Lashlee is excited about young talents such as Isaiah Nwokobia at safety and Florida transfer Jahari Rogers at cornerback. He named Bryan Massey and Brandon Crossley as potential leaders in the safety room. SMU only had four scholarship cornerbacks on the roster during spring ball. The staff won’t be shy to add competition to the secondary through the transfer portal. The program estimates that 5-10 new transfers will arrive on campus over the summer, as well as the 12 prep products the program signed in the 2022 cycle.
“The reality is that we’re trying to get the best players we can to improve our roster and win a championship,” Lashlee said.
Defensive MVP: DeVere Levelston
Levelston provides experience and leadership, as well as pass rush ability, to a new-look SMU staff. He posted 6.5 sacks in 2021.
Defensive Name to Know: DE Je’lin Samuels
Defensive line should be the strength of SMU’s defense in 2022 and returning starters such as Elijah Chatman and DeVere Levelston aren’t the only reasons for optimism. The staff is excited about the depth along the defensive line and Samuels impressed more than most during spring practices. The 6-7, 247-pound redshirt freshman out of Sam Rayburn High School was a three-star prospect who also held offers from Baylor, Colorado, and Houston.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
Returning defensive tackles Elijah Chatman and DeVere Levelston provide SMU’s defense with a hard-nosed presence in the trenches. An edge rusher must emerge.
A healthy 2022 for Isaac Slade-Matautia would be a shot in the arm for SMU. Jimmy Phillips Jr. was third on the team in tackles last year.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: C
A young, talented group of defensive backs needs to take a step forward in 2022 under a new defensive staff for SMU to meet expectations.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
Brendan Hall and Matt Fraanje return at punter. The Mustangs do need to find a new field goal kicker to replace Blake Mazza.
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