By: Nicholas Gilanfar
On Saturday, the grueling wait for football is over as college football kicks off its season. 2023 holds a lot of anticipation revolving around the realignments of the Big 12 and AAC.
Formerly of the AAC Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston will be taking their talents to the Big 12 as the AAC will welcome five new schools in Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, and UTSA. Things will look different for the SMU Mustangs as they are coming off a 7-6 season with a promising squad in 2023.
Rhett Lashlee will be coming into his second season as SMU’s head coach with lofty expectations considering the realignment as well as gaining comfort with the system he has instilled in this team. Lashlee is an offensive mind who formerly played quarterback for Arkansas from 2002-2004 going right into coaching after the season as he got brought on as a quarterback coach for Springdale High School.
His career began to grow by having six different offensive coordinator jobs, one of them previously being with SMU for the 2018-19 season. Due to the familiarity, SMU decided to roll with Lashlee after Sonny Dykes left for TCU. Lashlee was the first, first-year SMU head coach to lead the Mustangs to a bowl season since 1980.
SMU will see many unfamiliar faces this year as they will form new rivalries with the newcomers of the AAC. In the first 4 games, they will be playing non-conference teams, two of them reside in the big 12 TCU and Oklahoma.
SMU Projected Starters Breakdown
Quarterbacks: #2 Preston Stone (Sophomore)
With the departure of 2021-22 starting QB Tanner Mordecai to the University of Wisconsin, DFW native Preston Stone will be handed the keys to the SMU offense. Stone was a redshirt freshman last year serving as Mordecai’s backup as he appeared in 6 games (one as a starter) and went 28-48 with 388 yards and two touchdowns. Unfortunately, Stone’s first start ended in a catastrophe as he broke his collarbone and was ruled out for the rest of the season against Tulsa on October 29th, 2022. Stone is now fully healthy and is ready to embark on a new journey as the starter of the SMU Mustangs.
Running Backs: #4 Jaylan Knighton (Senior-Transfer), #11 Tyler Lavine (Senior)
With the goal of Bolstering the running back-room, SMU relied heavily on the Transfer portal getting Jaylan Knighton from Miami and LJ Johnson Jr. from Texas A&M.
The projected week 1 starter Jaylan Knighton played three years with the Miami Hurricanes tallying ten games for 423 yards and one touchdown in 2022. In 2021, Knighton had a monster year with 800 yards and ten touchdowns but the production cut in half as he did not adjust well to the change in coaching staff. It is hopeful things can turn around for Knighton as he transitions into a prominent role in Lashlee’s offense.
Tyler Lavine is the only returning Mustang in the running back room as he served as SMU’s backup running back in 2022 with 142 carries for 423 yards and ten touchdowns. Lavine is a physical runner who is likely to be the third down back in this offense but will find himself in a position battle through the season as Lavine and Knighton find themselves in a dogfight for most of the reps.
Wide Receivers: #1 Jordan Kerley (Senior), #5 Moochie Dixon (Junior), #12 Jake Bailey (Senior)
Jordan Kerley is poised for a dynamic senior season as he will be filling the void of former Mustang and current Kansas City Chief wide receiver Rashee Rice as the number one option. In 2022 Kerley had the second-most receptions and third-most receiving yards on the team with 37 receptions, 588 yards, and six touchdowns. Kerley played ten games but missed three with an injury. Kerley is now healthy and ready to take on the vital role of WR1 for the SMU Mustangs.
Moochie Dixon is coming into his second season with the program as he will be pursuing a bigger role this time around. Dixon spent his first year at the University of Texas until arriving at SMU with the aspirations of a fresh start. In 2022, Dixon played in all 13 games, going for 28 receptions, 372 yards and three touchdowns. In 2023, Moochie Dixon will add needed depth to the receiver corps and emerge as a top talent in the AAC.
In 2022, Jake Bailey was a Junior-Transfer from Rice as he came to SMU and secured the starting job his first year. Unfortunately for Bailey, he could only play four games due to a shoulder injury back in training camp. He was good to start the season then the shoulder got progressively worse over time to where they had to shut the transfer down for the rest of the season. In those four games, Bailey had 12 receptions for 205 yards and a touchdown. Bailey has healed and is ready to go for week 1 to put on a show for his senior season and first full season at SMU.
Tight End: #82 RJ Maryland (Sophomore)
The former South Lake Dragon RJ Maryland has a breakout year ahead of him. This 2023 SMU roster is an exciting one, at the top of the list is Maryland. In 2022, Maryland was a true freshman logging 28 receptions, 296 yards, and six touchdowns. He was also a CFN Freshman All-America honorable mention. Last year he was undersized and inexperienced, having a tough time fitting into the regime in College Football. Now, it is safe to say he put in the work this off-season and is ready for a monster campaign.
Offensive Line: #52 Marcus Bryant (LT, Senior), #71 Logan Parr (LG, Junior-Transfer), #56 Branson Hickman (C, Junior), #51 Justin Osborne (RG, Senior, Second-Team All-AAC), #50 Hyrin White (RT, Senior-Transfer)
The Great Wall of Dallas is an absolute force to be reckoned with. In 2022, the offensive line fueled the Mustangs offense by ranking seventh in passing and red zone offense, tenth in third down conversion, 11th in first down conversion, and 15th in total offense in all of college football. The success of the offensive line was led by right guard Justin Osborne who will be entering his senior season determined to stack another All-AAC honor. Also returning as starters are Branson Hickman and Marcus Bryant who are also poised to be the best in their position in the conference.
To fill the left guard and right tackle spots, SMU dipped into the transfer portal by bringing on left guard Logan Parr from the University of Texas and right tackle Hyrin White from the University of Missouri. This is a resilient and older group of linemen, which will no doubt pack a punch for the entire conference.
Defensive Line: #40 Elijah Chatman (DT, Senior, All-AAC Second Team), #6 Jordan Miller (NT, Senior-Graduate-Transfer), #5 Elijah Roberts (DE, Senior-Transfer)
Incoming senior defensive tackle Elijah Chapman had a phenomenal season in 2022 playing all 13 games logging 39 tackles, four tackles for loss, and three sacks earning AAC honors by getting on the All-AAC second team. Chatman was a lifeline for a lesser SMU defense as he brings explosiveness and elusiveness it his game as he is one of the quicker Tackles in college.
Jordan Miller is yet another former Miami Hurricane who will be joining this team in 2023. Miller played all four years in Miami and graduated in 2022. For his final season, he recorded 18 tackles, three tackles for loss, and one sack with an underwhelming senior season. Miller has a lot left in the tank as he came here and earned a starting spot in what will be his final season of college football.
Elijah Roberts is also a former Miami Hurricane who played 20 games in three years for the program and only made one start. In his senior season, Roberts is unproven but has come to SMU and earned a starting role. In 2022, Roberts had nine tackles and one sack, looking to add on to his resume with a new team coming into his senior season.
Linebackers: #9 Nelson Paul (OLB, Senior), #24 Kobe Wilson (MLB, Junior-Transfer), #34 Ahmad Walker (MLB, Junior-Transfer)
SMU runs their defense with a bandit which is another term for outside linebacker. SMU’s bandit is senior Nelson Paul who had himself a monster year in 2022 playing 13 games with 44 tackles, a team-high nine tackles for loss, and a team-high five sacks. Paul has been with SMU all his college career as he looks to impact his final season as a Mustang.
Kobe Wilson is SMU’s mike linebacker which plays on the strong side of the ball. This will be Wilson’s first season on the team as he spent the first two years of his collegiate career at Temple. Although SMU is a new home for Wilson, the AAC is not. Temple is a part of the AAC as Wilson will be playing against his former school on October 20. Wilson in 12 games was fourth in team tackles with 64 along with 5.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. SMU will be gaining a reliable linebacker who is physically off the ball and can dominate the offense.
Topping off this rejuvenated linebacker room is another transfer, Ahmad Walker. Walker will play as will linebacker who is normally on the weak side of the ball and is transferring from Liberty where he spent the first two years of his collegiate career. In 2022, he played 12 games and had the third-best 63 tackles on the team along with 11 tackles for loss, four sacks, and one interception. Walker had extraordinary numbers in his last campaign at Liberty, so he tested the waters in the transfer portal and decided to extend his potential with SMU.
Defensive Backs: #2 Jonathan McGill (SS, Senior-Transfer), #0 Bryan Massey (FS, Senior), #3 Charles Woods (CB, Senior-Transfer), #12 Chris Megginson (CB, Senior-Transfer), #1 Brandon Crossley (NB, Senior)
This secondary is an older group that has been around as all five of these guys are seniors and three of them are transfers. The former Stanford Cardinal Jonathan McGill, where he spent his first three years, will be headed home to Dallas as he grew up here and attended Coppell High School. McGill had an outstanding year in 2022 playing 12 games, being second on the team in tackles with 51 along with 5.5 tackles for loss, one sack, seven pass breakups, one interception, and two fumble recoveries. Although he had a successful tenure with Stanford, the team itself did not finish strong as they had a 3-9 record. McGill will be playing his final year at SMU and hopefully add to what is already a lengthy resume.
Bryan Massey will be the starting free safety this year as he played in 11 games and logged 40 tackles. Massey was injured part of the season missing three games, but his presence will still feel through the season. This year, Massey will lead a new secondary group tasked with more responsibility than last year due to unfamiliarity with the defensive backs.
This will be Charles Woods’ third stop as he played two years at Illinois State and two years at West Virginia including a redshirt year last year. Woods has been playing collegiate ball since 2018 as he appeared in four games last year, only recording seven tackles. Woods will be playing cornerback on the left side and is originally from Dallas, Texas so hopefully coming home is the best move for Woods’ continuation in his football career.
Chris Megginson will be playing corner on the right side as he comes from Liberty University. In 2022, Megginson had a stellar season playing 12 games with 33 tackles, two tackles for loss, six pass breakups, and a forced fumble. Megginson will be taking his senior season to another level having the chance to compete in a stronger division which is well-deserved for the senior cornerback.
Returning senior Bradon Crossley will be slated at the nickel back this year. Crossley, being a Dallas native going to Little Elm High School, will be starting his fourth season at SMU, spending his first season at Colorado State. Crossley served as the starting nickel last year as well playing 12 games and going for 42 tackles, six tackles for loss, and one interception. Crossley will be a core piece to this defense this year also leading the fresh-looking secondary of this football team.
Featured Image via Albert Camargo/NCAA