Last spring, SMU fans left the first spring game under Chad Morris buzzing about one player: Courtland Sutton. The future Freshman All-America selection had 6 receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown. Four and a half months later, he scored a touchdown on SMU’s first play of the season.
Offering up some symmetry, he hauled in a 40-yard catch on the first play SMU’s 2016 spring game.
The similarities would end there. Sutton ceded the attention to a pair of redshirt freshmen receivers, James Proche and Alex Honey.
Honey, whom the SMU coaches named the spring offensive MVP before the game, caught a leaping touchdown on a fade route, showing off Sutton-like ball skills. Proche, whom head coach Chad Morris praised in his first four press conferences this spring, had 5 catches for 48 yards and was targeted as much as any other receiver. He would have had another – possibly even a touchdown – had Darrell Colbert’s deep ball not hung in the air too long and negated the three steps of separation he had.
That wasn’t all. The coaches gave Aphonso Thomas, the lone freshman early enrollee in the 2016 class, a big workload carrying the ball. He responded with 126 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries.
Not bad for the player who Morris said was so overwhelmed a month ago, it was like he was “drinking out of a fire hose.”
Young, talented receivers getting lots of snaps and making impressive plays is a welcome sign for a team that struggled to find consistency behind Sutton last year. It’s even more impressive considering SMU quarterbacks Ben Hicks and Darrell Colbert went a combined 18-of-51 passing as Matt Davis sat out with a foot injury.
“Alex early on was trying to figure it all out,” Morris said. “Around practice three or four, you saw a light click on for him and he just really kept coming on and growing and using his size and his speed and strength.”
Thomas’ big game is important for a running back group that lacked depth behind Xavier Jones and Braeden West and lost its only big back in Prescott Line. Jones and West are speedy backs who had impressive freshman seasons, but had ball security issues. Thomas brings strength and a willingness to run through contact.
“He started spring out just a little overwhelmed,” Morris said. “He’s done a really good job of absorbing and taking everything in. I’m really proud of him.”
Thomas’, Honey’s and Proche’s heavy workload is just the start of a trend. A defense that gave up 7.06 yards per play in 2015 – second-worst in the nation – will get an infusion of young talent in the summer when the 2016 signing class arrives. Linebacker Matt McNew was the only 2015 defensive signee that finished the season. The rest either redshirted or suffered a season-ending injury.
The defense will have 14 new freshmen by fall camp, so the defense that played Saturday may not be all that similar to the one that takes the field Sept. 3 at North Texas. Redshirt freshmen are making their moves too. Defensive end Delontae Scott finished Saturday with two tackles for loss, one of them a sack. His twin brother, Michael, had a tackle for loss. The two possess speed and length off the edge that SMU didn’t have last year.
“We’re excited about the Scott twins, we’re excited about some guys who were redshirted and can now give us some defense,” defensive coordinator Van Malone said.
“The signees are going to be big-time important. When you play with true freshmen, sometimes that’s a little scary. But what we hope is that the level of athleticism on our defense will immediately rise.”
The young movement meant a Sutton-like breakout was less likely in Saturday’s game. So SMU fans didn’t have one player to rave about over drinks at Katy Trail Ice House after the game like they did last year. But that’s a good thing.