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SMU 2018: Players to watch

First-year coach Sonny Dykes inherits some key ingredients to a potentially explosive offense. The defense? Well...

NCAA Football: Frisco Bowl-Louisiana Tech vs Southern Methodist Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Sonny Dykes, entering his first full-year as head coach for SMU, knows how to put together an offense.

When he left Lousiana Tech in 2012, he bequeathed the nation’s top-ranked offense in points and total yards. In his final three years at Cal, his offenses averaged more than 37 points a game each year. He transformed Jared Goff from a low 4-star recruit into the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Despite that, his career record is 41-46 due to some horrendous defenses. His 2013 Cal defense ranked third-to-last nationally, surrendering the most passing yards in FBS history.

In short, this player preview will be decidedly focused on the Mustangs’ offensive weapons.

Quarterback — Ben Hicks

Hicks made the proverbial freshman-to-sophomore leap in 2017. He not only threw for more yards but he was far more efficient, cutting his interceptions by three and boosting his completion percentage by three, as well.

The question for him is how he adjusts to Sonny Dykes’ Air Raid offense. Last year’s head man Chad Morris — now at Arkansas — ran a much more balanced spread that utilized a talented backfield. Watch Hicks’ touchdown throws in the 31-28 win over Cincinnati, and notice how they come off run-fakes.

SMU in white.

Air Raids depend on short passes and screens to set up the intermediate and deep game. If Hicks can master this scheme, he may not only surpass 3,000 yards again, but approach the 4,000-yard threshold.

While he lost receivers Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn to the NFL, there are still weapons abound.

Running back — Xavier Jones

Jones, like the two Western Michigan backs from yesterday, made the Doak Walker preseason watch list. The 5-foot-10, 203-pounder enters his senior year coming off a breakthrough 1,075-yard campaign.

He averaged 5.9 yards a pop and punched in nine touchdowns using a combination of grit and blazing speed.

Dykes, despite the Air Raid moniker, has incorporated run elements better than, say, Mike Leach. His offense produced 1,000-yard rushers in Cal’s Daniel Lasco in 2014 and Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon in 2012.

Even great Michigan defenses like the 2016 outfit have struggled against speedster spread backs.

Devin Bush needs to be ready for some sideline-to-sideline sprints against Jones.

Wide receiver — James Proche

Proche seeks to fill the No. 1 receiver slot after the departures of Sutton and Quinn, and early prognosticators have him on their Biletnikoff Award watch list.

As the No. 3 option in 2017, he tallied 816 yards — at 20(!) yards a catch — and six touchdowns. Those numbers portend a huge bump for the redshirt junior as the top dog.

Phil Mayer of 247’s Pony Stampede predicted Proche should be expected to, “eat screens and short passes,” in the new offense. At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, he certainly fits the slot demon bill.

Catch 1:32 for a long catch-and-run against TCU and a Gary Patterson defense.

Swiss Army Knife — C.J. Sanders

Sanders grad transferred from Notre Dame after hauling in just 26 receptions for 293 yards in three years. It seems like a mutual decision after years of paltry production and Brian Kelly’s shift to more of a running spread.

Despite this, Sanders is dangerous in open space, as demonstrated by his four career return touchdowns.

Much like Proche, watch for Sanders in the screen game, as well as jet sweeps. Dykes needs playmakers for Hicks to throw to in the open field, and Sanders fits the description.

Cornerback — Jordan Wyatt

You thought we wouldn’t mention a single defender, didn’t you?

While the Mustangs did finish No. 121 in total defense last year, Wyatt was a bright spot. He intercepted four passes — scoring two touchdowns off returns — to go with three forced fumbles.

In addition, he added 49 tackles and made plays in the backfield, tacking on 4.5 TFL’s and a sack.

Up-tempo programs like SMU or Chip Kelly’s Oregon love aggressive defenders such as Wyatt on their side. Even if the total defense bleeds yards and points, the more turnovers mean the faster the offense can score.

Shea Patterson threw nine picks in just seven games last year. Brandon Peters added two in the Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina.

It stands to reason Wyatt is a threat to punish any bad decisions either make.

Don Brown’s defense has succeeded against most every offense they faced — save for Penn State last year. While SMU provides a formidable threat with their Air Raid, the defense acquitted themselves well against Purdue’s and Indiana’s passing spreads.

If they batten down the hatches against the Mustangs, Karan Higdon and company should fuel a major blowout Sep. 15 in the Big House.