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USF football: 5 things to know about SMU

The Mustangs are off to their best start in 35 years
SMU coach Sonny Dykes waits with his team before playing TCU on Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
SMU coach Sonny Dykes waits with his team before playing TCU on Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins) [ RON JENKINS | AP ]
Published Sep. 24, 2019

A quick look at SMU (4-0), which plays Saturday at USF (1-2) in both teams' American Athletic Conference opener:

1. Bursting from the gate

SMU is 4-0 for the first time since 1984, when the Mustangs reportedly had a payroll comparable to that of the Dallas Cowboys (check out the 30-for-30 “Pony Excess” documentary). Their 41-38 victory Saturday at TCU was their first in the “Iron Skillet” rivalry in eight years, and second against a ranked foe in their last eight games. In fact, since starting the 2018 season 0-3, the Mustangs are 9-4.

2. Handoff sightings

SMU running back Xavier Jones (5) rushes in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Michigan won 45-20. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
SMU running back Xavier Jones (5) rushes in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Michigan won 45-20. (AP Photo/Tony Ding) [ TONY DING | AP ]

While screens and shovel passes are considered glorified run plays in standard Air Raid offenses, second-year coach Sonny Dykes' version has some bona fide ball carriers.

While SMU ranks third in the American Athletic Conference in passing offense (297.2 ypg), it’s third in rushing (216.8 ypg). Senior Xavier Jones (73 carries, 370 yards) has eight rushing touchdowns, second-most nationally.

Dykes gives a lot of the credit to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, a former Auburn OC whom he courted for the sake of fortifying the Mustangs ground game.

“That was Rhett’s strength,” Dykes said. “And what he was really good at was being able to figure out how to run the ball and be creative and teach it, do all the little different nuances that go on. So as we started putting the offense together, it made sense to kinda combine the two.”

3. Air supply still ample

TCU safety Trevon Moehrig (7) pushes SMU wide receiver James Proche (3) toward the sideline after Proche caught a pass during the first half of Saturday's game in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
TCU safety Trevon Moehrig (7) pushes SMU wide receiver James Proche (3) toward the sideline after Proche caught a pass during the first half of Saturday's game in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins) [ RON JENKINS | AP ]

Though they run proficiently, the Mustangs still will brandish plenty of four-wide formations and elongated splits on the offensive line.

Six-foot junior Reggie Roberson Jr., who had four catches for 122 yards at TCU, may pose the greatest vertical threat to USF, but senior James Proche is the possession guy (27 catches, 280 yards, three TDs). Also watch for 6-3 tight end Kylen Granson (12 catches, 220 yards).

4. Buechele’s second life

SMU quarterback Shane Buechele (7) throws against TCU during the first half of Saturday's game in Fort Worth, Texas. SMU won, 41-38. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
SMU quarterback Shane Buechele (7) throws against TCU during the first half of Saturday's game in Fort Worth, Texas. SMU won, 41-38. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins) [ RON JENKINS | AP ]

Graduate transfer Shane Buechele, who started all 12 games for Charlie Strong as a true freshman at Texas in 2016, has thrown for 1,159 yards in four games, completing nearly 67 percent of his throws (88-for-132) with seven touchdowns and four interceptions.

Like USF counterpart Blake Barnett, Buechele is among the rare grad transfers with two years’ eligibility remaining. Because he appeared in only two games for the Longhorns in 2018, he was eligible to redshirt.

RELATED: USF’s Charlie Strong to lock horns with his former Texas QB, Shane Buechele

5. Special teams a sore spot

Though they managed a couple of mid-range field goals at TCU, the Mustangs have struggled mightily in the kicking game. Through four contests, they've already missed five PATs, and have yet to convert a field goal longer than 38 yards.

The misery doesn’t end with the kickers, three of whom have attempted field goals. SMU ranks 10th in the AAC in punting (36.1-yard average).