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East Carolina-SMU: Q&A with Patrick Engel of PonyStampede.com

A look at the Pirates’ match-up with the Mustangs from an SMU perspective

NCAA Football: Connecticut at East Carolina
Zay Jones, who is just 20 catches shy of the FBS receptions record, will look to help the Pirates improve to 4-1 at home as they host SMU on Saturday at Noon. The game will be televised on ESPNews.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

After getting blown out 45-24 by the Golden Hurricane at Tulsa last Saturday, the Pirates (3-6) need to win their final three games in order to become bowl eligible.

Their challenging quest to reach the postseason will begin this weekend when a much-improved SMU team visits Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for a game that will kickoff at noon on ESPNews.

The Mustangs (4-5), who have already doubled last season’s win total under second-year coach Chad Morris, will have to win two of their final three games in order to make a bowl game for the first time since 2012.

Today, we are joined by Patrick Engel (@PatrickEngel_), Managing Editor and Reporter at PonyStampede.com—SMU’s Scout.com site, to discuss this weekend’s match-up.

UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum:

While SMU went just 2-10 in Chad Morris’ debut as head coach last season, the Mustangs put a much more competitive product on the field than they did in 2014. The Ponies have built on that this season, as they have already produced four victories—including a home upset of then No. 11 Houston—and can still go bowling.

Talk about the foundation that is being laid by their highly-respected second-year head coach.

Patrick Engel of PonyStampede.com:

Morris is building the roster from players from Texas. He’s a former high school coach in the state and recognizes the depth of talent the state possesses. In his first two recruiting classes, he signed 47 total players. Each one is from Texas. So far in the 2017, class, all but one of the commitments is from Texas. The talent in the two signing classes is considerably better than previous classes under the previous coaching staff. Of the 47 guys signed in 2015 and 2016, 31 have played in a game. There are still some older players who have significant roles, especially on the offensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.

UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum:

With the return of veteran quarterback Matt Davis, there were high hopes for the SMU offense in 2016. However, Davis suffered a season-ending injury in the opener versus North Texas and forced redshirt freshman Ben Hicks into action.

After throwing nine interceptions in his first four starts, Hicks—a highly-regarded prospect from Waco—has played much better over his last four starts and has been picked off just twice during that span.

Discuss the young signal-caller’s development and what he brings to the table.

Patrick Engel of PonyStampede.com:

Hicks had to play before the coaches wanted him to, because of Davis’ injury. In two spring seasons, he struggled with placement and patience in going through reads. In his first few starts, that showed up again. His interceptions came on poorly placed throws and forcing throws. Morris has touted Hicks’ confidence since he got to campus in January 2015, but said he was pressing too much and losing his confidence because of it.

After a few starts, Hicks grew more comfortable, with the help of better pass protection. In consecutive games against Tulsa and Houston earlier this year, he didn’t turn the ball over or take a sack. He has still thrown some inaccurate passes, some of which fell harmlessly incomplete, but he has more patience and trust from his teammates now. In a win over Tulane, he threw two first-half interceptions, but was turnover-free in the second half and helped SMU score two fourth-quarter touchdowns.

UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum:

Braeden West (764 yds, 5.4 ypc, 6 TD) and Ke’Mon Freeman (433 yds, 4.2 ypc) have had success running the football. Freeman carried it 16 times for 83 yards last week in the blowout loss to Memphis while West had just four attempts.

Explain both backs strengths and exactly how Coach Morris and his staff utilize them.

Patrick Engel of PonyStampede.com:

SMU has played most of this season without last year’s leading rusher, Xavier Jones. The sophomore left the season opener against North Texas with a hamstring injury that kept him out until Oct. 1 vs. Temple. He had five carries, left the game injured and is unlikely to return this year. So West and Freeman’s roles are bigger than anticipated before the season.

West is dealing with some nagging injuries and left after the first quarter of the game vs. Memphis. The coaches think he should be ready for this week, but we’ll see if they give him a heavy workload. He’s small (5-10, 170) and the offensive staff has been cautious about not giving him too many carries. But he’s been SMU’s best back. He’s patient and quick. For a small back, he’s been good in pass protection.

Freeman, a true freshman, has been the other main back. He’s about 40 pounds heavier than West. He’s impatient waiting for blocks and plays to develop at times, but he’s strong and tough to tackle. He’s a former high school quarterback who actually took some snaps at quarterback in October due to injuries there.

UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum:

Courtland Sutton (45-768) and James Proche (45-578) have been Ben Hicks’ top targets in the passing game. Talk about their abilities and who else the Pirates’ struggling pass defense need to be aware of.

Patrick Engel of PonyStampede.com:

Sutton might be the toughest matchup in the conference. He’s 6-4 and makes low-percentage catches every week, often with a defender all over him. He draws a lot of pass interference penalties. This year, he’s been better after the catch. His route tree is still a little limited and he does most of his work down the field.

Proche was one of the higher-rated players in Morris’ first class. He turned down TCU, Louisville, Houston, among others to play in his hometown of Dallas. He’s fast and capable of stretching the field, but he’s been used a lot on shorter passes that allow him to run after the catch. He needs to do a better job of running upfield – he tries to move laterally too much sometimes – but he’s good in space. Look for him on returns too.

UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum:

While the SMU defense ranks last in the American in scoring defense (32.7 ppg) and 10th in total defense (433 ypg), the Ponies appear to have done a solid job at generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks and producing interceptions as they rank second in interceptions (14) and third in sacks (27).

It will be an intriguing match-up as it goes against an ECU offense that has one of the nation’s top passing offenses in terms of yardage, but has struggled to protect the passer much of the time.

Discuss what we can expect out of the SMU defense. Who are the top tacklers and playmakers on the unit?

Patrick Engel of PonyStampede.com:

SMU’s defense was terrible last season. Most of the games looked like Saturday’s 51-7 loss to Memphis, with little pressure and no turnovers forced. The yardage and points numbers aren’t great this year, but the defensive staff emphasized a takeaway mindset all offseason.

All the improvement starts up front. SMU’s defensive line will play about 10 guys each weekend. Defensive end Justin Lawler is the leading tackler and also has 12 tackles for loss. But it’s improvement around him that’s made the difference. Tackles Zelt Minor and Deon Green struggled mightily a year ago, and now both are two of SMU’s better defenders. Freshman Demerick Gary and senior Jarvis Pruitt have combined for 7.5 sacks and 11 TFLs opposite Lawler.

SMU had 10 interceptions all last season, but has 14 now. A big difference has been Jordan Wyatt, who had a poor season as a safety last year but now starts at cornerback. He’s slowed down a little bit since his fast start (four interceptions in SMU’s first five games), but he’s still good at breaking on routes and throws to close on balls in front of him. Horace Richardson (3 interceptions) dealt with some injuries last season and is SMU’s best in downfield coverage. Against Memphis though, the secondary had a few blown coverages and tackled poorly.

UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum:

While ECU’s special teams have improved significantly in recent weeks, the Pirates still aren’t anything to “write home about” in the kicking game. With that said, what we can expect out of SMU’s?

Patrick Engel of PonyStampede.com:

You may as well call SMU’s special teams just “teams.” There’s nothing special about them because they have been poor all season. ECU can exploit it. SMU has skilled return men, but impatience and poor blocking have led them to average just 3.8 yards per punt return and 18.3 yards per kick return. SMU has missed tackles in return coverage and had too many penalties on returns. Kicker Josh Williams hasn’t missed from inside 30 yards, but he’s made only two of his six attempts from 30 yards or farther. Punter Jamie Sackville can unleash some long kicks (six punts of 50-plus yards), but he’s also prone to shanking some punts.

UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum:

Saturday’s match-up is one both teams—especially the Pirates—desperately need if they are going to going bowling. Playing at home, ECU is currently around a touchdown favorite. How do you see the game unfolding?

Patrick Engel of PonyStampede.com:

After winning two straight, SMU was humbled at home by Memphis. Morris was unhappy that his team played like “we had arrived” as a program. SMU has been in this position before: After a 45-20 loss at Temple, Morris challenged his players in team meetings and told them to respond or let the loss doom them. SMU won two of its next three, with the one loss coming in overtime at Tulsa. Morris did the same after last weekend’s embarrassment.

If SMU can respond after that bad performance, it has a chance here. Sometimes it’s good to get away from distractions and play on the road after an embarrassing loss at home. I won’t be completely shocked if SMU wins, but I won’t predict that SMU actually wins. I’ll take ECU 31-21.