SMU Football Preseason Awards: Most Improved

Photo courtesy of SMU athletics

Prior to the start of the 2022 college football season, we’re going to spotlight 24 SMU players as preseason award winners. At the end of the season, we’ll reflect on each of the picks and see how we did.

There are six categories: True Freshmen, Transfers, Unsung Heroes, Big Play Specialists, Most Improved, and MVPs. Each award will recognize two offensive players and two defensive players.

We continue with the penultimate part of our series: Most Improved.

For the record, this is our predictions for who we believe are most likely to have shown the most improvement since the 2021 season.

Honorable Mentions

There were a lot of candidates for this one. If a player played defensive back in 2021 and is back for 2022, they shot up this list.

Guys like Isaiah Nwokobia, Donald Clay, Chace Cromartie and Bryce McMorris were all high on the list as contenders for these awards. Don’t worry, defensive backs are our picks for the two defensive awards.

As for the offense, Nolan Matthews-Harris and Austin Upshaw were two guys who just missed the cut for different reasons. Upshaw has been a steady role player the last two seasons. Going into his sixth and final season, Upshaw is fifth in returning production at receiver.

Matthews-Harris, on the other hand, was more of an inconsistent contributor, only seeing targets in four games in 2021. But he has the athletic makeup and body profile of a high-potential tight end. Much like how we compared RJ Maryland’s potential to current Indianapolis Colt Kylen Granson’s production, Matthews-Harris also fits this bill.

4. Branson Hickman, OL/C

Hickman made starts in the last seven games of the season at center in just his second year. So what?

So, that’s a big deal when Alan Ali and Hayden Howerton were both on the line and had impressive prior experience at center.

Hickman is a guy who the previous staff was high on, and it’s easy to find reasons why. As far as bodies go, he looks like a prototypical center.

As far as bodies of work go, though, is where a lot of potential lies. He’s a good blocker with a high floor and a ton of opportunity. With three more seasons of eligibility, he has all the ingredients to be one of the top centers in the conference and a legitimate NFL prospect before his collegiate career is through.

Something simple he can clean up is snapping out of the shotgun. The unfortunate truth for offensive linemen, especially interior linemen, is that a majority of their memorable plays are negative ones. A low snap that had Tanner Mordecai fall to a knee to field negated a Ulysses Bentley run of over 50 yards that would have likely led to a touchdown in a seven-point loss to Houston last season.

3. Roderick Daniels Jr., WR

As a true freshman in 2021, Daniels really made great strides towards the end of the season. In the last game of the season against Tulsa, he made some catches where he showed the poise and body control of a fifth-year senior.

As far as snaps go for returning receivers, only Rashee Rice saw more snaps for the Mustangs in 2021.

The Mustangs added nearly 100 career receptions and more than 1,000 career yards with Rice slot receiver Jake Bailey. Between Bailey and Daniels, SMU should have the best 1-2 punch at slot receiver in The American — if not the country.

2. Jahari Rogers, CB

The first of two defensive backs on this list, Jahari Rogers is an interesting player.

Originally a quarterback in high school, Rogers was nationally a top-100, high four-star cornerback who spent 2020 with Florida.

After one season, he made the move back home to SMU. In 2021, he led the Mustangs with seven passes defended.

Unfortunately, his man was targeted over 50% more than the second-place cornerback, true freshman Bryce McMorris. That’s generally not a good sign.

One, however, could easily argue that defensive backs weren’t put in position to succeed last season.

An overwhelming majority of the time, good players in a bad system will produce a bad result. New defensive coordinator Scott Symons brings with him a system that Mustang fans — and more importantly, members of the secondary — should have much more confidence in.

1. Ar’mani Johnson, CB

Already a three-year starter, Johnson had good 2019 and 2020 seasons. Did he have All-AAC first-team seasons? Not quite, but he was a reliable, consistent starting cornerback. But, like the rest of the defensive backfield, 2021 was rough.

The reason why Johnson is the No. 1 choice for most improved this year is because he’s already showed a history of talent and production. Johnson is at his best as a zone coverage corner who can hold his own when man coverage is mixed in.

In 2019 and 2020, Johnson totaled 68 tackles, 14 passes defended, four tackles for loss, two interceptions, and an interception return for a touchdown. His 11 passes defended in 2019 were fourth in the AAC.

But, the 2021 Mustangs defense was based on a high-risk, high-reward scheme that often had one high man coverage. And the downside is that all of the risk was taken on by the defensive backs, primarily the corners. It was not a balanced defense, and it put a talented corner like Johnson in a bad position frequently.

In 2021, he finished with just 15 tackles and two passes defended. He went from allowing receptions about half of the time his man was targeted, to allowing receptions 75% of the time

The new defense should be one that allows Johnson to return, at a minimum, to where he was in years prior. Now a sixth-year senior, Johnson having the best season of his collegiate career in 2022 would not be much of a surprise. That would make him abundantly worthy of the No. 1 spot on our list for most improved.