SMU’s offseason has been anything but quiet. Conference realignment is king in the media right now, but luckily, the season is here. Today, we look at the Top 10 returning players for the SMU Mustangs.
SMU Mustangs Top 10 Returners in 2023
Analyzing the returning players at every school is a difficult task in the transfer portal area. As such, we’ve included transfer-portal athletes that were included on each team’s roster page to open fall camp in addition to the rostered players from last year.
1) RJ Maryland, TE
One of the best things for RJ Maryland and the SMU Mustangs was getting him on the field early in his career. As a freshman, he didn’t produce elite numbers, but it helps this team in the long run.
Maryland’s a solid player who should be a go-to target for SMU’s offense this year. His speed puts linebackers in a bind, and his size presents challenges for defensive backs. After a year in which he caught 28 passes, Lashlee and this staff expect him to play an even larger role in 2023.
2) Preston Stone, QB
Tanner Mordecai provided stability to the offense while at SMU, but the clock was ticking on his tenure. Preston Stone was the future, and the Mustangs were waiting for his time to arrive. Mordecai departed for Wisconsin this offseason, and a fanbase that can’t wait longer for Stone’s reign gets what they wanted.
The offense changes with Stone at the helm. Mordecai wasn’t much of a runner, but Stone brings the threat to run to the offense. SMU still wants to see him shred teams with his arm, but the defense must respect his ability to escape the pocket and pick up yards with his legs. With the talent returning on this offense, Stone’s set for a huge year.
3) Elijah Chatman, DT
Rhett Lashlee must find a way to get his defense to step up in 2023. There’s too much talent returning and coming in from the portal to have this defense struggle. Elijah Chatman gives them a player that can help, and he’ll do it by becoming more disruptive.
The SMU Mustangs didn’t do themselves many favors last year defensively. They finished 71st in sacks and 90th in tackles for loss. With a secondary looking to replace a few key pieces, guys like Chatman can take some of the pressure off of the secondary.
4) Jordan Kerley, WR
Big, explosive plays remain a key component of the SMU Mustangs’ offense, and guys like Jordan Kerley play a big part in that. Kerley’s back after averaging 16.9 yards per catch, and someone needs to take the role of go-to pass catcher with Rashee Rice on the Kansas City Chiefs’ roster.
The passing attack might be a committee approach to replacing Rice, but that’s not a bad thing. With Kerley and others back, the talent level is too good to feature one guy too much. It also creates easier throws for their new quarterback. If Kerley takes a step forward, watch out.
5) Jaylan Knighton, RB
If you want to know what Jaylan Knighton can do under Rhett Lashlee, just go back to 2021 at Miami. The former Hurricanes back had his best season of his career when Lashlee was calling plays, and there are plenty of reasons to believe he’ll do the same with the SMU Mustangs’ offense.
Whether it’s running between the tackles or catching the ball out of the backfield, Knighton’s a home run threat for this offense. He’ll have to be efficient with his touches thanks to a deep backfield, but there aren’t many who can match his explosiveness.
6) Tyler Lavine, RB
Tyler Lavine wears a neck plate. Isn’t that all you need to know. He’s listed as a running back, but he’s essentially a fullback for this offense. He runs the football with great power and isn’t afraid to send a message, a nice complement to an offense that features more finesse options.
Lavine provided plenty of stability to this rushing attack last year and finished the year with 642 yards and 10 touchdowns. A backfield that features other options in Knighton, Camar Wheaton, Velton Gardner, and LJ Johnson means he’ll probably see fewer opportunities than he did last year. Fortunately, we know what he’s capable of with the ball in his hands.
7) Justin Osborne, OG
In the past five years, the SMU Mustangs produced some of the best offensive lines in the Group of Five. Both Sonny Dykes and Lashlee identified quality talent in recruiting and the transfer portal, and it’s a big reason why their offenses continue to thrive.
Justin Osborne returns with 33 games of experience under his belt, and he’ll be a huge piece for a unit that will feature multiple new starters. Branson Hickman and Marcus Bryant will help, but Osborne’s the leader who can help get everyone up to speed.
8) DeVere Levelston, DT
At his peak, DeVere Levelston is as disruptive as a toddler when you’re trying to pack for vacation. You simply cannot get anything done. We saw that on full display in 2021, and the SMU Mustangs’ defense hopes he can rediscover that level this year.
The pairing of Levelston and Chatman has the potential to be one of the best in the AAC, and that gives the defense a much-needed boost. We know the offense will score, but can their counterparts provide enough stops to elevate them to a championship level?
9) Nelson Paul, EDGE
Nelson Paul’s career started strong, and many fans expected big things from him in 2020 and 2021, but he didn’t play a full season in those years. In 2022, fans got what they wanted, to the tune of 44 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, and 5.0 sacks.
SMU needs a formidable force on the edge, and Paul has the explosiveness to give them that. Forcing teams to adjust gives SMU an advantage they haven’t experienced in a while, so Paul plays a huge role in getting the Mustangs’ defense to new heights.
MORE: AAC QB Rankings
10) Jordan Hudson, WR
Originally committed to the SMU Mustangs and Sonny Dykes, Jordan Hudson left when Dykes took the TCU job. After one year, he’s coming back. We saw glimpses of his potential with the Horned Frogs, but the room got too crowded for him to consistently make an impact.
At SMU, Hudson can be a WR1 threat immediately. The Mustangs receiver room is also crowded, but it’s more wide-open than the team in Fort Worth. If he can turn those glimpses into a full season, Hudson will be one of the best receivers in the country.