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Despite an explosive start as SMU’s QB, Tanner Mordecai has had his share of growing pains

Mordecai leads the nation in touchdown passes, but has also had an issue with turnovers.

UNIVERSITY PARK — SMU head coach Sonny Dykes wants growth out of his quarterbacks. Inevitably, as was the case Saturday, that comes with some growing pains.

Tanner Mordecai, a junior transfer from Oklahoma, dazzled in his college starting debut, throwing for a school record seven touchdowns against Abilene Christian. But in SMU’s 35-12 win in Week 2 against a tougher UNT defense and better pass rush, Mordecai had some struggles. He threw for 312 yards and four touchdowns, but he also had two interceptions, a fumble of his own and another on a miscommunication on a handoff with Ulysses Bentley IV.

Experience, or a lack thereof in the case of Mordecai, is something to consider.

Mordecai, who waited two years for a chance to start at Oklahoma and ultimately found it this season at SMU, had 70 pass attempts in his career before transferring. SMU’s previous quarterback, Shane Buechele, had 648 pass attempts at Texas before he transferred to SMU in 2019 and started two seasons for the Mustangs. Buechele had three touchdowns and an interception in his first two games.

“When you go out and something happens like Saturday, and you turn the ball over a couple of times, you can learn from that,” Dykes said, regarding Mordecai’s experience level.

“You can tell your kid, ‘Don’t put your hand on the stove,’ but sometimes, someone is going to put their hand on the stove and they get burned and they realize, ‘Hey, I better not do that.’ That’s what kind of happens a little bit with quarterbacks.”

Speaking of getting burned: For SMU this season, there’s a feeling of needing to strike now that the iron is hot. The team has plenty of offensive weapons, depth on both sides of the ball and nearly 100 scholarship players.

Dykes has taken quarterbacks with inexperience and seen them grow before, but the trajectory of this SMU season could be contingent on Mordecai’s growth and just how quickly it happens, especially with tougher competition ahead.

“Things tend to happen to young quarterbacks,” Dykes said Tuesday, “but the really good ones tend to figure it out, and figure it out fast.”

Take Jared Goff for example. The eventual No. 1 overall NFL draft pick started as a freshman in Dykes’ first season at Cal. He threw for 18 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Over the next two seasons at Cal, he had 78 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison between the two quarterbacks, but Goff learned to keep the turnovers down as he progressed through his collegiate career.

“Their No. 1 job is to take care of the ball,” Dykes said of quarterbacks. “At the end of the day you do two things as a quarterback: You take care of the ball and you distribute the ball, and you have to do those two things to be successful. Now there’s a lot of little nuances that go into those two things, but we just have to do a better job of taking care of it.”

Because what happens to the offense, good and bad, is often credited to the quarterback, even when it’s not necessarily his fault.

Mordecai’s first interception came when two UNT defenders, who beat SMU tackles Justin Osborne and Beau Morris, hit Mordecai as he threw. The ball landed in defensive lineman Dion Novil’s arms. The second interception came on a jump ball that Reggie Roberson Jr. had his hands on, but it was called an interception on the field and there wasn’t enough on replay to overturn it.

“We just weren’t bailing each other out,” Dykes said after the win over UNT. “That’s typically what we’ve been able to do offensively around here.”

Overall, the offensive performance against UNT — aside from a handful of big plays — wasn’t great, but Dykes said after the game he never considered making a quarterback change because of it. “That’s a problem we don’t want to get into,” Dykes said.

Freshman quarterback Preston Stone — the highest-rated recruit SMU has had since the turn of the century — remained on the sideline. Dykes has said repeatedly that he wants to get Stone “meaningful” snaps in games, but he doesn’t want to exceed the four-game limit and burn his redshirt season on a luxury.

Instead, Dykes wants to see growth out of Mordecai, starting this Saturday on the road against Louisiana Tech.

Sonny Dykes QB tree

Here’s a look at how Mordecai’s first two games as compared to the other quarterbacks playing under Sonny Dykes.

SchoolQBCompletionsAttemptsYardsTDsINTs
SMUTanner Mordecai4563628112
SMUShane Buechele518065231
CalDavis Webb7912696393
CalJared Goff7211593543

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Find more SMU coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

Joseph Hoyt, Staff Writer. Joseph covers SMU, college sports and the Texas Rangers for The Dallas Morning News. Previously he covered high school sports for The News. After graduating from the University of Oregon in 2016, Joseph interned at The News before working for The Ames Tribune and KOIN-TV in Portland. He returned to The News in Nov. 2018.

joseph.hoyt@dallasnews.com /JosephHoytDMN @joejhoyt
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