KNOXVILLE — SMU head coach Chad Morris is at the center of the Tennessee coaching search as Phillip Fulmer takes over the reins as athletic director.

He is also in play for the vacant Arkansas position.

Morris is in his third season at SMU, posting a 14-22 record. Although the record does not seem worthy of being inline for an SEC job, Morris has turned the program around to where it is bowl eligible in three seasons.

  • 2015: SMU 2–10 1–7
  • 2016: SMU 5–7 3–5
  • 2017: SMU 7–5 4–4

Adam Grosbard of the Dallas Morning News says do not let the record fool you.

He told Saturday Down South that “some are scared off by his record, but it is kind of unfair because SMU was in horrible shape when he took over.”

The program took a hit when his predecessor June Jones “had pretty much burned everything to the ground on his way out after he did not get the Arizona State job in 2011. Recruiters were so embarrassed and left and most of the staff did not want to hit the road.”

But SMU wasn’t Morris’ first rebuild.

Before landing at SMU, Morris became Dabo Swinney’s offensive coordinator in 2011 at Clemson. Morris quickly turned the Tigers into an offensive juggernaut. Before his arrival, Clemson posted a 19-15 record; they went 41-11 after Swinney hired Morris.

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Clemson averaged 24.0 points in 2010, the year before Morris arrived. The offensive exploded under his tutelage. The Tigers went through a rebuild in 2014, having to replace three-year starter Tajh Boyd, who broke numerous Clemson and ACC records before being selected in the NFL.

Morris, a key recruiter, had his replacement ready. Deshaun Watson didn’t start the Tigers’ opening game but he soon won the job full time. Morris left Clemson after Watson’s freshman year in 2014. Watson led the Tigers to back-to-back national championship games the next two years.

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The offensive turnaround at SMU was even more dramatic.

In 2014, the year before Morris arrived, SMU averaged 11.1 points per game, last in the nation. The Mustangs averaged just 269 yards per game, which ranked next-to-last in the nation.

Here’s what they’ve done in Morris’ first three years.

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Morris began his career as a high school coach in Texas. He coached 16 seasons, compiling a 169-38 record, winning three state titles and playing in six state championship games in his high school coaching career.

So what makes Morris such a qualified candidate to land an SEC job?

“He is a really good player developer,” Grosbard said. “When he took over at SMU, it really did not feel like there were any pieces to build with. On both sides of the ball, players have been developed to where they are at now.”

SMU has increased its win total each year.

With Arkansas and Tennessee looking to fill their vacant head coaching positions, does Arkansas have an edge on Tennessee in landing Morris, given his ties to nearby Texas?

“Proximity of East Texas would be a lot of appeal to him since he was a high school coach there,”Grosbard said. “He could sell if you come to Arkansas, you can still be close to home for a lot of East Texas high school players.

“If anything were to draw Morris to Arkansas over Tennessee, it would be due to a comfort zone. A lot of it depends on who offers first and if I had to bet it sounds like Arkansas is moving a little faster than Tennessee is at this point.”

SMU is Morris’ first head coaching job, but he looks more than ready to move back to a Power 5 conference.

Grosbard says that it would be hard for Morris to turn down an SEC job this year and that he could lean on past experiences to handle pressure that comes with it.

“He won’t be one of those guys to have a meltdown with the press,” he said. “He can handle the pressure. When you are a high school coach in East Texas small towns, everyone is looking at you every minute. So he knows how to handle attention on him.”