Led by star recruiter Ra'Shaad Samples, SMU is a destination on the rise

Ra'Shaad Samples is "an elite-level recruiter," SMU head coach Sonny Dykes said. "But Ra'Shaad works equally as hard at the coaching piece. In a couple of years, you'll see him as an offensive coordinator and a play-caller, and then as a head coach." Courtesy SMU Athletics

HE SHOULD HAVE been a priority for SMU.

In 2013, Ra'Shaad Samples was a four-star receiver at Dallas' Skyline High School. Playing for his father, Reginald, a Dallas-area football legend, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of Texas football and grew up with a love of the city's football culture. While Samples fielded offers from Ohio State, USC and Notre Dame, as well as big in-state programs Texas and Texas A&M, he said SMU assumed he wouldn't want to play there and did not pursue him.

"I can remember one time in four years SMU [coaches] stepping foot on our campus," Samples said. "And I had never been on SMU's campus my whole time in high school. I would've loved to have stayed in my city."

SMU developed an odd reputation for ignoring local talent under then-coach June Jones, leaving many local schools perplexed.

Claude Mathis, the coach at nearby DeSoto High School, which regularly produces FBS-level talent including Von Miller, publicly called out Jones a year later to recruiting site Scout.com. His comments drew attention in Dallas as he noted that TCU, Texas Tech and North Texas, among others, were a constant presence at his school while SMU was nowhere to be found.

"I just got tired of it," Mathis said this week. "I mean, we have a lot of good kids who go through here and we're trying to help our schools in the state of Texas, for sure. How can you help them out when they don't come by? I'd had enough of it."

Things have changed since. This year, SMU landed its best recruiting class in modern history, with local talent at the heart of its philosophy. And leading that change has been Samples, now a 26-year-old running backs coach and recruiting coordinator at the school whose success has peers convinced he's destined for a head coaching gig.

Here's how Samples helped the Mustangs double down on Dallas and turn SMU into a destination.

JONES WAS A splash hire for SMU coming off a 12-1 season at Hawai'i in 2007. But most of his career was spent in pro football before nine seasons in Honolulu, so he arrived as an outsider.

In 2014, despite an impressive run of three bowl wins in four appearances at SMU, Jones said the Mustangs' facilities and the school's academic standards meant they couldn't compete with other area programs for many recruits, leading him to instead look beyond heavily recruited players and more toward developmental prospects. When Jones resigned two games into that 1-11 season, the Dallas Morning News reported that SMU had just 68 players from Texas on the roster -- the fewest of any FBS school in the state -- with more out-of-state players (31) than players from the Dallas-Fort Worth area (30).

Sonny Dykes grew up an SMU fan before his dad, Spike Dykes, became Texas Tech's head coach. Later, as an assistant at Tech under Mike Leach, Sonny Dykes recruited Dallas for years, and always had his eye on the SMU job. When Jones' successor, Chad Morris, left for Arkansas after three years and a 14-22 record, Dykes sold SMU on his vision to center the team's focus on all things Dallas, hoping to fulfill SMU's promise of becoming the city's college football team.

"I think the best high school coaches in the country really are in Dallas, and they're ahead of the curve in what they're doing schematically," Dykes said last week. "I think, in a lot of ways, it's a football utopia, one of the great football cities in the United States."

As SMU has found success on the field under Dykes -- in 2019, the Mustangs won 10 games for the first time since 1984, followed by a 7-3 finish this year -- they've been able to shed the losing reputation. "There have been moments," Dykes said, "but you're chipping away at 40 years of inconsistent -- and mostly bad -- football."

Then in 2019, he brought Samples home. After his playing career at Oklahoma State and Houston was cut short by concussions, Samples was just 24 and had been a student assistant at Houston and a grad assistant at Texas under Tom Herman, with just one year of recruiting experience in Austin. But Dykes believed with his ties in Dallas, he could be a program-changer. He named him SMU's recruiting coordinator.

"Ra'Shaad is one of those guys that just makes an impression on people very quickly," Dykes said. "He certainly made an impression on me. I was around him for about five minutes and I thought, 'Man, I want to work with this guy someday.'"

Someday wasn't long. As soon as he was on board, Dykes handed him the keys to his recruiting operation.

"If I were in Coach Dykes' shoes, I don't think I would've been trusting enough to do that," Samples said. "He just told me, 'Go out there and do your thing. I want you to be exactly who you are.'"

It's not a hard sell for Samples to preach the gospel of Dallas.

"It literally means everything to me," Samples said. "I grew up here. All my friends grew up here. I watched so many great players play here. To be a part of the landscape now as a coach and getting to go to these games and getting to recruit these guys, it's almost like it's not work."

That enthusiasm is a good fit in Dykes' SMU program, where it's all Big D, all the time. He wants to put on youth camps all over town and outfit every kid in SMU T-shirts. The Mustangs wear a script "Dallas" on the front of their alternate jerseys, a Dallas "D" logo on their helmets, and have blanketed the area in billboards featuring local players in their neighborhoods or cities, including one of Samples.

YOU CAN'T FIX a problem you don't understand, and Samples knew from experience that SMU had work to do. His father, now the coach at area power Duncanville, showed him that much.

"Coach Dykes has taken on a whole different attitude -- not just about recruiting, just about Dallas, period," said Reginald Samples, who is 296-85 as a coach at three Dallas-area schools and was the 2019 USA Today national coach of the year. "I met with him a couple of times before he even hired Ra'Shaad. He came over, sat in my office and talked about how he felt like he needed to do a better job in the city. He had a plan, and he's followed that plan."

ESPN's recruiting service named this year's SMU class No. 1 among Group of 5 programs and No. 46 overall. In Texas, SMU ranked behind only Texas A&M (No. 6), Texas (No. 15) and Baylor (No. 44). The class ranked higher than five Big 12 schools, including rival TCU (No. 49). In the 15 years since ESPN began evaluating players, the Mustangs have signed six four-star prospects from Texas. Two of them (quarterback Preston Stone and defensive end Je'lin Samuels) came in this class.

Of the 17 high school players the Mustangs signed this year, 11 are from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and there's not much mystery to the coaches about what they're getting. "A lot of those kids have been on our campus 10, 15, 20 times," Dykes said. "We have a great relationship."

Samples appreciates getting to know as many players as possible, whether or not he earns their signature on a letter of intent.

"A lot of these Dallas kids don't know that we didn't always have the opportunity to represent our city playing football, and now a lot of these kids are going to do that," Samples said. "Man, it excites me."

The jewel of the class is Stone, a 6-2, 190-pound ESPN 300 recruit from Parish Episcopal in Dallas who threw for more than 13,000 yards in high school and led his team to back-to-back state championships. Regarded as one of the nation's top quarterbacks, he chose SMU in a televised commitment ceremony at the 2020 All-American Bowl in January. With a lineup of hats from college football heavyweights LSU, Penn State, Texas and USC in front of him, Stone put on the SMU cap. "Dallas is my home," he said. "I love my city, I love SMU."

Landing a quarterback with Stone's offer list was a stunner for a Group of 5 program and proved Dykes' theory that players who could go anywhere would stay home to play for a winner.

SMU also went to the wire with another local prospect, Duncanville offensive lineman Savion Byrd, the nation's No. 29 overall recruit who signed with Oklahoma in December. Byrd said he narrowly chose the Sooners over SMU on signing day, and while that's not much consolation for Dykes, being in a head-to-head battle with a team that's won six straight Big 12 titles is progress.

Whenever recruits can return post-COVID for in-person visits, Dykes is hopeful the Mustangs can continue to make up ground. He watched the '21 class bond in 2019 during a weekly event created by Samples and Jourdan Blake, a recruiting assistant. They invited players from the area to show up at SMU's indoor facility for their regular Sunday football practices, but added TVs showing NFL games along with chicken wings and pizza for spectators. To keep things above board with the NCAA, the players have to pay for their own food, but Samples said Sundays started to feel like a family reunion, beginning with a few kids, then numbering in the hundreds after a few weeks.

Samples said having players around the campus for informal events is an important way for a private school like SMU to show it's welcoming to all of Dallas.

"We're taking the first step, putting our hand out there and saying, 'Hey, we're going to come to you and bring you to us. We're not expecting you to want to associate yourself with us. We want to associate ourselves with you guys. These people in Dallas, in the inner city, see SMU now. They see us and now we're becoming a part of the community."

One signee, safety Isaiah Nwokobia, played at Skyline, Samples' old school. He didn't have to feel the same distance Samples did from SMU.

"I want to say probably 80% of the kids we signed this year were at those events," Samples said. "If we did one every week for 16 weeks, Isaiah was at 15."

Samples isn't just being noticed by recruits. Other coaches and recruiting experts see a star on the rise. And in December, he landed a three-year extension at SMU, where Dykes has big things in mind.

"He's an elite-level recruiter," Dykes said. "But Ra'Shaad works equally as hard at the coaching piece. In a couple of years, you'll see him as an offensive coordinator and a playcaller, and then as a head coach. He has all the things you want. The ability to communicate, inspire people, he does that very well. He's got a great football background having been around his dad."

Dykes can see the results of their work in practice, a team that already looks better. He thinks there's still plenty of work to do in recruiting, but he and Samples both think their optimism has been validated.

"It's been so important to tap back into my culture and reach the place that made me who I am and invest in these kids, invest in this city," Samples said. "We landed a bunch of guys with offers from some of the biggest schools in the country. Eventually, we're gonna sign the No. 1 player in the state of Texas. I believe it."