In Meyer's recruiting pitch, he promised the pair they would play together as splitbacks in the wishbone or the veer. Dickerson ran from the I in high school, James from the wishbone. At first, things didn't quite work out. James did fine his freshman year, gaining 761 yards. But Dickerson suffered from the pressure and injuries, including hamstring pulls, thigh bruises, a concussion and AstroTurf toe, missed two games and gained just 477 yards. He thought about leaving. That year the Mustangs were 5-6.
"I saw Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and thought, 'Wow. Did I blow it?' " says Dickerson. "I wanted to get 2,000 yards and score 30 touchdowns. I saw USC in the Rose Bowl and figured I could be the next Charlie White. I could have been Marcus Allen."
Last year Meyer knew he had to change things. "We tried the wishbone, splitback veer, this and that in practice; well, we don't know those formations," he says. "What we know is the I."
Now in his sixth year at SMU, the 40-year-old Meyer is an Ohioan who learned most of his football as an assistant to Purdue's Jack Mollenkopf. In the middle of last season, after losing to Baylor and Houston, mainly on turnovers, Meyer switched from a multiple offense, which averaged almost 30 passes a game, to a ball-control attack, with McIlhenny, then a freshman, replacing junior Mike Ford. Against second-ranked Texas the following week, McIlhenny threw only eight times—he averaged fewer than 10 passes the rest of the season—and James gained 146 yards and Dickerson 85, and SMU pulled off one of the upsets of the year, winning 20-6. Then the Ponies beat Texas A&M, Rice and Arkansas to finish 8-4 and tie for second in the SWC. Dickerson and James ended up with 928 and 896 yards, respectively, and 11 touchdowns between them.
This year, SMU's offense is about as complex as a calendar: 82% of the attack is confined to the ground. And three of every four hand-offs or pitchouts are to Dickerson or James. Baylor Coach Grant Teaff called the SMU tandem "uncanny" after it ripped the Bears for 247 yards and four touchdowns two weeks ago. Houston Coach Bill Yeoman said, "Those two can slash your throat, and you don't even know who's going to draw the razor."
"We're getting what we want out of them," says Meyer. "Forty-six carries per game from our tailback! And every single one of them is from a rested tailback. So it's working out even better than we thought."
Of course, there is a chance that Dickerson and James will share the same backfield. If they don't against Texas or Arkansas or Texas A&M—and they might, Meyer lets on with a wink—they probably will when the All-Southwest Conference team is chosen.