Sanders is SMU's next big-time guy on defense

True freshman linebacker Stephon Sanders got his first start last week against Tulane and coaches and players alike are excited about his potential down the road. This week SMU faces Navy's triple option, a tough offense to prepare for. But Sanders specializes in stopping the run and says this game is "right up my alley."

Navy runs the triple option, an offense that is not fun for defenses to face. They also have the nation's third-ranked rushing attack.

In other words, SMU's defensive front is going to have to be on point every play. No mistakes.

"They just gotta play their blocks and execute their assignments and if they do that, they're fine against it," defensive coordinator Tom Mason said. "The biggest thing is if you make one assignment bust, it could be a 60-yard touchdown. Gotta play your responsibilities every snap."

The veterans on defense like Ja'Gared Davis, Taylor Reed and Taylor Thompson have seen the option the past few years when they've played Navy and also against Army. But Stephon Sanders, a true freshman outside linebacker who got his first start last week against Tulane, isn't as familiar.

"It's a lot to throw at him, but it's gotta be thrown at somebody so it might as well be him," coach June Jones said. "Our linebacker corps has played pretty well. This is a tough scheme to play, but speed certainly helps."

And Sanders has speed. He's also got the intelligence and athleticism that the coaches have been raving about ever since fall camp.

Mason said that Sanders could have started a few games ago, but with injuries here and there, they needed him as a backup in a few different spots. But now with Victor Jones out for the season with a back injury, it's Sanders' turn.

"My first start was a good experience," Sanders said. "I was excited and nervous and felt good about it. I like having more responsibilities now and it's only going to get tougher."

"The biggest thing with a freshman is you don't want to start them right off because you don't want to wreck their confidence," Mason said. "You want to groom them and bring them along and then when you feel like mentally they're ready, you put them in and he had a great game last week."

Coaches say that Sanders has so much potential and will eventually be a "big-time" guy, much like Davis.

"He's that kind of athlete," Mason said. "And he's probably going to be 20-30 pounds bigger than Ja'Gared will ever get. And the impressive thing about him is he's a scholar athlete carrying a 4.0 GPA right now. He's the whole package."

In high school at Mesquite Horn, Sanders played defensive end. But Mason recruited him as a linebacker because of the potential he saw down the road.

"He's got a chance to be a 6-3, 265-pound outside linebacker that runs," Mason said. "He's got big-time potential."

Davis has taken Sanders under his wing and helps him along in practice and during the games. The two have become close friends and hang out on and off the field.

"He reminds me so much of me my freshman year," Davis said. "He plays hard, is always in a good mood…he's going to be a special one."

Asked if he sees that Sanders looks up to him, Davis smiled and said, "I hope so, but I don't know about with all the jackin' around I do."

The transition wasn't easy, but Sanders is a fast learner and is comfortable in his new role.

He's a fast guy and is excited to play Navy's offense.

"My first responsibility is to stop the run, so this game is right up my alley," he said.

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