With Taylor Reed taking part in Cowboys training camp and Ja'Gared Davis with the Houston Texans, there are number of questions about where the tackles are going to come from this season for the SMU linebackers.
Senior Randall Joyner answers many of these questions.
Despite only starting eight games last season, Joyner was the Mustangs second-leading tackler last season with 93 takedowns (three for loss). Only Reed had more with 97.
Joyner will lead the Mustang defense this season as the strong side inside linebacker and as his success goes so too will the SMU defense. Not only was Joyner one of the team's best tacklers last season, but he also tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
He also forced two fumbles and recovered two more. Joyner, who will be counted on as the vocal leader of the team this year, proved to be capable of explosive performances, including a 12-tackle game against Rice and a 14-tackle, two-interception game against UTEP. His performance in El Paso earned him Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week honors.
In other words, he was a complete beast for the Mustangs, and it is scary to think of the stats he will pile up as a full-time starter this season. This makes ‘Rambo' vital to the linebacking core because with the departures of Davis and Reed, the Mustangs linebackers are short on playmaking and experience.
Junior Stephon Sanders is the other returning starter and will again play outside linebacker on the strong side. Sanders was somewhat of a disappointment last season in his first full season as a starter. He only had 48 tackles (5.5 for loss) and one sack (down from three as a freshman) in his sophomore season.
His biggest strength appeared to be his pass defense, as he totaled five passes defended and one interception for a touchdown.
The Mustangs really need Sanders to step up this season and fill the void left by Reed and Davis, two of last season's three top tacklers. If he can elevate his game and bring down the ball carrier more often this season, then the Mustangs defense will transition easily without the old standard-bearers.
Also projected to start at outside linebacker this season is Robert Seals, a speedy sophomore from Pearland. Seals saw action in eight games last season, including one start.
But he only recorded three tackles and a quarterback hurry. Seals, who has earned plenty of praise from June jones, will have to learn quickly this season or risk losing out on his starting position.
Rounding out the starting linebackers is senior Kevin Pope. Pope was converted to linebacker from running back his sophomore year and has learned the position quickly. Last season, Pope recorded 20 tackles and was a big contributor on special teams.
Pope is a ferocious hitter and can be a solid starter this year but has a long way to go before he fills the shoes of Reed on the inside.
Where SMU's starting linebackers collectively struggle is putting pressure on the quarterback.
With one sack and two quarterback hurries between them last season, this year's starters have a lot of work to do to replace Reed and Davis, who recorded 10.5 sacks and six hurries together.
If this year's starters cannot collectively replace that production, the Mustang's 3-4 defense will struggle to put any pressure on the quarterback at all.
Also hoping for snaps at linebacker this season are redshirt freshman Jarvis Pruitt, sophomores Derek Longoria and Jonathan Yenga, and senior Brandon Henderson. Also back for the Ponies is Uchenna Nwabuike, who missed all of last season.
Pony Stampede Two-Deep:
SAM: 1. Stephon Sanders 2. Derek Longoria
BUCK: 1. Randall Joyner 2. Brandon Henderson
MIKE: 1. Kevin Pope 2. Jonathan Yenga
WILL: 1. Robert Seals 2. Jarvis Pruitt
Others to watch: Uchenna Nwabuike, Lincoln Richard, Nick Horton
Fall Camp Preview: Linebackers
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