SMU's defense quickly showed that 2015 would be another tough year. It allowed Baylor to score touchdowns on its first two possessions in a minute or less on each drive and surrendered at least 700 yards in three of its first four games. While the defensive coaches are working hard to find a personnel group and alignment that works, it hasn’t improved much from 2014. I didn’t expect a ton of improvement, but some noticeable improvement nonetheless. Here are my midseason grades for each position on the defense.
This was the unit that I thought would be the strength of the defense thanks to its depth and a little talent. The line has made some nice plays and generated slightly more pressure than last year, but otherwise hasn’t been as good as I thought it would be. Zelt Minor and Zach Wood have missed time or been limited in games because of injury. I thought Michael Scott would have a role as a pass-rushing specialist, but he is still redshirting. Robert Seals has played the same role and has shown flashes, but hasn’t been consistent and only has a couple good moves. Justin Lawler and Andrew McCleneghen have been the line’s most consistent players and have provided more of a pass rush. Mason Gentry attracts attention and can open up room for others, but hasn’t been able to use his power consistently enough. No lineman has been able to truly, consistently get off blocks or occupy gaps and offensive linemen. Too many plays are getting to the second level. I would not call the line’s play poor, but I think it lacks the push to make consistent plays in the running game and the pass-rushing skill to get enough pressure.
A dependable-if-nothing-else senior, a junior ready to break out and a junior moving to a new position: Jonathan Yenga, Nick Horton and Shakiel Randolph would be solid, right? Well, not exactly. The linebackers have been the unit I’m most disappointed with on the entire team. Horton really struggled and now appears to have lost his starting spot. Yenga hasn’t been bad, but he has missed chances at making big plays. Randolph struggled before he was moved back to safety. Kyran Mitchell has assumed starting duties at star linebacker and has been more consistent, but he’s still experiencing some growing pains. Matt McNew’s redshirt is gone, and he held his own in his first game.
I’ve noticed the linebackers get caught out of position more than anyone else. Too many times has a receiver ran up the seam because someone had his eyes caught in the backfield and was late to turn and run with the receiver. Yenga and Horton have each had a chance to get an easy sack on a free rush, but neither could make a tackle. Tackling has been a problem for the entire defense, but plays like those stick out, and that’s why McNew, Jackson Mitchell and Anthony Rhone have had chances. I’d expect the linebacker spots to remain fluid until someone shows something. With McNew’s redshirt off, he should get a long look.
Star linebacker is a different animal. The star needs to excel in read-and-react situations by making reads quickly and getting to the ball before the ball carrier can get behind him. A quick-twitch athlete like Randolph should be able to do this in theory, but he struggled to tackle and make the reads. Mitchell has made some plays and reacts faster, but he’s a converted true linebacker and can’t cover wide receivers or faster tight ends as well. However, he should hold on to the spot.
While the defensive backs have generated more turnovers, they have also allowed way too many big plays in the passing game and tackled poorly against the run. For me, that’s a big reason why fans are questioning the 4-2-5 defense’s effectiveness. The cornerbacks have struggled to play man coverage, requiring the safeties to stay further away from the line of scrimmage and provide help on the back end. A goal of the 4-2-5 is to establish an eight-man front, and playing two-deep and Cover 2 has prevented SMU from doing so, although moving Kyran Mitchell closer into the box has helped. Most who run the 4-2-5 have a big blitz package, but blitzes have backfired when they haven’t resulted in a sack. TCU’s KaVontae Turpin scored an early touchdown against the Mustangs on Sept. 19 when SMU rushed six on third down, leaving five men to cover five wide receivers. That’s a nice mismatch for most teams, not just TCU, if SMU’s rush can’t get to the quarterback. Playing on an island is something the secondary just can’t do effectively.
I have a bigger issue with the bad angles and missed tackles than I do with opponents roasting cornerbacks 1-on-1 and even some of the missed assignments. The 4-2-5 is all about making plays in space, and it will give up even bigger gains against the run and after the catch if it can’t tackle in space. Stopping quarterback run games has been a challenge, but opponents have done SMU a schematic favor by running them into space. But it quickly turns into a weakness if those tackles can’t be made.
There’s a long way to go and a lot of holes that won’t be filled until reinforcements arrive in the next couple recruiting classes, especially in the secondary. Gary Patterson, who has mastered the 4-2-5 defense, stressed recruiting corners who can be safeties and safeties who can be linebackers. SMU’s 2016 class has that mold, but the current unit doesn’t. While the 4-2-5 is popular because it doesn’t require top-level talent to run it well (see TCU’s Mountain West days), players must be able to keep plays in front of them, execute assignments and tackle. SMU hasn’t been able to do any of that consistently. It also hasn’t been able to show as many confusing alignments, as much pre-snap movement or move its safeties around because of limitations (and also some injuries).
Cleaning up the missed assignments and tackles is the biggest thing that needs to improve in my mind. It all comes down to recognition and discipline. SMU can’t keep getting caught flat-footed or with locked-in eyes, or plays will keep getting behind the defense. Right now, SMU has not shown it can avoid those mistakes for an entire game. With implied open competition at a lot of positions (especially linebacker), SMU may be able to find some piece for the future. But results may not change much until the youth movement arrives and those guys get acclimated. However, I think young guys like Matt McNew, Kyran Mitchell and Jordan Wyatt will improve and show they belong in the starting lineup in future seasons.