SMU's defense entered the 2016 season with very low expectations from the outside. Through six games, it has exceeded them. That seems hard to believe with a team that still ranks 102nd in the FBS in total defense, with 454.8 yards allowed per game (down from 502 in 2015). But after grabbing only 10 interceptions in 2015, SMU has a nation-best 13 this year and 15 total takeaways. Here are midseason grades for each position group on the defense.
Justin Lawler has been effective all season. He’s tied for the team lead in tackles (36) and has a team-high 6.5 tackles for loss. His pass rush production has dipped a bit since the start of the season, but he’s still the team’s most consistent in that area. SMU has generated some pass rush around him, but no single player is responsible for it. Michael Badejo, Demerick Gary and Jarvis Pruitt team up to give SMU much better depth and pass rush at defensive end than last year, even with Nick Horton injured. Badejo brings speed off the edge. Gary has quickness for his size. The Scott twins have been quiet after redshirting last season. SMU needs more from them. Hunter Thedford has started to see more snaps on defense in the past couple games. SMU needs a little more discipline on the edge and still could use a more consistent pass rush, but is much better at end than last season.
This has been as good as any other unit for SMU. Since the start of the season, Zelt Minor (20 tackles, 6 TFL) has become one of SMU’s best defenders. He’s shown improved burst and quick hands to shed blockers and shoot gaps quickly. Deon Green has flashed some slipperiness and gap-shooting ability against the run. Mason Gentry looks quicker. J.T. Williams has carved out a role after a playing more in recent weeks. Chris Biggurs hasn’t had the impact some thought he would, but it hasn’t hurt SMU because of the play around him. SMU has established depth at tackle and the group is playing as well as any other unit on the team.
It’s not too hard to tell that linebacker has been SMU’s weak spot on defense. In its 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes, SMU signed seven linebackers, but only three are currently seeing notable snaps on defense: Matt McNew, Jordon Williams and Blake Carlisle – none of whom are starters. Of the remaining four, one is redshirting (Noah Spears), one medically retired (Austin Corbett), one moved to tight end (Mitchell Kaufman), and one is playing mainly on special teams (Jordan Ward). McNew is the only one of the three who plays Mike or Will linebacker.
The veteran linebackers have had their struggles: they’ve been slow to fill gaps, undisciplined at times against the run and have been pushed by offensive linemen. Anthony Rhone leads the group with 32 tackles and an interception, but he has been caught peeking in the backfield on run plays and out of position as a result. It’s an area with experience, but a little less talent than the rest of the defense. It’s why SMU has occasionally played Williams or Carlisle, both of whom are star linebackers, at Mike or Will. SMU needs to find more players who are effective in space and less stiff at those two positions. The star has been SMU’s best linebacker spot. Kyran Mitchell is a good open-field tackler and Williams is fluid in coverage. Carlisle plays a little bit less, but brings speed. If SMU wants to improve even more on defense, it needs better play from its linebackers.
The safeties are more physical and willing to play the run than a year ago. SMU has better depth here with freshmen Mikial Onu and Kevin Johnson playing a lot. Both have been mostly effective tacklers in the open field, especially by limiting yards after the catch. Darrion Millines is a team leader and steady presence, but he has taken some poor angles on running plays. Redshirt freshman Rodney Clemons brings speed, but he needs to be more disciplined and wrap up on tackles. His inexperience has shown at times. He missed most of last season with an ACL tear and played wide receiver for much of his high school career. SMU has more athleticism and versatility at safety, but the group still needs to play with better leverage against the run at times.
It’s hard to find an area where SMU has shown more improvement than at cornerback. Jordan Wyatt and Horace Richardson are having all-conference level seasons. Wyatt, a liability at safety last season, is a natural corner and is playing with a lot of confidence. He has the speed to run with just about any receiver. His coverage skills on deeper and long-developing routes need refining, but when he can play with some cushion and keep the receiver in front of him, he’s great at anticipating the route and closing in on it. Richardson is a little better covering down the field. Both have four interceptions so far, tied for the national lead. SMU hasn’t had a lot of production outside of Wyatt and Richardson. Freshmen Christian Davis and Eric Sutton have mainly played on special teams, but have seen some defensive snaps.
SMU has built solid depth at most spots on the defense and has more talent than last season, even though the yardage numbers haven’t drastically dropped. After holding Baylor and TCU’s explosive and fast-paced offenses to no touchdowns in the first half, SMU’s defense struggled to get off the field in and tired out in the second half, in part due to SMU’s offense’s inability to sustain drives. There are still areas where more talent is needed, and SMU must show more discipline and play with better leverage, especially against the run. But there’s noteworthy progress from a disastrous 2015.