At midseason, SMU's defense showed significant improvement from 2015 and had exceeded most preseason expectations from outside. In the final six games, SMU’s defense shut down then-No. 11 Houston, created five turnovers in a win at East Carolina. But it also gave up 50 points each to Memphis and Navy, and surrendered three touchdowns of 60-plus yards against South Florida. Three SMU defenders made first-team All-AAC.
SMU’s 18 interceptions and 26 total takeaways each ranked seventh nationally, but it gave up 453 yards per game and 6 yards per play. Lots of chunk play touchdowns and allowing Navy to score on its first 11 possessions will negate the effect of turnovers and bring up the yardage totals. Here are final grades for each defensive position group.
Justin Lawler was one of the three first-team all-AAC selections and was SMU’s best source of pass rush and backfield disruption. He was the second-leading tackler and tops on the team with 15 tackles for loss (fifth in AAC). Demerick Gary already looks like a future all-conference player. Though he wasn't a starter, his 7.5 tackles for loss were second on the team. Every game, he seemed to come up with in important sack, tackle for loss or pressure. SMU longed for an edge player with his quickness and skill. Michael Badejo and Jarvis Pruitt (3 sacks vs. Houston, Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week) also provided some depth, though each faded toward the end of the season. The Scott twins flashed every so often this season, but were largely quiet in limited snaps. Hunter Thedford’s only extended reps came when someone else was injured. The takeaway is the same as it was at midseason: SMU needs a more consistent pass rush from its ends, but is much better at end than last season.
After a strong first half, the production fell off here toward the end. But SMU still had solid depth. Zelt Minor had 20 tackles and 6 TFLs through six games, but only had 11 tackles the rest of the year. Deon Green also gave SMU gap-shooting ability up the middle. Mason Gentry looked quicker and shed blockers more consistently. They also got moved around easily at times in the run game. The second half of the win at Tulane and the losses against South Florida and Memphis are good examples of it. Chris Biggurs and J.T. Williams didn’t play a lot, but flashed in some limited snaps. SMU did well to establish depth here, but has to reload next season with Minor and Green all out of eligibility. The group that takes over for them needs to get stronger too.
SMU’s linebackers remained the weakest unit on the defense. As mentioned before, it’s a position where the younger players SMU brought in the last two seasons have redshirted more than most other positions. It’s not too hard to tell that linebacker has been SMU’s weak spot on defense.
The veteran linebackers didn’t display a lot of speed and were slow to fill gaps against the run. Against Navy, they showed little disciplined in their assignments. No unit played well against Navy (not even the coaches), but linebackers are so important in defending the triple option. When offensive linemen met them at the second level, they struggled to get off blocks. Jackson Mitchell was the unit’s leader and gave SMU the most production at the Mike and Will spots. R.C. Cox improved his discipline and open-field tackling ability. His made several good tackles in space against Tulane. Still, there’s a need for fluid, smoother linebackers who can stay disciplined and play with leverage – especially in space. When asked to set the edge on runs, the linebackers often struggled to keep a shoulder free and play with leverage.
SMU had some better production at the Star linebacker spot, where leading tackler Kyran Mitchell played. He is one of SMU’s better open-field tacklers and cover linebackers, but even he sometimes got caught playing undisciplined. Jordon Williams is good in coverage and disrupted a few running plays in the backfield. Blake Carlisle didn’t play the last few games due to a concussion. SMU needs more from everyone at each of the linebacker spots next season if it wants to cut down the big plays.
This was a more physical and willing group to play the run than a year ago, but they didn’t always do it perfectly. When safeties came down to the play run, they often had trouble taking the right angles. That allowed some of the big run plays SMU gave up to go for 20-plus yards instead of about 10 yards. There’s still better depth here, though. Mikial Onu and Kevin Johnson can tackle in the open field, but made some freshman mistakes, like taking bad angles or missing an assignment. Johnson’s speed is hard to miss. He might be the fastest player on the team. Darrion Millines had some issues with taking good angles on running plays. The big reason he made first-team all-AAC was because of his pass defense. He grabbed five interceptions and displayed much improved ball skills and an ability to read patterns. He was an important leader for the defense as well. Redshirt freshman Rodney Clemons is still newer to the position, and that showed up, but so did his speed. He’s around the ball against the pass and the run, but he needs to get better in the open field. SMU did a good job of building depth at safety, both with the younger players and getting the veterans to improve. Most of the safeties are comfortable playing boundary or field. Versatility is an emphasis by position coach Jess Loepp. Safety was a largely young position that should be better next year. They need to keep improving their leverage and ball skills.
This is the area in which SMU improved the most this season. Horace Richardson had conference-best six interceptions. A senior who fought injuries much of his career, Richardson stayed healthy and displayed good technique in coverage. He showed ball skills and anticipation as well. He was sometimes prone to a blown assignment or coverage because he got caught staring in the backfield. On a few occasions, a receiver beat him over the top. But he did better with using the proper technique in certain situations, instead of just winging it. Defensive Coordinator Van Malone credited that as a big reason for his improvement. Jordan Wyatt cooled down after a strong start, but he’s come a long way since being a liability at safety in 2015. His technique needs a little more work and he has to keep receivers in front down the field, but he has some skill and is certainly fast enough. He was more consistent against the run and actually forced four fumbles.
SMU didn’t have much depth at corner, though. William Jeanlys didn’t have a large role by season’s end. True freshman Christian Davis served as a backup, but was still figuring out his technique and had some missed assignments in coverage. He misplayed a couple balls in that air that went for touchdowns. Eric Sutton’s snaps mainly came on special teams, where he was one of SMU’s better tacklers. SMU needs more depth here, but it survived this year. Malone did a nice job developing two June Jones recruits into effective corners.