As Jordan Wyatt regains confidence, SMU’s defense finds it

Jordan Wyatt (front) gets ready to cover a receiver in SMU’s win vs. Liberty on Sept. 17, 2016. Photo credit: Mollie Mayfield

Jordan Wyatt kept running, even though he didn’t have the ball.

Wyatt had read a curl route on fourth-and-two perfectly. He broke on the route before the ball was even thrown. He basically read the quarterback’s mind.

Wyatt darted in front of the intended receiver just beyond the first down marker as the ball hit him in the hands – then fell to the ground. He had ended Liberty’s drive, but he didn’t catch a gift-wrapped pick-six.

He kept running, in disbelief that he’d missed a chance to score. He grimaced as he went over to discuss the play with defensive coordinator Van Malone.

“Coach Malone said, ‘Catch that ball. You’re not going to get many opportunities, so come up with it,’” said Wyatt, a redshirt sophomore.

Never mind that he made a great play. That wasn’t a surprise.

A year after giving up 502 yards and 45 points per game, the SMU defense has cut those numbers to 403 and 25 through three games this season. A year after Wyatt struggled mightily as a safety, he has become one of SMU’s most reliable defenders now that he has switched to cornerback.

SMU intercepted 10 passes in 2015, tied for 78th in the country. SMU already has 9 this season – tied for the most in the country. Wyatt has three of them, one more than he had all of last year.

The biggest reason for Wyatt’s improvement is his regained confidence, his coaches say. It’s something he lacked last season as a safety. Back at his natural cornerback position, he’s comfortable.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a guy that has flipped the switch from one year to another like Jordan has,” SMU head coach Chad Morris said, shaking his head as if he still can’t believe it. “This guy is playing with unbelievable confidence. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s playing as good as anybody on our football team right now.”

A cornerback at Wylie East High School, about 30 miles northeast of SMU, Wyatt was known for his speed. He reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds. When he came to SMU, he transitioned to safety.

After redshirting in 2014, he started eight games at safety in 2015. He struggled with making reads and often hesitated before making them, leading him to be late to his assignment and surrender a big play. SMU’s secondary allowed 9.3 yards per pass attempt, second-worst in the country. That’s nearly a first down every time an opponent threw the ball. It’s also a way to instantly ruin confidence.

“Last year, it wasn’t one of my best years of my career,” Wyatt said. “The coaches believed in me still. I want to thank them for sticking with me through the process.”

In the spring, Wyatt moved back to corner. The coaches realized he fit better there. By the end of fall camp, he earned a starting spot. Against Baylor, he played all 115 of SMU’s defensive and special teams snaps.

Malone didn’t want Wyatt playing so much. He tried to tell Wyatt to come out of the game. Wyatt refused. Malone gave up.

“When you’re in that place and you’re playing the game and this guy is one of your better players, you kind of let it go. But if I had realized that he had played that many plays, I would have had (strength and conditioning) coach Tru (Carroll), who’s a pretty strong guy, put him in a headlock and keep him out of the game,” Malone quipped.

Wyatt’s confidence is back as SMU’s collective defensive confidence is forming. Last season, neither was present. Against FCS James Madison, SMU took a 45-41 lead with just over two minutes remaining in the game. The defense needed to protect the lead to win. James Madison went 75 yards in 1:37 and scored the game-winning touchdown without running a single play on third down.

This year, SMU’s defense had to protect a 22-14 lead against Liberty with 47 seconds left. Liberty ran two plays on that drive: a sack allowed on first down and an interception on second down.

“We’re a different team,” Wyatt said. “If this happened last year, we’re dropping our heads like, ‘Oh man, we gotta get back on defense? C’mon offense.’ Now, we embrace the moment.”

Wyatt made the game-clinching interception, catching an overthrown pass with 23 seconds left. In that situation, coaches tell the player to immediately go to the ground so the offense can take a knee to end the game.

But Wyatt kept running – this time with the ball – all the way to the end zone.

After he celebrated with his teammates, he ran again, this time to Morris.

“I just went to go tell him I’m sorry for not being disciplined,” Wyatt said. “I couldn’t resist. I just had to take one to the crib.”

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