SMU’s defense struggled for much of last season, ranking towards the bottom of the country in yards and points allowed per game. Nevertheless, the defense was able to make some big plays, most notably sacking Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. seven times in the team’s stunning upset win. SMU will have to replace some key defensive players who graduated after last year, including cornerback Horace Richardson, safety Darrion Millines and linebacker Jackson Mitchell. The team will need some young players to step up in place of those departed leaders. If enough players show improvement, the defense could take a major step forward. Here is a look at who will be getting snaps for SMU’s defense this season.
Projected starters: Justin Lawler (DE), Mason Gentry (NT), Demerick Gary (DT), Delontae Scott (DE).
Players to watch: Chris Biggurs (DT), Dimarya Mixon (DE), Michael Badejo (DE).
Despite losing contributors Jarvis Pruitt, Zelt Minor and Deon Green, SMU’s defensive line is among the team’s deepest units. Besides Courtland Sutton, Justin Lawler is the closest player that SMU has to a sure thing on its roster. He racked up 15 tackles for loss and six sacks last season, pacing the team in both categories. He should be just as impressive in his senior season. Demerick Gary is another player who could have a huge season this year. As a true freshman, Gary was productive; he totaled four sacks and three quarterback hits. He is expected to move inside to defensive tackle this season, and he can provide some valuable interior pass rush from that spot. Although he will be just a sophomore, Gary could emerge as not only one of the best players on SMU, but one of the best defensive linemen in the conference.
SMU has lots of players who can step in alongside Lawler and Gary. Chris Biggurs and Mason Gentry will both get a solid amount of snaps inside. Gentry provides experience as a senior and Biggurs appears ready for more snaps in his second season. At defensive end, Delontae Scott, Michael Badejo and Dimarya Mixon should all compete for playing time. Mixon came over as a graduate transfer from Tennessee, while Scott and Badejo are embarking on their sophomore seasons. SMU’s defensive line is ripe with players who could earn playing time this season, and that depth complements the star power of Lawler and Gary well. A stronger defensive line should help shore up the run defense issues that plagued SMU last year.
Projected starters: Anthony Rhone, Kyran Mitchell, Jordan Ward.
Players to watch: Noah Spears, Jordon Williams, Myles Duke, Shaine Hailey.
SMU’s linebackers largely struggled last season, capped off by the 496 rushing yards that Navy’s triple option offense gained against them in the disastrous final game of the season. In his junior season, Kyran Mitchell is the only linebacker who appears to have a secure starting job. Mitchell led the team with 67 tackles last season, six of which came for a loss. Anthony Rhone will likely come into the season as a starter, but he will have to improve on his 47 tackles from last season if he wants to hold off younger players such as freshman Noah Spears. Sophomores Jordan Ward and Jordon Williams are the main candidates to replace graduated senior Jackson Mitchell at the third starting spot. With some uncertainty in this group, the staff could look to freshmen such as Spears, Myles Duke and Shaine Hailey for snaps this season. SMU needs some of these linebackers to have breakout seasons for the unit to be a strength this season.
Projected starters: Jordan Wyatt, Eric Sutton.
Players to watch: Will Jeanlys, Cedric Lancaster.
Jordan Wyatt will be SMU’s No. 1 cornerback this season after a monster 2016. Wyatt picked off four passes and knocked loose four fumbles last year, emerging as one of the best playmakers in the conference. Across from Wyatt, SMU will have its hands full in replacing Horace Richardson, who is now fighting for a roster spot on the Minnesota Vikings. Richardson was one of SMU’s better players last year, intercepting six passes and breaking up eight more. Eric Sutton appears to have the inside edge in replacing Richardson. Sutton played as a true freshman last year and did pretty well. While he is just 5-10, 161 pounds, Sutton sticks to receivers with great speed. He can move inside to the nickel if SMU goes into that package. SMU has some experienced options at corner as well, in senior Cedric Lancaster and junior Will Jeanlys. It will be hard for the Mustangs to replace a player of Richardson’s caliber, but Sutton has the tools to give SMU another shutdown corner across from Wyatt.
Projected starters: Rodney Clemons, Mikal Onu.
Players to watch: Kevin Johnson, Elijah McQueen
SMU is bringing back two key free safeties in sophomores Rodney Clemons and Kevin Johnson, but the team will need to replace Darrion Millines at the strong safety spot. Millines was one of the team’s biggest leaders both last season, delivering plenty of big hits over the middle. Sophomore Mikal Onu appears to be the favorite to replace Millines. Onu got a chunk of playing time last year, totaling 28 tackles. True freshman Elijah McQueen should also push for playing time, whether it is at safety or linebacker. McQueen enrolled early for the spring semester in 2016 and impressed everyone in spring practice. It will be tough to leave a player with McQueen’s level of talent off the field. SMU has young talent at safety, and while Millines will be missed, there is reason for optimism at this position.
Projected starters: Josh Williams (K), Jamie Sackville (P), James Proche (KR/PR).
Players to watch: Trey Quinn (PR), Kevin Johnson (KR).
SMU needs to bounce back in a big way after having a rough 2016 on special teams. Josh Williams and Jamie Sackville were both inconsistent kicking and punting the ball. Williams made 77.2% of his field goals, and Sackville mixed in some booming punts with some shanked ones. However, SMU’s biggest issue on special teams was in kick and punt coverage. The team got consistently burned with big returns and committed some bad penalties. Justin Guy-Robinson could be a remedy to these problems. The true freshman possesses blazing speed and can make tackles down the field. While the team did not break many returns last year, they have some explosion this season in James Proche, Kevin Johnson and Trey Quinn. Each player can make plays with the ball in his hands. Improved play on special teams would go a long way in giving the defense and offense better field position to work with.