2012 SMU Preview – Defense
SMU LB Taylor Reed
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - SMU Mustang Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Before even getting to the perennial need to plug certain holes on the depth chart, SMU must find a way to shift the turnover pendulum this season. The Mustangs were dead last nationally in turnover margin in 2011. In June Jones' first couple of seasons in Dallas, his D was an attacking one that created chances for the offense. Last year, however, they had just 16 takeaways, lacking the tenacity or the ability to change the tenor of a game. Lining up from its usual 3-4, the team feels confident about its front seven. Yes, two terrific ends have graduated, but Torlan Pittman is an active plugger at the nose, and enormous DE Margus Hunt, the Estonia native, will be a hidden gem no longer. The foundation of the defense is clearly built around the linebackers. All but one full-time starter is back in the mix, headed by Second Team All-Conference USA seniors Taylor Reed and Ja'Gared Davis. Reed is the prototypical inside defender, manning running lanes to make a team-high 101 tackles. Davis is at his best flying off the edge, as his 30 career tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks will attest. Now that CB Richard Crawford and FS Chris Banjo are gone, the secondary that produced just three picks in 2011 is an even bigger worry now. Kenneth Acker returns at one cornerback spot, but second-year James Richardson could spend much of the fall on an island.
Star of the defense: Senior LB Ja'Gared Davis
Tackles: Taylor Reed, 101
Sacks: Ja'Gared Davis, 5.5
Interceptions: Ja'Gared Davis, 2
Player who has to step up and become a star:Sophomore CB J.R. Richardson
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Stephon Sanders
Best pro prospect: Senior DE Margus Hunt
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Davis, 2) Senior LB Taylor Reed, 3) Hunt
Strength of the defense: The D-line, run defense, the linebackers, team speed, stiffening in the red zone
Weakness of the defense: Proven edge rushers, takeaways
The top priority for the Mustangs' three-man front will be to replace last year's starting defensive ends, all-stars Taylor Thompson and Marquis Frazier. The reclamation project begins with budding junior DE Margus Hunt, who is liable to follow Thompson into the NFL next season. The enormous 6-8, 275-pounder from Estonia is still raw at the sport, which he took up just a few years ago, but has an uncommon mix of physical ability that's going to attract the interest of professional scout. The former shot putter and discus thrower is strong like bull, yet is also very fast, and surprisingly agile. Although his production dipped in 2011 to 28 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss and three sacks, all in the bowl, the staff feels he's set to erupt this fall.
Flanking Hunt at left defensive end will be 6-5, 280-pound senior Kevin Grenier. The former high school quarterback has packed on the weight in Dallas, affording him the strength and power to withstand against the run. Before being limited by injuries last fall, he played plenty of defense and special teams in 2009 and 2010.
The successors on the outside are a pair of sophomores, 6-5, 238-pound Beau Barnes and 6-2, 265-pound Cameron Smith. Both players lettered as rookies in 2011, getting their feet wet on defense and special teams.
At the nose, Torlan Pittman is back to reprise his role as the Mustangs' starter in the middle. The 6-1, 295-pound junior is coming off a successful season that saw him earn honorable mention All-Conference USA after making 37 tackles and six stops for loss. Pittman has good get-off, and plays with the right pad level needed to get leverage on opposing blockers. He'll again be ably backed up by 6-3, 290-pound senior Aaron Davis, the three-time letterwinner who made a career-best 26 stops, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2011.
Watch Out For … Hunt to enter the national lexicon, blowing up into a folk hero around Dallas. He has all of the ingredients to emerge into one of the most talked about athletes in Conference USA this fall. The physical ability has always been in place, but once he improves his technique and flexibility, No. 92 is liable to become a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
Strength: Winning the line of scrimmage. From left to right, the SMU defensive linemen are big, physical and capable of shoving opposing linemen on to their backs. Plus, Hunt and Grenier have the wingspans on the outside to completely obstruct the vision of quarterbacks as they survey the field for open targets.
Weakness: Proven pass rushers. Led by Thompson, last year's top four sackers have either graduated, or are linebackers. Beginning with Hunt, the Mustangs desperately need the defensive ends to create enough of a push that it allows the staff to choose its blitz options a little more judiciously.
Outlook: While new troops are needed along the front three, SMU remains in solid shape on the first line of defense. Hunt is set to blow up, Pittman is underrated on the inside and depth won't be a major issue. If Grenier can contribute to the run D, and get into the backfield occasionally, the Mustangs could endure minimal drop-off from a year ago.
Unit Rating: 6
Rich in returning starters and a pair of all-stars, the corps of linebackers has the parts to become the backbone of the 2012 defense. The weakside playmaker is 6-1, 235-pound Ja'Gared Davis, a starter since the middle of his rookie year. He is a rare athlete at the position, with the closing speed and timing to be used like a defensive end on blitzes. One of the team's most effective pass rushers in recent years, he made 83 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, two picks and eight pass breakups in 2011. The two-time All-Conference USA selection can cover the field like a safety, one of the reasons he's such an effective pass defender as well.
Davis' equivalent on the inside is 6-0, 240-pound senior Taylor Reed, who joined his classmate on the All-Conference USA Second Team last fall. Where Davis is a freelancer, Reed is more of a strict, disciplined run defender, sifting through the traffic before zeroing in on the man with the ball. A key cog in last year's 23rd-ranked run defense, he led the Mustangs with 101 tackles, adding in 9.5 stops behind the line, four sacks and three passes broken up.
Returning to Buck, the other inside linebacker position, is 6-0, 230-pound junior Cameron Rogers, a seasoned veteran of three letters on the Hilltop. The one-time walk-on got his first chance to start in 2011, responding with a career-best 69 tackles. A try-hard type of player, he makes up for elite athleticism with a great motor and a blue-collar work ethic.
The newest member of the full-time lineup is sophomore Stephon Sanders, the favorite to handle strongside. He looks like a good one, based on his debut, which included five late starts and a crash course on being a top-flight outside linebacker. Ideally sized for the position at 6-3 and 235 pounds, he showed a knack for getting into the backfield with 26 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss and three sacks.
SMU will once again boast a pair of quality backups on the inside. Junior Kevin Pope, a 5-10, 225-pound converted running back, performed well in his first season on defense by making 40 tackles. Sophomore Randall Joyner added 43 stops, and will once again provided much-needed breathers for Rogers at Buck.
Watch Out For … Reed's behavior away from the field. The Mustangs need their veteran in the middle, but he's been a little sporadic with his behavior in the past. For the sake of his future in the sport, and for the good of the team, he has to remain focused on finishing his career without any incidents that land him in the coach's doghouse.
Strength: Diversity. SMU is capable of doing a little bit of everything with this group of linebackers. From the outside, Davis and Sanders are assets to the pass defense, rushing the pocket, and seamlessly dropping back into coverage. Reed and Rogers, on the other hand, are the kind of rugged run stoppers needed to fill gaps and prevent yards after contact.
Weakness: Depth on the outside. The interior is well-fortified, but the Mustangs are going to be a little thin behind Davis and Sanders. Cody Worthen and Robert Seals are the likely reserves, but have just nine career tackles between them at this level.
Outlook: Provided it doesn't have to dig too deep into the depth chart, SMU will boast arguably Conference USA's best collection of linebackers. Reed and Davis form a terrific inside-outside combination, respectively. Sanders is the budding young star of the group. And Rogers is a steady and reliable veteran. It all adds up to a quartet that is going to make a ton of plays this fall.
Unit Rating: 6.5
The secondary has improved in each of the last two seasons. Keeping that trend alive, though, will require replacing two of last year's top performers, CB Richard Crawford and FS Chris Banjo. The new leader of the cornerbacks will be 6-0, 195-pound junior Kenneth Acker, who showed flashes in his first season in the starting lineup. A terrific all-around athlete, who's not afraid to throw his body around, he finished sixth on the team with 63 tackles, adding five pass breakups. Acker needs to evolve into one of the emotional and physical leaders now that he's an upperclassman.
Taking the lead at the spot vacated by Crawford is 5-9, 180-pound sophomore J.R. Richardson, who mostly contributed on special teams in his first season. While his size is certainly going to be a concern, speed and athleticism will not. Richardson is one of the program's fastest players, allowing him to go stride-for-stride with opposing players.
SMU will not be without seasoned veterans coming off the bench at cornerback. Senior Keith Robinsonhas played in 33 career games, earning three letters as a Mustang. Junior Chris Parks has two letters to his name, and made a career-best nine tackles in 2011.
The defensive backfield's other returning starter is 5-11, 195-pound senior Ryan Smith, who is about to begin his third season in the lineup. He set a personal-high with 65 tackles in 2011, quickly filling the gaps on running plays. He still needs to improve in coverage, an area of vulnerability that opposing quarterbacks will look to exploit.
After caddying for upperclassmen in his first two seasons, 6-1, 210-pound junior Jay Scott is set to finally take over at free safety. The former high school quarterback has a nice blend of size and athleticism to go along with an improving comfort level at the position. He started a pair of games in 2011, making 21 tackles, and appears ready to blossom into a solid all-around defender for the Mustangs.
Watch Out For … Richardson to get picked on early and often by opposing quarterbacks. He's unproven, undersized and lining up opposite the team's best cover corner. In other words, he's going to get a lot of attention from offensive coordinators who'll want to find if the sophomore is ready for action or not.
Strength: Red-zone defense. Okay, there are no guarantees now that Crawford and Banjo have graduated , but the holdovers still had plenty to do with a defense that allowed just 15 touchdown passes in 13 games. Acker is an improving pass defender, and Scott and Smith are going to surprise many receivers with their physicality.
Weakness: Picks. This is an issue that's on the verge of becoming a nasty trend. SMU, despite being targeted on a regular basis, has intercepted just 16 passes over the last two seasons. Last year was particularly feeble, with just six picks on 443 attempts to rank 107th in the country.
Outlook: Although the secondary has been surging ahead in the right direction in recent years, remaining on that path will require a quick recovery from the loss of two key defensive backs. The encouraging news is that the staff has done a solid job of recruiting and developing back end talent over the past few years. Acker and Smith will form the foundation, with Scott and Richardson looking to evolve into reliable playmakers.
Unit Rating: 5.5
SMU will continue to make special teams a priority, one of the trademarks during the June Jones era. One specialist returns, but another must be replaced. Junior PK Chase Hover made the most of his limited opportunities to showcase his leg strength, hitting 8-of-10 field goal attempts, yet none longer than 34 yards out. The Blinn (Tex.) College transfer was forced to sit out a pair of games after contracting mono.
Since P Matt Stone averaged a mere 37.7 yards a year ago, few are shedding tears over departure. Taking over will be sophomore Mike Loftus, who got his feet wet on last year's kickoff team. He averaged a robust 64.5 yards on kickoffs, an indication of the pop that he can produce with his leg. He can also placekick, and will serve as Hover's backup.
Taking over for the dangerous Richard Crawford on punt returns will be junior Kenneth Acker. Kickoffs will once again be the domain of shifty sophomore J.R. Richardson, who averaged 21.3 yards on 23 attempts last fall.
Watch Out For … the development of Loftus as a punter. He left Anaheim as a highly-regarded specialist, a technically-sound player with a strong leg. However, he was largely hailed for his ability as a placekicker. Now that he's being given the punting job, the staff is cautiously optimistic that he can provide more support for the D than Stone did last fall.
Strength: Blocks. Over the last three seasons, the Mustangs have blocked an incredible 21 punts or kicks, more than any other program in the FBS. The main hero has been 6-8, 275-pound senior Margus Hunt, who has gotten his enormous paws on 14 of them to evolve into one of the more unique and unlikely weapons of this unit.
Weakness: Uncertainty at punter. Last season, SMU ranked 103rd nationally in net punting, putting extra pressure on the defense. Yeah, Stone was a big part of the problem, but if Loftus couldn't beat out the kid with the 37-yard average, shouldn't the Mustangs still be concerned about their situation in the punting game?
Outlook: While there's a degree of uncertainty and inconsistency inherent to the special teams unit, it's still going to produce the occasional momentum-changing play, either from a Hunt block or a Richardson return. Still, the group is going to eventually be judged by how Loftus evolves, and whether or not Hover can nail long-distance kicks in clutch situations.
Unit Rating: 5.5
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