2013 SMU Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - SMU Mustang Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Tom Mason's defense was improbably solid a year ago, flying all over the field to rank third nationally in takeaways, pitch two shutouts and tie an NCAA single-season mark with eight pick-sixes. But, can the Mustangs even approach their 2012 revelry without four of last season's top five defenders? SMU has taken a particularly forceful hit to the front seven, where linemen Margus Hunt and Torlan Pittman and linebackers Ja'Gared Davis and Taylor Reed have graduated. The line was obliterated, leaving behind three new starters who'll labor to pressure the pocket in a new league. The linebackers, led by Randall Joyner, will continue to cover plenty of ground, and Kenneth Acker is one of the nation's best cornerbacks that few people are talking about. However, all roads lead back to the play of that D-line. If SMU is pushed back on its heels against AAC opponents, it could be a very long year for Mason's kids.
Star of the defense: Senior CB Kenneth Acker
Tackles: Randall Joyner, 93
Sacks: Multiple, 1
Interceptions: Randall Joyner, Kenneth Acker, 3
Player who has to step up and become a star:Junior NG Darrian Wright
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB Stephon Sanders
Best pro prospect: Acker
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Acker, 2) Senior LB Randall Joyner, 3) Senior SS Jay Scott
Strength of the defense: Linebacker, veteran secondary, run defense
Weakness of the defense: The D-line, proven pass rushers, takeaways, red-zone stops
Uh-oh. SMU has been devastated along the D-line by graduation, losing all three starters, namely second-round draft pick Margus Hunt. The closest thing the unit has to a veteran will be 6-2, 280-pound junior NG strong> Darrian Wright, a two-time letterwinner. A year ago, he played in every game, chipping in a dozen tackles. He's pining for an opportunity to be the new leader, using his quickness and know-how to make plays behind the line.
Flanking Wright at left defensive end will likely be sophomore Andy McCleneghen. He lettered in his first year of action, making two stops, and has not performed like a former walk-on this offseason. At 6-6 and 262, he's very long and agile, with the wingspan to disrupt the field of vision of opposing passers.
The leader at right defensive end coming out of spring was sophomore Zach Wood. The 6-3, 258-pounder had offers from Minnesota and Virginia two years ago, and can play on the inside as well. He got a taste of action in nine games a year ago, making nine stops and getting a better feel for the game.
None of the current No. 2 linemen played a year ago. Still, there's hope that they can develop and even compete for starting jobs. Behind Wood at right end, redshirt freshman Elie Nabushosi is very raw, but explosive enough to have a bright future. The Congo native has bulked up to 6-4 and 262 pounds, yet hasn't lost his quick first step. Nabushosi is going to require a lot of time, but he could be worth it in the end.
Watch Out For … junior Rishaad Wimbley to be moved from running back to defensive tackle. The 6-0, 260-pounder arrived to SMU as a lineman, but moved to running back in 2011. However, he was a non-factor on offense a year ago, and has way too much quickness and lower body strength to not be considered as an antidote for the depth-deprived D-line.
Strength: Athleticism. They're well-sized, they're quick and they're capable of beating opposing linemen off the snap. Yeah, this group is going to be painfully raw and inconsistent, but it harbors the measurables to improve as the season winds down.
Weakness: Proven players. Three defensive linemen, and not one with any starting experience at this level. After finishing 70th nationally in sacks, it's difficult to see the remade front three being any more effective at pressuring the pocket. And without Hunt around to command double-teams, the holdovers will have a tougher time than ever beating the blocks.
Outlook: The D-line is likely to be a trouble area that impacts the other eight starters throughout the year. As it stands now, the Mustangs don't have a single lineman who can be counted on to consistently penetrate and make things happen in the backfield. Someone, like Wright, will use the opportunity to shine, but there's not nearly enough talent or depth, especially as the program heads to a tougher league.
Unit Rating: 5
As the veteran of a unit missing two graduated all-stars, Ja'Gared Davis and Taylor Reed, senior Randall Joyner will need to be extra special this season. The fill-in at Buck linebacker after Cameron Rogers was injured weaved a campaign that was overshadowed by his more heralded teammates. Joyner was second on the team with 93 tackles, adding three interceptions, eight passes defended, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Not the fastest or the biggest defender at 5-10 and 236 pounds, he plays hard and smart, always eager to stick his nose into the action.
The likely successor to Davis at weakside is sophomore Robert Seals. The staff has been quick to praise the 6-3, 225-pounder, whose combination of size and closing speed makes him a good fit to rush the passer. Last year turned out to be a bit of a false start, though, with Seals making just three tackles.
Taking over for Reed in the middle will be seasoned veteran Kevin Pope. The 5-10, 225-pound senior has lettered twice as a Mustang, playing a key role off the bench since making the switch from running back in 2011. A year ago, Pope earned his first start while making 20 tackles and recovering three fumbles.
Back for another season as the starting strongside linebacker is 6-3, 250-pound junior Stephon Sanders. Heavily-recruited in 2011, he's already a veteran of 17 career starts, but needs to produce more momentum-building plays than he did a year ago. Sanders was relatively quiet in 2012, making just 48 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss, five pass breakups and a pick-six. More is expected from No. 23 this fall.
Senior Brandon Henderson isn't going to threaten at Buck, but he does bring a veteran presence to the second team and special teams. The 6-2, 233-pounder is a three-time letterwinner, with a very good feel for the system. One of the rising stars among the reserves is 6-2, 215-pound Jonathan Yenga, the heir apparent to Pope in the middle. He needs to add weight, but compensates with his range and athleticism.
Watch Out For … Sanders to begin emerging into a valuable defender. Physical ability was not the junior's problem. A lack of reps was. However, now that he's bulked up and has played an entire season as a starter, No. 23 is capable of becoming a playmaker for the Mustangs.
Strength: Range and athleticism. If you're incapable of making plays in all directions, the odds are that you won't start for this SMU defense. The Mustangs like taking athletes and transforming them into the kinds of defenders that will hound quarterbacks and drop back swiftly into coverage.
Weakness: Inexperience and leadership. Losing Davis and Reed, a pair of all-stars, really hurts the SMU D, especially since four linebackers are on the field at all times. Joyner is a nice player, but he won't have NFL scouts burning up his phone lines. And Sanders, Pope and Seals still have plenty to prove now that the two leading men have graduated.
Outlook: Two starters are back, but in many ways it's the dawn of a new era at linebacker in Dallas. The Mustangs are searching for new stars from the second level, defenders who can use their athleticism to create turnovers and tone-setting stops behind the line. Joyner is the cornerstone from the second level. But someone else needs to step up and do more than just clean up messes on six-yard running plays.
Unit Rating: 5
The Mustangs defensive backfield likes to live life on the edge. Sometimes it costs them. And sometimes they make the other guy pay. In 2012, SMU yielded 27 touchdown passes, but also picked off 21 throws. The catalyst of the secondary will once again be CB Kenneth Acker, a returning Second Team All-Conference USA performer. Overlooked on a program not hailed for its D, the senior chipped in with 50 tackles, three interceptions and a team-best 15 passes defended. The 6-0, 195-pound product of Portland, Ore. has the athleticism to moonlight at wide receiver, and enough experience to pique the interest of NFL scouts.
SMU will also be experienced at the other corner spot, the one manned by 6-1, 190-pound senior
Chris Parks. He's earned three letters as a Mustang, starting 12 games in 2012, and making 48 tackles and seven pass breakups. However, Parks got exposed too often in coverage, which needs to be addressed this fall. With Acker on the other side, Parks will get picked on incessantly if he fails to deter quarterbacks form doing so.
If Parks continues to struggle at corner, 5-9, 182-pound sophomore J.R. Richardson is liable to be the beneficiary. The Baton Rouge native was on the verge of winning a starting gig last summer, when he suffered a season-ending ACL tear. While his size will 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.
Senior Jay Scott is now the highest-ranking member of the SMU safeties. The team's strong safety started all but one game a year ago, finishing fourth on the team with 76 tackles, and second with 11 passes defended. The 6-1, 210-pound former high school quarterback nuances his size and physicality with keen instincts. And the longer he plays on defense, the more comfortable he becomes playing centerfield.
The surprise of the secondary this offseason has been junior Hayden Greenbauer, who resides on the pole position at free safety. The 6-0, 205-pounder played in all 13 games of 2012, starting the Hawaii Bowl, and logged 27 tackles. However, Greenbauer has really turned heads since the beginning of the year, adding more muscle and improving his cover skills.
Sophomore Shakiel Randolph will continue to learn behind Scott at strong safety before likely succeeding him next fall. The rangy 6-5, 201-pound defender started six games in 2012, earning a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman Team. He's an explosive all-around athlete, with a very high ceiling once he gets a better grasp on his assignments.
Watch Out For … the health of Richardson's knee. Based on his play leading up to the start of the 2012 campaign, there was no doubt that the fleet-footed sophomore was going to play a prominent role in the rotation. Now, fingers are crossed that he can regain the speed and agility that helped make him one of SMU's budding young stoppers.
Strength: Ball skills. The Mustangs didn't just rank among the top four programs in the FBS last year in interceptions; they actually tied an NCAA single-season record with eight pick-sixes. With Acker back to spearhead the veteran secondary, SMU will once again be a very dangerous squad on which to throw.
Weakness: Consistency. There was definitely a feast-or-famine quality to the SMU pass defense a year ago. Sure, all of the takeaways and big plays were terrific, but the program also allowed too many touchdown passes. With Johnny Manziel, Casey Pachall and Blake Bortles on the schedule, the Mustangs must learn to make stops when their backs are pressed up against the end zone.
Outlook: It all begins with Acker, a rags-to-riches defensive back who'll spend his final year impressing NFL scouts. He'll be avoided at all costs, which means Parks and Richardson, among others, must come through in coverage. If the Mustangs can continue their thievery, the coaching staff will be prone to overlooking the inevitable breakdowns and missed assignments that'll visit the group.
Unit Rating: 6
The Mustangs will enjoy an element of continuity on special teams this season. PK Chase Hover returns for his senior season, fresh off kicking a school-record 18-of-29 field goals and leading the team in scoring. He also punted 18 times for a 39.4-yard average. Hover, however, must work on his accuracy after getting three blocks, while making just 3-of-10 beyond 40 yards.
Hover shared punting duties last year with junior Mike Loftus, who averaged a healthy 41.9 yards. The honorable mention All-Conference USA selection also displayed a strong leg on kickoffs, resulting in 29 touchbacks on his 77 attempts.
Kick returns and punt returns will be the duties of junior Der'rikk Thompson and senior Kenneth Acker, respectively. Thompson stood No. 25 in the country at 25.7 yards per return, while Acker showed the pop to be a threat if he receives enough opportunities in the fall.
Watch Out For … Acker to become a factor on special teams. He only received six touches in 2012, but the Mustangs would like to see that number go north. Acker is a next-level talent as a cornerback, who's hoping to impress NFL scouts with his return game as well.
Strength: The return game. Acker is poised for a big year, as is Thompson as the primary kick returner. He's a shift and speedy athlete, with the second gear needed to exploit seams and go the distance.
Weakness: Kicking game accuracy. Hover only connected on 62% of last year's field goal tries, and he became a longshot as the goalposts moved further away. SMU prides itself on being a high-powered, high-risk offense, but last season's red-zone struggles made Hover more important to the team than head coach June Jones prefers.
Outlook: Everyone is back, save for massive Margus Hunt who was one of college football's premier kick blockers over the past few seasons. Hover, in particular, needs to improve, or else it could cost SMU a close game or two along the way. Loftus remains an underrated special teams component, both as a punter and as a kickoff specialist.
Unit Rating: 5
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