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2008 SMU Preview - Defense
SMU P/PK Thomas Morstead
SMU P/PK Thomas Morstead
Posted May 20, 2008 2008 Preview - SMU Mustang Defense

SMU Mustangs

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN SMU Preview | 2008 SMU Offense
- 2008 SMU Defense | 2008 SMU Depth Chart
2007 CFN SMU Preview
| 2006 CFN SMU Preview

What you need to know: June Jones has never worried too much about defense in his coaching career. He’ll fit in well at SMU. The Mustangs had one of the nation’s worst units a year ago, finishing 116th in total defense and 117th in scoring defense. Things don’t figure to get any better for a group that’s undersized up front, inexperienced at linebacker, and ineffective in pass defense. The defense is especially thin at cornerback after losing Jonathan Lindley and Brandon Jones to graduation. One bright note is the return of S Rock Dennis, a heralded junior college transfer, who sat out last year with a shoulder injury.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Will Bonilla, 82
Sacks: Youri Yenga, 2.5
Interceptions: Bryan McCann, 4

Star of the defense: Junior CB Bryan McCann
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Derrius Bell
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Youri Yenga
Best pro prospect: McCann
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McCann 2) Senior LB Will Bonilla 3) Senior NG Serge Elizee
Strength of the defense: Experience in the secondary
Weakness of the defense: Run defense, pass defense, creating pressure

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: If, in fact, it all starts up front, SMU will again be among the nation’s worst defenses. After struggling to get pressure or stop the run, the Mustangs must now develop successors for its best end and tackle. Hoping to replace some of Cory Muse’s production on the outside will be 6-2, 225-pound sophomore Youri Yenga. A speedy edge rusher with a great motor, he’s the type of player the staff feels a defense can be built around. In his debut on the Hilltop, he produced 27 tackles, six tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks.

Yenga’s partner on the other side will be 6-2, 240-pound sophomore Anthony Sowe, a tremendous leaper with 4.5 speed. He mostly played on special teams a year ago, but has added weight in the offseason and is poised to be a factor coming off the edge.

To help bolster the inside for the Mustangs, senior Patrick Handy is moving to tackle from end, where he had 11 tackles last year. A veteran with three letters, he’s just 6-2 and 256 pounds, which means he’ll be at a severe weight disadvantage every time he lines up.

Next to Handy at the nose will be 6-1, 301-pound senior Serge Elizee, who had 22 tackles in his first season out of College of the Sequoias. Originally signed by Minnesota out of the Big Ten, he’s the one inside player who gives SMU a fighter’s chance of stopping the run. He has a strong base and does a nice job of clogging running lanes.

Projected Top Reserves: Junior tackle Chris Parham brings a degree of girth and experience to the second unit. A 6-3, 286-pounder, he’s played multiple positions along the line, starting eight games last season and chipping in 20 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. He’s a nice insurance policy in the event Handy can’t hold up at his new position.

After playing sparingly in seven games as a rookie, 6-3, 255-pound sophomore Jordan Johnson is looking for an expanded role as the first end off the sidelines. Quick enough to get penetration and big enough to defend the run, he had 10 tackles and two tackles for loss to build a solid foundation.

Watch Out For… the Mustangs to bring the pressure without necessarily blitzing. They don’t have the big bodies up front to play a bend-don’t-break style, so they’ll be getting after it with an aggressive approach that aims for disruption.
Strength: Outside speed. All of a sudden, SMU boasts some impressive athletes at defensive end, all of whom are capable of getting off the edge in a hurry. Yenga, Sowe, and Johnson are essentially outside linebackers masquerading as ends.
Weakness: Take your pick. The Mustangs aren’t very good at stopping the run or at getting after the passer. Of the starters coming out of spring, only Elizee is greater than 256 pounds, which will be a nagging issue throughout the season.
Outlook: There’s not much to like about a line that’s undersized and has problems making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Those opponents on the schedule, such as TCU, UCF, and Navy that commit to the run will get little resistance from the SMU front wall. The Mustang line was bad last year. This year, things could actually be worse.
Rating: 4


Projected Starters: The only returning starter is a good one, senior Will Bonilla, who’s back for his final season at strongside. In the most extensive action of his career, he responded with a team-high 82 tackles, five tackles for loss, two picks, and two forced fumbles. At 5-11 and 225 pounds, he has clear size limitations, but compensates by playing very fast and with tremendous intensity.

Sophomore Justin Smart is moving over from defensive end to take over at middle linebacker, a more natural position for him. Locked up with much bigger players, he only managed 29 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks, numbers he’ll obliterate this season. At 6-2 and 240 pounds, he has the right size, instincts, and leadership ability to excel in the new job.

Taking over at weakside will be 6-2, 226-pound sophomore Pete Fleps, who lettered and had 10 tackles a year ago. While not a top recruit coming out of high school, he’s already shown enough lateral quickness and football IQ to prove that he belongs in the lineup. His experience at national powerhouse Southlake Carroll (Tex.) High School has him well-prepared for this opportunity.

Projected Top Reserves: After playing in 11 games and making 14 tackles, 6-0, 215-pound junior Chase Kennemer is poised for an even bigger role on the defense. The most experienced of the reserve linebackers, he’ll back up Fleps at weakside.

The heir apparent to Bonilla at strongside is sophomore Jason Jackson, mostly a special teamer up to this point. Built like a safety at 6-0 and 219 pounds, he has the speed and agility to be used in a multitude of different ways.

Watch Out For… Smart. Moving him back a level will wind up being one of the best personnel decisions of the offseason. He has the right mix of size and intangibles to pile up a ton of tackles as the new middle linebacker.
Strength: Motors. While not the most impressive physical specimens, Bonilla, Smart, and Fleps are all battlers who won’t quit on a play until the whistle blows.
Weakness: Size. Besides Smart, none of the linebackers have ideal size for the position, creating a potential liability when they’re forced to cover tight ends or take on a lineman who gets to the second level.
Outlook: Long-term, there’s potential in players, like Smart and Fleps, who have contagious attitudes and a passion for the game. This year, however, the unit will struggle to slow down physical running games, especially considering the dearth of talent up front.
Rating: 4.5


Projected Starters: An already beleaguered defensive backfield is trying to regroup from the suspension of SS Bryce Hudman and the graduations of cornerbacks Jonathan Lindley and Brandon Jones. The return of 6-0, 176-pound junior Bryan McCann, the program’s best cover corner, is the only positive news at the position. He’s a playmaker with the speed and field awareness to shut down the other team’s best receiver. After making 59 tackles and picking off a team-high four passes, he’s ready to land a spot on the All-Conference USA team.

Opposite McCann will be 5-10, 167-pound sophomore Derrius Bell, who better be prepared to get picked on a lot this fall. A terrific athlete coming off a solid spring, he’ll have to prove to opposing quarterbacks that it’s a mistake to repeatedly look his way. He lettered as a freshman, playing in nine games and making eight stops.

Sophomore Tyler Jones is back for his second season as the starting free safety. In his debut, he proved to be a vicious hitter and reliable in run defense. The 6-1, 203-pound thumper chipped in 51 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, needing to make strides in pass defense.

The Mustangs will finally get their first good look at 5-10, 189-pound junior SS Rock Dennis, the prized transfer from Garden City (Kan.) Community College, who sat out 2007 with a shoulder injury. While not that big, he has the speed and cover skills of a corner, something this secondary sorely needs.

Projected Top Reserves: It’s only matter of time before sophomore SS De’Von Bailey starts logging significant minutes for the Mustang D. A top recruit who fielded Big 12 offers in 2007, he has blazing speed and good ball skills wrapped in a 6-2, 209-pound frame. After lettering a year ago and playing in seven games, he’ll see his playing time increase markedly this fall.

Incoming junior college transfer Deyon McElroy is exactly what SMU needs to bolster the depth at cornerback. A confident 6-0, 180-pounder who doesn’t get beat on the deep balls, he could challenge Bell if he learns the playbook and adapts fast enough to the speed of the game.

Watch Out For… Dennis. The Mustangs felt he would start last year before the injury occurred. The old staff loved his athleticism and physicality, traits that haven’t been lost on the new staff.
Strength: McCann. In a pedestrian group of defensive backs, he stands out as the one player opposing quarterbacks will try to avoid. If he can cut off one side of the field, blowing up the Mustang secondary gets a bit tougher.
Weakness: Preventing the big play. The disturbing numbers from last year don’t lie—SMU cannot stop the pass. The Mustangs were 116th nationally against the pass, a ranking that must be improved if the program is going to take a step forward.
Outlook: A young secondary and a lack of a pass rush is a recipe for disaster, especially for a school in pass-happy Conference USA. The Mustangs have some good athletes in the defensive backfield, but lack the consistency or cover skills to avoid a repeat of last season’s abysmal results.
Rating: 4.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Senior Thomas Morstead basically is the special teams for the Mustangs, handling the punting and placekicking. As the punter, the 6-5, 233-pound boomer was First Team All-Conference USA, leading the league with a whopping 44.6-yard average. As the kicker, however, he was far less reliable, connecting on just 13-of-20 field goal attempts. He nailed three from beyond 50 yards, so leg strength is no concern, but his consistency needs to be addressed before the start of the season.

Senior Jessie Henderson and junior Emmanuel Sanders are back as the kickoff and punt returners, respectively. Neither did much damage a year ago, with Henderson averaging 21.4 yards and Sanders just over nine. For a spark, the Mustangs could turn to junior Bryan McCann, who has special teams experience.

Watch Out For… Henderson. Although he hasn’t been the same since getting hurt in 2006, Henderson still has the potential and track record to be a dynamite weapon in the return game. Last year’s paltry average fails to point out that he was all-conference his first two seasons.
Strength: Leg strength. Morstead has one of the biggest legs in the country, allowing him to destroy the ball as a punter and reach the uprights from well beyond 50 yards as a kicker. He’s a unique, and often overlooked, tool for the offense and defense.
Weakness: The return game. Henderson has a lot of zip, but too often, he failed to get unzipped in 2007. He and Sanders were the main culprits in a return game that ranked near the bottom of Conference USA in both categories.
Outlook: If Henderson can recapture his old form, SMU has the ingredients of one of the league’s best special teams units. Morstead is a Ray Guy Award candidate and the coverage units quietly did a terrific job of preventing big plays a year ago.
Rating: 6