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2010 SMU Preview – Defense
SMU LB Ja'Gared Davis
SMU LB Ja'Gared Davis
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 31, 2010


CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - SMU Mustang Defense


SMU Mustangs

Preview 2010 - Defense


- 2010 SMU Preview | 2010 SMU Offense
- 2010 SMU Defense | 2010 SMU Depth Chart
- SMU Previews  2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006

What You Need To Know: A stroke of genius. That’s the only way to describe Tom Mason’s switch to the 3-4 last season. By getting an extra athlete on the field, SMU was far faster, more aggressive, and disruptive than in recent seasons. The Mustangs were third in the league in takeaways, doing an outstanding job of making stops and getting the ball back in the hands of the prolific offense. Was it a one-year blip on the radar? This season’s ensemble is determined to answer that challenge. It’ll do so without last year’s leading tackler and with grave concerns at nose tackle and in the secondary. Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be talent on this side of the ball. Up front, Taylor Thompson and Marquis Frazier form an impressive bookend at defensive end. The linebackers could be among the best in Conference USA, boasting future stars in sophomores Taylor Reed and Ja’Gared Davis. And the secondary is halfway there with FS Chris Banjo and CB Sterling Moore.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Chris Banjo, 86
Sacks: Taylor Thompson, 5.5
Interceptions: Robert Mojica, 2

Star of the defense: Junior DE Taylor Thompson
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore NG Aaron Davis
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Taylor Reed
Best pro prospect: Thompson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Senior LB Pete Fleps, 2) Thompson, 3) Junior FS Chris Banjo
Strength of the defense: Creating turnovers, the linebackers, the defensive ends
Weakness of the defense: Third down defense, red zone stops, stopping the run, depth in the secondary

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The Mustangs adapted well by shifting to the 3-4 in 2009, taking some pressure off the need for more bodies up front. Of course, it also helped that 6-6, 276-pound junior Taylor Thompson took his next big step toward becoming one of Conference USA’s premier defensive ends. With the size of a strongside run and the burst and acceleration of a budding pass rusher, he’s beginning to look as if his playing days won’t stop on the Hilltop. Showing even more intensity than in his debut, he had 40 tackles, six tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and four batted balls.

Over on the opposite side, SMU has a very capable bookend to Thompson, 6-3, 298-pound junior Marquis Frazier , a former transfer from Navarro Tex.) Junior College. In his debut with the program, he was an instant contributor, leading the linemen with 45 tackles and adding six tackles for loss and four sacks. He, too, has the size to go blow-for-blow with opposing blockers, yet is quick enough to slip through the gaps and get penetration.

The key up front will once again be the play of the nose tackle, which is now the domain of 6-3, 265-pound sophomore Aaron Davis. A transfer from Fresno State, he saw action in all 13 games, mostly on special teams, and chipped in 10 tackles and a sack. Obviously undersized and prone to getting engulfed here, he’ll need to add weight in a hurry and rely on his quick feet and active motor to survive an entire year.

Projected Top Reserves: At defensive end, there’s no missing sophomore Margus Hunt . A 6-8, 272-pound giant from Estonia, he originally came to SMU to throw the shot and the discus before joining the football program. He’s raw, to be sure, but he also has natural gifts, such as those long arms, which helped him to eight tackles, 2.5 sacks, and an NCAA-record seven blocked kicks.

On the inside, a lot is already being thrown at 6-2, 321-pound true freshman Mike O’Guin , who graduated early from high school and took part in spring drills. There’s no doubting that he already has the right combination of size, strength, and leverage to letter right away and eventually be the rock in the middle of the line. The coaches remain privately hopeful that he can navigate the learning curve in a hurry this fall.

Watch Out For … the coaches to consider moving one of the ends inside to nose tackle. Thompson, Frazier, and Hunt are all north of 270 pounds, which means they’re also bigger than Davis, the projected starter. If the situation on the inside remains dicey in the summer, the Mustangs might want to leverage they’re depth at defensive end by shifting someone around.
Strength: The ends. Thompson is going to play in the NFL if he keeps evolving, and Frazier provides an outstanding compliment on the other side. Both players proved last year to be every-down players, who can occupy blockers on running plays and create havoc in the backfield.
Weakness: This has been an on-going issue for the program, with no end in sight. After ranking 88th nationally versus the run and yielding more than four yards a carry, the Mustangs could head into the season with a 265-pound starter at the nose and a true freshman as his caddy.
Outlook: Through recruiting and player development, SMU is heading in the right direction up front, especially at defensive end. Thompson is a rising star, and if opponents give him too much attention, Frazier will make them pay. It’s a good situation for the defensive staff. The concern will remain on the interior, where the Mustangs have a decided dearth of size and sure-things to stop the run.
Unit Rating: 5

Linebackers

Projected Starters: Topping the agenda for the linebackers will be replacing tackling machine Chase Kennemer, who had a team-high 135 stops a year ago. One of the primary candidates will be 6-1, 230-pound senior Pete Fleps , the starter at Buck or inside linebacker. The Mustangs’ leading tackler of 2008, he made another 83 stops and 7.5 behind the line a year ago. Highly instinctive and one of the physical and emotional leaders of the defense, he has a habit of taking the right angles, diagnosing the play, and wrapping up in the open field.

The other veteran of the unit will be 6-1, 231-pound strongside linebacker Youri Yenga , a former defensive end making a smooth adjustment to the second line of defense. In his first season on the job, he delivered 53 tackles, five tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks. Because of his past experience and explosive first step, he’ll continue to be used as a stand-up outside defender, with the skill set to blitz on a regular basis.

At middle linebacker, SMU believes it harbors a budding Conference USA star in 5-11, 215-pound sophomore Taylor Reed. He hit the ground running in his first year out of high school, finishing fifth on the team with 57 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and three pass breakups despite starting just one game. Size aside, the staff is convinced he’s the total package at the position, bringing the desired level of intensity and athleticism to the position. More than just a playmaker and top run defender, he’s being asked to be more of a leader in his second year as well.

At weakside, the program is banking on the blossoming of another young player, 6-1, 216-pound sophomore Ja’Gared Davis . He, too, saw the field as a rookie and really came on late, starting five games and making 51 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a couple of forced fumbles. More than just fast, he has exciting closing speed and acceleration, exploding as he closes in on his target. Yes, he’s raw and needs to add more strength, but he has special physical ability, which the coaches will tap into liberally.

Projected Top Reserves: No, Justin Smart hasn’t approached all of his potential, but the talent and experience are still there, a big plus for the second unit. He’s the former starter, who had 74 tackles in 2008 before getting suspended for the final two games, and only appearing in three contests last fall. If he can remain in the good graces of the staff, there’s no reason he can’t bounce back from 2009 and be a valuable asset to the defense as Yenga’s strongside backup.

Sophomore Cameron Rogers is hoping to use this fall to support the defense and special teams, while staking an early claim to the Buck job in 2011. He has the early edge in experience, having started two games, appearing in eight, and making nine stops in 2009. A self-made, hard-working defender, he’s making the most out of walking on to the squad two years ago.

Watch Out For … the development of the kids. The Mustangs can hardly hide their enthusiasm regarding the futures of Reed and Davis, two second-year upstarts. Both have added weight and are dramatically better prepared than a year ago, when the game was moving much faster than it is today.
Strength: Range. Now that the sophomores have joined cagey vets Fleps and Yenga, SMU believes it has four starters capable of covering plenty of turf and sniffing plays out. More than just run defenders, these guys will cover like safeties and deflect balls out of the air.
Weakness: Size. If there’s a concern with this group, it revolves around its ability to consistently hold up at the point of attack. Sure, they’re athletic, but at an average of just 6-0 and 225 pounds along the starting four, they’re going to get bullied against the more physical opponents on the schedule.
Outlook: By the league’s and the program’s standard, this is a unit with a ton of promise heading into 2010. With a nice mix of up-and-coming sophomores, proven veterans, and backups with starting experience, the Mustangs have their best situation in years at linebacker. They’ll be an asset to both the defensive line and the secondary in the fall.
Unit Rating: 5.5

Secondary

Projected Starters: SMU took a major step forward in pass defense a year ago. Keeping that momentum going will require two critical pieces of the secondary to be replaced. Bryan McCann was one of those graduations, meaning 5-10, 204-pound senior Sterling Moore must step up and become the Mustangs’ steadiest cover corner. He had an instant impact in his first season out of Laney Calif.) Community College, starting 10 games and making 35 tackles and a team-high 11 pass breakups. A physical corner, who uses his upper body strength well, he’ll be even better prepared for success in his second season on campus.

The favorite to join Moore at cornerback was redshirt freshman Keivon Gamble, but that was before he was declared academically ineligible. It’s now up to 5-8, 183-pound senior Bennie Thomas, who’ll have a lot of responsibility in his final year on campus. A former Pima Ariz.) Community College transfer, he’s lettered in each of the last two seasons, making 15 stops in 2009, but has just one start on the resume. Undersized, he’s going to be a regular target over the top for opposing quarterbacks.

With Rock Dennis gone, 5-10, 200-pound junior Chris Banjo takes over as the unit’s best playmaker at free safety. A one-time Hawaii commit, he’s started in each of the last two seasons, making 86 tackles and breaking up four passes in 2009. Like having another linebacker on the field, he’s instinctive in run defense and plays with a physicality that makes receivers rethink using the middle of the field. He’ll be a candidate to lead the team in tackles and earn all-star recognition.

At strong safety, the torch is being passed to 5-11, 189-pound sophomore Ryan Smith , who did an apprenticeship under Dennis in 2009. Playing bigger than his size, he appeared in six games and made a couple of tackles. He’ll eventually become an asset in run defense, but to stay in this spot, he’ll need to also prove that he can defend the pass and take a few throws back the other way.

Projected Top Reserves: In order to bolster the team’s depth at free safety, 6-0, 200-pound sophomore Braden Smith has made a full-time switch from quarterback. It’s going to take time, to be sure, but he possesses the right mix of intelligence and aggressiveness to get comfortable and start contributing before very long.

Trailing Smith at strong safety is 6-1, 198-pound redshirt freshman Jay Scott . What he lacks in on-field experience, he’s prepared to make up for with a nice blend of size, speed, and agility. He’s a competitive former quarterback in high school, so he has a nice feel for the secondary from a completely different perspective.

Watch Out For … the picks to be a little less frequent than a year ago. Yeah, the Mustangs tied for the Conference USA lead in interceptions in 2009, but that was when Dennis and McCann were still on the roster. Oh, and not a single player on the current two-deep had more than one last season.
Strength: Tackling. When you play on the last line of defense for the Mustangs, you get plenty of practice tackling in the open field. In fact, if you don’t learn to wrap up backs and receivers, you’ll spend most Saturdays on your back or on the bench.
Weakness: Depth. This isn’t just a concern for SMU. It is a major worry. The Mustangs rarely have the luxury of depth back here, but that became an irrefutable when Gamble and J.R. McConico were suspended, and Derrius Bell decided to retire because of repeated concussions. Rookies will have to contribute immediately, especially at cornerback, which is a mess.
Outlook: SMU unexpectedly turned the corner in pass defense last year, leading Conference USA in pass efficiency D. It was a stunning result from a team that was so porous in 2008. Can it maintain? It’ll be a tall order for a group that lost so many key parts since December and is seriously depth-derived.
Unit Rating:
4.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The Mustangs are going to keep things very simple on special teams. Senior Matt Szymanski is essentially going to do everything except return kicks. No one-trick pony, he’ll once again handle punting, placekicking, and kickoffs this fall. In his first season since transferring from Texas A&M, he averaged just below 42 yards on punts, hit 11-of-16 field goal attempts, and showed great pop on kickoffs. He is quietly one of the more valuable members of this SMU team.

Watch Out For … the auditions to find return men to last deep into the summer. With the graduations of Emmanuel Sanders and Bryan McCann, SMU has big shoes to fill on punt returns and kickoff returns, respectively. No one is assured of a job at this point, meaning the competition could be heated until right before the opener.
Strength: Blocks. The Mustangs blocked nine punts or kicks last season, more than any other school in the country. The hero was 6-8, 272-pound sophomore Margus Hunt , who got his big mitts on a whopping seven of them to become one of the more unique and improbable weapons on this program.
Weakness: Covering kicks. It’s the one really weak link in an otherwise solid special teams unit. The Mustangs were painfully soft in both areas, ranking 118th and allowing two kickoffs to be taken back for six, and finishing 89th nationally on punt coverage.
Outlook:
With the strong-legged Szymanski wearing multiple hats and Hunt blocking multiple kicks, SMU has a something to build around on special teams. However, the staff is painfully aware of the need to locate a couple of viable of return men and plug the holes in the leaky coverage units.
Unit Rating: 6

- 2010 SMU Preview | 2010 SMU Offense
- 2010 SMU Defense | 2010 SMU Depth Chart
- SMU Previews  2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006