Last year, SMU’s strength was not its defense.
The defense gave up an average of 45.7 points per game, good for second to last in the entire FBS. Chad Morris’ first year saw a team with virtually no defensive talent get killed game in and game out by mediocre offenses in the American Athletic Conference. While SMU could certainly score, keeping opponents out of the end zone was a massive challenge.
However, through four games in 2016, that number has been nearly cut in half. SMU has given up 27 points per game this season, with the toughest games on the schedule, Baylor and TCU, in the rearview mirror. As SMU heads into conference play, the Mustangs know they can count on their defense to produce each week.
Undeniably, the difference in defense from the Mustangs has been the defensive line. Consider the play of Justin Lawler, SMU’s junior defensive end. Lawler has amassed 4.5 sacks through four games, which is a staggering amount considering his career numbers. When you take into account the fact that Lawler had just five sacks all of last season, this year’s production is certainly an improvement. It seems that Lawler is headed towards a career high in sacks, and the Mustangs are fielding a vastly improved defense.
Additionally, the Mustangs have massively improved in terms of forcing turnovers this season. Last year, the team managed just 15 total takeaways, including nine interceptions and six fumble recoveries.
Through three games, the Mustangs have just one fumble recovery, but they have forced 10 interceptions. Both Jordan Wyatt and Horace Richardson are having career years at cornerback with three interceptions apiece. Considering neither man has more than two at any point in his career, three in four games in an undeniably impressive number.
While Richardson is a senior who is expected to have his best year for the Mustangs in 2016, Wyatt is just a sophomore with plenty of time to develop. If he can grow into one of the top defensive backs in the conference over the next few years, the Mustangs could be in very good shape in the secondary.
It’s instructive to note that SMU hasn’t improved in a vacuum, but against the same opponents it faced in 2015. After giving up over 400 yards of total offense to Baylor last season, the Mustangs limited the Bears to just 261 total yards in their matchup in Waco this season. With the exception of the TCU game, when SMU lost its starting safety to a targeting penalty, the Mustangs have held their opponents in check, keeping North Texas and Liberty under 200 yards.
There’s certainly an argument to be made about the quality of the offenses from this year versus last year, but the improvement from SMU’s defense is undeniable. The Ponies have given up nearly 20 fewer points to (effectively) the same opponents as last season, which demonstrates the growth of both the talent pool and the players already in the program.
While Chad Morris is widely regarded as an offensive guru, his improvements on defense cannot be denied. He has taken a defense that simply wasn’t competitive and transformed it into something SMU fans can be proud of. Much of that credit should go to his defensive coordinator, Van Malone, who has put his players in a scheme that allows them to succeed. Certainly, the play of Lawler and the cornerbacks stands out, but overall, the Mustangs have looked like a completely different team on defense in 2016. If the improvement can continue, the Mustangs could surprise a lot of teams in The American this season.