Photo courtesy of SMU athletics
Coming into the 2020 season, no one was expecting Ulysses Bentley IV to be Co-Rookie of the Year in the American Athletic Conference.
Yet, there he was, after leading the AAC in rushing yards.
So, who are some potential breakout stars for the Mustangs in 2021?
We have five on offense and five on defense to consider. In the second of a two-part series, we’ll look at the defense.
As for the blanket waiver from the NCAA, the 2020 season was not counted towards eligibility. This is different for some names if anyone looks at the roster on SMU’s website.
Bryan Massey, DB (Freshman)
During the 2020 season, Bryan Massey saw some time returning kicks, and a little less time at defensive back. With Brandon Stephens being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, there’s been a void left at cornerback.
Jahari Rogers, the former top-100 recruit and Florida transfer, is a candidate to account for some of Stephens’ snaps. The AAC’s 2020 leader in interceptions, Brandon Crossley, is also a candidate for a larger role in 2021.
But don’t sleep on Massey, who could also see some time at safety. That was a position that the Mustangs’ defense never found consistency with.
Donald Clay, S (Redshirt Freshman)
As mentioned with Massey, the safety position was one that was in flux on a weekly basis. One guy who showed flashes was Donald Clay.
As a safety, Clay was an excellent tackler, especially in space. That tackling ability solidified Clay as a great run defender in the secondary.
In coverage, Clay took some bad angles at times. SMU fans should be optimistic that he’ll improve there, though. Getting experience in practice against the first-team receivers should improve Clay’s coverage ability.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we’re looking at Clay as an All-AAC talent at safety by the end of the season.
Karl Taylor, DB (Freshman)
Taylor only appeared in one game in 2020, but in that one game, he seemed comfortable at safety. His fluidity in coverage was what really stood out. That type of fluidity in coverage is exactly what was missing from SMU’s safeties in 2020.
Among those with collegiate experience on the lists, he comes in with the least in-game experience.
He might be another one where we’re a season early. But if he cements himself as a main contributor at defensive back this season, just remember this article.
Jimmy Phillips Jr., LB (Junior)
While Taylor comes in with some of the least experience on this list, Phillips has plenty of it. In the last three seasons, Phillips has played over 800 snaps between defense and special teams.
With Richard McBryde deciding to move on and pass on his extra season — which would’ve been his seventh in college — there is a void at linebacker. And by void, we mean the 150 total tackles and 18 tackles for loss that McBryde accumulated in his two seasons with SMU.
Despite having played over 800 snaps the last couple of years, Phillips has only accumulated 34 total tackles. While this is a low overall number, he has excelled at wrapping up. Per Pro Football Focus, he has a nice career missed tackle rate of 6.9% — a very low rate.
All signs point towards Phillips filling in quite well at linebacker for the 2021 season.
Keke Burns, LB (Redshirt Freshman)
Burns was originally recruited as a wide receiver. However, he has recently made the switch to linebacker after two seasons at wide receiver.
Coming out of high school, Burns held offers from Alabama, Arkansas, Texas A&M, as well as other Power 5 programs.
Burns ended up missing out on most of the 2019 campaign after an injury in the opener against Arkansas State.
In 2020, he primarily saw time in kick coverage. However, he did see a little action at wide receiver, resulting in three receptions.
As an athlete, Burns has plenty of potential, and should fill in nicely as a linebacker. He’ll definitely be one to watch in the 2021 season.
Bonus Pick: Blake Mazza, K (Redshirt Junior)
Sorry, we couldn’t just pick 10. The Washington State grad transfer looks to be the heir to the throne that Chris Naggar leaves after Naggar signed with the New York Jets.
Mazza is a career 127-for-133 on extra points — good for 95.5%. He also is 34-for-40 on field goals — good for 85%.
For reference, the all-time career leader for field goal percentage at SMU is Chris McMurtray’s 75% (minimum of 30 career attempts) from 2002 to 2005.
It’s worth noting that Mazza is 24-for-25 over his last two seasons. In other words, he made an astonishing 96% on field goal attempts these past couple of seasons.
Understandably, he was named a Lou Groza finalist in 2019. Had Washington State played a ‘full’ season in 2020, he likely would have had a similarly great season.
A Lou Groza Award winner for SMU is very realistic in the 2021 season.