Northern Illinois edge rusher Sutton Smith is about to embark upon a 2018 season where he’ll face scrutiny uncommon for a Mid-American Conference defender.
Yes, the league has produced first-round picks like Khalil Mack, Jimmie Ward, Muhammad Wilkerson and Larry English in the past decade, but those were all big fish in small ponds. With Smith, we simply don’t know how his dominance might translate.
Because Smith was unmistakably dominant in 2017.
Whether you’re looking at the traditional pass-rushing numbers or advanced metrics, Smith put together one of the best seasons in recent memory last year. He had 30 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, recovered three fumbles, forced three fumbles and scored twice while recording 95 pressures on 423 pass-rushing snaps.
That’s a dozen more pressures than anyone in the FBS has recorded in the four years that Pro Football Focus has been grading college football, and his pass-rushing productivity rate of 26.2 percent ranked second among all qualified pass rushers. He did it all despite being listed at 6-foot and 225 pounds.
Recruited to NIU as a high school running back from Missouri, Smith transitioned to defense and then redshirted in his freshman year. After recording 15 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack as a reserve in 2016, he earned a starting role last season and things changed quickly.
In the 15 years prior to Smith’s arrival in DeKalb, NIU had built a reputation as one of the best small-school programs in the country. Under Joe Novak, Jerry Kill, Dave Doeren and current head coach Rod Carey, the Huskies have won at least eight games 10 times since 2002.
However, over the course of the last three seasons, they’re just 21-18 thanks to the rest of the MAC’s overall improvement and challenging non-conference schedules. While Smith’s big year in 2017 earned him national recognition, there’s general disagreement about how his skills translate to the NFL, putting him under a blazing-hot spotlight in 2018.
And this is NIU’s toughest schedule yet.
In their four non-conference tilts this season, NIU will travel to Iowa to open the season on Sept. 1, host Utah on Sept. 8, visit Florida State on Sept. 22 and then play at BYU on Oct. 27. That’s three Power 5 schools that have all been bowl eligible in at least the last four seasons and an independent program with a national title and a long history of excellence.
In those four games, and to a lesser extent against his peers in the MAC, Smith will be challenged routinely by NFL-caliber talent. If 2017 is any indicator, he’ll be more than up to the challenge.
Smith averaged eight pressures per game in three contests against Power 5 schools last year, with a two-sack, two-hit, four-hurry performance in an upset of Nebraska and 11 pressures against Duke in the Quick Lane Bowl. And NIU will certainly need him to continue along that path if they’re going to further their reputation as thorns in the side of the Power 5 (specifically the Big Ten).
They have seven wins over the Power 5 in the last nine season with six of those wins coming against the Big Ten. They also gave scares to the likes of Tennessee, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Boston College in the last decade.
If they’re able to continue that trend and steal a couple non-conference wins while taking care of business in the MAC, it’d potentially position them to represent the Group of 5 in the New Year’s Day bowls. That would present another marquee matchup for Smith.
But what will NFL scouts be looking for from Smith when they put in the game tape?
For starters, Smith has to continue to prove that the stature can be an advantage, to an extent, by creating pad leverage. He did that perfectly in 2017 and combined his ability to play low with incredible burst to create a fairly common 60-25 outside-inside dispersion of path to pressures.
However, he’ll also have to prove that he can convert his speed to power and add enough variety to his pass-rushing arsenal, ensuring his size can’t be taken advantage of. We know that he’ll probably never be a true power rusher with his current listed measurables of 6-foot-1 and 237 pounds (he’s apparently grown an inch and gained 12 pounds this offseason), but he still has to have enough power to keep people honest.
Inevitably, the size will probably be a factor when it comes to draft position. The possibility that NFL size and quickness neutralizes his skill set will create enough risk to make drafting him in the first round a frightful endeavor.
Depending on the film he puts out this fall, it could also be enough to drop him into the later stages of the draft or even into undrafted free agency. However, unless you’re an NFL decision-maker, it probably shouldn’t matter.
Watching Sutton Smith is an absolute joy, and discussions about his NFL potential distract from what should be another incredible season for him and for NIU. They’ve got an opportunity to make history in 2018, but the storyline generating the most attention is whether or not Smith will make a good pro.
Considering he actually has two remaining seasons of eligibility, that’s problematic.
Smith has the ability to change the entire complexion of a football game in an instant. Whether he’s spending an afternoon collapsing pockets and generally living between opposing quarterbacks’ ears or getting loose on one play to inflict maximum damage, he’s a blast to watch.
With a huge season, he certainly may elect to leave and try his hand in the NFL. A big season by Smith also might put NIU back into the discussion as one of the top Group of 5 programs in the country.
That should be an even more compelling reason to watch than whether or not he’ll make a good pro. Because as interesting as that discussion might be for its polarity, it’s a conversation that can only be resolved by what he actually does in the NFL.
Whether or not NIU can continue their history of giant slaying or even the remote possibility of a magical season where they run the table (and everything that might come with that) is a little more pressing.