Here at Rock M Nation, we pride ourselves in trying to avoid/fight the mob mentality that dominates The Interwebs. All those months of skepticism at RMN about lines of thinking that are a little too easily accepted for our tastes have led me to an unintended fondness for contrarianism. Contrarian pieces on SB Nation are nothing new (the inestimable T. Kyle King penned a fantastic series titled Kyle Gets Contrary for Dawg Sports). But this summer, I'm launching a series titled "Devil's Advocate" in which, regardless of my own personal beliefs, I'll attempt to challenge some of Missouri fans' most commonly-held beliefs. Today's truth to challenge:
"Aldon Smith will finish in the Top 5 nationally in sacks"
Looking at that statement, do you think there's any question expectations are high for No. 85? Agent Smith was not only the lone freshman in the top ten in the nation in sacks last year, he was only one of two in the top 30 and one of three in the top 80. He had only half-a-sack-less than Ndamukong Suh and the same number as Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and TCU's Jerry Hughes. That's not exactly bad company.
I'll come out and say that this "truth" might be a tad unfair from the beginning. In fact, I'll go as a far as to say the following: Aldon Smith will not even finish in the top 10 in sacks nationally. Since 2006, only two players – TCU's Jerry Hughes and UCLA's Bruce Davis – have managed to finish in the top ten in sacks in consecutive seasons. The task isn't easy.
If pressed to make comparisons from recent history, both Smith's style and his stratospheric ascent into the rankings seem to mimic that of South Florida's George Selvie. In his second year on campus, Selvie was second in the country with 14.5 sacks, an absurd number for a sophomore (Note: For the sake of transparency, it should be noted that four of his sacks -- or 27.6 percent of his season output -- came against FCS Elon, and only four of his sacks came in conference games). Selvie was blessed with an explosive first step and top-end speed for a defensive end, not unlike Mr. Smith. But after a 14.5-sack season in 2007, Selvie dropped out of the top 10 all the way down to 87th in the country with 5.5 sacks in 2008 and followed with only 3.0 sacks in 2009. In a span of three seasons, Selvie went from NFL-ready star in the making to a seventh-round pick. The burden is on Smith to avoid such a precipitous fall with his own career.
Why is it so difficult to sustain sack numbers? The answer (on the surface, at least) seems simple: Gameplanning. By playing at the line of scrimmage, defensive ends are far more susceptible to the pitfalls of offensive scheming than their linebacker cohorts. Whereas Smith saw a fair amount of one-on-one isolation with tackles in 2009, there won't be a team on the schedule that won't be calling out protections on No. 85 in 2010. Smith will deal with chips from ends and backs all season long, and opposing offenses' interior linemen will be well-schooled to account for Smith if he opts to stunt inside. There's no doubt the focus is squarely on Aldon this season until Jacquies Smith gives teams a reason to look the other way.
The other question becomes the schedule. Smith had 6.0 combined sacks against Texas, Kansas and Colorado, which were tenth, 11th and 12th in the Big 12 in sacks allowed in 2009. Kansas and Colorado both rank in the top 35 for returning starts (although those starts haven't resulted in bowl eligibility for the majority of those players), and Texas and its beleaguered line shuffles off the schedule. In their place comes Oklahoma. For as much grief as it caught for its youth and the injury of Sam Bradford, the Oklahoma offensive line surrendered only 15.0 sacks last season, second-best in the conference. The other new conference foes to Smith – Texas A&M and Texas Tech – both break in relatively green units and could be considered complete enigmas for prognostication's sake.
Smith has the physical tools to continue the string of success he started last year. 2010 represents his chance to prove that he can be just as effective when the target is squarely on his back.
Question for discussion: How many sacks will Aldon Smith compile in 2010? What's a fair over/under to set for his production?