Entering kickoff weekend in 2017, sophomore defensive end Sutton Smith was Northern Illinois’ best kept secret.
The secret wouldn’t last long.
After playing sparingly in 2016 as a reserve defensive end, Smith launched his sophomore campaign with five exclamation points. In a home loss to Boston College, the #15 jersey became a familiar site in the Eagles’ backfield as the quick-footed defensive end registered five tackles for loss and one sack in a tremendous performance.
The 6’1”, 237-pound defensive lineman wasn’t just a one-hit wonder. He produced All-American-caliber performance after All-American-caliber performance, from September to December. He followed up the Boston College game by forcing and recovering a fumble versus Eastern Illinois, and then recording two sacks in a landmark road upset over Nebraska.
Using his elusive speed to oust offensive linemen, the sacks continued. Smith ended the season on top of the FBS sack list with 14.0 in 13 contests. His single game high of three sacks occurred in a 10-tackle performance against Kent State in October. Smith finished the year with four outings of more than one sack.
Taking down opposing quarterbacks isn’t Smith’s only defensive skill. He was a turnover-creating menace in 2017, forcing three fumbles and recovering three. The Missouri native utilized his blazing speed to convert two of these recoveries into Northern Illinois touchdowns.
Lastly, Smith added to his impressive and versatile defensive résumé by deflecting three passes of the line of scrimmage.
His prowess on the gridiron led him to a myriad of accolades. He was selected to the first ever AP Midseason All-American team and became the second Huskie in program history to achieve consensus All-American status. This involves five different organizations recognizing him as an All-American, and two of these groups (Walter Camp and FWAA) placed Smith on their First Team.
With Smith anchoring the unit, the Northern Illinois defense ranked 18th in the nation in yards allowed per game, particularly excelling on stopping the run. The Huskies led the entire nation with 114 tackles for loss in 2017, with the All-American defensive end contributing 30 of those hits. The MAC Defensive Player now ranks as the all-time clubhouse leader for both sacks and tackles for loss in a season.
Smith entered the Northern Illinois program as a 3-star recruit from Missouri. In high school, Smith was a First Team All-State running back, rushing for 2,000 yards. When watching his pass rushing techniques or his ability to turn on the jets after scooping up a fumble, it is evident that Smith’s past position contributes to his current success.
He’s smaller than most defensive ends in weight, and he arrived in DeKalb slightly below 200 pounds. But his athleticism and mobility allow him to stand out over traditionally built defensive ends. Based on Smith’s sack output and All-American status last year, he’s already the cream of the crop when it comes to collegiate defensive ends.
What’s in store for Smith and the Huskies in 2018? His name is already emblazoned on the Bednarik Award watchlist. He’ll be a popular subject of study in opposing team film sessions, and may draw plenty of double teams from offensive lines this fall.
Despite Northern Illinois’ streak of six consecutive MAC title game appearances from 2010-15, the Huskies have yet to reach this stage with Smith. The team was voted as MAC West favorites at the conference’s media day in Detroit. If Smith replicates his past successes or augments his level of play, Northern Illinois could find itself back on top of the conference throne in no time.