One year after becoming just the second consensus All-American in Northern Illinois University history, NIU junior defensive end Sutton Smith added to his legacy Wednesday when he was named the winner of the Mid-American Conference’s 2018 Vern Smith Leadership Award, presented to the top player in the MAC, and became the first Huskie to win back-to-back MAC Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Smith (St. Charles, Mo./Francis Howell HS) and offensive tackle Max Scharping (Green Bay, Wis./Southwest HS), just the third player in school history to be named to the first team All-MAC squad three times, led a contingent of nine Huskies named to one of three 2018 All-MAC teams announced by the MAC Wednesday.
Linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis (Vero Beach, Fla./Vero Beach HS) joined Smith and Scharping on the All-MAC first team, while five Huskies – center Luke Shively (Tipton, Ind./Tipton HS), tailback Tre Harbison (Shelby, N.C./Crest HS), middle linebacker Kyle Pugh (Chicago Heights, Ill./Bloom Township HS), defensive end Josh Corcoran (Lakeville, Minn./Lakeville South HS) and safety Mykelti Williams (Indianapolis, Ind./Warren Central HS) – were second team selections. Defensive tackle Jack Heflin (Prophetstown, Ill./Erie-Prophetstown HS) earned a spot on the All-MAC third team.
NIU Head Coach Rod Carey was pleased to see the Huskie defense, which is ranked No. 1 in the MAC in total defense and leads the country in quarterback sacks, well-represented on the All-MAC teams with six selections, tying the most NIU defensive players ever honored.
“We had six defensive players [on the All-MAC team] and we could have had more,” Carey said. “You can’t be a great defense without all 11 guys knowing their role and doing their job on every play. These six [players] are being singled out, but it’s really a product of our overall mentality and our effort. We have set a standard on how we’re going to play defense and that’s led to the success of these six players as well as the entire defense.”
Smith has been the bellcow of the defense as the St. Charles, Mo. native leads NIU and ranks fourth nationally with 13.0 quarterback sacks, and is sixth in the country in tackles for loss with 21.0. He has earned four MAC West Player of the Week awards this season, most recently in NIU’s last game versus Western Michigan when he recorded a career-best four sacks with five tackles for loss and an 85-yard fumble return for a score. The touchdown was Smith’s second of the season, and fourth of his career. His first touchdown of 2018 came when he blocked his second punt of the year versus Toledo, picked up the block and ran it in for a score. He is one sack shy of tying the school record he set last year, and has forced four fumbles and recovered three in 2018.
“It feels great to be awarded this honor,” Smith said. “I’m humbled because of all the people I have around me, and feel very blessed to have what I have. I wouldn’t be able to do it without all the guys by my side.”
Smith is the ninth Huskie all-time to earn the Vern Smith Leadership Award, which is selected by the league’s head coaches. He is just the third defensive player – and the second NIU defender – to win the Vern Smith Trophy. Huskie great Larry English was selected as the MAC’s top player in 2007 and 2008, while Central Michigan linebacker Ray Bentley won the very first Vern Smith Award in 1982. Smith (2017 and 2018) and English (2008) are also the only NIU players to earn the MAC Defensive Player of the Year Award.
“Sutton is very deserving of the Vern Smith Award,” Carey said. “His work ethic, his execution and his production on the field certainly warrant his being named the best player in the conference. He adds to a long line of Vern Smith Award winners we’ve had since I’ve been here and even before. It’s a great accomplishment for Sutton, and for our team.”