DEKALB – 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 and offensive tackle Max Scharping, 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 joined Smith and Scharping on the All-MAC first team, while five Huskies – center Luke Shively, tailback Tre Harbison, middle linebacker Kyle Pugh, defensive end Josh Corcoran and safety Mykelti Williams – were second team selections. Defensive tackle Jack Heflin 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.”
Scharping and English also share the distinction, along with tailback Garrett Wolfe, as the only NIU players to be named to the first team All-MAC team three times. Scharping will start his 52nd consecutive game for NIU in the MAC Championship game and has given up just one sack in the last three seasons. He is also a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy and a 2018 National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete.
Shively, a former walk-on, has started 37 consecutive games at center and, along with Scharping, has led the way for Harbison to rush for 950 yards on 177 carries for a 5.4 yards per carry average. The sophomore has five 100-yard rushing games on the season and ranks third in the MAC in rushing.
“Max to be named first team All-MAC for the third year in a row is quite an accomplishment and is due to his hard work and dedication,” Carey said. “I’m really happy for him and for Luke, a former walk-on. We have a proud tradition of walk-ons who come into the program and have great success. In my time here, Luke and Joe Pawlak are two offensive linemen who have gone on to be all-conference players. Tre has had a productive year as a sophomore and we’re looking for great things from him going forward.”
In his first season as a starter, Jones-Davis is NIU’s leading tackler with 104 stops as well as 11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and six pass break-ups. His partner at linebacker, Pugh, ranks second on the team with a career best 90 tackles and five TFLs.
“Antonio Jones-Davis has had an outstanding year,” Carey said. “He’s fully committed and it’s paid off for him. This year, we’ve seen what Kyle Pugh can do in a full year, and he’s proving he’s one of the best linebackers we’ve had here. Mykelti has been an ironman back there [in the NIU defensive backfield] and Josh Corcoran has come in to play really, really well opposite Sutton after coming back off the preseason injury. Jack Heflin, coming back from an offseason injury all the way to all-conference honors speaks to his hard work and dedication.”
Williams ranks third on the team in tackles while playing most of the snaps at safety and coming up with 63 tackles, as well as a game-saving interception in NIU’s victory at BYU. Corcoran ranks fourth in the MAC in sacks with eight and has made nine tackles for loss and seven sacks over the last six games. He and Smith have formed the top duo in the country, combining for 21 sacks. Heflin ranks third on the team with six sacks and has eight tackles for loss as a sophomore.
The Huskies honored include three seniors, four juniors and two sophomores.
The MAC West Champion Huskies (7-5, 6-2 MAC) take on Buffalo (10-2, 7-1 MAC) in the Marathon MAC Championship game in Detroit’s Ford Field on Friday at 6 p.m.