There have been successes for Mississippi State during Collins' two seasons here, both as linebackers coach and co-coordinator. Just not enough to satisfy Dan Mullen nor meet the program's larger ambitions, or for that matter show the Bulldogs have a good handle on proliferating ‘tempo' offenses. Which, as fans know, will be a regular feature of the 2013 schedule.
So Mullen made a strong statement by turning this side of the squad over to Collins, who will turn 42 during spring practice season. "Just because he had a lot of input last year, I know he is going to be aggressive in coming after people," Mullen said. "In blitzing people and showing different looks and trying to confuse people. Especially the teams running the no-huddle stuff."
Now by their uniform nature linebackers coaches tend towards aggression. It just comes with the position as well as the personnel. At the same time Collins is far from a standard position coach as his 13-season resume in the business shows. "I was the defensive coordinator at Albright College (1997-98), I was 24 years old, a first-time coordinator and I thought I had all the answers. I learned I didn't! But I was a coordinator for two years."
And after that an assistant at Georgia Tech, before becoming a coordinator again for four seasons at a successful Western Carolina. Maybe his key stretch though was two years coordinating recruiting and personnel at Georgia Tech and Alabama for the experience gained in this all-important area before returning to on-field coordinating at Florida International.
"You actually learn a lot more because you know how you've done it and learn a little bit, take a breather, then go back. That transition has been really beneficial to my career and I think it will continue to do the same."
This transition certainly should be smooth as well. Collins after all had almost as much say in 2011 and '12 defense as coordinator Chris Wilson. He doesn't second-guess the arrangement today. In fact, "I think it was a great situation. We were such a tight-knit group, we cared for each other, we coached hard together. I wouldn't trade the two years with those three other men for anything, it was a great experience. I learned a lot."
Still there was just a little something missing at Mississippi State's defense last fall, when most games there was no lack of offensive support. Even in some wins too many points and yards were allowed; and in the regular season losses inability to stop the opponents from stringing scoring series together was fatal. The most common thread to big-numbers games was inability to keep pace with tempo attacks.
So Mullen sent a signal upon arrival in Jacksonville as he turned defensive play-calling over to Collins. The schemes were already set by he and Wilson of course so nothing major changed by game-day. But even though Northwestern scored 34 points two of those touchdowns came on or after turnover returns. The Dog defense looked much more composed than in October wins or November losses.
Which they were, Collins said.
"The biggest thing is we let our guys get their feet set. At times this season we played the spread, no-huddle offenses and a lot of times our feet weren't set. We were in kind of a panic. The biggest thing we tried to do as a staff was get our guys' feet set, get them lined-up, see the formation and recognize what they were going to do out of it and just play. If they made an adjustment, they made a check, we would do the same thing. And our guys flew around, ran to the ball and made a lot of plays."
Not quite enough plays as the scoreboard showed, and third downs were once again an issue. But the shift in efficiency and even attitude was clear to Mullen. He made his move just days after returning to campus by promoting Collins. Wilson remains in the conference having accepted a position with Georgia last week.
His departure, along with cornerbacks Coach Melvin Smith to Auburn, means half of the staff is new for 2013. Well, not entirely new. David Turner coached Bulldog defensive line for two years under Sylvester Croom, and helped Mullen in his 2009 takeover. Turner was hired back as line coach Friday.
"David comes highly recommended, well-respected around the SEC and the country," Collins said. "There's a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of technique, a good Xs and Os guy." Collins also now works new-to-MSU, as a coach at least, cornerbacks boss Deshea Townsend into the staff room. The old Dog there is safeties Coach Tony Hughes, the lone fifth-year defensive aide of Mullen's regime, and he keeps that consistency to things.
"Coach Mullen and I worked very closely together talking to the guys," said Collins. "The thing I learned from Coach Mullen in the last week or so is its not necessarily the exact hire that you get, but the complement to the entire coaching staff. We're not making one hire at this position and one at this position, we're making two hires. With those, what is the best fit? I was really impressed, it was a great learning experience how to hire two guys instead of one guy and it was complementary with me and Coach Hughes, what is the best fit for the entire staff."
What Bulldog players and fans want to know now is, what will be the best ‘fit' in terms of defensive plans? Again there were obvious strengths to the 2011-12 teams there, just not the same overpowering presence as in 2010. It does need noting how that team benefitted from five current professionals in the lineup, and any honest coach admits personnel counts for more than schemes.
This said, there was more potential on the '12 defense for tapping. Even allowing for losing linebacker Cam Lawrence, a two-year 100-tackle producer under Collins; Thorpe Award winner John Banks and two other top-rank cornerbacks; and steady tackle Josh Boyd, the 2013 roster still has lots of SEC veterans to work with. And, plenty of young and redshirted and to-be-signed players for re-filling roles. The key is utilizing all the ability.
And in Collins' mind one good way is amping up aggression. Or, putting pressure back on the offenses. "The one stat that is not talked about a lot, but one that I've been talking to guys a lot, is a stat called ‘defensive mayhem," Collins said. No, this doesn't show on the statistics sheet, nor do participants wear a black suit and make commercials. But the coordinator knows what he means by making mayhem.
"Tackles for loss. Sacks. PBUs, interceptions. Aggressiveness, defensive mayhem. Guys flying around and making plays and creating negative plays on the offensive side." If this sounds a little like what State did in 2010 under Manny Diaz—who also came to MSU from a Sun Belt school—it ought not surprise.
"Manny and I are close," Collins said. "When I first got here the transition was going to be smooth because we had been doing the same things and similar concepts." In fact, Collins and Diaz conversed again just last Friday to, as Collins said, bounce ideas around for ways State and Texas can improve their defensive plans and mindsets going into spring training.
One thing sure to be schemed-against this off-season are hurry-spread sets as that trend is growing around the SEC. Even classic power opponents have added a touch of tempo, Collins said. "They'll slow it down a little bit, they'll speed it up a little bit. That's what Northwestern did in the bowl game." Collins hasn't had time to break down the bowl game what with the coach convention, staff hirings, and recruiting demands. What he does recall is how State improved its run defense during bowl camp, and what that can mean for 2013.
"That's a big priority for me. David Turner and I have talked a lot about establishing a great run defense. If you can do that, create negative downs on first and second down and get them in third and long situations, defensively you're going to have a pretty good day."
And a pretty good season for that matter under the new coordinator. "I look forward to continuing to have a great defense here at Mississippi State."