According to the latest numbers, the ones linebackers coach Collins isn't tracking today, the Bulldogs now rank in or near the NCAA's top thirty teams for several defensive categories. Such as pass defense (23rd) and yardage (31st). Or most importantly to these coaches, scoring defense where State checks in at #19 in the nation.
None of which specifically matter to Collins; it is the trending-upwards he cares about. "Hopefully it doesn't sound too clichéd but it's the truth," he said Monday. "Everybody has seen the development of us over the last seven games.
"The biggest part of that is Chris (Wilson). And we really have a good room, bouncing ideas off each other. Melvin (Smith) and Tony (Hughes) do a great job with input and it's just a nice dynamic." A dynamic for which Collins is the only new Dog, at that. "Coming in I didn't know what to expect but the way the personalities have meshed together has been really positive. And you can see our players kind of feed-off of it."
Collins doesn't scan SEC stats himself, but is aware that two of his position players are feeding well, even feasting these days. As Mississippi State re-starts the season outside linebacker Cameron Lawrence ranks third in league tackles at 61; while middle ‘backer Brandon Wilson is a short step back at 58 stops and tied for 6th overall. Counting just conference games Lawrence is even more impressive; still standing 3rd but with a 10.8 tackles-per-game average.
Those numbers reinforce Collins' professional opinion of how these to Bulldog linebackers have performed. "I know Cam and Brandon had a chip on their shoulder going into the season, we were not going to be the weak link. We were going to be the strength of the defense, hopefully the strength of the team. And the way those guys are playing it might be proven, making a name for themselves."
That last bit matters, because the chip Collins refers to is about the names not on MSU jerseys this season. White, and Wright specifically. Pre-season skepticism was inevitable, but still annoying to Lawrence and Wilson as well as the rest of the rebuilt linebackers lineup. When the first month's games saw too much yardage, too many big plays allowed the worries grew.
In October though the process showed progress, especially against the ground game. So now State defenders are developing legitimate confidence in their abilities, not to mention their revised staff. And by the way, there are numbers these coaches care very much about…just not the sort announced by league or national lists.
"We'll look at what coverages we're calling, certain down-and-distance, evaluate that part. But as far as the productivity stats, we don't look at that. The thing we look at is yards after missed tackles, how many missed tackles, missed assignments. Those are the stats that are relevant to me. And as the season has progressed we have fewer missed tackles, fewer yards after missed tackles. Those are the stats we focus on."
And, fortunately, categories where State has progressed in recent weekends. Nowhere is the improvement more obvious than at linebackers as older hands Wilson and Lawrence have assumed charge.
"They're a pleasure to coach, both of them," Collins said. "They study so hard, every little tid-bit we as a defensive staff gives them they grab on to and try to know it inside and out. They call the defensive meetings, they get all the young guys involved with them to try to get them up to speed with what they know. You watch them on the field, Brandon and Cam both are telling everybody what the play is. It's fun to watch and gratifying as a coach."
What also helps is settling on both roles and rotations, something Collins could not realistically do for the first month. Lawrence has opened all seven games at weak-side, but after opening the first two dates Wilson stepped aside against LSU for Brandon Maye. A concussion to the Clemson transfer put Wilson back in the starting job and he's held it with 45 tackles in the four contests since.
Healthy again, senior Maye has re-fit himself into a rotation reality without any issues per Collins. "The best thing he's done is here is who I am, here is my role on this team, and make the absolute most of it. And he's played three really good football games."
Collins also opened the schedule with the ‘small' linebackers set, using former 215-pound safety Matt Wells at strong-side. By week three it was Deonte Skinner, who Wells had edged out in spring ball, getting the starts. This move alone bulked up the trio, but also reflected more faith State has in mixing and matching as needed.
For that matter Skinner often as not takes his stance at the line of scrimmage as an extra defensive end, which has greatly aided in slowing down opponent's rushing. There are not nearly as many big breaks on the ground as in the opening weeks. Besides…the front just appears bigger and better, Collins agrees.
"He's 6-3, 240, so wherever he stands he looks like he's closer to where he's supposed to be! But we've got a nice dynamic with Deonte and Matt. They play about five plays each, then the other one comes in. At certain times we've played more packages; Matt more the nickel and Deonte more of a sam.
"But the more Detone has progressed they've kind of become interchangeable. Even though they're completely different body types with their skill set and what we're doing on defense we're having a lot of flexibility. The same thing with Brandon Wilson and Brandon Maye, they're flowing in and out together so we have a nice dynamic going."
A Dog dynamic that downplays ‘starter' status too. Yes, Collins knows, such things matter to players and fans and statisticians; not to him or Coach Dan Mullen. As the linebackers coach said, what happens if State needs open a game in a nickel set? Or the opponent returns the kickoff into the red zone?
"Who gets the first play is sort of irrelevant," said Collins, adding that fortunately the linebackers seem to agree. "The attitude of the group is really positive." That of course is what playing better does for a unit. So does greater understanding of individual skills and how to best apply gameplans.
Such as telling Wilson as middle-man to ‘cover' for Lawrence so the latter can just run after the ball. It leaves Wilson, or Maye, to take on bigger bodies up to and including linemen, true. "He's the guy that sometimes has to just make his own plays and take on his own blocks. That's the world you live in, big Dog, go get it!"
While Collins has adjusted his own pre-season plans of staying with a lighter, quicker pair of outside ‘backers around Wilson or Maye, he still believes in speed first and size second. During open date the defensive staff took more time with the young or younger guys to further settle depth for this year while getting an advance look at the future. Collins said the same and will positions are evolving to the point of being nearly interchangeable.
"And the mike is becoming more of a specific type, like a Zach Jackson, Dee Arrington, or Matt Wells. Guys that are longer, rangier safeties and might eventually put on 15, 20 pounds and become you're outside ‘backer. Or, they might not. They may stay the same size and be a great safety. It's getting your best eleven on the field." By the way, asked if he was already staking a claim to freshman safety Arrington as the next linebacker conversion, Collins only smiled and suggested "You've got some guys in the future that are going to be players for us." Including redshirting Benardrick McKinney, or soph Christian Holmes.
Meanwhile State has five games to balance the record or better, as well as achieve Mullen's goal of repeated bowl eligibility. The Bulldogs will make the grade if these linebackers have anything to say about it…and they do.
"I think they've got a pretty healthy self-confidence in themselves! Which is fun to coach," Collins said. "They have confidence in their abilities and as a group. And the chip on their shoulder."
MSU-ELLANEOUS NOTES: Having taken a long weekend, the Bulldogs altered this week's working routine. Instead of taking Monday off there was a practice today. "We're ahead of schedule," said Mullen. "So we'll actually shorten practices up and get an extra practice in."
This weekend's game at Kentucky had already been booked late with a 7:00 (ET) start. Now Mississippi State gets to play consecutive evening games. The November 5 Homecoming date with Tennessee-Martin has been assigned a 6:30 central start time for telecast by CSS. Not that the network really matters as any evening kickoff conflicts with the undisputed national game of the day, even of the regular season, as LSU at Alabama starts at 7:00 CT.
In his three State seasons Mullen has won eight regular season road games, out of 14 trips. That includes a 2009 victory at Kentucky. In fact five of his seven SEC wins have been against Eastern Division opposition, four of them away from home.
There isn't any really specific reason Mullen can point to for this trend, just generalities. "I enjoy playing on the road because there's a lot less distractions. Most of our guys are not dealing with a lot of family coming to town, you get rid of a lot of hanger-ons coming to the hotel. I don't know if there is anything really beyond that."
And as rewarding as road wins can be, particularly in league play, there needs to be more consistent success at Scott Field to better balance the books. "The key is you have to win your home games to win championships."