Spring Football: Rebuilding A Defensive I.D.

Chris Wilson is in reasonably good shape for his 43 years, and doesn't mind showing his defensive linemen a few moves from back in the day. But he isn't kidding himself about what folk look for on game days. "As coaches we don't play any more, nobody comes to watch us coach!"

Bulldog fans will assuredly be watching Wilson's defense as it develops over the next month, beginning with Thursday's afternoon practice and concluding at the April 21 spring game. Lineups, substitutes, schemes, all that will be anxiously observed. Interestingly, Wilson says those do not top his checklist.

The coordinator and Coach Dan Mullen have set a couple of higher priorities for this particular camp.

"The three major things that we want to get out of this spring are A, an identity, who are we," begins Wilson. "B, create competition. And C, we have to be fundamentally sound whatever we choose to do. We've got to be great technicians once we decide what direction we want to go."

Much like his offensive counterpart Les Koenning, this is a transition spring for the Dog defense. Wilson might want to borrow from baseball to address the obvious issues. A strong up-the-middle group has been lost with tackle Fletcher Cox leaving for the NFL a year early, and the graduation of mike linebacker Brandon Wilson as well as two starting safeties. Not only are their skills to be missed but all that cumulative experience is lost.

No wonder the coordinator talks about re-discovering an attitude for the whole unit. "The biggest thing we want to find out coming out of this spring is our identity, at every position," says Wilson. "Who are we, what can we do, and who do we want to be in this upcoming year?"

That is job-one. Jumping down the checklist, the third item is choosing what to do with that identified defense. Wilson does indeed echo Koenning (see Monday story) here.

"We're married to what works! That is the biggest thing," says Wilson. "Scheme is scheme, we're married to what our players can do. And that is what this spring is about."

Losing Cox is a hit but it could have been worse. Happily classmate Josh Boyd will have a senior season and his 51 tackles and 4.5 sacks are a strong point to rebuild around. Though, only the real season will show how much Boyd's numbers benefited by Cox's presence and vice-versa. He will still set a tone lined up on the ball. What gets interesting now is how line coach Wilson structures the rest of the front. And 2011 positions are not necessarily indicators of identical duties this time around.

There are older veterans, such as ultra-versatile Devin Jones who can work nose, tackle, and end. There is sheer bulk in 330-plus pound true tackle Dewayne Cherrington, a '11 walk-on who can be a--no pun intended--bigger factor now. And a whole lot of others who have gotten varying degrees of experience.

"We were able to play quite a few guys last year," Wilson says. "When you look at guys like Kaleb Eulls who played as a redshirt freshman; and freshmen like P.J. Jones and Preston Smith, there were a lot of young guys. But you also mix them with four seniors, we hope to do is kind of infuse that with some of these young guys, get them opportunities the day they walk in, to see where they're at."

Eulls has the most fascinating potential after 13 starts as a redshirt freshman and 30 tackles. He's tackle-size with end agility, and Wilson projects him to stay on the end "in certain sets" which is a good indicator what the coordinator means about doing what works. Of course this is practical only because Mississippi State has players like a Eulls who can perform in just about any scheme his coaches work up.

Jones was one of those true '11 frosh thrown into early action, and while he netted nine tackles in a dozen games the young tackle got toughened-up by real SEC competition. That's why Wilson expects Jones to compete all the better for a starting job this spring. Ditto for big Curtis Virges (10 tackles, 2.0 sacks) who has had redshirt and freshman seasons in the system. "It's their turn," Wilson says of the youngsters.

State isn't hanging all hopes on this handful of d-tackles. Wilson aggressively recruited fresh help from both the junior college and high school ranks and came away with the two highest-rated signees of the entire 2012 class. It's a lot to expect of a kid who last fall was mauling tenth grader to immediately hold his own, but Wilson is high on early enrollee Quay Evans.

"The great thing is he's here already getting a season under his belt starting his maturation. Physically he is as gifted as anyone you'll be around. What we have to do is upgrade his learning curve." Meaning young Mr. Evans is getting a great big dose of serious football this spring to see what he can handle.

Naturally Denico Autry was signed to play immediately as a juco All-American and Wilson expects him to be a force in the manner of Pernell McPhee in 2010. "He gives us something we haven't had since then, a guy who we believe who can be a really strong rusher off the edge for us. We look at him as a guy we play early on in camp and hopefully works his way into a starting position." Wilson also counts on Autry bulking up to 260-265 in time.

Both end positions ought to be really camp-competitive with veteran backup Shane McCardell and redshirt John Harris challenged by the spring arrivals. And over the summer Wilson welcomes in a half-dozen more defensive linemen signees. "The biggest thing you notice is depth is becoming not as much a factor as it has been in the past. We've got twelve guys currently here on campus, with the addition of six more guys coming in June. So you develop who you are defensively really by the depth you have up front. We should know going into summer who the two-deep is at our defensive line positions."

The linebacker depth chart is a mix of knowns and nots too, mostly so in the middle without B.Wilson and Brandon Maye. Coach Wilson agrees. "I would say our biggest question mark right now is at mike. Is that Ferlando Bohana, is that Benardrick McKinney?" As Bohanna has at least a little live experience as reserve middle-man he is in line for the first spring snaps there. The third-year sophomore looks the part, and Coach Geoff Collins will offer every opportunity.

Redshirt McKinney also suits the physical bill. Though, during bowl practices he got snaps at an outside linebacker slot as well to measure all-around ability. Regardless these top the coordinator's pre-spring opinion as everyone awaits a couple of interesting summer arrivals from the recruiting class.

Collins' first season saw a shift away from the two big/one smaller linebackers set used so well in 2010. It probably wasn't so much philosophy as necessity, but neither was there so much drop-off. Not with Cameron Lawrence rising to the full-time opportunity and recording a team-best 123 tackles and all sorts of other momentum-making plays. He is back for more as a senior…or will it be more?

Not if Wilson has his way. Stay with us here, though. "Cam really played at a high level and can be an even better football player as well as a leader. But he can't play seventy snaps a game. In reality you play better playing fifty snaps than seventy at a high level. So we really have to see what Chris Hughes can do, and Christian Holmes can do." Both have had the luxury of developing gradually up to now, but no longer.

Once Deonte Skinner moved into the lineup for the third weekend, he was there to stay. The rave reviews Skinner got on the scout team in 2009 are being seen with the varsity now, and he finished with 69 tackles—fifth-most on the team. "Deonte really developed over the last half of the year and in my mind became an all-conference player at some level," says Wilson. "He can do everything you ask a guy to do on the perimeter."

Everything except, maybe, hang with an inside receiver tearing down the hashmarks. "He's backed up by a Matt Wells, a guy who gives you some flexibility," Wilson says. "So you like your outside linebacker position there." Wells is another of those safety-turned-linebacker types that State plays as the hybrid ‘backer. He's experienced, but also can't take status for granted this spring. Redshirt Zach Jackson is being eyed for the two-way role now. "We want to see where he fits, is he a will, is he a safety?" says Wilson. "Is he that hybrid guy you can play with a drop-down safety in the box?"

Coach Tony Hughes might have to be pushed harder by his boss to give up any more safeties for a while. Losing Mitchell and Bonner just took 171 tackles off the stat sheet, not to mention eight combined seasons of experience and leadership. Making this spring transition even more difficult is the November injury to starter Nickoe Whitley. The injury is routinely repaired but the rehabilitation process is longer than most.

Wilson is philosophical. "I'm looking forward to having Nickoe when he shows up. We know what Nickoe can do, obviously Nickoe knows he's got a lot of work ahead of him. So our goal right now is to develop those guys at the safety position. Jay Hughes, Louis Watson, Dee Arrington, those have to really become guys for us."

All have at least battered bodies as part of Mississippi State special teams and understand contact. J.Hughes had 11 tackles for the season, and former cornerback Watson seven. They've got the most practice time in the system too. Arrington is a more interesting case. The PARADE All-American signee got into special teams action nine games and played some mop-up safety as a true freshman. Some might see it as waste of a year's eligibility; the State staff was looking ahead to '12 when Arrington would be needed. Kendrick Market was redshirted, so this is his first chance to stake claims to depth chart status at safety.

Of course Wilson could take Jonthan Banks off a corner and let him play his 2009 safety position again. Wilson jokes this would be robbing Peter to pay Paul, though. Not to mention somebody would have to pry corners Coach Melvin Smith off Banks' leg.

Wilson says the great thing with Banks—who also weighed the pros and cons of early exit to the NFL—is can do anything a defensive back might be asked to do, including play safety. "So it kind of gives us an ace in the hole." But more to the point, Wilson adds, "I've yet to see somebody beat out Banks and Broomfield." Nor does he expect to in spring as Corey Broomfield and his cohort own their distinctive corners of this defense.

That is an interesting observation because Darius Slay was awfully impressive as a '11 transfer. He had 23 tackles and a pick-six at Georgia showing his game-changing speed. There is some thought Slay could become a safety, though for that matter both Banks and Broomfield move inside in blitz packages already. Either way Slay is a priceless luxury at this level, an alternate with all the ability of a starter.

Meanwhile, Wilson wants youngsters like Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun staying in the thick of things. Yeah, odds of cracking the lineup are long for another year here. "But we'll give those guys every opportunity to compete for those jobs. It goes back to we have got to create competition and then find the best way to get our best eleven guys on the football field, regardless of position."

Which leaves the schemes and sets, right? Wilson agrees…but don't try pinning him down on that just yet. "I like the direction we're going. The key thing is always finding a way to create competition and be more fundamentally sound in what we do."


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