So no Mississippi State position coach lost more of his roster than Hughes to graduations, and for that matter the other returning regular is coming off a serious injury. But why then is the safeties coach sounding so confident about his position prospects for 2012?
"We feel good about the players that we have coming back. They are a young, talented group with some experience," Hughes said. Besides, he and his safeties can count on assistance from other sources in the coming season given how the Bulldog defensive secondary functions as an overall group. "It will help them to have veteran cornerbacks on the field. They'll be able to help the young safeties during the games." Or help them along until these restocked spots are able to carry their own loads.
When healthy Nickoe Whitley is a load in his own right, of course. Ask any opponent who crossed the wicked hitter's path these past two varsity seasons. Working out of the free safety slot (though to be fair the differences between free and strong in Mississippi State's schemes are often purely nominal) Whitley had 34 tackles as a sophomore starting seven of his nine games. That was before the season ended early on a ruptured Achilles.
Surgery tied everything back together, and though this is an injury that often takes a full year to completely recover Whitley was moving around nicely in spring. On the sideline, that is, as clearance to really practice is still pending. But just that he was allowed to spend more time with his fellow safeties during drills serving as almost an assistant to the coach, rather than rehabbing, was an encouraging sign for this season.
"We expect to have Nickoe back from his injury and ready to go for the season," Hughes said. "He's got experience back there." Good experience too, and not merely as a hitter. Whitley, a high school quarterback, showed a fine understanding of passing by intercepting four balls last fall.
Should Whitley indeed return full-strength in preseason or at least by the real season, then, free safety is in fine shape. But in the meantime somebody had to practice the position in spring and be ready to take any first-team snaps come August. As well as this fall because like most other defensive positions the goal is to keep a productive rotation going.
For now sophomore Jay Hughes has put himself in this picture. Working in reserve he picked up 11 tackles with a pass broken up last season, and now packing a solid 190 pounds he expects to be a bigger factor this fall. "Jay also has experience and has played well for us," Coach Hughes said. 2011 freshman Kendrick Market is of similar size and skills and had some interesting scrimmages in spring where he showed what had been learned by watching and waiting and working while redshirting.
Most expected Dee Arrington to redshirt as a 2011 rookie too. But when the season opened at Memphis there the PARADE All-American was working on special teams already. Fans can debate whether nine tackles in nine games was worth burning the redshirt option, but his coach believes getting Arrington onto the field immediately will pay off now that somebody has to step into the position played four-straight seasons by Mitchell.
"I see the opportunity," Arrington said. "I've got a good chance to do some things. I've just got to keep working hard and keep getting better."
"Dee could play a lot this season, he looked good during the spring," Hughes said. Good enough that midway of camp he had been promoted to first team ahead of veteran backup Louis Watson. A senior now, Watson has bounced around the defensive backfield working at both cornerback and safety before settling in at strong-spot.
"Louis is another player who gives us some experience back there," Hughes said. That, and a degree of depth welcomed by coordinator Chris Wilson.
While promoting and reloading the seasoned personnel, Hughes also has the responsibility now of developing even more options for this season and the starters of State's future. "We have some young guys who will fit in there somewhere," the coach said, referring to Market and redshirt Zachary Jackson among more. "They will both give us quality depth, both are talented players. They just need to get on the field and get some experience."
Also, "We have some young guys coming in that may be able to provide some depth, guys like Will Redmond, Deonte Evans and Quadry Antoine. We like all three of them a lot. It's possible that Redmond might play cornerback. We won't know for sure until we work with him."
It is also possible, even likely, some of the current cornerbacks line up in safety positions as part of the various secondary packages. Johnthan Banks of course has real safety experience having started there in 2009 before moving to a corner. In spring he often stepped towards the middle of the backfield so all three of State's superb cornerbacks could be on the field together. Or, it would be Corey Broomfield becoming the third safety for a variety of blitz options.
What it all means, Hughes can hope, is if everyone seizes their own opportunities and supports the secondary's full schemes, by mid-season Mitchell and Bonner will be more remembered than missed.