Now, that comment is bound to have Mississippi State fans fond of big tackle totals baffled. If a Bulldog ‘backer can take the shots and make all the stops, why ever bring him to the sideline? Well, there is the modest matter of reducing the wear-and-tear over the course of a long SEC season. And OK, should State need to hold a late lead having somewhat fresher legs and clearer heads are awfully nice.
Collins adds one other solid reason for reducing snaps. He has many more personnel that not only can play but need to. Every time he turns on some spring semester scrimmage and practice video, this becomes clearer.
"I thought we had a really good spring," Collins said. "The one thing that we really wanted to improve on was making sure we had six to seven SEC linebackers that we could play in games. I don't think we had that last year. We probably had four that we knew could play every game. We wanted to get that up to six or seven in the spring and I think we did that."
Indeed they did. And by the way, before spring practicing Collins and Coach Dan Mullen found at least two more who ought to be added to the total. They are a couple of incoming high school hitters with the tools to find a place on the varsity very soon. It all means that after a 2011 season when, against all historical trends, Mississippi State found itself short on good linebackers…the roster is again very, very well stocked. And this is even after middle linebacker Brandon Wilson (94 tackles) opted to pass on a final season's eligibility for a good job offer.
The most experience, and biggest returning statistics, are on the outside(s). Once upon a distant time Cameron Lawrence was a quarterback or receiver, then briefly a strong safety. He's proven to be a very strong linebacker, albeit playing the ‘weak' side, now with 171 career tackles; 123 of those as a junior when he finished second among all conference tacklers.
"He obviously had a great year in the SEC and came back and had a great spring," Collins said. "We've asked him to expand on his leadership role and I think he did that with the young linebackers." Considering that just about everyone else in the corps is an underclassman, Lawrence really is an Old Dog setting the unit's pace. It is Lawrence in particular though whom Collins hopes to ease some on-field burden.
"Cam had to play way too many snaps last season. He basically played the entire season because there wasn't enough experience depth behind him. But now with the guys behind him being a year older we are excited about that position."
The weak-side backups are a bit older now, and in the case of junior Chris Hughes in better shape. "Chris didn't play much last season due to his injuries," Collins said. "Getting him back healthy in the spring allowed him to show flashes of what he was as a freshman. We are all excited about him." Sophomore Christian Holmes is another impressive athlete who has shown flashes, but only that. Collins sees this as a crucial season. "Christian did well in the spring. He played a lot on special teams for us last year but he needs to find a way to be an every day linebacker."
Both strong-side starters of 2011 are back and presumably better too. Not to mention underclassmen each, meaning Deontae Skinner and Matthew Wells ought to be just now coming into their primes. The 245-pound Skinner started the last eleven games and finished with 69 tackles, nine of them for losses. He was promoted to starter after the first two games to provide some needed size, and Skinner blossomed.
"Deontae really came on during the second half of the season and was arguably one of the best linebackers in the SEC the last four or five games," Collins said. "He was unbelievable. The light just came on for him." Even better it has stayed on, reported his coach, and in intangible ways too.
"The development that he had throughout the spring was really positive. He is another kid who has a lot of leadership ability."
So the strong-side is settled, right? Not at all. In fact even if a regular starter is selected this will only serve for statistical purposes…well, and the pride that comes with ‘starting'. Wells, a converted safety himself, is no mere backup, he is a true alternate with a skill-set that complements State matchup plans perfectly. Where the bigger Skinner has obvious advantages against the run—though it needs noting he is not a shabby cover-‘backer at all—Wells bring some serious speed to various schemes.
"Matthew is a freak of an athlete," Collins said. "I think he ran a 4.3 in the forty at the end of the spring. He is a freakish athlete. He is a special kid. The neat thing with he and Deontae is they are different type players. So, when they are in there together or when they are in at different times they give you a different dimension."
So both sides have proven players and quality depth. What about the middle-man? "At the mike we were hit hard with the loss of Brandon, Brandon Maye, and Jamie Jones," said Collins. "The challenge there was to find more players." Which fortunately were already on the roster and biding their time. Ferlando Bohanna got some reserve work in ten games with nine tackles to show for it, and began spring the number-one.
By camp's end he was, depending on how one counted scrimmage snaps with which unit, either even or a bit behind true freshman Benardrick McKinney. The latter is a freakish athlete in his own right, 6-5 height and 235 pounds with speed, range, and reach that once upon a time shouted ‘defensive end'. In McKinney's case, he played the middle with aplomb all camp.
When, Collins agreed, their competition resumes. "Ferlando and Benardrick really did well at times, but also showed some things they really need to improve on. But we are pleased with their progress."
Progress has been made in another aspect beyond ability, experience, and depth. Collins and coordinator Chris Wilson have the mix-and-match options that make all sorts of schemes practical, especially given the versatility of the defensive line. "The neat thing about our defense is sometimes we will be in a 3-4 and sometimes we might be in a 4-3," Collins said.
"We can get the best guys on the field in the different packages. There will be some times where we will have Matthew and Deonte in at the same time. We might even have Matthew, Deontae, Benardrick and Cam in all at the same time." Which they did many times during spring camp, whether for blitz packages or short-yardage situations and most anything in between.
And, the deep is getting deeper thanks to that aforementioned recruiting results. Redshirting is nice for most freshmen, but Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown may be too talented to keep off the field.
"The whole time during recruiting they were number one and two on our recruiting board. We were very patient throughout the entire recruiting process and kept our fingers crossed that we would get them and we did. With Beniquez and Richie being such intelligent kids, we are really excited about both of them."
These new kids will find the depth chart ladder occupied. But with Mississippi State's new goal of getting lots of linebackers into action, expect everyone to find their way onto the field in 2012.