Linebackers Setting Up Opening Game Rotations

There has to be a depth chart for the convenience of fans, of media, of players themselves and to some extent even coaches. After all somebody has to take the first practice snaps. Still there was bound to be a game-week buzz about Mississippi State putting a first-time player at middle linebacker to open the 2012 season.

A good buzz, too. Because Benardrick McKinney has earned this opportunity.

"He's going to be a really good player," Coach Geoff Collins said. "I think people watching are going to be reminded of K.J. Wright, who I think was a pretty good player here too!"

Now that is quite a comparison, and compliment, for Mississippi State linebacker's coach to offer. It also provides proof why redshirt freshman McKinney gets to take his first college snap as a starter. At middle linebacker, no less. "Everybody is excited about Benardrick," said Collins. "All the guys in our room are excited."

There is much to get excited about from a still-young fellow who stands a listed 6-5 with 235 pounds. (Wright, by the way, was 6-4 and 250 as a 2010 senior.) Some who have yet to see McKinney in action—and the only real chances were in spring—wonder if someone of his build and ability might not be a bit big for what has become the ‘mike' man norm. Nobody in the Bulldog locker room has any such questions, having watched McKinney using his reach and range to fine effect in the schemes Collins and Coach Chris Wilson have devised.

What makes the middle linebacker position more fascinating this year is the presence of Ferlando Bohanna, who began the spring working number-one in the middle. It wasn't that Bohanna, a third-fall sophomore who looks like the classic mike lost the job; but that McKinney came on so strong. And Collins wants it known that a start this Saturday is not any guarantee who gets first snap next week. Or the next, or…

"With Ferlando, those two have competed a lot for basically the same position. But they both have handled it positively and really pushed each other and tried to help each other's weaknesses become strengths."

The fact is Collins still considers McKinney and Bohanna equals, for all intents. It's just that like practice, somebody has to line up for the first defensive snap.

In fact, "I think both of them are starters. Both of them had great springs, great preseasons. They each have a little different flair they bring to the defense. We just have to find out the right times to put each of them in and go from there."

Which means look for regular rotations, even some mixing-and-matching, as the defensive staff approaches Jackson State series by series. Practicing is well and good but it takes a real opponent to show how much Mississippi State's linebacking corps has developed. After all, there's another group of Tigers coming to town in another week.

This doesn't mean Collins or anyone else is going through opening-night motions. Nor, the coach said, are they thinking like fans; meaning no notion right now of ‘hiding' any of the gameplan or the rotations. "We're just going to play," Collins said.

"You can't take anybody lightly. We've got to play a good opponent, I think they won nine or ten games last year and they have some great skill athletes." At the same time Mississippi State needs some hard answers before getting into Auburn gameplanning. Because in Collins' case there are alternatives and options to set up, soon.

"The key for us is having six to eight guys who can play, and be starters in the SEC. It's how well they work together. And everybody pulls for each other. So it's a good dynamic we have in the room."

There is another aspect to the announced depth chart offering a cue to this defense. Since spring Deonte Skinner and Matthew Wells have been listed first and second, or first and/or second, at an outside position. The idea being that big run-stopper Skinner would start and speedier Wells rotate in for coverage. Collins always regarded that as slightly over-simplified. Skinner has worked hard to upgrade his coverage skills on tight ends and backs, while Wells is no slouch at tackling guys.

Then when the official lineup came out there was Wells backing up the other starting outside ‘backer, Cameron Lawrence. Don't take such stuff too specifically, says Collins; both are booked for duties. Everywhere.

"Right, they still do everything. And one of them might play the first play, another one of them might play the third play. They're both SEC starters, so they're both really good players."

Good enough that they can play at the same time. Meanwhile Collins and Wilson are eager to take the measure of even more linebackers in this lineup. Both have made it clear their goal is to reduce the total snaps taken by, say, Lawrence. Not so much that the senior and all-star candidate needs specific breaks, exactly. It's just taking a hit or two off his weekly total keeps the team's top tackler that much fresher for October and November.

And, increases confidence among the backups they can take care of business, too. Such as? "Chris Hughes, Zach Jackson has done really good," Collins said. "Christian Holmes had a good spring and a great preseason. So I'm excited about him.

"The big thing is to try to play them early and them off the field early. We're doing some different things personnel-wise that we can move some guys in and out and get more guys more snaps."

By no means does anyone in the Bulldog camp want to see weather causing havoc around the region. Some of them hail from addresses in Isaac's path after all. But defense is built around making the most of opportunity, and if it results in a soggy Scott Field this Saturday, wellllll, Collins' kids welcome the idea of playing in the rain.

"Sure! And the big focus for us in the spring and the whole preseason has been getting turnovers. If the field is a little wetter and the ball a little slipperier, so be it!"

Mississippi State has mid-afternoon practices booked Tuesday and Wednesday, with an eye on the week's weather. Coach Dan Mullen was to meet with media following today's scheduled session.

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