Brown, Defense Cleaning Up Mid-Season Issues

It's all about the talking. No, not chattering with opponents on the field or cheering each other up in the huddle. Richie Brown means making a message clear from front lineman to deepest safety before the next snap. "Just communicate with each other. That's how we can make our defense run as smoothly as possible."

This is why communication has been the top, ummm, talking point for the Bulldog defense during their mid-season open date. Coordinator Geoff Collins raised the subject during a post-practice report Thursday, and since he just happens to also be the linebackers coach Brown and brethren at the position have definitely listened.

Agreed, too. Because as sophomore Brown said, clear communication is one key to fixing some of Mississippi State's issues before beginning the second half of their 2013 season.

"We're just trying to communicate. That's the biggest thing we have to do as linebackers, is communicate with the D-line, communicate with the secondary. Just making sure everybody is on the same page. And we're unstoppable when we can do that."

Of course there are more matters that Collins has addressed during the week's four practice, last of which is today before Coach Dan Mullen turns players loose for a short break. Technical items, Brown reported, which have been practiced against their offensive peers all week. There is no single glaring flaw as such, simply the subtleties of playing defense in general. And linebacker in particular.

"We're really just trying to make sure we've got our fits down right. Just little gap-assignment things, make sure we do all the little things right. Stay in our gaps, do our jobs, not try to do anything extra to get us out of our gaps. We're trying to stay sound as a defense."

Which at times the Bulldogs have done. Through six games State's defense ranks 6th in SEC points, passing and rushing yards allowed, and fifth in both total defense and stopping third down conversions. Those numbers might not garner respect in most conferences but in this league standing solidly top-half in any defensive category is an accomplishment. On top of that, the Dog defense has had a hand in forcing enough takeaways that State is tied for second in SEC turnover margin.

So taken as a whole Collins' crew has made a good start to their '13 schedule. Just not good enough, Brown believes, because this group is capable of more. Much more.

"I mean there's some little things we always can improve on; tackling, pursuit, stuff like that. Our linebackers are awesome."

So then, how to explain the lapses which both Mullen and Collins are currently concerned about? Take the third-down defense; it looks good statistically but all it takes are a couple of badly-timed breakdowns and suddenly numbers don't matter a bit. Brown can recite examples of third-down stops there for the making that got missed in losses to Auburn and LSU, or even last weekend's win over Bowling Green.

"Silly stuff that we've got to correct," he said. Except it isn't funny at all, and to Brown it begins with communications. Which means, what? "A lot of times you'll see maybe we make a late call and two guys aren't on the same page, they're playing two different defenses. It will free something up or something like that. Just little things we have to correct."

Even when the word is heard though things can still go wrong. Remember what Brown said about gaps and fits and such? What he really meant was more mental than technical. It was about discipline. And this might be the toughest transition for a defender and especially a talented linebacker to make in college football. They're so used to making plays all over the place, and so motivated to see stops made, that temptation takes over.

Now in his second Bulldog fall, redshirt frosh Brown is still learning that invisible line between staying sound and turning it loose.

"It's hard. Because everybody is aggressive, we all want to make big-time plays. Sometimes we try to do a little too much and get out of gaps and it ends up hitting right where we left. So we just have to focus on staying in our gaps, to help everybody."

And when everybody does their own assignment, the results can be impressive. Brown has seen what happens with this defense when they are communicating and clicking. "The Troy game I think we were all on the same page, you could tell. We were rolling, getting three-and-outs back to back.

"And every game there's parts where we're clicking, we're rolling. There's been some issues, little minor things we had to work on. But in parts of every game and especially Troy and Alcorn and games like that, Auburn for a long while, we were really showing what kind of defense we have."

Brown has to wait his turns to show his defensive prowess. He has no issue at all with second-unit status this season since that guy ahead of him, Benardrick McKinney, is on everyone's honors watch list. Veterans Deontae Skinner and Matthew Wells have earned their starting jobs as well. Yet Collins is giving Brown and classmate Beniquez Brown along with Zach Jackson increasing snaps; not as backups but real rotation linebackers.

"They're working us a lot in there, and we're gaining trust slowly," Brown said. "We're still young so obviously he's going to trust them more, because they're older. In key situations he's going to be more hesitant to put us in. But he is trying to get us in as much as he can, he's building up trust in us and I really do think he trusts us. So we've got to do our part in practice too to make sure we get things done. Less MA's in practice mean more playing time."

Brown isn't lacking for live-time anyway thanks to his kicking-squads assignments. Whoever takes the toss or defers, he is on the field when the game is kicked off either direction. And yes, this Dog Will Hunt down folk to hit. Naturally ‘brother' Beniquez is somewhere out there as well because this is how Collins loves to hone his younger ‘backers for larger responsibilities.

"I'm on every special team," Brown said. "It's a fun thing and it's a really great thing to learn. Because if you want to go on to the next level it's probably most important thing to know. The best way you can stay on a NFL team. Also it's one of the most important game-changing things on the field. And it's a lot fun, too. I mean, you get to run and make some big plays."

That NFL comment is no coincidence. Oh, and Brown has heard what happened to his predecessor Cam Lawrence. Just called-up by Dallas, the former Bulldog made a highlight hit on a kickoff play only to be fined; not on the field but upon post-game review.

"It was a good play but you can't do it any more!" Brown said. "I feel bad for him, losing a paycheck but man, it was a good play! I'm glad I don't get fined for those hits like he does." Hmmm, that's a comment that might have some opponents' heads on swivels in upcoming games tracking #39. By the way, the Bulldogs this week rank first in SEC kickoff returning, something the linebackers are also proud of.

As much fun as Brown has starting every game with a kicking play, his emphasis in the season second half is finishing. Finishing what they begin, as Mullen is stressing. The Dogs were within a play of opening SEC season at Auburn successfully, and a quarter away from knocking off LSU. Neither job was finished.

So if Mississippi State is to make any run through the upcoming six games and to a fourth-straight bowl trip, they have to finish each week's job. It's not easy to define Brown agreed, but obvious to see.

"You have to learn through experience sometimes. I don't think it's something you can just do. I mean you know, you kind of think you know how to finish. But it's really a mental thing. When things are going south one play goes bad, you have to learn not to ‘ohhh gosh what are we going to do now, the game is over…' Let's make some big plays, make things happen, get back in the game. It's just something that we're all learning."

The Bulldogs are free for a day following the Friday practice, and due back Sunday to prepare specifically for Kentucky and their Thursday evening (6:31) date at Scott Field.


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