Yes, Market agrees. This has exceeded all hopes he had for the 2013 season. And he is far, far from the same sophomore sent onto the field in that fateful first quarter against Oklahoma State.
"I've got a lot better," he said. "I know when to make the call, and when not to make the call. And in certain things like on my man-technique I've got a lot better at that, because I got a lot of reps."
A whole, whole lot of reps. Market was on the Mississippi State sideline at Houston's Reliant Stadium that fateful afternoon. He figured his duties would be the usual special teams tasks and, if the game played out well, perhaps some snaps in relief of strong-safety starter Jay Hughes. Then barely a defensive series into the opener Hughes landed badly defending a pass. Badly enough to damage the foot and end his own first season as starter before it had really begun.
Enter Market. "I wasn't expecting it to go down like that. Jay worked hard and to end a season like that, I wasn't expecting to play that early." But he was, and did, and has done a lot more than just fill-in for his teammate. Market has blossomed under the spotlight. His 60 total tackles are third-most on the defense and only one behind senior linebacker Deontae Skinner.
Not only that but Market saved his best play for the stressful end of the season. He made ten total stops against Alabama, the best statistical night of the year. But Market is prouder of a nine-tackle output in the Battle for the Golden Egg, the victory that sent the Bulldogs to the post-season for a record fourth-straight winter.
Actually, it was another stop much earlier in the season that kept the team in bowl contention. No one wants to think about where the Bulldogs would be today had Market not been alert at the frantic end of the Kentucky game. When that Wildcat back suddenly broke through right guard and nobody was between him and the end zone but the still-new safety.
"Yeah, I saw when he broke out I knew I had to make a tackle. So I went over there and roll-tackled him. I knew when I rolled him I was going to get him on the ground." Because of that tackle State survived and the rest of the season played out successfully enough.
Along the way Market has been called the best pound-for-pound defender on the team, maybe in the league. "I look at it as a compliment. I know I try to do what I can do." Now he's getting himself and the Dog defense ready for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl date, beginning with Wednesday's afternoon practice. Coach Dan Mullen spent the first half of campus bowl camp giving the reserves and redshirts and other non-regular players most of the practice snaps, an advance ‘spring training' basically.
Thus, Market having to watch Tuesday's scrimmage…and not liking it all that much. Of course as a third-fall sophomore Market isn't exactly an ‘old' Dog himself so the attitude makes sense. To his credit he found a way to stay busy, as ‘coach' Market working with the safeties.
"I was just telling them what to do, how to make the calls, and line up. And how to tackle better." Right, tackling, an area where Mr. Market is an acknowledged expert. He says he learned the need to be a sure-thing stopper back in high school, as well as a quick learner about schemes and sets.
"I'm small, I ain't that fast, so I have to be a coach out there on the field." Or off it, as yesterday showed. Overall he gave the second- and third-squad safeties passing grades with one real standout. "In my group I'd say Brandon Wells did real good."
That group is suddenly thinner though. It hurt enough losing Hughes over three months ago. Now the secondary will be short another veteran. Senior free safety Nickoe Whitley opted to have the long-overdue surgery on the left knee damaged in September and played on—heroically—right to the amazing end of the Egg Bowl. Whitley intends to be healthy in time for spring pro days, but skipping the Liberty Bowl is a high price indeed.
And Market feels the loss. "Oh, it's going to be crazy. Me and Nickoe, every time we're on that field we talk, we talk. I'm going to miss him out there." But just as Market had to fill an unexpected opening, somebody else will step into Whitley's free-spot. "Deontay Evans is probably going to be there. He's pretty physical, he's smart. I think he's going to do pretty good."
For that matter Market has watched another cohort leave the group, albeit only to move up a couple of steps. Dee Arrington is moving up to linebacker and "I'm going to miss Dee, that's my boy!" Fortunately more young Bulldogs are positioning themselves for spring competition, like Wells, Quadry Antoine, Kivon Coman, and more. "Yeah, we've tried to get the young guys to know their calls, know their stuff, fly around and play ball." Remember too, Hughes is due back in 2014…and he'll want his old job back too.
"We're going to be talking out on the field together!" Market said. "I'll probably get moved over to the other side, but as long as I'm out there with Jay I know I've got confidence." Besides, Market is adaptable; he worked as a backup nickel safety in '12 and is comfortable at either free or strong or whatever the scheme calls for.
He's also going to use the rest of Liberty Bowl camp, here and in Memphis, to improve his position going into '14. "It's going to be exciting, a great experience. I'm still young and I'm still learning. Work on my footwork and getting my speed up a little bit."
The whole Bulldog defense found the fast track in November in fact. Now they want to carry the end-of-season momentum into their post-season, and celebrate one more victory with their coach. And coordinator Geoff Collins does know how to do that. He, says Market, is why bowl camp hasn't been a grind at all, but just plain fun.
"Coach Collins comes with a lot of energy, he's psycho so we try to get psycho with him." Whoa, wait, is that a nice thing to say about the coach? Well sure, Market says. "Yeah, he calls himself psycho sometimes."
Crazy maybe…but it sure does work well for the Bulldog defense.
Mississippi State has three working days left in campus bowl camp, all closed practices, wrapping up Friday. The Bulldogs will arrive in Memphis on December 26 to hold their one open-to-public practice, then close things down in advance of the New Years Eve game.