Collins Prepping Defense For "Talented" Owls

It isn't only Bulldog players who must transition back into the game-preparation mindset. With campus bowl camp winding down the coaching staff has had to regain their own game-week stride. So Geoff Collins has been busy scouting and scheming for a real opponent, and instructing his defense.

Instructing them a lot, too, the Bulldog defensive coordinator says. Mississippi State may be stepping outside Southeastern Conference competition at the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, but in most respects Collins is seeing quite a comparable challenge ahead in Rice. "They're really talented," he says of the Conference USA champions.

So is the Bulldog defense of course. Which sets up the 55th edition of the Liberty Bowl as an entertaining matchup. Mississippi State has been exposed to more than a few quality offenses over the regular season, not just SEC heavyweights and high fliers but as far back as opening day against Oklahoma State. Thus there isn't much this squad hasn't faced for-real.

None of which makes Collins' job simpler in the one remaining day of on-campus practices Friday, and the short scripted days to polish his unit up in Memphis. Practices there begin on December 26, the one open-to-public session.

What have you seen scouting Rice's offense? "They can run the ball, I think they're 11th in the country in running the football. They do a great job with what they do, they don't run bad plays and they have a great o-line, great skill kids. Their quarterback, and their wildcat quarterback do a great job, I think they've got six or seven of their skill players have played quarterback before. So they pose a lot of threats, and they're well coached. They do a really nice job."

Is there any team in the SEC you might compare them to? "I mean they have SEC players. They've got a SEC scheme, they do a really nice job with the schemes that they have. You see how well-coached they are with the different tweaks they have against different defenses. And they always seem to find a way to get into a right play. The kids know what they're doing, they play really hard and really physical."

There have been comparisons of their quarterback to Johnny Manziel? "Yeah, well if you watched them the first game when they played Texas A&M that kid put on a show. I mean he was running around, making plays. The thing you see, and I know a lot of people talk about our ‘Juice Boys', the guys that are redshirts getting excited on the sidelines? You watch their tape, they've got the same group of guys on their sideline getting hyped, waving towels, they've got little choreographed dances. So they play with a lot of excitement and you can tell, they're a good football team."

How has practice changed from the beginning of camp to now? "The first part of the week was development, the young guys were playing. But we've gotten into game-plan mode, working the game plan with our defense. And the older guys getting back into the rhythm because we try to treat it like we're getting ready to play a game. And then we get a little time off, and do the same thing again. So when we leave here tomorrow we want to be game-ready."

When you get to Memphis what is your plan for practices? "Pretty much the same, we repeat a lot of the things. Change the calls and scripts and different things. Most of the game plan is in, it might be some different tweaks as we go."

How do you avoid the distractions that come with a bowl? "I think this group, even though we started off really young, the experiences that they've had throughout this season and the battles they've faced and the things they've gone through have really prepared them. I think they've got the right mindset going into the bowl."

"They know what a great opponent it is and you don't win ten games of college football without being a great team. So they know it's a big challenge ahead."

Going through the scrimmage Tuesday, what stood out? "Some of the practices have been a little bit better. Some of the guys, being their first time really playing in that stadium in a meaningful experience, they had played great for three days in the practices. We get over to the stadium and things change a little bit. So it was nice that it happened during bowl prep, then they'll get to do it again in the spring again twice. Then in the preseason hopefully some guys will have gotten some good experiences and be ready for SEC play."

What got into John Harris in the scrimmage? "Hey, he makes plays! He makes plays!"

How is the secondary adapting to the absence of Nickoe Whitley? "You know, all year guys have had to step up. With Jay Hughes, you lose Dee Arrington, Nickoe plays banged-up most of the season. So those guys have had to get experience. So they're going to have to step up in even a bigger role. And we'll miss Nickoe because he was a leader, he'd had 40-plus starts in his career; the active (NCAA) interception leader. He's a big piece of what we did on defense this year. So those guys have got to step up pretty big for us."

Will Arrington play in the bowl game or will you save him for a possible medical redshirt? "That's a Coach Mullen question!"

Will Deontay Evans step in for Whitley at safety? "Yeah, he is. There's a bunch of guys that are filling in for that role. So we just keep progressing and they'll do practice tomorrow; then we'll practice in bowl week and just see. You know, everything we do we chart. Whoever is performing the best with assignments, efforts, loafs, those kinds of things, will be the guy that plays."

Will Justin Cox play at safety in the bowl? "During the bowl prep we moved a lot of guys around to give them different experiences, to see what they can do. He knows how to do different things, so we'll see how much he does at either one in the game."

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