Dog Defense Preps For Big Closing '13 Show

Jennifer Collins knew what she was signing up for as a coach's spouse. So she understood when Geoff interrupted the couple's New Years vacation to New York City three winters ago. "I told her the one game we've got to watch is the Central Florida-Georgia Liberty Bowl," the coach confesses now.

Collins wasn't just trying to score p.r. points with the locals recounting that story during Sunday's interview session. He wanted to watch his former employer, UCF, playing; and against a team in the conference he was soon to return to. Now, three winters later here Collins is coordinating the Mississippi State defense which faces Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

The SEC's Bulldogs (6-6) have one more working day to practice for the reigning Conference USA champions Owls (10-3), who are also the home team here in Memphis. Tuesday's kickoff is 3:00ct for ESPN telecast.

And much as his defense is ready to get back on the field, the coordinator himself would prefer any extra hours available to properly prepare, as Collins explains.

What makes Rice a great opponent for this game? "They are a solid offense. A lot of older guys, they've got a big, physical offensive line. They're 11th in the nation in rushing, they've got four or five running backs that are interchangeable, that come in and do a lot of things. The one running back #35 (Luke Turner) sometimes plays quarterback in their wildcat package, and he was the MVP of the Conference USA championship game. They've got big, physical receivers, and athletic tight ends."

"The neat thing they do is they're very interchangeable with what they do, move guys around, give you different formations. So we just have to know where everybody is. #15 (Jordan Taylor) is their big receiving threat, a big talented kid they like to get the football to. But they spread the ball around and the running backs are really good as well. The quarterback makes good decisions, he scrambles really well and has an accurate arm. And he always tries to get them in the right play. The thing that you watch about their offense is they really don't run bad plays. They're always trying to get you to get the look that they want and then run right call."

"So it's going to be a big challenge for us. I think our guys are excited, we've had two weeks to get ready for this offense. And to be honest we probably needed it because they're so multiple in what they do."

Are they more physical and grind-it-out than normally seen in CUSA? "Yeah. And they're older, they know what they're doing in the system, they're committed to playing physical football. Their receivers do a great job blocking and really get after it on the perimeter. So they're just solid all the way through and they have toms explosiveness too within wanting to run the football. But they're explosive in what they do as well."

Charles Ross had over 100 rushing yards against Texas A&M? "He's a bigger kid; 6-1, 220, runs behind his pads really well. A physical kid, he doesn't take negative yardage plays. But all the guys they have that carry the ball for them are good quality backs. It's going to be a big challenge for us."

What have you seen of the development of Benardrick McKinney at middle linebacker? "Last year he had such a big splash onto the scene. He walks onto the field and Benardrick is 6-5, 250 and he's a ball of energy, runs his mouth constantly! The kids tell stories about what he says during the games, I hear it every day at practice. People think I'm crazy but Benardrick probably takes it to a whole ‘nother level!"

"But he had such a big year last year, had over 100 tackles, and he had to play probably 90 percent of the snaps in every game. I think it's a credit too to Richie Brown, he's been able to spell him a lot and had some quality downs. Benardrick probably doesn't have the numbers that he had last year, but he's every bit as impactful as a player. The neat thing he does, he takes pride in making other people around him better. That's hard to come by in a kid who is just a redshirt sophomore. But the guys feed off his energy and his enthusiasm, and he's really intelligent, he gets everybody lined-up. So I can't say enough good things about him as a player and as a person."

How did the team live up to your expectations this first year as coordinator? "Every day they come out and you see us on the sidelines, during games before we get onto the field…you know, psycho defense or creating mayhem or turning up or juice. You just see the guys, they've taken it on themselves, they've kind of let their personalities come out and you saw it in the Alabama game, you saw it in the Arkansas game, you saw it in the Ole Miss game. Just the energy and the passion and the juice that they played with."

"And you know they're like that every day. Bowl practice, we've had 15 days to get ready for an opponent, and every day you come out it's fun to be around these guys. They have so much energy, they like each other, they like playing football. It makes it a joy to come to work every day to get to be around these guys. And they've embraced the things we've sold them on and they've taken it even higher than probably the expectations would have been."

Was there a point in the season you knew you didn't have to tell them what to do against tempo offenses, just go do it? "Well, the Texas A&M game. The year before I think Texas A&M rushed for 300, 200 something yards on us. But when we played them this year I'd say probably 20% of the snaps it was on Benardrick and some of the other guys just to get us in the right call. Because they were going so fast the guys were making the checks and they knew exactly what to do. I think we limited them to 90-something rushing, which was a good day for us in that regard. Those guys understand the system, there's a lot of accountability, a lot of trust amongst the defense. They believe in each other. Benardrick speaks or Deontae Skinner speaks or Kendrick Market or Taveze Calhoun or Denico Autry; they listen. The pleasure for me is the guys that I mentioned, I could probably name four or five or six others that have that kind of impact and carry themselves in a way we can just line up and play."

Talk about the job P.J. Jones has done up front after hurting his foot in preseason? "Yeah, he's a tough kid. I think when he's healthy he's one of the best three-techniques in the SEC. And that's saying a lot with quality of d-linemen that we have in this league. But he hasn't been healthy since the second day of practice! You look at kids like him and Nickoe Whitley. Kaleb Eulls has been banged up all year. And the things those guys have gone through—and it goes back to Justin Gremillion and our training staff, they probably don't get enough credit for every week getting those guys ready to play."

"P.J. is such a great kid, such a great motor. He wants to be out there because he wants to be out there because he loves his teammates, wants to be out there battling with those guys. So I can't say enough positives about him. And when he's healthy, he's something. With Kaleb Eulls same thing, when he's healthy there's not a finer duo of interior linemen in the league."

How has your first year as defensive coordinator been? "I've loved it. I think you guys have been around me enough, I just love coming to work every day, love being around these guys. Regardless of the position that I'm in or getting to call the plays or not, I still take as much pride in whatever role I'm given. And these guys are just a pleasure to work with. The Deontae Skinners, Nickoe and Denico; the seniors, this will be my last time getting to be involved in the game with those guys. But it's been honor to be a part of this defense."

How are you replacing Whitley at free safety? "There's a couple of guys we've been repping at that spot. But you know, the seventh play of the season we had Jay Hughes go down, the starting strong safety and on the seventh play of the season he's done for the year. Kedrick Market, or as we affectionately call him ‘Poke Dog'—came in and we haven't missed a beat. Not to take anything away from Jay, a great player. But just he stepped up for us and played well for us all season, actually won a couple of games for us."

"Nickoe is down, the next guy is going to step up for us whoever that may be. The guys that are in the defense going out there every day know what we might miss from a Nickoe Whitley, his experience being a four-year starter in the SEC. They'll all rally around whoever is in there at whatever given time."

Taveze Calhoun had a strong end to the season, how does that impact the post-season? "You can't say enough about Taveze Calhoun. Going into the season, you know we lost John Banks, we lose Darius Slay, reall that's all anybody wanted to talk about, how do you replace those guys. And the job Jamerson Love did, the job Taveze did, Will Redmond, Justin Cox, I could go on and on about the guys that have stepped up."

But the three games at the end of the year Taveze had, are as fine as anybody in this league. I mean h e's a big, physical kid, highly intelligent, a high character kid. He has great length kind of like John Banks did. But he studies the opponent as well as anybody. He was best friends with John Banks, he watched everything that John did, studied what John did and kind of molded himself around that. If you have a Thorpe Award winner that you get to model your game after, you know it's a compliment to him that he took advantage of that opportunity and rose to the occasion, used all that information. And you see it on the field towards the end of the season. I think the sky is the limit, he's still a young guy."

"And the neat thing about him, the neat thing about Benardrick, Kendrick; they weren't highly-recruited kids. But then you see them with the development with Coach (Dan) Mullen and Coach (Matt) Balis that they have in this program, and what a high level they're playing at right now in this league."

What did you learn in your first year as coordinator? "Well I've been a coordinator since I was 24 years old! I was just a little baby coach, a GA up at Fordham in the Bronx and was offered a defensive coordinator job at 24 years old. I asked my wife, you think I'm ready? ‘Yeah, you're ready, let's go!' So I've been doing it."

‘And every year is a new challenge. But just being in the SEC, the quality of the coaches you go against week-in and week-out, the quality of athlete. Then you turn on Rice's tape, it's really no different than what I've been seeing all year long. I mean I was in Conference USA for two years at UCF, I know what a big deal this game is. You turn on the film and watch those guys play, I mean they are a quality team, they've got players left and right, all over the field. So we're just excited to play them."

You mentioned some guys weren't highly recruited, what did State see in Calhoun that others didn't? "One of the big things was he was in camp, he had a good camp evaluation. I got here kind of at the end of that recruiting cycle. But you go into his high school and every coach, every principal, every teacher (said) you will not find a better person—person—than Taveze Calhoun. Great player, great athlete, but they sold us on his character and his work ethic. Then you look at his camp numbers, you're like if he has this character and this work ethic and has this physical ability, the sky is the limit for what he can do. We took a chance and Taveze has made us look really smart."

Have you prepared for Rice's offense differently than most bowl camps, turning the physicality up? "Absolutely, they're physical. It's hard to replicate with a scout team how physical and strong they are. Coach Mullen has done a good job of letting us work against the ones and twos, which normally we don't do as much, just so we can replicate how big and physical and what a power run game they have."

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