“I think we learned a lot last year, just getting out there and getting some experience,” says Calhoun as preseason practicing begins at Mississippi State. “I feel a lot of people didn’t know about us, but I always felt we had talent. And now just because we played a lot of year a lot of people know about us.”
They do indeed. While no Bulldog body will forget the deeds done by Johnthan Banks, Darius Slay, and Corey Broomfield over their combined 2009-12 tenure, the current cornerback corps is already writing its own legacy. Maybe there were some shaky moments early in their starting careers last season, but by the end of ’13 Calhoun and Love were established SEC starters and big-play makers in their own right(s). It’s no accident that the game-clinching turnovers by Arkansas and Ole Miss ended up in these cornerbacks’ hands after all!
Interesting thing, though. Neither junior Calhoun nor senior Love are taking their jobs for-granted here on the first working day of preseason. When they take the practice field this afternoon, the veterans are approaching camp as if trying to re-earn their status. “We have to work and not expect anything to be handed to us,” said Calhoun.
”We have to go out and play our game, we can’t live on hype. We have to be the best we can be and whatever happens, happens. But as long as we work hard and compete every day we should be fine.”
Or better than fine. State returns nine, count’ em nine regulars in the defensive secondary from a unit that was peaking when last season concluded with a three-victory streak. Wait, make that ten because opening day starter safety Jay Hughes is also back after the Achilles injury suffered just six snaps into the first game. The only missing face is safety Nickoe Whitley, and while his two forced-turnovers in the Arkansas and Egg Bowl wins were undeniably the standout defensive plays of ’13 the Dog defensive backfield did just fine in the Liberty Bowl without him.
So, “I feel real good,” Calhoun said of the cumulative group experience. “But it’s just the beginning of camp so we’ve got a lot to work on to get our chemistry down. But I feel good with the players we’ve got, with that depth, I feel we have a lot of talent. I feel we could have a special year if we just go to work every day and get our chemistry together.”
That blending will get done over the next three weeks of ‘camp’ practicing, and tested in both full-squad drills as well as the two scheduled scrimmages. Sure, Coach Deshea Townsend could just pick up where the cornerbacks paused after spring training and work off that depth chart. But how fun or challenging would that be?Calhoun stresses that he and Love want to be pushed in practices, not only to better themselves but mix more cornerbacks into gameplans or special packages. And the veterans will get pushed, hard, by Will Redmond. He only played seven games as a sophomore after NCAA activation, but that was enough to show this 2014 junior must be involved. Calhoun surely thinks so.
”We’re happy to have Will back because he’s another playmaker. It’s just going to make us better as a defense. We can always bring him in as a nickel or at corner, I think he’s going to have a special year this year.”
If this sounds like a return of the 2012 rotation where the three corners got used together, exactly. But Calhoun cautions there’s more than just a trio of contending cornerbacks this fall. “I think some of our younger guys that haven’t had a chance to play a lot. Like Ced (Cedric Jiles), Tolando (Cleveland), I think those guys are going to have a bigger role. And I think we have a special group this year. As long as we work hard the sky is the limit for us.”
It is for Calhoun himself. He’s coming off a 45-tackle season, behind only Whitley among secondary stoppers, with three interceptions and four more breakups. He also forced and recovered a fumble, so Calhoun has proven himself as a game-changer.
“I take responsibility for being a playmaker. But I also think everybody does. Because the most important thing on defense we emphasize is getting the ball. So I think everybody is in a playmaker role, not just me. But I do take some responsibility for making plays.”
With Hughes back the camp competition will be excellent at strong safety as Kendrick Market intends to keep that position. And showing how adding one great piece can impact a whole unit, Redmond’s activation set in motion the move of Justin Cox to safety during Liberty Bowl camp. Now here he is working for the starting free safety opening.
Added to all this are some fresh(man) faces, with both Brandon Bryant and J.T. Gray getting good summer reviews by their elders. Of course all that was informal work; today begins the real thing for these kids. Calhoun remembers his own first college camp and already knows what to tell the next generation of Dog defensive backs.
”Just let them know you’re going to be challenged because you’re learning everything new. And just keep your head up.” What helps everyone too is this is Townsend’s second season with State, and Calhoun sees a difference already. “It’s real smooth. We’re not in the learning stage any more, we kind of know what to expect and he knows what to expect of us. We’re getting better every day, not just teaching the details in drills. We’re beyond that stage so it’s real good.”
For that matter it’s just plain good to be practicing again after two intense summer months lifting and conditioning and studying playbooks without being able to ‘play football’ for real. “It’s exciting to get back on the field for everybody,” Calhoun agrees. So is the buzz about Bulldog potential in 2014 with such a veteran roster and staff. It’s fun to hear positive talk about Mississippi State football, per Calhoun.
”I feel anxious, just ready to get back out there and compete. Ready to build off last year and how we finished strong, so we’re really excited about this year. I guess it’s a lot more media and people believe in us. But I know we expect to win every year.”
Thursday’s debut practice ends around 7:00 with Coach Dan Mullen to meet with those more media afterwards.