What is better, at least for everyone involved with Mississippi State, is the status of the Bulldog defense for 2014. Coordinator and linebackers coach Collins began preseason with most makings of an excellent unit. In the three weeks since he and staff have settled on who is ready for adding to the established lineups, and targeted more for rotation and reserve roles.
The job isn’t entirely done, so in the remaining nine days to kickoff Collins has enough left on the checklist to stay busy. Still, the defense taking shape for the coming campaign already makes their coordinator feel nice and warm.
How long has it taken to find the 22 to 30 you want on defense? “We had 20 coming into this season that were in the two-deep last year, in the bowl game. We’re trying to find 25, I think we’re close to having the full two-deep ready to go. You know, we don’t talk about depth charts around here. So we’re just trying to find 25 guys that are ready to play significant minutes next Saturday.”
You have to like what you have at linebackers? “Yeah, with the guys that are coming back—Benardrick (McKinney) and Matt (Wells) have a lot of experience. Zach Jackson played critical minutes for us last year (in the) fourth quarter against Arkansas, fourth quarter against Ole Miss, played a ton all season. You’ve got the Brown Brothers who played at a very high level last year and have continued through the spring, continued through the preseason. Turtle Holmes, Christian has been around the program for a long time. I think he’s ready to make that next step.”
”Then a kid, Dez Harris, who I think everybody is excited about. 6-3, 240, really, really fast. And then a kid DeAndre Ward who I think has become a national figure lately! He’s doing really well for us, too.”
How special was that (surprising him with a scholarship) with Ward? “I mean that was awesome. And I knew it was coming, Coach Mullen had let me know it was coming. It was still emotional because being around that kid for the last couple of years and see what he’s gone through and all the effort that he’s put into his development as a special teams player, his development as a linebacker, the work he does in the weightroom and the classroom and the community? He’s an amazing kid. So when those kind of things happen to somebody like that you can’t help but get emotional, get teared-up. And I think you can see in the video how much everyone in the team respects him, loves him, cares for him just as much as the coaching staff does. It’s well-deserved and I’m happy for the kid.”
We haven’t talked about Wells much, what kind of player is he? “He’s a freak. I mean we call him the ‘Cheetah’. I mean he’s 6-3, he’s 222 pounds, he runs a 4.35, probably a 40-inch vertical. And he’s just amazing to watch out on the field in how hard he plays. Some of the scouts come in and are like where did this kid come from? We’re like he’s been here, and he’s amazing, so we’re excited about the things he’s going to do this year. Basically been a starter for the last three years, him and Skinner kind of split time the way we do Matt and Zach. But he’s played a lot of football for us and I think the best is yet to come with his career.”
The two freshmen, J.T. Gray and Gerri Green, are different types, what do you expect? “J.T. Gray in the first scrimmage I think he had 26 tackles, which is hard to do. Three sacks, tackles for loss, PBUs, I mean he was all over the field. And Gerri Green is kind of a, you’ve got K.J. Wright, then you’ve got Benardrick; then you’ve got Gerri Green, he’s kind of in that same mold and that same direction we’re going at that direction. A highly intelligent kid, a high character kid, and he’s just fun to coach every single day just the way rest of those kids in that room are.”
Did you see this in recruiting Gray, when others saw safety and running back? “Absolutely. And it takes a special athlete to play that position. You’ve got to be fast enough to cover kids like Jameon Lewis which is not an easy task; and big enough and physical enough to come in, fit the B-gaps and mix it up in the run game and those kind of things. And J.T. fits that mold. I mean he’s an aggressive kid, he flies around, he has no fear whatsoever. So we’re really excited about his future.”
How much does the 1A and 1B approach accelerate everyone’s development since they know they are working together? “Right, and (that) they’re going to play. A lot of times when you just have a one-deep or two-deep some of those younger kids don’t think they’re going to play. But our kids know they’re going to play. You know, Benardrick McKinney for all the stats and all the accolades, he played about 42 snaps a game last year. Because Richie Brown played so well, played so much. So they know they’re going to play so they’ve got to pay attention, they’ve got to be dialed-into meetings. And they’ve got to practice well. Because how well they practice determines how many plays they’re going to get in a game.”
Do you play Gray? “Who knows? It’s still early to tell. Let them develop as well as they can. The Benardrick McKinneys of the world didn’t play very much and all of a sudden they turn into big-time guys. So I’m just excited about his development.”
Are you still polishing what was installed or beginning to prepare for the first opponents? “Obviously with such a big game, in the new stadium, we’re well-versed in the things the other teams do. But we haven’t really started practicing yet, we’re still in pre-season mode. We’ll kind of crank that up and get started over the next couple of days.”
Do you like the jump Beniquez and Richie Brown made from the redshirt season to last year and now to here? “Yeah, the development. You know when they’re redshirting we have ‘Monday Night Football’ and those young guys that are redshirting play and they scrimmage and they do a great job of developing on the scout team. And then last year the played a bunch and played on special teams; and now I think they’re ready to make that next step. Even though they did play really well as redshirt freshmen, I think they’re ready to make that next progression.”