Specifically, the Dawgs’ Bite Magazine years of 1977-2013. Yesterday it was the Offense Lineup drawn from those seasons that was presented. Today, it is the Defense Lineup as well as selected Specialists.
Whereas offensive schemes in this time frame changed often, defensive lineups have been fewer and simpler to draw up: a 4-3 or 3-2-2 base with two safeties and two cornerbacks. We will go with the classic 4-3 ‘umbrella’ sort of set, but recognize the impact of nickel secondaries to include a fifth defensive back…
…which works out very well in Mississippi State’s case because there were three cornerbacks in our time frame who simply had to be included. Defensive end has more potential for contention regardless of base front, picking between a ‘big’ or ‘rush’ type. We went with size because seriously, how to leave off the Dog who made the biggest hit in the last half-century of program history? And it was a teammate, both at the time and on this lineup, who made the recovery. I should know, I was there…
DEFENSIVE END – BILLY JACKSON (1980-83) All-American (SPORT); All-SEC (1 AP, 1 UPI)
Sacks were sort-of a vague statistic back then (as me how I know) as the college game was just shifting from run-dominated to passing quarterbacks. But if his record 49.0 total sacks is inflated the spider-quick ‘Billy Jack’ was still the real deal bagging a quarterback or stuffing options on the edge. He would play more as a linebacker as a senior. And every home pre-game, fans again get to watch him recover the most historic fumble in program history (1980 Alabama) as a freshman.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE – Fletcher Cox (2009-11) All-American (AP 3); All-SEC (1 AP, 2 Coaches) 1st Round Draft (Philadelphia)
Everyone figured he would be good coming out of high school, though it’s interesting now cohort Josh Boyd got more attention initially. Cox proved even better than expected once suited up at Mississippi State and became key to reviving the program under Dan Mullen. Cox also made a piece of program history by turning professional after his junior season. Call him the current generation’s standard for Dog defensive tackle, much as was done decades earlier by…
DEFENSIVE TACKLE – Glen Collins (1978-81) All-American (1 TSN); All-SEC (1 AP, 1 UPI) 1st Round Draft (Cincinnati)
Here’s the Dog that defined the interior tackle position for generations of Mississippi State folk. Heck, he just plain looked like a defensive tackle designed by a sideline scientist, straight-ahead muscle with side-to-side range and arriving with an attitude. We’ve had lots of good ones play this spot but none better than Glen…who I enjoy reminding a certain #99 did lots to ‘make’ Johnie Cooks’ career.
DEFENSIVE END – TYRONE KEYS (1977-80) All-SEC (2 AP) 5th Round Draft (New York Jets)
That’s right; three of the four linemen making this list played together, which explains why those 1980 and ’81 defenses are remembered so fondly. More honors were claimed by teammates but Big Ty went on to the longest pro career of the bunch. He also appeared in the legendary Chicago Bears “Shufflin’ Crew” video, reason enough for inclusion. Oh, and he caused that epic fumble which Jackson recovered.
OR WHAT ABOUT? He didn’t play on great teams but Pat Swoopes was no slouch at tackle. Dorsett Davis and Willie Blade were on winning teams and worthy of strong consideration themselves. I wouldn’t argue if others prefer a ‘small’ defensive end type for the first team either, such as Greg Favors and Edward Smith who were really linebackers playing outside in the odd-front days. And who knows where Pernell McPhee would rank if he’d been able to come straight to college?
LINEBACKER – Chris White (2009-10) All-SEC (1 Coaches, 2 AP) 6th Round Draft (Buffalo)
He was something of a ‘throwback’ to the old days when middle-men were the biggest ‘backers on the field. But White wasn’t merely stout and strong, he had amazing range (watch the 2010 Florida game for reminders) and even more an uncanny knack for reading the play and reacting a tenth-of-a-tick quicker than anyone else. He’s also another example of why Mississippi jucos still turn out talents worth watching.
MIDDLE LINEBACKER – JOHNIE COOKS (1978-81) All-American (AP, TSN, FWAA, FN); All-SEC (1 AP, 1 UPI) 1st Round Draft (Baltimore)
As if any discussion were necessary here…though Johnie will still talk all ears off reminding everyone that he was not only the best but the best-looking linebacker to suit up at Mississippi State. Only Fred Smoot could compete in a verbal matchup. At least Cooks had the game to back up the gab, a lineman-sized linebacker with safety speed covering sideline-to-sideline in the heyday of option football. It wasn’t a discussion either when the first group of greats were chosen for the DWS Ring of Honor, Cooksie was automatic.
LINEBACKER – Mario Haggan (1999-2002) All-American (2 TSN); All-SEC (1 AP)
This was the toughest call to make on defense, maybe on the entire team, and if any say it oughta have been K.J. Wright you won’t get an argument here. Mario didn’t set any season records for tackles but that’s because in the late 80s coaches kept those stats…the linebacker coach in fact and numbers got inflated. Plus Haggan played on better defenses so stops were shared. This doesn’t diminish just how efficient Haggan was at his job, and though undrafted he played with three NFL clubs in ten years.
OR WHAT ABOUT? K.J. has been mentioned and if there was a fourth linebacker he’d make this selecting easier. Imagine him lined up on the edge in those late 90s defenses! We’ve never had a smarter ‘backer than Dan Boyd on and off the field. Aaron Pearson and Keo Coleman would hammer you, and James Williams would do it with a little more viciousness involved. Barrin Simpson and Jamar Chaney were so steady as to be almost taken for-granted.
SAFETY – ASHLEY COOPER (1998-99) All-American (3 AP, 2 FN, TSN); All-SEC (1 AP, 1 Coaches)
Talk about perfect timing. He arrived from junior college to join a defense which was already loaded. And Cooper made it better, much more than most appreciated at the time. He was the ideal safety/linebacker for a Joe Lee Dunn gameplan back when that meant something special. It’s still a mystery how he didn’t catch-on with a NFL club.
SAFETY – Derek Pegues (2005-08) All-SEC (1 AP, 2 Coaches)
It’s interesting to remember that for most of his career Pegues was better-known as a prized recruit, in the years State really struggled to secure blue-chip prospects from inside the state. And the teams he played on didn’t do a lot to raise his profile individually until late in the day. Fortunately he was also an excellent all-around collegian both covering and tackling on teams that needed lots of help. And his punt return touchdown is a stunning piece of Egg Bowl history too.
CORNERBACK – Walt Harris (1992-95) All-American (1 CS, 2 UPI); All-SEC (1 AP, 1 Coaches, 1 FN) 1st Round Draft (Chicago)
Today’s generation know Harris more in the context of recent players chasing his interceptions record (16). He now shares it but does that way remain at the top of the list. And Harris did it playing fewer games, working with good if not great defenses. And the record did stand for almost two whole decades after all. Good enough for me.
CORNERBACK – FRED SMOOT (1999-2000) All-American (1 AP, 1 TSN, 1 Camp); All-SEC (1 AP, 1 Coaches) 2nd Round Draft (Washington)
Think this was automatic? It was closer than you’d expect because it meant pushing aside a Thorpe Award winner. And as hard as it will be for fans to believe the margin did not come down to personality, reputation, all the intangibles. No, here is why Fred is the best: he had ten picks in half as many years as his competitors took to get 16. He almost certainly loomed larger in game-planners’ minds. And with the game on the line, who would you want out there for one-on-one coverage? Say it with me, Smooooot…
NICKEL CORNERBACK – Johnthan Banks (2009-12) All-American (1 Camp, 2 AP, 2 CBS); All-SEC (1 AP, 1 Coaches) 2nd Round Draft (Tampa Bay)
Meet the cornerback who shares that interceptions record. What Banks has all to himself is the Thorpe Award; in fact he’s the only Bulldog to-date to have won one of the major post-season trophies/awards. And he might have been even better at his initial position of safety…or wide receiver for that matter. So we had to make an extra defensive secondary position to get John in here.
OR WHAT ABOUT? Smoot’s greatness was magnified in ’99 by Robert Bean, an all-timer in his own right. Back in the 70s-80s State always had a Jackson or a Johnson, or both, playing in the secondary and Kenny (Johnson) and Kirby (Jackson) were first-class corners. Rob Fesmire didn’t get enough credit because of all the attention on the great front-sevens he supported. Greg Williams would just plain hurt you. And Charles Mitchell was something of a Pegues 2.0, a prized signee whose career is only appreciated now by judging the full four years.
PUNTER – Jeff Walker (1996-99)
Statistics aren’t everything since some punters are always booting backed-up and can just let it go, others work with better offenses and try for placement. Walker wins because he could do both at need, nobody hit the ball with more oomph, and besides he does own the career average record.
PLACEKICKER – SCOTT WESTERFIELD (1999-2000)
OK, candor requires saying this is more of a ‘gut call’ than objective decision. After all, Brent Smith owns the accuracy standard at 80%, and four-year kickers compiled better total numbers than the juco walk-on, such as dual-duty Dog Dana Moore. But in our time frame try to name someone you were more comfortable running out on the field at crunch kick time? Right.
RETURNS – Punts Tony James (1989-92), Kickoffs Kevin Prentiss (1998-99)
If he wasn’t already on the defense, Pegues would make a worthy pick here on his reliable production. So we’ll leave the spot open for another name and give it to James, who showed career consistency on 1.8 miles’ worth of total returns. And while others piled up more stats over more seasons, K.P. has this ultimate trump card: he made everyone in the house hold their breath whenever he caught a kick.