“But I feel sometimes they may try to stop me and maybe slide protection to me, give them a little extra help like a tight end at the line of scrimmage,” the Bulldog defensive said. And yeah, “A back to the side to try to slow me down with like chip blocks.”
So on second thought, yep. Preston Smith has most assuredly become a marked man on the Mississippi State defense. That is what winning SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week three-straight weekends will do for a fellow.
Not that conference offensive coordinators need to see any awards list. On video that #91 stands out quite clearly, coming off his assigned end of the Bulldog defensive front to attack quarterbacks. Successfully too as a team-leading 4.5 sacks and twice as many credited ‘hurries’ shows on the State stat sheet.
Know what is also showing? How the increased respect for Smith has opened alleys for teammates. The 2014 fact is lots of Bulldogs are getting into the pass-rush fun, just as coordinator Geoff Collins planned it all along after too much 2013 frustration in this area.
“We just put a lot of emphasis this off-season getting to the quarterback, putting pressure on the quarterback,” Smith said. “And we’ve just been getting home a lot lately.”
Yeah, Dog defenders really are making themselves at home in the other backfield with efficiency only imagined before. Try this for an impressive comparison. The 2013 team was able to accumulate 20 sacks in all 13 games played.
This defense has already surpassed the entire total in just six games, with 21 sacks. They also have 40 hurries so far in ’14 compared to 52 all last year, meaning the current Dog D is not just pressuring passers but getting the deal done.
More men than Smith are involved of course. For that matter more than defensive linemen; linebackers, safeties, even cornerbacks have put a passer down this year. But it all begins with the front four, or three, or whatever combination Coach David Turner comes up with for the down-and-distance equation.
Related to this, more than the starting front are making things happen. This actually is more eye-opening to offenses than the stat sheet. It might come at the cost of some personal play-making but Smith is a devout advocate of the 1A/1B defensive rotation…especially so at the line of scrimmage.
Put yourself in the other team’s position, he says. “It gives the offensive line of the opposing team a different look each time, each series we rotation. The next team might come out in pass-rush and one group might just only play the run and then get off the field. So it gives us a lot of freshness. And when it’s to pass-rush we’re a little fresher.”
Speaking of fresh… A.J. Jefferson isn’t a rookie any more but the sophomore does bring new life to the defensive end rotation. Working most often as Smith’s alternate, Jefferson has 1.5 sacks and seven hurries in his own account. That’s quite a tag-team to scheme for, with offensive tackles unable to relax when starter Smith stands on the sideline.
And when they’re there together? Senior Smith becomes the mentor to Jefferson. “He’ll ask me what it’s looking like out there, what’s going on, how I feel about everything. And he’ll go out and play as hard as he can based on what I tell him.”
As well as Jefferson has played, does Smith ever ask the kid for tips now? “Yeah, he can tell me, but I really don’t ask! I go out there first!” Smith said. “But I always watch him when he’s on the field to see what type of look he gets, what type of offensive tackle he’s going against. They may try and switch-up with him and do different with me. Or what kind of move he might win with that I can steal from him. I steal some stuff when I see it working with him that I can try and use.”
Dog defensive linemen have been comparing scouting-notes for over a week now. Thanks to the open date they’ve had a little extra time to look at Kentucky, and it might well prove necessary. The name is the same but this is a different sort of Wildcat club from those Mississippi State has scored five-straight wins against.
“I see they’ve got a lot of experienced guys,” said Smith, correctly since Kentucky lists a senior at one tackle and junior at the other. Both are backed by freshmen but that isn’t something to take for-granted. After all, Smith himself debuted as a true freshman back in 2011 and knows what a new kid can do given the chance.
Besides, “They’re SEC guys so they’re a tough team to play. We still have to come out and play our football because they’re not going to give up, they’re going to play hard through sixty minutes.” The Kentucky line has done that all season, with just 13 sacks allowed in seven games. Last weekend Louisiana State made things tough on the UK offense, ground or air, and in popular perception spoiled some of the rejuvenated team’s momentum.
Smith isn’t buying it. This is a dangerous road trip for a Bulldog ball team bearing both the #1 national ranking and a great big target on the collective back. That is just the extra incentive guaranteed to get the home team’s attention.
“I feel like they’re going to try to get that momentum back from where they were earlier in the season. LSU is a bad loss for them but I’m pretty sure they put that loss behind them and they’re going to come out and try to earn a win this weekend.”