Fans can, and will, cheer Mississippi State’s improvements in talent, depth, everything really at all the offensive skill positions. But then, this here is SEC football. The league that stands and falls by defensive strength overall and defensive line play in particular.
And this is where Dan Mullen’s vital upgrades to Bulldog rosters shows. Maybe shows most.
In fact, the 2014 team might have been purely unprecedented in the quantity of quality defensive linemen. Maybe it wasn’t quite on the same plane as 1980’s front-four…but as time and professional play show maybe someday we’ll regard last fall’s front as equal to the all-time standard. NFL franchises gave a big thumbs-up by drafting end Preston Smith in the second round, and signing the defensive tackle tandem of Kaleb Eulls and P.J. Jones as free agents.
For those keeping count, this means seven Dog defensive linemen who played for a Mullen MSU team 2009-14 have moved on to pro football.
Of course what counts in 2015 terms is the number of openings to be re-loaded by Bulldogs who hope for their own NFL opportunity. Based on what most of the returning starters and alternates have already shown, they will. After it is hoped a fall season of equal or greater success, something they’ll have much to do with.
Starting with the full-time starter still in the lineup… Ryan Brown should be shown to all incoming linemen as an example of consistency. Reliability. Efficiency. His senior spring was, well, more of the same. Brown went about business each drill and scrimmage without barely a mention. Or mistake.
Close watchers though might have noticed a little extra zip about Brown. Nothing to signal he will turn into the next Smith—who like Brown played as a true freshman maybe. But nothing to say Brown can’t, either. His goal was upgrading the pass-rushing to go with simple steadiness controlling runners. By all accounts Brown reached that goal.
Something else about Brown is he doesn’t take starting status for granted. Good thing, because it was interesting to notice how Coach David Turner spelled his old Dog with two very talented youngsters at the left end (facing towards the ball). Taking the second team turns there were redshirt junior Will Coleman and redshirt frosh Grant Harris.
Coleman is a very interesting case because as a 2014 juco transfer he was supposed to play. Eligibility issues prevented it, yet in the longer run might prove to both his and the defense’s advantage. Coleman did not gain any real weight over his first winter, he just toned-up the bulk he brought to campus and it served him well in spring.
Harris, now, brings a little more size to end as he develops on a more normal schedule. Being behind Brown and Coleman coming out of camp isn’t a surprise, nor should it worry the 19-year-old freshman.
On the other end, this is A.J. Jefferson’s season to shine if he can take Smith’s open position. The ‘if’ is legitimate too because maybe the spring’s most improved defensive lineman is Torrey Dale. They’re both juniors and if Jefferson has the higher profile it’s only because Dale took a little longer to blossom.
Well, also because what Jefferson does best is what gets d-ends attention. He was born to chase passers or bust into backfields. Consider that while Smith won NFL respect with 9.0 sacks and 16.0 total stops for losses, working in rotation Jefferson had 2.5 sacks and 7.0 tackles behind the line too. Drop off? Not likely, though his coaches continue to push Jefferson to get even better controlling his end against regular running plays.
Dale didn’t get much in the way of ’14 snaps or stats; four tackles, a sack and a hurry in his 11 games. It’s just how he looked like a truly developing Dog as his junior spring progressed that should set him up for a breakout year. The key is adding to the listed 255 pounds which on a 6-6 frame (three inches taller than Jefferson) should be simple enough, right?
There is always room for more good ends of course. State added one, too. Juco transfer Jonathan Calvin went directly from an all-star fall season at Copiah-Lincoln CC into spring football at Mississippi State as a mid-year signee. There’s lots to learn about the finer points of playing senior college ball. He could also benefit by packing on more pounds to the listed 255. The larger point is Calvin might have the ludicrous luxury of redshirting after both a spring and fall in the system. That doesn’t have to be settled until August though.
So, Mississippi State is legitimately three-deep at either end even before summer freshmen arrive. What of the interior?
Nobody downplays the fact that tackle depth is down for 2015. Yet this actually just serves to remind out how ridiculously deep the two spots were in ’14. And how spoiled we can get with a real three-deep interior.
For now, State goes into summer ‘settling’ for a two-deep tackle situation. The fascination is which two are first and which are second?
There isn’t any question about one-half of the first pairing. He plays along with persistent questions about going back to end, but for now Chris Jones is settling in just fine as a tackle. As a starting tackle that is for 2015. The true junior’s real battle remains weight. He was listed at 308 going into camp while claiming in April to be back down to 290, which looked accurate enough.
This is a more serious matter than it might seem, too. While packing 300 or so pounds presumably helps with muscle matchups inside it also costs endurance. And based on spring there doesn’t seem the same plan to rotate as often as a year ago. Meaning, more snaps for Jones and thus wanting to carry less weight. Oh, and yes, before any ask: there are packages that put Jones at an end-type position.
The spring surprise was who lined-up alongside Jones as first-team. Not for the initial weeks; junior Nelson Adams was #1 as expected and as his good rotation play in ’14 merited. Ahhh, but by April he was in the second pairing.
And big Nick James was in the first. Looking pretty good there, too. Not to mention pretty Dog-goned big at 325 pounds. That might be a clue how James ended up first-team actually. Using him as an early-down battering ram sounds like a fine theory, then coming back with skilled veteran Adams? Or more likely Turner will mix and match along the way. And as always the emotional no make that volatile James will have to be brought along carefully.
Still that is as solid a trio as most major conference programs could ask. Depth is not entirely lacking, either. If not for all those ’14 bodies in fact it’s a good chance Cory Thomas would have played as a true freshman. He didn’t have to; now he will and do so carrying a lot more than the 273 pounds of signing day. Thomas was more accurately measured at 300 once upon campus and didn’t seem slowed at all.
For his part Braxton Hoyette is a fine physical counterpart to Thomas at tackle. Also redshirted as a rookie, Hoyette mostly split second team snaps with his classmate in spring camp at right tackle (behind Adams). That’s because Lawrence Brown is a rare item in college ball, a big body who walks-on at a SEC program when everybody in the world is looking to sign size. Brown can play some, too, which is good for depth but may be more valuable right now in competing with both redshirt freshman tackles.
The larger point being that if the names aren’t as established as in ’14 when State has so many proven tackles, there are still sufficient numbers for a season. And, more are coming. If everyone qualifies Mullen will be bringing in four more true defensive linemen this summer headlined by Fletcher Adams. It will be worth watching to see if T.D. Moton first qualifies and then checks-in at his signing day published size of 310 pounds. Will Kendall Jones and Anfernee Mullins be ends, or bulk-up to tackle sizes?
All asked to really state, Mississippi State’s policy of keeping the defensive front well-stocked and staggered by classes continues. So should the conveyor belt to professional careers, too.