Lining Up State’s Summer Football Team

Fortunately it’s a moot point now. Still the Bulldog mind is bemused how just a few seasons ago the linebacker unit got a little thin in numbers. As if Mississippi State should ever run short in an area which has been such a program calling-card over the years.

Safe to say Dan Mullen and staff have addressed that inherited issue. Very successfully. So much so that despite losing two of the SEC’s best linebackers to professional football there should not be any fall-off for 2016. In some ways things could get even better, maybe?

That’s a shocking suggestion to some. Outside observers will reasonably claim Mississippi State is rebuilding as second-round draft Benardrick McKinney takes his team-leading 71 tackles and leadership from the middle linebacker position. Also gone is brilliant outside man Matt Wells, arguably the league’s most versatile linebacker in any scheme and a sixth-round draft steal. And if not drafted, OLB Christian (ie Turtle) Holmes had a heckuva senior season as well.

Plus, outsiders will suggest the departure of position coach and coordinator Geoff Collins interrupts everything. Insiders, well, they are of another opinion.

Bringing back Manny Diaz to run the defense and coach up the linebackers was not only a popular move by Mullen. It was a smart coaching call in all practical ways. Returning and redshirt linebackers immediately took to the new boss in spring ball, no surprise of course. Diaz’ record in the one State season, 2010, putting ‘backers in positions to make plays and then move on to the NFL was a powerful attraction as well.

Something else seen in spring was Diaz’ preference to play the best players most of the time. So while technical difference between the two are slight if at all, the tactics should be changing.

Now. About the personnel. Beginning in the middle, none deny McKinney was a physical freak and a big-play maker. By the same measure, none doubt Richie Brown’s own abilities to make plays. More meaningfully, the junior could prove to be the better ‘quarterback’ on defense.

Brown certainly was a first-class linebacker as a third-year sophomore with 50 tackles compared to McKinney’s 71. Only coaches truly know which has more of a knack for running the show, but if Brown was any lesser a leader it wasn’t evident to civilians. His cool-hand demeanor also fits the role well. Though his victims would question just how cool this guy is in action.

Maybe Brown is not quite the same freak athlete as the predecessor. There’s another Bulldog ‘backer who has that look though. In fact first real-practice viewing of Gerri Green had any media member around in 2010 muttering ‘K.J. Wright’ more than mentioning McKinney. It will be worth watching for revised fall rosters to see exactly how close to the listed 6-4, 240 pounds because Green looks longer and lankier. He’s certainly a player and after a redshirt season will find his way onto the field. The mental image of an extra outside linebacker/end is irresistible because, hey, Diaz did it with Wright sometimes, right?

Given how many Bulldogs bear the name, coaches can’t simply shout ‘Brown!’ in practices without a lot of helmets turning. It seems safe to say though that the Brown who’ll hear his name called most in games is Beniquez. Of course it got called a lot already in 2014 as this Brown was behind only McKinney in tackles at 62, along with a couple of sacks, two interceptions, hurries, etc.

This Brown’s advantage over the other was being able to take an open starting job last season, giving Beniquez a jump on Richie in first-team experience. But in the series they played together, never mind spring ball, they had a mental link beyond brotherhood. Simply, these Dogs work brilliantly as a pair already; now they’ll get to do it full-time. Maybe for just one year though because with a similar junior season Beniquez will be surely considered as the next early-NFL entry.

It was insightful also in spring camp to see how often both Browns could almost interchange as inside or outside linebackers. That bodes all the better for Diaz’ game management tendencies.

The twist here is that the 235-pound B.Brown is the ‘big’ outside linebacker on the first trio; but he’s backed by two smaller guys. Fans got a look at J.T. Gray as a true freshman out of injury-necessity. If limited snaps meant limited stats, it is worth noting that along with nine tackles Gray had two hurries. That is a clue to speed off the edge going one way, and hopefully speed getting back in coverage the other way. Gray just has the look of a kid who can change his directions and adapt to schemes as needed…which sounds a lot like Wells comes to think of it.

In spring ball former safety Quadry Antoine continued making the move to linebacker, and practiced as third man in B.Brown’s side.

On the other side where Wells did start there is a veteran too, who himself began as a safety. Zach Jackson did have his issues in the rotation as far as coverage, curiously, and the Egg Bowl still stings. Jackson’s experience against the run game is solid though and despite a real spring challenge from Deandre Ward he was able to hold first-team status.

The wild card of the unit is Dezmond Harris, who former coach Collins touted as a redshirt then as an activated freshman last fall. Harris is another brilliant athlete by the measurements of speed, strength, explosion, all of it. But six games-in a knee injury put him on the sideline not just the rest of the season but in spring as well.

State isn’t hurrying Harris though. There’s too much potential in his 6-4, 235 pound frame still to be developed. If graced again by good health with no lingering after-effects from surgery and recovery, Harris could jump the line fast in August. At which out-side? That has to be seen.

Oh, and as if there weren’t enough healthy linebackers for camp, another joined the list. Walk-on quarterback Josiah Phillips put on a few pounds, changed his practice jersey color, and got into competing at Jackson’s side behind Ward. There’s even a seasoned reserve in the middle with soph Kelan Chairs, one of those walk-ons Mullen loves to find a role for.

In this program though the first role every linebacker battles for is on special teams. That’s all the incentive a quartet of recruits needs to dive into summer strength and conditioning work if cleared to enroll. Of course transfer Traver Jung was signed to play. At a listed 6-4, 215 (only August measuring shows how accurate signing day numbers were) and with his juco resume Jung has the look of a long outside ‘backer in this system.

Given his bloodlines and already-stout body, Keith Joseph Jr. could either end up also a big linebacker or a smaller defensive end. Maybe not that much smaller as the frame begs to have more muscle piled on in college training. Tim Washington is more the fast rush/cover specimen, at least on initial report. And Leo Lewis was only the top-ranked prospect and leading linebacker signee in the entire state, as well as a signing day steal for Mullen and staff.

Depth, oh heck yes Mississippi State linebacker depth is back to what was always expected and actually a good bit better. But it is all the talent seen in spring, the versatility and potential for Diaz to scheme with, and a star-studded quartet of newcomers that matters that much more.

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