Ahhh. But this is where having a quite clever club of coaches showed maybe the most at Mississippi State. Rather than grind through camp grumbling about limitations, this defensive secondary staff took advantage of opportunities. They developed returning players further to take those opened job. They also accelerated the maturing of newer candidates who might just shove their way ahead of elders by opening day.
Of course what Bulldog fans want to know is, will coverage and support be improved in 2015? Based on spring scrimmaging the answer is a resounding…yeah, probably.
Such summer uncertainty springs, no pun intended, from the first fact of camp. Mississippi State worked the whole session without the active participation of cornerback Taveze Calhoun and safety Kendrick Market, both seniors. Calhoun started every 2014 game and 25 of the last 26 contests over two seasons. He needed some winter medical attention but mostly just needed some rest, and got it.
Market’s setback at the end of the season was more serious but he’s still on pace for full-speed in late summer. A 16-career games starter in his own right, the experience will be counted upon heavily in August camp. In fact, and again related to turning obstacles into opportunities, Calhoun and Market were spring practice factors without taking a snap. Many a drill both were out on the field, close behind the guys playing their presumed positions and even talking directly into the helmet ear-holes. Coaches Tony Hughes and Deshea Townsend approved this hands-on ‘coaching’ and saw benefits too.
Now, then. About the Dogs who did practice and scrimmage…
Cornerbacks Coach Townsend kept practices interesting, even confusing for observers, by regularly flipping his guys from side to side. And, shuffling them up and down perceived depth charts. Still a reasonably clear overall grading emerged.
To no one’s surprise, Will Redmond began and ended camp first-team. Remember, the ’15 senior has not started a State game yet, and not just because Jamerson Love was older and smarter in 2013 and ’14. Redmond is the most potentially-skilled State cornerback since you-know-who of 2012. It is translating all the talent consistently that has held him back.
This spring though Redmond showed some encouraging signs of reliability, making his plays against what all know is a first-class group of Bulldog receivers. There was less gambling, more coverage, and maybe best of all improved tackling on his corner. Or both corners, though it did seem he spent a few more days on the left side of things for what it is worth.
Either way Redmond stuck with the first rotation. His cohort on the other corner, and for that matter the backup, kept everyone guessing alllllll spring. For example, in March often as not Tolando Cleveland was alternating with Redmond. In April, there was Cleveland usually #1 on the right side. Only Townsend knows where they really stand going into summer, much less once Calhoun comes back to almost certainly regain first-team status.
What is known is Cleveland had a good spring of his own on right or left corner and thus he’ll be listed first for summer unofficially. What is also known? There’s excellent competition to resume in August. Cedric Jiles has had a star-crossed career so far what with a freshman year finger injury that at least earned a retroactive redshirt. More serious was his pre-season knee injury that cost him all 2014.
Coach Dan Mullen wasn’t so sure Jiles would do much in spring ball. But there he was, ahead of recovery schedule and trying to make up for all that lost time. He, too, was mostly on the right corner and contending with Cleveland; many practices even running with the first pairing. It’s been a tough first-half of his college career but Jiles just has too much potential not to expect better in the second half.
Then there are two new corners on the club. One entirely new at least to this position. It says much for wide receiver depth that true soph Jamoral Graham was moved to defense for his first State spring. It says more for Graham’s athletic gifts that Mullen expects him to become a factor at cornerback. Graham rewarded the faith once he got comfortable, making enough April plays to promise even better once he’s able to really learn this position.
Chris Rayford, now, he redshirted last fall as a cornerback and jumped right into the fracas in spring. Listed at 6-0 the freshman just seemed to play taller, longer, and at times very well. Rayford can be the ‘bigger’ corner State has sought for a couple of seasons. It’s omething not really measured in inches and pounds but in physical style as the Orange Bowls reminded. Painfully.
Moving Graham also eased pre-spring depth issues Mullen mentioned. With Brandon Davis and Boderick Oliver there were enough bodies to scrimmage complete clubs fortunately. Now more are coming on board in the recruiting class, or will once Townsend and Hughes make their position claims on new kids.
Certainly Hughes has the biggest challenge of any defensive position coach in terms of replacing players with son Jay Hughes going to law school and Justin Cox to a free-agent NFL shot. Market did all he could to advise healthy safeties but it wasn’t quite the same as being on the field with them live.
The result was Hughes had only four full-time safeties to scrimmage with. And one of those was new to the position, as Jahmere Irvin-Sills moved over after two seasons as a cornerback.
So no one should be surprised a bit that the two healthy veteran safeties on the spring roster began as the first-team pair. Or that Kivon Coman and Deontay Evans stayed there all fifteen working days. There just wasn’t anyone to give them a serious spring push. August? That could and should be another matter.
For now Coman is summer #1 at, presumably, the strong safety position left open by Hughes’ departure. That brings up another item of interest. Coach Hughes has not made much of a deal about the perceived labels of strong and free safeties, certainly not under the previous coordinator. Will Manny Diaz’ return change this approach, solidify how safeties are spotted? Probably not as much as might be guessed.
And to Coman’s credit he was one of the defensive backs who showed results from a fresh emphasis on tackling. Another was a Dog yet to tackle anyone in a different jersey. But after watching him for a week in bowl camp and five spring weeks few doubt redshirt Brandon Bryant can tackle.
He doesn’t have Coman’s height but does pack on a few more pounds already and will only get stronger with age. The fact is, more than a few practice observers are already booking Bryant to take over sometime this fall. The irony is, Coman did as much to train and develop a kid who will be trying to win his job all spring! That says much for the MSU mindset on defense these days.
Tackling is not an issue for Evans. He had ten of ‘em in the Orange Bowl after all, though this might have been more an indictment of what was happening with the linemen and linebackers that night. Regardless, the junior can hit. Coverage is the question. Though, asked about this, Hughes reminded media that as a 2013 freshman it was Evans knocking down the game-deciding pass play. The coach said all Evans needs is consistency and thus confidence in his abilities and experience.
Moving Irvin-Sills was not just for depth, fortunately. His own skill-set seems a better fit at safety where Irvin-Sills can make more and harder contact, something his coach said is his forte. The time at cornerback wasn’t wasted either as Irvin-Sills’ footwork learned there can come in handy in safety coverage, too.
State had some walk-on help from freshmen in spring, such as Zak Neary, Hayes Walker, and Henry Jones. But it’s no secret Mississippi State is putting a lot, a whole lot of faith in the star of February’s signing class. Counting on a brand-new kid to make instant impact at such a responsible situation asks much. Yet Jamal Peters is the type of brand-new kid seemingly up to the opportunity.
Of course only fall camp will show how and how quickly Peters, or classmates Mark McLaurin, Maurice Smitherman, and Chris Stamps can help the 2015 defense. The absolutely mean great things for future State secondaries.
What is known right now is that, per Hughes and Townsend both, the new coordinator wants Dog defensive backs to go on the attack more instead of waiting for things to come their way(s). And, according to every coach, this secondary is going to tackle better. A lot better.