Lining Up For Pre-Season, Part III

We wrote it in May and repeat it today. Even in this era of explosive offenses, big scores and record statistics…Southeastern Conference programs build upon defense. On defensive line play in particular.

No better evidence is required than how Dan Mullen has built-up Bulldog football. For all his reputation as an offensive coach, his seven recruiting classes have seen a focus—obsession even—with stocking up on big bodies that can move and maul. As a result Mississippi State is well-stocked on the defensive front in 2015.

OK, so maybe not quite as loaded as last year. 2014 was an epic collection of bodies and for the most part talents, especially at tackle(s). Still losing both interior starters and an all-star defensive end has not gutted this group. Media voters look at departures of Kaleb Eulls, P.J. Jones, and most of all Preston Smith and figure this will be a down-year on the Dog d-line.


When Coach David Turner walks on the practice field next Monday, he will have at his disposal the makings of another gifted group. And, maybe, the deepest collection of good defensive ends at MSU in many a season. This is where the one returning starter lines up, as Ryan Brown prepares for what should be a big senior season.

It’s a measure how flashy Smith was on the other end that Brown got so little attention on his (left) end last year. But his numbers were comparable and his consistency arguably better. What has pushed Brown to the verge of all-star status, and will send him to pro ball next year, is how this proven run-stopper has developed as a pass-rusher.

Speaking of push… Spring camp showed there are newer ends who have to get their own 2015 turns. Not that anyone advocates a return to the 1A/1B system, understand. Still Will Coleman and Grant Harris must play. Coleman wasn’t supposed to redshirt as a juco transfer, yet his eligibility issues of 2014 may prove in the long run to his advantage. If he has used the year to add more muscle then his opportunities will increase.

Redshirting was more normal for Grant Harris. Now a second-fall frosh he won’t find bulling ahead of elders easy but Turner will make use of his youthful size and strength. Maybe he keeps Coleman on his toes; maybe he just plain jumps line.

Smith’s departure surely cost votes in preseason polling. Big deal. What it really did was present A.J. Jefferson his shot at the spotlight. His attacking skills aren’t questioned since one-quarter of his 2014 tackles were made behind the line. Jefferson’s next step is consistent work against running plays, and spring results were hopeful there.

What keeps right end competitive is the way Torrey Dale has matured. Not as fast as classmate Jefferson, because he’s needed to put pounds on that tall frame. New muscle showed in spring to the point that Dale could be one Dog with big breakout opportunity this fall. If, that is, he can hold off a fresh challenge. Juco Jonathan Calvin might not exactly fit the physical image of a SEC defensive end.

But he was an all-star at Copiah-Lincoln, and even better from State’s standpoint a spring enrollee. That jump-start gives Calvin a better chance than normal to win more than just backup action in this rotation.

It all adds up to a legitimate three-deep on both ends of the line. And that is before Turner and coordinator Manny Diaz start slotting in the three secure and hopefully fourth incoming high school linemen.

So, what of the interior two spots?

No Dog denies that last year was incredibly deep with proven performers. And whatever one thought of the alternating lineups, it did make good sense at tackles and did not cause any noticeable breakdowns.

Going into this preseason the same sheer quantity isn’t present, or not yet. The quality, now, seems quite comparable in the first and maybe second pairing. We say ‘seems’ because spring threw observers a twist.

No, we’re not talking of packages that let Chris Jones take some snaps at end, the position he insists is the favorite. Though those specific situation combinations are intriguing to say the least. Realistically Jones has adapted well to tackle and despite not having started a game yet is already on all-American lists. Quite a comment, huh?

Tackle also gives a little leeway on the weight, which Jones claimed was down to 290 in spring. He sure looks larger. Either way, agility should mean miss-matches with this early-NFL-entry candidate.

The twist referred to was who Turner had playing alongside Jones on the first defense. As expected junior Nelson Adams began spring #1 at right tackle. Mid-way of camp, Nick James took his place. Only the coaches really know if this was a test, both of big Nick’s maturing or a rotation that has Adams shoring-up the second pair. It would seem certain if this was game week Adams would be starting, as he’s more than ready to take his own share of spotlight.

What matters is how ready James seemed for larger responsibility as a junior. Oh, and while still Big Nick he’s not quite as big, having honed that hulk in spring and summer. Obviously the ‘best’ first pair would be veterans Jones and Adams. Still it will be intriguing to see if Turner wants to mix and match; using James say to soften blocking for several snaps before fielding fresher legs. There doesn’t seem any bad choices here.

Especially not as Cory Thomas develops. All that ’14 depth allowed him to redshirt out of high school. Now he gets into the competition in a bigger and smarter way, presumably. Well the bigger is not presumed, he went from a listed 273 on signing day to 300 this past spring. He also came out of camp as solid second-team.

Thomas usually worked right tackle, but that is also where classmate and redshirt Braxton Hoyette worked most days. This means more than just a lot of good young depth by the way. Walk-on Lawrence Brown was something of a surprise in his junior spring, earning second-squad snaps many days. When media are allowed to watch pre-season unit drills (team periods are likely to be closed) all will look for how these tackles stack-up, as right or left or either.

That’s more true maybe for the newer big boys. As of now touted recruit T.D. Moton is not qualified for fall participation. Clearance would be good for his development of course, and offer a bit more margin in depth, but State should be fine for ’15 regardless. Certainly hopes are sky-high for Fletcher Adams who arrived on campus in summer with family legacy preceding him at tackle.

It will also be a natural check-point just how big Adams, Kendell Jones, and Anfernee Mullins truly are. Because their accurate rookie bulk will indicate their position assignments. Whether they are needed to play as true frosh is another matter.

They can afford to be patient of course, nor need stress about how quickly they can develop in Mississippi State’s system. Remember, seven defensive linemen who have played for Mullen in his six previous seasons have graduated to professional football.

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