Need any further proof Dan Mullen’s tenure has firmed up the foundations of Bulldog football? Try this: despite losing one all-star linebacker, a year early to the NFL at that, and one of the most versatile performers at the position in many years, expectations for the 2015 corps aren’t reduced.
Expectations are higher, even.
That’s admittedly quite a statement. Replacing Benardrick McKinney and Matthew Wells is not to be taken lightly. Neither is it cause for fear.
Fact is, McKinney did not leave middle linebacker open. Not when Richie Brown played at least 40% of snaps there last season. And in this particular position the now-discredited 1A/1B scheme was justified. Brown deserved the snaps and delivered the goods.
Sure, his biggest day was picking three Texas A&M passes. But re-watch Brown’s work the week before at LSU to recognize waking a guy on the NFL fast-track off the field meant not a molecule of drop-off. The beard might contribute to Brown’s mature demeanor shown even as a redshirt. Plus he’s now a happily married man, and on his own sort of fast-track. What really matters is the Dog defense is in excellent direction again…and maybe even better.
That said, there’s a young monster on the roster. Our comment on how well-stocked State has gotten with years of good recruiting is perhaps proven most by the ’14 redshirting of Gerri Green. Turned loose in spring to compete, Green grabbed attention along with ball carriers. We aren’t suggesting the 1A/1B approach be continued at the middle spot. But we aren’t politicking against it, either.
We also have to be a bit careful labeling who ‘quarterbacks’ this defense. A Brown will be more or less in charge on the field, but not always Richie. Not with Beniquez Brown lined-up to one side or the other. The classmates share a heckuva lot more than surname.
B.Brown is already established as a SEC starter, and it’s a mystery how little preseason attention the junior has received. From media, that is; pro scouts have been watching a lot more closely and this could be Brown’s last college season if all goes well. All should. B.Brown only lost the team tackle title to McKinney by nine and was one-back in both TFLs and sacks as well. Yes, he lines up on a side of the three-set. The fact is this Brown is just as confident shifting into the middle as the scheme demands.
One difference is that not only is B.Brown the returning starter; he has less perceived preseason push from behind. That’s not a critique of J.T. Gray though. He earned a unique 2014 status as the only true freshman to play on defense. Albeit, after rotation OLB Dezmond Harris went down in game-eight forcing activation of either Gray or Green.
Gray, groomed for an outside spot, got the nod. If his sudden service didn’t bring many statistical opportunities the live action accelerated his progress ahead of schedule. Now he’s a confident backup to B.Brown, or able to go to the other side if that’s how camp plays out. Harris is expected to be full-speed for the season, hopefully to live up to the rave reviews his former coach always offered.
Current linebackers coach and coordinator Manny Diaz built more margin with the move of junior squadman Quadry Antoine. After a couple years as a safety, Antoine is looking for the first varsity letter in a new position. He certainly should have a shot at kick coverage duty again.
The linebacking questions arise at the other out-side. Well, and from watching struggles by Wells’ backups in the three losses, especially the Egg Bowl. But coming out of spring Diaz was giving senior Zach Jackson a needed vote of confidence.
Jackson did have a good junior year in run support to be sure, and even had some good games rushing passers. If the coverage part is satisfactory—and remember, Jackson began as a safety—a starting job is there for the taking.
It was also interesting in spring that smaller, faster Gray worked behind big ‘backer B.Brown. Since, after all, Gray physically resembles Wells more. Jackson’s #2 was Deandre Ward, who matches his 210 pounds. And there was a new man in the mix, though Josiah Phillips is not entirely new to MSU. He’s just moved from walk-on quarterback to get a shot at defense and practiced on this side of the lineup.
In the handful of opportunities, media will watch what Diaz is doing with depth, if sides are switched. Oh, and where exactly do juco Traver Jung and freshmen Keith Joseph, Leo Lewis, and Tim Washington go to work first? We can have fun projecting based on sizes and resumes, but seeing it take shape will be even better.
And seeing how Diaz’ Dogs go about regular season business should be best of all. Remember, this is the coach/coordinator who took a good group of linebackers and put them in sets to become great. If his 2015 crew can blossom as did K.J. Wright, Chris White, et.al., back in 2010, that only further affirms how solidly State football is established in this area.