He likes it, too. At least he does judged by a chuckle when asked to evaluate defensive line results through ten working days.
“Well, it’s been interesting! It’s been good. Guys have been working hard, we’ve kind of challenged them to step up.”
Turner does have his share of preseason challenges. Three first-team jobs are being picked for 2015, and not just for the graduated bodies. Between them tackles Kaleb Eulls and P.J. Jones and end Preston Smith had at least two and more like three years each as starters. A couple of them are now in NFL training camps, too.
Still as spring showed, and as outside media has missed based on their summer speculations, Mississippi State is not in a rebuilding mode on the defensive front. Veterans are stepping up and stepping into familiar spots, with few beats missed so far.
“We did lose a lot,” Turner said. “But every year teams change. And we’ve got numbers. We do have that.”
The numbers are indeed here. Though as Turner also points out, the numbers add-up in an unusual way for 2015. “We have one senior, seven juniors, and the rest of them are freshmen.” This odd mix means a lot of experience at the top of the chart and a whole lot of green behind them.
“But the guys have been working extremely hard.”
None harder than the projected starting ends, which includes the one returning starter. To Turner, the undisputed pacesetters this preseason are lone senior A.J. Jefferson and exciting junior A.J. Jefferson. His coach commented that while Smith got everyone’s attention last season, when Jefferson rotated in the big plays continued. Even if the cameras didn’t catch them.
“I laughed with him, he’s kind of sneaky-good. He got better on me last year and was doing things you’d say wow, that’s A.J.!” Turner even suggests Jefferson’s experience and skills would let him move to tackle if that’s the best defensive scheme.
By the same token Brown is much more than just good old reliable Ryan on the other end, clogging up the run while others get the stats. Brown should be in for a big senior year and at least pro scouts do know about him.
“Those guys have led every day through their work ethic, the way they have attacked practice,” Turner said. “And the young guys are kind of following.”
The not-so-young, too. Though it’s hoped that true junior Chris Jones is coming along as an eventual leader in his own right. Turner praised the first-team tackle’s work, going so far to call it “Harder than he has the previous years, which is good.”
The coach explains it by maturity and focus…and maybe some lingering sour taste. “He was kind of embarrassed by his sophomore year. And what we saw last year wasn’t the real Chris. All those things have played a factor in his push. Everybody knows he’s talented but he’s got to put the time off the field into the game and work on his craft. Those are the things I’ve seen.”
Based on last year’s rotation junior Nelson Adams would be alongside Jones on the first pairing. But during spring big Nick James muscled his way up, and it’s sticking. Both will play of course, and maybe it doesn’t matter who goes first. Unless, that serves as motivation, maybe?
“Nelson is coming along, he’s still probably not as physical as I want him to be,” Turner said. “Nick has made tremendous strides. He’s by no means a finished product but he’s moving in the right direction.” The trick is keeping the volatile junior pointed the right way. “I tell him just hold it in the road today and keep focused, and so far he’s done that.”
Last year’s unprecedented tackle depth allowed Cory Thomas and Braxton Hoyette to redshirt, which means they’re technically still freshmen. Realistically, they have to start contributing ASAP, per Turner.
“Hopefully we get a chance to play them early and I think by the middle of the season they’ll be solid backups. But somebody has to step up, no question about it.” Because, Turner added, “I don’t know if we’ll be as deep as last year but we’ve still got to be able to roll two-deep at least. And maybe two-and-a-half.”
Depth on either end looks good. Junior Torrey Dale should be setting up for a breakout year now, redshirt frosh Grant Harris will get his first live action come September. Spring transfer Jonathan Calvin shows the confidence of an early-arriving signee now. And the unintended redshirt of Will Coleman last year was a great ‘bad’ break for the juco transfer.
“Last year he wouldn’t have been ready to play mentally and physically. Things have a way of working themselves out. He’s been in the program a year, he’s stronger, and a whole lot more knowledgeable.”
Now, about that long list of quality signees? Leave it to Turner to state it without glossing things. “We’re just trying to keep ‘em here!” he laughed, describing the freshman shock of August in college conditions.
“All of a sudden it ain’t recruiting any more! But they’re doing well, all jokes aside it’s a good group. Keith Joseph has been a pleasant surprise, Anfernee Mullins is from Aliceville, Ala., but he’s kind of a typical Mississippi kid. He’s got a long way to go but he’ll develop. Kendall Jones has done some good things. and obviously Fletcher Adams, he’s got a motor. But it’s a good mixture of guys and I think before all is said and done they’ll have a good career here.”
That is the distant future. As mid-August bears down and State holds a Thursday scrimmage, the future becomes September 5 and kickoff. All Turner can know now for-sure is he’ll have to pick four starters by then.
“Who that is, I don’t know. We’ll get there before this first ball game. We’ll put four guys out there who will play hard and get after it.”