Oh, that every Mississippi State position coach had such easy tasks. Asking A.J. Jefferson to juice up a defensive line practice is just about the most unnecessary suggestion imaginable. If David Turner wants one Dog to lead by energetic example, #47 is the right call.
“Because that’s just my personality,” said Jefferson. “I’m a goofy guy. I love to laugh, play. And he knows once I go out there I love playing football, so I’m going to make it fun for everybody.”
Bulldog fans hope to have their own fun watching Jefferson enjoy himself working off one end of the Dog D-line. While Preston Smith was the star of 2014, checking the stat sheet shows his backup more than made plays in rotation.
Now Jefferson has the starting job to himself, and many more opportunities to show up. Show off, too. Oh, and concerns that State lost a lot of pass rush when Smith moved to the Redskins?
Fear not. Jefferson has always been able to chase a quarterback. Now, though, he wants to be a much better technician and tactician. “The biggest improvement I’ve made is working on my pass rush. As far as me trying to stay on the edges and not like running right down the man, I feel I’ve made big strides from last year with that.”
It’s not just strides but tricks like hand placement and balance and such. The idea is not giving blockers anything to get a hold on, legal or otherwise. Turner has taught Jefferson lots, but the player is not embarrassed borrowing tricks from teammates. Or “stealing what I can from them,” he said.
“I can kind of watch guys like Ryan Brown and Jonathan Calvin, because everybody has something they’re good at. Me, I’m a good counter-rusher. Jonathan is a good speed rusher. Sometimes he doesn’t even let the tackle get the hand on him, just running to the spot and dipping.”
Lower-key senior Brown starts on the other end from Jefferson, a counterpart in both positioning and personality. That’s a pair of 265-or-so pound bookends in the four-man front. But the real meat is in the middle with Chris Jones at an official 305, and Nick James at…whatever the scales can handle each day.
Jefferson and Brown light-up thinking of what sort of push that pair will provide inside. “I think they’ll free us up a lot,” Jefferson said. Especially if Big Nick plays to his developing potential.
“Coach Turner preaches to Nick every day, just run off the ball. Run off the ball, knock somebody back. Because if you get 330, 340 pounds going full like that I’m pretty sure he’ll cause some havoc. And I’m pretty sure that will get some sliding, double-team stuff like. So I feel pretty good for me and Ryan to get a chance to show what we can do on the edge.”
Last season was remarkable for the defensive line in terms of sheer depth. The graduations of Smith and tackles Kaleb Eulls and P.J. Jones took a lot, a whole lot of experience and stats. Thing is though, maybe the ’15 roster doesn’t have E & S to the same degree.
But depth? It’s still here, just younger. Jefferson gives the second group—which includes veterans Nelson Adams and Torrey Dale--and even the thirds a big verbal vote of confidence right now.
“Nelson played a lot last year with me. Jonathan Calvin, he’s come a long way. Will Coleman, Braxton Hoyette, Cory Thomas. I mean I feel really confident with these groups of guys right here.”
“As far as them knowing the plays, I feel we won’t have to worry about that. We don’t have to question their effort. I know if I come out of the game or Ryan comes out I trust Jonathan is going to give 110% in there. And as far as Thomas and Hoyette they’ve come a long way, so I feel good about those guys, too.”
All these Dogs need is more live playing time. Oh, and a little daily dose of Jefferson’s energy. He’s prepared for this responsibility, if that’s what you care to call it.
“So I don’t think it’s more of a difference. But I feel myself having to be more of a vocal leader this year since Kaleb, Preston, and P.J. are gone.”
The trick for Jefferson actually is keeping the preseason grind going a little longer, until Coach Dan Mullen transitions entirely to game planning and prepping. Opening his season against local school Southern Mississippi, which Jefferson said he nearly chose for college, helps in his own case.
For the whole group though this is the preseason point where routine just gets…routine. Turner knows it. So even as he pounds into defensive lineman helmets every single afternoon about hand placement, hip position, feet alignment, everything Turner expects complete attention.
“The mentality for the defensive linemen is don’t get bored doing the same thing,” Jefferson said. Because we come out there and do the same thing every day. Coach Turner will break up a couple of games and put up the little cut-up an show us this is what getting bored doing what you’ve got to do looks like. You just have to keep doing it.”
And that, Dogs, is no joke.