Certainly Mississippi State is applying their defensive coordinator’s frequent collisions with Southern Mississippi Coach Todd Monken’s offenses to game preparation. Manny Diaz and Monken have repeatedly crossed paths at their various stops in the Big XII and Conference USA. The latest, was last season when Louisiana Tech beat the Golden Eagles with Diaz running that Bulldog defense.
Now Diaz is lining-up another bunch of Bulldogs and scheming them for Monken’s attack. “Certainly we’ve been able to study the Mississippi State game and the Louisiana Tech game last year. And obviously schematically there’s not dramatic changes.”
Studying Mississippi State’s 49-0 romp in the 2014 opener does provide the usual clues. But, Diaz cautioned, past results aren’t a sure sign for the future. Certainly not with a Southern Miss squad which should be on the rise after a stunning slump.
For one thing, “I know they made some changes in their strength program and I expect that to change the look and the feel of their team.” For another, the Eagle offense ought by now have their own fresh feel for the offensive system. Which, Diaz said, deserves more respect than recent records bring.
“I think he’s an outstanding offensive coach. And when you watch their whole season last year, this is sometimes hard for the fans to see, they’ve got a great scheme, a great system. They’ve got guys open.” Diaz mentioned two plays against Tech where receivers just needed the ball delivered on-target to score. He’s seen the same in other 2014 games.
“They’re not devoid of ideas,” Diaz said. Some of those ideas now come from Gus Malzahn-type sources, too. “The hardest thing in this profession is being persistent, understand you’re doing the right things. And you continue to develop the players you have or bring in new players that can execute what you’re doing better.”
Southern Miss has brought in lots of new talents by all accounts, many of them transfers from both junior and senior college programs. It makes scouting for an opener even more challenging than usual. Dog defenders can’t count on 2014 video to provide much more than tendencies. Also, “You can out-smart yourself,” said Diaz, by assuming what worked before still will.
If Diaz is more familiar with Southern Miss’ offensive ideas than most, he is not entirely new to Mississippi State’s defense either. Though his first coordinator stint was the 2010 season alone, he returned to a system that Diaz largely installed and was adapted by his successor over four more years.
The challenge on-paper is that only three Dogs from the starting Orange Bowl defense are listed first-team going into this season opener. Setting aside cynicism over how many points and yards were allowed in that ’14 finale, it would seem a rebuild has been Diaz’ top task.
Not so. Diaz does agree that as of today the “unusual amount of experienced depth” on last year’s defense is not available. “But that being said I’m still a believer in playing a lot of people on defense. That’s something I did the first time I was here and as a defensive staff we’re committed to that. What does that snap breakdown mean? We’ll have to find out.”
Certainly as linebacker coach Diaz expects to begin with his proven performers. While he’d love for Benardrick McKinney to have returned for a senior year, and Matt Wells have had another year here, Diaz has linebackers to fill their spots. And, do their own jobs.
“That’s why they were recruited to come to Mississippi State. What’s unusual to me was to lose two players of that caliber but to return so many players that have done really positive things. You have a Zach Jackson coming back for his fifth year. You have a Beniquez Brown whose made great plays, Richie Brown (was) layer of the week last year. You’re not starting from a position of trying to manufacture a guy.”
Diaz has not changed the Mississippi State scheme to much if any extent. The revised personnel, that is taking care of itself. But there is one definite area where the returned coordinator demands new and better.
Tackling. The Bulldogs have to improve their tackling. Emphasis began in spring and increased all August. Every possible tactic and twist was taught every Dog defender, and by every member of the defensive staff. Now, Diaz believes, if tackling improves so will another Mississippi State statistic: takeaways.
“Being a good tackling team will help get the ball out, leveraging the football. You have to get around the quarterback. And if you’re on a good team and have leads, they’ve got to try to make things happen. That’s usually when turnovers come.”
Turning over the lineup? Diaz has a good grip on an opening-day lineup and the immediate alternates and backups. Who plays when this Saturday isn’t necessarily what the coordinator has scripted through November. Certainly there are redshirts ready for their first varsity action. Even a few freshmen defenders would love to play immediately.
Diaz won’t predict if anyone gets activated right out of high school. Though, “It’s the first time they see their peer, really see their equal. That’s a little spooky.” Regardless, he said it will take a few September weeks before figuring out what exactly State has to play with.
Then, “Players know themselves what the rotation should be.”
Otherwise, Mississippi State’s defensive philosophy for week-one sounds, well, familiar.
“Our concern is making sure we’re gap-sound vs. the run, we’re cover-sound vs. the pass, we’re on top of all their routes vertically,” said Diaz. “And go from there.”