Yesterday discussed what to look for from the offense during early bowl camp. Today is the defense’s turn. Most position projections are based either on where varsity Dogs played this past regular season, or where younger reserves and redshirts lined up during an open October practice.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: It doesn’t get the same attention, but the stocking-up on Mississippi State’s defensive line during Dan Mullen’s tenure is at least as impressive as how the wide receiver corps has been built up. Which is why despite graduating the unit’s undisputed meeting-room leader, and the not-official but expected departure of the top individual talent, there need be no panic for 2016.
In fact, when the coaching staff puts an underclassman line on the field Friday, it will be familiar already. We’ve seen them in live action plenty of snaps.
That includes the backups to old Dog Ryan Brown’s at defensive end. Jonathan Calvin not only got 26 tackles in the regular season but 5.5 of them were for losses with 1.5 sacks and three hurries. That showed how valuable it was to enroll as a spring transfer, certainly. Will Coleman had to settle for a dozen tackles though 2.5 were for losses. His challenge continues to be putting more bulk on as he’s not much above the under-250 pounds he brought to campus as a 2014 signee and unplanned juco redshirt.
Anfernee Mullins was supposed to redshirt out of high school and has, so Friday is his first chance to really get into competition. It would have been the same for Keith Joseph, but his tragic passing took a teammate from the young defensive linemen and a fine end prospect.
More than a few fingers are crossed that A.J. Jefferson doesn’t test the NFL waters too seriously, not least among a press corps which looked forward to mid-week talks with a Dog as voluble—when he wants to be—as he is gifted. His presume return keeps that end of the line in fine shape for a senior season.
But it is conceded Scott Field has seen the last of Chris Jones in a Mississippi State uniform. Barring an entirely-unexpected change of plan the junior will be playing in pro ball next fall. And, leaving a huge hole in the middle of the MSU line. Fortunately there are interior tackles with plenty of experience still around and their own proven talents. Nick James raised his game in the second half of the season dramatically, and reduced the rotation snaps of veterans Nelson Adams and converted end Torrey Dale accordingly. They’re all back for fifth years and the presumed prime of their careers.
But what fans want to see now is more of the future. Cory Thomas and Braxton Hoyette got limited 2015 snaps befitting redshirt freshman status. This is when they begin positioning themselves for larger ’16 roles in the tackles rotation. But wait, there’s more here…as in more pounds being put on true freshmen Fletcher Adams and Kendell Jones.
It’s interesting that after a couple of years where most of the depth was on the ends, suddenly State is stacked three-deep in tackles even before the next recruiting class enrolls. So it might be something to watch for this month if any of the interior bodies are moved to outside slots as camp experiments. That’s what depth can do for a d-line.
LINEBACKERS: None are projected to turn pro. There was only one senior in the group, and Zach Jackson dropped off the squad just before Thanksgiving already. So what we see right now is also the linebacker corps of the immediate future.
Which does not imply this unit should be ignored during bowl camp. There are items of winter interest which can provide clues to spring intentions.
Let’s start with the, umm, starters. If middle linebacker Richie Brown (101 tackles, 12.0 for loss) and outside man Beniquez Brown (90, 9.0) get more than a few practice snaps these first few days, it will surely be to prevent any December rust. Or more likely, demonstrating to their still-developing backups and rotation ‘backers what needs working on.
Ri.Brown definitely has a pair to play professor to. Redshirt frosh Gerri Green ended up with 44 tackles as the backup mike-man, which earned him Freshman All-SEC from the league coaches. That’s still a lot of stops for anyone alternating with the team’s tackles leader and shows Green is on the right track going into his third year here.
But, there is competition pushing from behind in redshirted rookie Leo Lewis, too. The big name of the 2015 signing class, Lewis had grown to 240 pounds and was working at middle ‘backer in October. Does he stay there? That’s what bowl camp and spring ball are for.
Be.Brown’s pupils are a varied group. Though we can add rising senior DeAndre Ward as an instructor too, a proven backup in his own right. It’s rare to redshirt a junior college linebacker but depth in ’15 allowed Traver Jung to take the free fall and find his place. Weak-side seems to suit him just fine and he’ll have two whole seasons to work there and add to the current 225 pounds.
Jackson’s early exit pushed J.T. Gray into a starting job for the Egg Bowl and he garnered eight tackles as a result. None claim the true soph is anything like a finished product yet so this is an important winter for his accelerated development. It’s all the more important because after a terrible-luck sequence of knee injuries Dezmond Harris’ situation is uncertain. That opens the bowl camp door for redshirt Tim Washington presumably.
There’s another possibility, though it will more likely be spring before Mississippi State decides whether or not to move one of the bigger young safeties to linebacker. But then when the Dog defense did line up in a nickel package, Jamal Peters surely looked more like a linebacker than a safety. Just a thought.
SAFETIES: And, maybe a bad thought. Because even if he was not entirely comfortable out there against sophisticated SEC passing teams, Peters fit in well with fellow run-stopping safeties. Very well. Of course it always needs reminding that the mid-season loss of senior Kendrick Market was why young safeties were forced into coverage situations beyond their experience at all. They’ll know exactly what to work on now having seen it live.
Brandon Bryant is the best example of that. He was going to play in rotation already as a second-year freshman and thrived in run support with 57 tackles. That was fifth-most on the team, by the way. With seven starts on his resume surely he’ll be allowed to watch more than work in these upcoming early days of camp. When he does work, improving pass play recognition and reaction will be the priority.
All-season starter Kivon Coman is a fully-known factor by now, as is rising senior Deontay Evans.
So this is an excellent time to take Peters and classmate Mark McLaurin, both true freshmen, and apply hard-won lessons on the field in a more patient practice setting than the regular season schedule allows. At the same time the coaches can look at these second- and first-year safeties and consider moving them around…or up to linebacker? We only repeat this because it is a trademark of Mullen’s era, of course, and with success stories like Cam Lawrence and Matt Wells nobody can argue the results. It might take a look at spring signings though before there is enough projected depth to make moves.
CORNERBACKS: Depth here is an entirely different matter. There are bodies to be sure, with no lack of veterans. But as Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond bow-out, there must be serious concerns what Mississippi State really can count on to cover the corners. Evidence is already in, what with Redmond’s loss mid-season to a practice knee injury and the need to spell Calhoun. His alternate Tolando Cleveland (40 tackles, 2 interceptions) started the first two games in fact.
Judging cornerbacks is a risky business because most mental snapshots are of the burned ‘back chasing down a successful receiver. But enough of those were seen this fall to know coverage is inconsistent regardless of combo. That said… as a junior Cedric Jiles is still trying to make up for time lost to one minor and one serious injury. And Jamoral Graham is still making the transition from offense to defense, from catching passes to covering them.
So even if both are getting to late- or mid-career it is still too early to pronounce judgement. Meanwhile Chris Rayford is only a second-fall freshman with almost no ’15 snaps. This is a critical spring and winter to show he has the stuff to handle a SEC corner role, because attention is sure to turn to redshirts Maurice Smitherman and Chris Stamps.
It’s a strange sort of situation that considering the number of veterans there are so many uncertainties on both corners for 2016. Well, here’s another question: will bowl camp priority be on evaluations for the next season, or shoring up issues to play the Belk Bowl?