“My last game was in the bowl game in Charlotte, ten years ago ironically.”
Yes, it was in 2005 that Diaz concluded the sixth and last of his seasons with Wolfpack football. Since then he has worked for four other Southern programs, and now is back at one of them as Bulldog defensive coordinator.
But a college coach never, ever forgets that first full-time job. In a couple of weeks Diaz will return to Charlotte to coach against his former employer on December 30. A couple of his former N.C. State players are even on the current Wolfpack staff, in fact.
“The first thing I thought about was some of the guys there.” The second thing? “It’s going to be a very pro-Wolfpack crowd so you know it’s going to be a challenge.”
Even on a truly neutral field this would still set up as a scheming and execution challenge for Mississippi State’s defense. Though he spent most of last week on the recruiting road Diaz did find time for some initial scouting. What he’s seen from the Wolfpack offense?
“Definitely a different challenge than anything we’ve had so far this season. On every play there’s some sort of shifting, a lot of movement, a lot of distractions. And it changes week to week.” That might not matter quite as much at this point with a dozen games to break down. Some trends are bound to surface.
But as to the skill personnel, the constant is change. Running backs become receivers, ends—both split and tight—turn into backs. And, “Everybody lines up everywhere. So you have to be very sound in your rules, understand the structure of your defense.” Plus, Diaz noted, thanks to a potent attack the N.C. State defense played the seventh-fewest snaps of any unit in the country.
So the Wolfpack defense should certainly be fresh for any bowl game. The Bulldogs? It wasn’t so much the total snaps they faced, but that opponents averaged nearly 10 more minutes with the ball. That was a lot, a lot of time to be on the field under any circumstances. By November the strains showed, as did injuries in the secondary taking two senior starters out of the lineup.
“Being banged-up seemed to catch us down the stretch,” Diaz said. “So a chance to have some guys feeling better about their bodies is a big plus.” Though for the Belk Bowl, Diaz has to do without steady senior defensive end Ryan Brown, too.
The Bulldog defense has to ramp it back up from their fall exams break quickly, too. Because, Diaz said, “Bowl games are usually decided by conditioning and tackling.” That’s the nature of a ‘one off’ type game anyway, and more so against a tempo offense like State is seeing in Charlotte.
Snapshot reviews of the Bulldog defense this year are mixed for sure. And it’s inevitable that the most recent impressions stand out. Diaz still believes Mississippi State had “a pretty good season defensively.” But not as good as it could have been with the number of veterans at the top of the depth charts.
Then again that is a key. Where the 2014 defense had lots of seasoned alternates, this fall’s depth came from the redshirt freshman and true freshman class with a handful of jucos. In retrospect, “I don’t think those guys were ready for the roles asked of them.”
At the same time Diaz is high on all those classes for the immediate future. Certainly a number of underclassmen were forced into more snaps than intended and by now the defensive staff knows what they have—or don’t have—in them. December and February recruiting will reflect those evaluations.
Then there is the cross-purposes nature of bowl camp itself. Is Diaz preparing to play a bowl, developing for spring ball, grading the redshirts’ progress?
“All the above. You have some time so you’re trying to serve many masters,” Diaz said. “To be honest in some instances we were coaching next year’s team this year with some injuries we had on the back end. There are things with the older guys we still want to improve on.”
And, Diaz insists, this is the 2015 defense’s chance to do their own final improving and go out with a good bowl show.
“As a coach you still think your best performance is still out there. And I really do for this defense, that there’s one more performance than any we’ve shown to this point.”