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Defensive Skill Positions

Our really, really early look at Mississippi State spring football concludes with today’s Part IV, the defensive skill positions as they appear to line-up based on where Dogs either played or practiced during the 2015 season and Belk Bowl camp.

At each position the departing Dogs are listed first with their 2015 starts; then the returning personnel with their 2016 class and number of starts last fall.

LINEBACKERS: Beniquez Brown 13 starts, Zach Jackson 8 starts

Returning: SR Richie Brown 13 starts MLB, JR J.T. Gray, SO Gerri Green 1 start OLB, SR DeAndre Ward, rsJR Traver Jung, rsFR Leo Lewis, rsFR Tim Washington, SO Josiah Phillips, JR Kelan Chairs

Injured: SR Dezmond Harris

Whether it was a wise decision or not, Beniquez Brown made his choice and will take his chances with the NFL draft now. It can certainly be argued that another college season would not have done much to raise his stock and might have even hurt it given the nature of draft scouting.

What isn’t arguable is, this is a loss to the Bulldog defense. Not crippling by any means, maybe not even one that can’t be overcome as other linebackers continue to cycle through the system. Still it does make new coach/coordinator Peter Sirmon’s first Mississippi State spring more challenging with the need to replace a 200-career-tackles performer and 28-game starter.

It also needs noting that Brown’s own backup is also missing. Has there been a Bulldog with worse injury luck in recent years than Dezmond Harris? Two college knee injuries on top of a high school setback leave his career obviously in question, and the outside linebacker depth chart that much thinner.

So…next Dog up!

And the reality is Sirmon and State have some interesting alternatives for the out-side, if indeed the new coordinator sticks to the three-linebacker philosophy State has been using forever. Will it really shock anyone too much if a different scheme is tested in spring, even some personnel moved around (which is a way of saying, another safety turned into a linebacker)?

What is certain is that Sirmon can count on leading tackler Richie Brown (109 stops as a junior, 6.5 sacks) to anchor any scheme and organize everyone. Yeah, he’ll miss his spiritual brother Beniquez, who himself was a coach-on-field type. This Brown will be an ideal intermediary for coach and corps.

Up to now Brown has been pushed at mike-backer. Then came the Belk Bowl and a shift for Gerri Green. With senior Zach Jackson dropping off the team in late November, Green started on the strong-side. 4.0 tackles and an interception made it look awfully smart, too. Maybe it was just a matchup with North Carolina State.

Maybe it was a look at the future with a tall, stout linebacker on the outside as almost another defensive end. Or, equally, a comment on the future being projected for redshirted freshman Leo Lewis, who was plugged in as a middle-linebacker from his first days on campus. It just wouldn’t make sense to have all those three stacked-up at one position, would it?

Besides, departure and injuries have depleted both out-sides a bit, so shuffling one of the middles makes scrimmage depth chart sense too. In bowl camp redshirt Tim Washington was performing well at weak-side, showing why some believe he was one of the most under-rated recruits in the ’15 signing class.

This could be a really competitive spring on the strong-side even if nobody moves. Green was started ahead of true junior J.T. Gray, remember. Yet all Gray did in the bowl game was record nine tackles with a sack, giving him 65 stops for the season. Trying to force him to be the next Matt Wells in ’15 was asking too much…but for ’16 the older, more experienced Gray might be ready to take that big step-up.

Now, what to do with Traver Jung, other than play him early and often of course. We really mean, where. He’s bigger and taller than Gray, and smaller than Be.Brown. In bowl camp he practiced strong-side mostly with the second team but surely looked like a guy with first-squad potential. The mix-and-match potential in these linebackers has got to tantalize their coach…and we haven’t even gotten to former quarterback Josiah Phillips who looks like a fine outside ‘backer, or scout team star middle-man Kelan Chairs.

Brown will be missed. That doesn’t mean Bulldog linebackers should miss any tricks in 2016 once Sirmon figures out who he likes best to play where.


SAFETIES: Kendrick Market 5 starts

Returning: SR Kivon Coman 13 starts, SO Brandon Bryant 9 starts, SO Jamal Peters 2 starts, SR Deontay Evans 1 start, SO Mark McLaurin

No, we don’t know in-advance if any of these safeties will get moved up to linebacker. Even after watching frequent late-season use of a three-safety set with one of the young hot-shots practically playing linebacker can’t be called a clue, because the whole defense is now under new management.

And, the safeties have a new coach of their own. It’s good timing for Maurice Linguest, very good. Because while the numbers can still stand some recruiting additions for depth, the new guy has some of the finest all-around athletes on the roster to work with at the top of his charts. In fact, and with no disrespect meant to a tough, smart Kendrick Market, the unit’s overall athletic ‘average’ is now higher for 2016.

In fact that average jumped mid-season with Brandon Bryant’s move into the starting lineup. He finished with 63 tackles, fourth most on the squad despite playing not much more than 50% of snaps…if that. Three interceptions also resulted and all his catches looked better than many a SEC receiver. So, Bryant can clearly make big plays.

Can he make them consistently is the second-spring question. More directly, Bryant still isn’t entirely comfortable in more technical coverage situations or the stay/go reaction in run support. When it looked as if Deshea Townsend was going to move over to safeties, the thought occurred Bryant and others would benefit from some cornerback-type instruction. Maybe that will still happen.

All-season starter Kivon Coman came in ahead in tackles at 76 with seven break-ups and a pick of his own. ‘Solid’ is the word for it and there’s no reason the senior won’t begin spring #1 still. Staying there depends on holding off more-gifted true sophomores.

Or, a nickel set as often seen last season with Jamal Peters the third safety and classmate Mark McLaurin in rotation. That’s to-be-seen in how new coordinator Sirmon and Townsend opt to organize the secondary.

Peters was Coman’s bowl camp backup while McLaurin worked behind rising senior Deontay Evans. These true sophs are the better athletes of the quartet, and bigger to boot with frames that look more like linebacker types. But, with safety speed, by which we mean both strong and free styles. That too is something that may or may not fit in the new coaching arrangement and another spring item to look for.

What everyone really will look for and certainly hopes to see is some combination of Bryant, Peters, and McLaurin emerging as the regular safety trio. It will take beating out a reliable performer of course, which would signal the unit can be much more efficient in 2016.


CORNERBACKS: Taveze Calhoun 11 starts, Will Redmond 7 starts

Returning: SR Tolando Cleveland 10 starts, SR Cedric Jiles, JR Jamoral Graham, SO Chris Rayford, SR Brandon Davis, rsFR Maurice Smitherman, rsFR Chris Stamps

There are two ways of looking at this unit. One is despite the loss of two starters there is enough experience still to draw from and for natural promotions. The other way? That too much of that experience was not positive and everything is entirely open for spring scrambling.

We’ll tend towards the second viewpoint, not least because even if returning cornerbacks were more proven they are still under new management. Terrell Buckley walks into a situation where he ought have a free hand to do as he sees best, starting immediately.

He will regret not having Taveze Calhoun around, the surest tackler in the secondary and probably the entire team in 2015. Or that Will Redmond is headed for the NFL he himself left not all that long ago.

What matters is the material at hand, and while there is lots of game video to evaluate in pre-spring too much is not exactly positive. Hopefully Buckley sees it as an opportunity to improve everyone in everything?

Under Manny Diaz and Deshea Townsend, State went to more of a right and left corners theme. Spring will show if Buckley and Sirmon stay that way or shift back to ‘field’ and ‘boundary’ approach.

Statistically, it was a productive year for Tolando Cleveland with 43 tackles and three break-ups. Of course that also means the ball came his way a whole lot, signaling which corner opponents preferred to attack. Thing is, at times Cleveland seemed playing more like a safety as he has a knack for the corner-blitz and supports well against run plays. His goal is upgrading pure coverage skills now to keep top-spot on the depth chart.

Calhoun’s left side is open of course. The usual rotation-corner was Cedric Jiles, now a senior and finally—it looks like—at 100% health. Multiple career injuries have certainly interrupted development and left Jiles not entirely certain in coverages; maybe shifting schemes were a factor as well? Either way, this is his spring to stake a claim.

It’s strange but true that observers will always look at career-corners’ weak points while giving converted athletes complete leeway. That’s been the case with one-year wideout Jamoral Graham for sure, as everyone loves his obvious athletic ability. Time for slack-cutting is over though, and after two seasons on defense now Graham ought be ready to make his move to front of the line. Or corner, rather.

The pressure is maybe more on soph Chris Rayford, who has some size State has wanted on a corner. He got enough varsity snaps in relief work and knows what to work on now that opportunity beckons. But he and other mid-career cornerbacks will likely be looking over their shoulder pads in camp.

Redshirted frosh Maurice Smitherman and Chris Stamps are now free to contend. Smitherman was third-team in the bowl camp rotation and while short by college standards spend the first fall putting on some pounds. That should help in run-support, and he was signed for coverage speed.

Stamps was set-back by an unreported injury, watching bowl camp in a red jersey and not participating. He looks the part more, a lanky sort of build and good reach that would be handy with downfield routes. He is supposed to be healthy by March.

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