Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

An Entirely Unofficial Outlook on Defense and Special Teams Positions

We continue a look at our entirely-unofficial Bulldog football depth chart, drawn from observations of the 2015 season, Belk Bowl camp, and 2016 spring practices and scrimmages. Since Mississippi State is not publishing such a beast here in summer, we gladly fill the void with rampant speculations and outright guesses!

Yesterday went over the offense. Today wraps it up with the defensive position units and specialists playing for an entirely-new defensive staff.

And as noted yesterday, we do not make projections on summer enrollees who’ve yet to wear practice gear. That, is your privilege.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE: Call it whatever one wishes. This is not your standard base even-front defense run by Bulldogs for a dozen years. But it isn’t your 1990s era 3-4 scheme, either. Surely somebody will come up with a snappy label along the way…if it works.

Early indications are encouraging in several ways. If nothing else, depth oughtn’t be a problem for a three-down front where the previous four-front might have stretched the linemen roster dangerously. It also ought ease replacing losses like Chris Jones and Ryan Brown.

Certainly sticking a now-svelte Nick James over the ball to pound centers with his 320 lbs is a winning plan. But nobody expects any nose tackle (or guard if you prefer this label) to play extended snaps, not effectively. So picking backups is of preseason interest.

Nelson Adams, also a tackle now over the ball, was the usual April #2. But there was a whole lot of shuffling guys in and out there for testing. Juco Tre Brown seemed to make a surge towards the end of spring and over summer added 19 pounds. So August competition for turns should be intense.

The only competition around A.J. Jefferson is which reporter gets his best quote that day. He’s a textbook defensive end in a four-front but did not object to moving closer inside in this odd-front. The Dog who seems to have benefitted most from a newish (State has had a three-front in the book for years and used it too) scheme is Torrey Dale. He never had the real breakout as a true end but in spring ball grabbed a first-team job in this set and kept it.

But can he hold off a couple of other quality veterans and some younger guys who should be ready to play now? It’s tough to imagine either Jonathan Calvin or Cory Thomas spending too much time sidelined. Both Grant Harris and Braxton Hoyette are third-fall sophomores with size, while redshirts Fletcher Adams and Kendell Jones look like ‘speed’ tackles. Adams by the way got some spring work at nose as well, possibly to have a quicker option on the inside. And after some spring legal issues Anfernee Mullins returns to the mix.

So, depth looks good. And the bodies definitely look good after a tough summer’s toning. Maybe the takeaway here is that a three-front brings one other factor to 2016: a depth chart is irrelevant as they’ll almost all play.

Our best guesses going into August, as after that all bets are off…

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: A.J. Jefferson, Jonathan Calvin, Grant Harris, Kendell Jones

NOSE TACKLE: Nick James, Nelson Adams, Tre Brown, Fletcher Adams

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Torrey Dale, Cory Thomas, Braxton Hoyette, Fletcher Adams

 

LINEBACKERS: Loaded.

A strong statement, and this by no means claims the group is all-around great. Not yet. But there are numbers, there is no lack of potential…and the new defensive coaching staff bring a system that suits their styles. Not just physically but emotionally, and that might matter more as after a season playing things cool and analytically the juice is back.

Now, about that system. Whether intended or just good timing, this staff brings an approach that should serve to get more of these players on the field in more combinations. But, without sacrificing defensive line strength. It’s called the ‘viper’ position and whether it is a linebacker- or defensive end-type playing it the position worked well in spring.

It certainly gives 250-pound Will Coleman larger opportunity than he’d have had playing end in a standard 4-3. Coleman fit in fast, able to take a hand-down stance at a quasi-end in spring for run plays or flanked out a couple of strides to rush passers.

But. Watch for Traver Jung to make his play here. Not as big as Coleman, the redshirted juco took to viper with flair and showed serious athleticism especially when covering tight ends. If more bulk is needed, redshirt Anfernee Mullins took snaps at viper as well in spring, though he seems better built for line play maybe.

No Dog is better equipped for middle linebacker than Richie Brown, who is finally getting some real preseason attention outside State circles. He misses namesake and classmate Beniquez Brown to be sure, but R.Brown is happy quarterbacking a defense that lets him play with both mind and emotion.

It’s hard not to wonder how on earth to get Gerri Green into more action than just as Brown’s backup at middle. It’s also hard to watch Green work and not think ‘K.J.’ at times. Wonder if there are any packages that could use a pair of vipers? And though it’s cliché, it’s still true: Kelan Chairs would be a starter in many a smaller program.

If he hadn’t suffered that series of disastrous knee injuries, Dezmond Harris would likely be starting here. For now we just can’t list him any higher than last at one outside spot, until he shows he’s recovered again. And all hope Harris finally gets the chance to show all the gifts that had teammates raving during his redshirt year.

Meanwhile summer word is J.T. Gray is establishing himself as a real leader in the weightroom and drills. He’s barely bigger, still under 200 pounds. But if there’s an heir to the 2014 mantle of Matt Wells, this is the guy. Which will make it very, very hard to dislodge Gray from the first team.

Leo Lewis had a low-key sort of spring, probably because focus was on the scheme and viper and such. But he also emerged #1 on one outside too and there’s no reason to think he can’t stay there as a redshirt freshman. Unless, that is, classmate Tim Washington develops at the same technical rate as he has physically. The lanky kid added 20 pounds in one year and can clearly carry more muscle.

Know what the real takeaway on this group is? There are only two seniors, Brown and DeAndre Ward. Linebacker will stay loaded.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: J.T. Gray, DeAndre Ward, Allen Perkins, Dezmond Harris

MIDDLE LINEBACKER: Richie Brown, Gerri Green, Kelan Chairs

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Leo Lewis, Tim Washington, Josiah Phillips

VIPER: Will Coleman, Trevor Jung, Anfernee Mullins

 

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Here we run the gamut from high expectations inside to large questions outside.

Starting inside, we can’t say safety is loaded, exactly. More like top heavy. But oh, what a top at each spot. There are certainly such units with more experience and recognition around the country. There might be some who are as athletic overall. But none have more physical gifts than this quartet and few have as much pure potential.

Exhibit A is BB. As in Brandon Bryant. It’s moot to argue he ought have moved into the lineup earlier last season, because once he did he wasn’t leaving. This is the next great Bulldog safety and one can only wonder what he’d have been doing in a JLD-type system. Oh, and he’s 10 pounds stouter this year.

Bryant is nominally listed at ‘strong’ safety though as we always, always say, the strong and free guys are supposed to interchange. That may be more true in ’16 than ever because, in spring at least, instead of having one safety up and another back both safeties were usually the same distance from the line. Maybe that changes once the new staff installs more of their scheme, but for now it does demand both safeties adapt on the fly.

And they can fly. It’s only because Bryant and those true-soph classmates are so athletic that senior Kivon Coman doesn’t get enough respect for his own abilities. Or his steady, maybe not spectacular but steady work in 13 starts at free. It’s not surprising he goes into August first-team there.

But he’s gotta work to hold that status.

It was hard at times to tell exactly who rotated with who in spring ball. Generally, if not officially, Mark McLaurin followed Coman and Jamal Peters followed Bryant. That probably means nothing once the pads go on next month so stay tuned, because both true sophs aren’t content to back up anyone now.

McLaurin was ahead of Peters in technical terms as a freshman. That may still hold true as both learn a newer system. There were days, though, where Peters was used more as a fourth or fifth linebacker type and turned loose. A couple of young quarterbacks paid the price. By the way, both second-fall kids have added pounds and look like linebackers…with safety moves.

So safety is securely two-deep. We do have to consider beyond that a bit because these guys are special teams regulars too, and guys get dinged as Dan Mullen calls it. We can’t blame free safety Deontay Evans for seeing reality and leaving for a smaller program so he can play as a senior.

So that leaves freshman C.J. Morgan and walk-ons Hayes Walker and Zac Neary as the summer reserves. And while we hesitate to project incoming freshmen until they line up somewhere, this seems to present July qualifier Cameron Dantzler an early opportunity to make an impression. Or maybe one of the redshirted cornerbacks moves to safety?

There certainly is no lack of numbers on both corners going into camp. That’s not a question. What is, is who can not only win starting jobs but improve man coverage from 2015? We’ll never know how November would have played out with a healthy Will Redmond, for sure.

His injury did give Tolando Cleveland a lot more starting experience than planned. He was the top tackling cornerback but also didn’t have an interception, so reviews remain mixed on whether he is a top-tier SEC corner. Then again the same can be said for the entire corps as of today. And the season doesn’t start today.

This is a particularly iffy depth chart anyway because new corners coach Terrell Buckley practiced everyone on both sides, repeatedly and in rotations. So take it for what it is allllll worth. The pecking order is based more on who took what turns when more than with what team.

Tenure also gives Cedric Jiles a presumed edge going into preseason. Hopefully he’s put all the injuries behind for good, has a healthy senior season, and plays up to potential. But he’s got increasing pressure as converted receiver Jamoral Graham gets increasingly confident playing defense where he always belonged.

Plus, State stuck by Lashard Durr during his academic detour for good reason. He’s likely the guy with the best chance of moving up to one of the starting jobs as he makes up for lost time. He and Graham have also bulked it up significantly, by the way.

So where does this put the redshirts? Well, Maurice Smitherman got to practice plenty in spring and seemed comfortable as a cornerback. Chris Stamps was mostly sidelined with injury, getting a few non-contact snaps. Now we get to see what the two can do since redshirting is over and real competition begins. It’s a more critical year for Chris Rayford if he’s not to get lost in the shuffles, or maybe moved over.

As to newcomers? Feel free to project away. I’ll wait until the kids pull on practice gear.

SAFETY: Brandon Bryant, Jamal Peters, C.J. Morgan, Hayes Walker

SAFETY: Kivon Coman, Mark McLaurin, Zac Neary

LEFT CORNERBACK: Tolando Cleveland, Lashard Durr, Chris Stamps, Brandon Davis

RIGHT CORNERBACK: Cedric Jiles, Jamoral Graham, Maurice Smitherman, Chris Rayford

 

SPECIALISTS and RETURNERS: Fred Ross is a proven producer on punts and this is another way to get him the ball in (hopefully) open field. Fred Brown got some spring turns but obviously isn’t a factor now. Gabe Myles certainly is, Donald Gray should get a shot…but everyone wants to see Malik Dear fielding punts and making moves.

Dear is definitely contending to catch kickoffs, ending spring in the first pair with Brandon Holloway. Behind them were Keith Mixon/Lashard Durr, then Myles/Deddrick Thomas. And of course Ross has to be looked at, though one wants to also consider cumulative wear-and-tear on the team’s top offensive threat.

Oh, and kickers? Well, every year there’s the usual influx of touted walk-ons with big legs and bigger rumors. Then, proven performers emerge as the guys. So no, I don’t expect anyone to knock Logan Cooke and Westin Graves aside.


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