In 2015, the Mississippi State numbers were largely mediocre. The Bulldogs' "bend, but don't break philosophy" was especially tough in the red zone early on, but opponents were able to amass some considerable yardage between the 20s.
Manny Diaz' unit was 36th nationally in scoring defense, but just 56th overall in total defense. The pass defense proved to be especially leaky at inopportune times allowing big plays against elite offensive units.
Once Diaz departed for Miami to join Coach Mark Richt's staff, Mullen elected to hire former NFL linebacker Peter Sirmon.
Sirmon brings a different presence to the Mississippi State defensive staff, one with an immediate sense of credibility due to an outstanding college career and several years as a professional linebacker with the Tennessee Titans.
With four new defensive coaches in place, Mississippi State went about the business of spring with a new defensive alignment, the 3-4 and a completely new way of doing things on the defensive side of the football.
Now that fall camp is over and the Bulldogs have had the chance to become familiar with the new terminology and new assignments, it is time for the Bulldogs to have their first real test as a defensive unit.
“I’m excited to get out there with the guys. It’s an opportunity," Sirmon said. "You’re always talking about practice and scrimmages but now it’s for real, we’re going against somebody we’re not familiar with. With practices and scrimmages you see types of familiarity, it leads to some comfort and guys feel comfortable going against our own players because they know the match-ups.”
“Now it’s really having confidence in yourself and really believing in then technique and the call, and going out there and executing. So I’m excited to see what these guys are going to do.”
A Bulldog fan favorite, Gerri Green, is expected to play a big role in the Sirmon defensive strategy. Green, a native of Greenville, Mississippi, is expected to line up in a variety of spots this fall.
"The viper position is going pretty good so far, it's had its' ups downs," Green shared. "I feel like as camp went on I got more comfortable with it. It's something that I am going to keep adjusting to during the season. Going back and forth from there to the inside has been a smooth transition."
Green and the Bulldogs managed to force just 14 turnovers last season, which was among the lowest in the SEC. The Bulldogs were 92nd nationally in turnover margin. The talented linebacker reports that getting the ball back is a point of emphasis this season.
"This fall we created a lot of turnovers," Green said. "That gives us a lot of confidence going into the season. We're just looking forward to getting back, getting the ball and just having that juice, I feel like we can create a lot of turnovers this year.
"(Coach Sirmon) has us playing more aggressive. He tells you that everybody can make a play on the ball. Just don't try to do your job, but try to do a little bit more. If you have a chance to go and make a play, then go make the play."
The 3-4 alignment allows Mississippi State to showcase perhaps its' most talented personnel group, linebackers. The Bulldogs return some talented veterans such as Richie Brown, J.T. Gray and Green, but a talented crop of first year linebackers led by Leo Lewis, Traver Jung and Tim Washington are expected to contribute.
"Looking back on it, I am glad I was able to redshirt," Washington said. "I have a lot more knowledge now. I think I speak for Leo and Traver too, when I say it's going to be a great thing that we have more years together.
"I feel like last year made us all closer. We worked hard together last year and we learned how intense the college game is. There are a lot more plays in college than in high school and that takes some getting used to. We all have the same fire and we're ready to do our part."
To a man, the Mississippi State defenders are very open about their excitement when it comes to the playing calling and overall defensive game plan that Sirmon and his staff have put together for the fall. Washington believes that Bulldog fans will be pleased by what they see on the field this season.
"It was sort of complicated at first," Washington said. "Once we learned everything and learned the new defense, it was fun. Everybody was just running around and making plays. Through it all, we have shown some strengths and some weaknesses. I feel like our strengths out number our weaknesses now.
"As we go farther, we are going to bond more as a unit. We are our brother's keeper and I believe we're going to have one of the best defenses in the SEC."
The Bulldogs will open the 2016 campaign at 11 AM this Saturday at home against South Alabama. Mississippi State is 2-0 All-Time against the Jaguars and enter the game as a 30 point plus favorite according to most odds makers.