Sound advice, from a Mississippi State man who has participated in the madness that is Tiger Stadium on a SEC Saturday. Who has walked off the field a winner, too.
Now Jefferson and this 2016 squad-mates return to Baton Rouge for the annual rematch. Years pass and teams change, yet defensive tackle Jefferson knows this is a rematch-up which doesn’t change.
And he likes it. “Straight up-and-down, north-south football,” Jefferson said.
“Any defensive lineman loves things like this. Because at the end of the day it’s just about winning your one-on-one matchup. It’s hard to say that for secondary people, but for us every play we’ve got someone in front of us and we’re going to get hit every play. So just strap up a little tighter and bite on the mouthpiece a little harder and just go get it.”
No Bulldog is better these days at going-and-getting than Jefferson. Two games into his senior season and he’s already collected 3.0 sacks and six total tackles for loss. For perspective, half his stops have been made the other side of the scrimmage line.
It makes him the league’s early-season leader in TFLs, and earned SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week after battering South Carolina. Jefferson isn’t shy about enjoying recognition.
“Of course it registers. Just work hard and your work won’t go unnoticed. It feels good to know its starting to pay off.”
The best pay-off would be scoring another success at LSU, as they did in 2014. Veteran Dogs enjoyed that one greatly, just as greatly as they were frustrated last September when the Tigers held on for a two-point revenge win on Scott Field. Jefferson can still re-play much of that night in his mind, no video needed.
“They jumped out on us early. We responded pretty good at the halftime and it came down to a missed field goal at the end. All that I think motivates people because that just leaves a bad taste in the mouth. You want to go out there again to get it out of your mouth.”
Of course nothing better be in a Dog’s mouth by game-time other than the protective mouthpiece. Jefferson isn’t joking about strapping-up and biting-down, not after three meetings with Tiger teams himself.
Specifically, his own meetings with a certain Leonard Fournette. Yes, Jefferson said, he has taken on the touted Tiger back one-on-one before. It’s an experience.
“The guy is big, he can run. I can only imagine being a 190-pound defensive back trying to tackle him in the open field! You just have to throw yourself into him and bring your all. He’s a great, strong back so I’m going to have to throw my all into him, too, every time I hit him.”
There are questions about Fournette’s health of course. Such talk doesn’t change any game-planning per Jefferson.
“I mean they want to run the ball. They didn’t have Leonard Fournette last week and they still had a couple of guys that toted the ball pretty good, they had a bunch of good runs. So they want to run the football. So until we stop them running the football that’s what they are going to do.”
Statistically so far State has been solid against ground games. But the 2.1 yards per carry allowed have been against struggling rushing opponents by any measure, and even then some ground-gainers were broken in conversion situations.
Still giving up just 34 net-rushing yards to South Carolina, aided by four sacks’ worth of losses, showed State’s defensive potential against one SEC offense. Plus, Jefferson said, it washed-away some—some—of the lingering opening game bitterness. He credits Coach Dan Mullen’s cranking up practice intensity to new levels for changing attitudes all around.
“It shouldn’t have took Coach Mullen doing what he had to do, but I’m glad he did it. Because just letting the young guys know we should do it all the time. He challenged the leaders on the team and we stepped up to the plate. And we just have to keep it going.”
The defensive front goes into week-three with two more proven performers, both nose-men. Nick James was already a known quantity of course. Now welcome true freshman Jeffrey Simmons to the rotation. And what a welcome, Jefferson pointed out.
“Jeffery, (his) first play of the game and a tackle for a loss. And it wasn’t a matter of is he going to do it, I was waiting on what play? Just put him in the game Coach and let him play. Because since he got here the kid is one of the strongest on the defensive line.”
Simmons arrived with strong expectations and practiced that way during camp. Now the whole SEC is seeing it live. So are elders NT Nelson Adams and James, for that matter.
“Better up your game, because I’m coming for you,” Jefferson said. “Nobody wants to lose their spot to a freshman.”
And no Bulldog needs to lose their head in the center of Saturday’s storm. This is where a cool cat like old Dog Jefferson can set an off-field tone. Mullen orders the new and younger players to attach themselves to elders, especially ahead of this first SEC road trip and most of all to this particular venue.
“A couple of young guys hang out with me Friday nights in the hotel and ask what it’s going to be like. I tell them it’s going to be a crazy game, a dogfight, a fistfight. Just four quarters of all-out. Let them know when I’m on the field I give my all. I just ask the same in return.”
Then again, should Jefferson really have to ask any Bulldog to go all-out in any matchup with LSU? If anyone needs reminding, maybe they need a pulse check or something. Because this is the real thing, real football, and nobody enjoys it more than A.J. Jefferson.
“Just going down there playing four quarters, really hammering them on the run first and second down and making them throw the football. Getting the young guys to understand yes, Death Valley is a hard place to play. 100,000 people screaming, yelling. That’s what you come to the SEC for.”