Mississippi State’s cornerback intends, so he says, to unwind this weekend by scouting out Auburn. “Because it’s a big-time SEC game. We need this one.”
The Bulldogs definitely do need to re-start their season with a SEC victory. Such urgency is obvious going into the middle of the schedule, where bowl eligibility could well be settled.
At the same time, Coach Dan Mullen has given the squad a few days to take breaks after taking stock for three practices. The latter included formal introduction of an Auburn gameplan. Though, per Graham, informal preparations began in summer.
“We’ve been studying all these teams before the season started. We’re just trying to practice and go through the progressions. We’ve been watching them a little bit and we’ve been trying to study them. I’ve been looking.”
For his part Graham is looking pretty good these days. Returning an interception for touchdown is a great way to polish the image. It was also a pivotal point in Mississippi State’s win at Massachusetts to make open date happier.
Days later, Graham still is a bit surprised that third quarter pass came his way. Almost as if aimed at the cornerback rather than any receiver.
“I guess the quarterback didn’t see me. I was chilling in coverage, he threw it up and I just made a play on the ball.”
What came after was even better as Graham started back the other way. But he had to alter course for linebacker Richie Brown, and did so impressively.
“Everybody keeps talking about the spin move. And I don’t know why!” Graham said. “But after I caught it, it happened so fast. Yeah, I turned around and I had open field. I figured why not run, you know?”
Why not indeed? Running into the end zone behind a Brandon Bryant block gave the Bulldog defense its first points of 2016. For Graham, it was his first interception…though not his first touchdown. He’d scored in 2014 in his previous life as a receiver/returner. This one was more fun.
“Everybody was hyped, my first pick. Coach Mullen was excited, the fans were excited. And for myself it felt great.”
The pick and six also showed Graham’s progress as a second-season cornerback. It hasn’t been a smooth transition from pass-catcher to pass-picker. For all his obvious athleticism, the finer points of college coverage aren’t as natural. And as his position coach Terrell Buckley reminds, when cornerbacks make mistakes the next play is usually a PAT.
Progress has been made. “I know a lot of splits, and speed-wise,” Graham said. “When I can work my technique, when I can use my hands, stuff like that.” Stuff that the true junior feels comfortable enough about that, he says, there’s not much he needed to focus on during open date drills.
“You know what, I don’t think I have many things to work on. Just stay behind my team and listen. Just play ball, man, do what I’m coached, ball behind my teammates, be a leader. And I should be fine.”
Hopefully so. The cornerback corps hasn’t been truly fine over the first month. Pre-season injuries to veterans Cedric Jiles and Tolando Cleveland took most of the SEC and all the starting experience. The encouraging word is Jiles is expected to return from his August broken arm in time for Auburn.
“Getting Ced back, we get another leader, another mouth, another senior. And we need him. We’re kind of down right now. We all can play but Ced is going to be a big help.” Cleveland’s knee injury has him out all year.
Graham, Lashard Durr, and converted safety Jamal Peters have carried the corps up to now. “Everything is good,” Graham said. “We’re working and trying to better ourselves.” Because, better will be needed and soon.
Auburn brings its typical multi-faceted offense to Scott Field next week, with all the usual ‘eye candy’ installed specifically to trick linebackers and defensive backs. Even cornerbacks, who ought know to stay on their man, can and do bite.
State’s secondary had some bitter moments from UMass, with a couple of outstanding Minuteman catches in the end zone—both at Durr’s expense—and a 83-yard touchdown run where no safety or corner was positioned to support. It wasn’t fun. It was a lesson.
Even, claims Graham, “It was really encouraging. It just helped me as a player because you can’t take nobody for granted. No game is easy. We have to go out there and play our game.”
A game the Bulldogs know they need. So, instead of tuning-out for a weekend, Graham will tune-in.
“Chill, get in the playbook, get ready for the game.”