Bulldog fans, welcome the FPA defensive scheme. “Fast, physical, and aggressive,” as the new Mississippi State defensive coordinator said during his first campus press meeting.
“I’ve always said our identity is going to be fast, physical, and aggressive. That’s how we’re going to approach everything we do.”
Not plan, try, hope. Do. It’s a long way to opening weekend and first proof of progress. But if 2017 attitude counts for anything at all the Bulldog defense is supposed to do what it couldn’t in 2016.
Attitude is something Grantham brings in great big bunches. That, and a resume. Whether directing defenses at the college or NFL levels for 21 seasons combined, Grantham’s players have brought attitude to the field. His best defenses had no lack of aptitude, either.
Aptitude, at least historically, is one reason why Grantham has left Louisville and returned to the Southeastern Conference. He spent four seasons running Georgia’s defense before three years in the ACC. During his stint with the other SEC Dogs, he was on the other sideline when Mississippi State beat Georgia 24-12 in Dan Mullen’s second season. The score was flipped a year later in Athens.
Still Grantham has some experience with Mississippi State players and Dog defenders.
“This program has won. They’ve had a history of having good defensive players here. If you look at the past few years here we have a lot of NFL draftable guys. We have had good players here. We want to get back to that.”
We, already. Of course coaches are accustomed to changing identity as easily as address. Grantham likely has a moving company on speed-dial somewhere. At the same time Mississippi State presents opportunity not just to get back in the SEC, but settle in for a spell.
“As I got involved in the process and as around Coach Mullen and his wife a little bit more, there was a natural fit. There was a lot of comfort with what he wanted from his defense and what I was looking for. It was a match that I felt was right.”
Grantham actually was ‘scouting’ State before Mullen approached, or even before the job officially became open with Peter Sirmon’s exit after one season. Ironically enough Sirmon landed at Louisville, though this was no ‘trading places’ by any stretch of imagination.
But by any reasonable measurement, Mississippi State would get the better of such a swap. It showed instantly with recruiting results too, as Grantham’s name and presence helped reassure some late-process prospects. The new coordinator dove into recruiting immediately.
Now he delves deeper into preparing for his first spring camp. “It’s a new day for everybody,” Grantham proclaims. “Whether you had a great year last year or not as good as you wanted, you’re really all on the same track.”
Every new coordinator/coach will say such things. Grantham means it. No Dog defender is getting extra credits for 2016 or older results; nor any demerits. Though, Grantham is doing an objective analysis of personnel right now. The graduate assistant staff has been charged with providing 25-to-30 snap cut-ups of everyone.
“To give me a summary or idea of where they are or their abilities,” Grantham said. “That doesn’t necessarily define the player but it gives you a starting point.”
And speaking of starting point, Grantham warns team and observers alike: don’t read much of anything into lineups and depth charts and rotations during public scrimmaging. Everybody has to begin working somewhere.
Many, maybe most will end up elsewhere. Or several elsewhere?
“Some guys are going to have to play more than one position. Some guys are going to have to move from the position they are in right now. So the big thing I’ve told them is don’t worry about where you’re playing or worry about your position on the depth chart. Just make plays.”
And then? “If they make plays, we’ll find a way to get them on the field.” Which gets back to the FPA scheme.
Grantham is flexible on personnel and positions. He’s firm on philosophy though.
“The objectives that we have are we have to prevent points and force turnovers. We want to be hard to score on, and create turnovers and get the ball back to the offense. And,” Grantham added, “There’s nothing that says you can’t score if you get the ball.” Which his defenses have always done, by the way, turning turnovers into points.
“The number-one thing is we have to stop the run. We can’t let people run the ball on us. If they can’t run the ball on you that creates an advantage in the sense they become one-dimensional. Once that occurs then you have to find a way to affect the quarterback. In other words, find a way to make the quarterback play badly.”
In even other words, Grantham said the idea is to make the offense go ‘left-handed’. Which has nothing to do with which paw the passer, or runner or whatever prefers. Grantham compares it to making a point guard dribble with his weaker hand; i.e. taking an offense out of its comfort zone and giving his defense an edge to exploit.
The formula for discomfiting an offense? “Your front guys have to be physical,” for beginners. “You have to have size, inside particularly.” Grantham likes a one-gap scheme that emphasizes penetration and creates negative yardage plays on running backs. Then comes getting to that quarterback.
Which, Grantham said, “Isn’t always about sacks.” Just pushing the pocket around is one way. “And get legal hits, because quarterbacks don’t like it when they are uncomfortable in the pocket.”
“Linebackers have to be able to run and hit, in our scheme linebackers are also going to be blitzers.” That will resonate with frustrated State fans for sure. This is no banzai Bulldog approach to be sure. Everything is schemed more than scrabbled.
“We want guys that can run and hit and are sure tacklers,” he said, touching another ’16 sore point. “We want them to have a nose for the ball and the ability to affect the quarterback.”
Which naturally puts more responsibility on the secondary to hold their own. “Safeties are the guys that we put into space, so they have to be good tacklers. You have to be a guy that can pattern-match, we are a pattern-match zone defense. That means we are playing zone but based upon route distribution, we’re going to match it.”
If State safeties can handle this, they should get their hands on a lot of balls Grantham projects. As for the cornerbacks, they “are going to have to be guys that can play physical, can press and challenge the outside throws and make plays on balls thrown downfield.”
The trick to reading all-the-above is not trying to put any template over the returning, or redshirted or recruited, personnel and forcing them into positions. It truly is a fresh start all around.
“We’re just giving them a starting point. Obviously that will change throughout the course of the summer and fall.” Get that? Even during the season itself, Grantham will be evaluating and adjusting individuals and combinations as he judges best.
Though, he reminds, there is no magic wand to installing a new defense. It’s always about preparation and practicing and the word fans hate most, execution. Of course if the 2017 Dog defense becomes a bunch of killers on the field, fans will learn to love the E-word, too.
“It wasn’t that long ago Coach Mullen and this staff were #1 in the country,” Grantham reminds. “This program has been built by him and has had a lot of success. And I fully expect for us to work to reestablish that identity and get us back to where everybody wants to be.”