Horton Likes Early Look of Dog Defense

Sure, speed, strength, and size matter. Quickness and agility make a difference. But the way Brad Horton sees it, to be a good linebacker at Mississippi State requires one other attribute.<P> Vision. Covering all 360 degrees.

"I think you have to have four eyes, really," Horton says. "For all sides and back and front. We work every day on keeping our eyes on a swivel, so you can see everything sideline-to-sideline."

And until State starts issuing helmets with wrap-around radar, the sophomore plans to keep a close eye on everything that happens between the lines in 2004. Besides, Horton expects to enjoy the view much more this year. Not only has he been promoted to a starting job at weakside ‘backer, but he believes the move coincides with a resurgence of Bulldog defense.

At least that's the impression he has taken from the first two weeks of preseason camp. "Practices have been going good for us. We're working hard, just hoping to have a great season this year."

Horton is one key to an improved defensive unit this year, as well as a rising talent in the MSU system. Forced into duty as a true freshman last fall, the Columbus, Ga., native first took the field on special teams and eventually got substitute snaps at inside linebacker.

A productive spring session under a new regime pushed Horton's name to the top of the depth chart, where he is booked to open the season. "This year has changed a lot for me. Now I've got to play a bigger role for the team. I see myself playing a big role on defense and on special teams to help this team win."

He also now thinks the weakside is a winning move for his career. Horton began spring at #1 middle linebacker, then the last week moved outside so Marvin Byrdsong could take inside. No problem, he says, since Horton really doesn't see a lot of difference.

"Middle and weakside are basically the same. I have to cover more receivers but it's mostly the same. I like it. I figure it suits my personality. I played both middle and the same, it's different philosophies."

Horton oughtn't under-rate one difference, though, as pass coverage does stretch his job description. In camp he is concentrating on reading how flankers and slot men might come slanting into his territory, or running backs come floating out of the backfield. A short grab can turn into a long gainer if Horton isn't alert. "It demands speed and aggressiveness," he says. "You just have to be fast and work hard. You have to know what is going on out there."

Which is what coordinator Ellis Johnson and ‘backer coach Amos Jones stress every practice day. And not just on passing plays, an area of emphasis this second week of camp. Defense begins with the fundamental of stopping the running game, and State is no different. Jones wants Horton, playing on the side empty of a tight end, to be smart but also to make things happen.

"I've learned that linebacker is a very aggressive position," Horton said. "And you have to have your head up on every tackle. You have to have it on a swivel, too. You never know when there's going to be a crack-back or a lineman is going to come back down on you." Thus the four-eyes principle.

While he has held his #1 spot so far, Horton can't relax as State has a stockpile of comparable linebacking bodies practicing. And it's a young group overall made even greener with three talented rookies - Anthony Littlejohn, Gabe O'Neal, and Titus Brown - joining the roster. Horton doesn't mind being pushed by pups, since he's still a football-youth himself.

"The whole linebacker group is good," he says. "I think you should be three-deep at every position, competition is what it's all about."

Oh, and despite his first-team status, Horton is adamant about one thing. He wants to keep his rookie role on kicking plays. It's not added risk, he says; it's more time on the field where he belongs. "I love special teams. I figure you get more plays, and it's like playing both offense and defense. And you can stay out there!"

What Horton is really looking for is a developing defense that can keep Mississippi State in every game this season. After the collapse of 2003, when MSU ranked last in the league in yardage and points allowed, anything would be an improvement. But Horton wants more than progress, he want success.

"I love Coach Johnson's schemes, I figure they're going to shut down a lot of offensive teams this year," he says. "I'm telling folks to watch for us this year."

David Murray is the editor of Dawgs' Bite magazine and the featured writer for the Dawgs Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. You can contact him by email at dawgbite@ebicom.net.

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