Ellis Johnson: MSU Defensive Coordinator

Ellis Johnson knows all about tough decisions.<P> Whether it concerns the depth chart or stopping a 3rd and short play, the first-year Mississippi State defensive coordinator has been there on numerous occasions.<P> But one of his toughest, especially from a personal standpoint, was the decision to move with his family to Starkville.

Johnson was fulfilling dreams in the state of South Carolina, coaching at his alma mater, The Citadel. He and his wife, Caroline, were raising three small children around the luxury of grandparents.

Not to mention leading The Citadel to its best record (6-6) in six years.

"It was my alma mater and home for me and my wife," said Johnson. "We were around a lot of family and had small children. So the personal side of it was probably tougher than the professional side of it. But we had put in a lot of hard work (at The Citadel) and I thought the program was on solid ground."

But when head coach Sylvester Croom made the call, Johnson decided to return to the Southeastern Conference. It was a league where he enjoyed much success as a defensive coach at Alabama, including four years as defensive coordinator.

"It was really a tough decision to give up a head coaching position and go back (to coordinator)," said Johnson. "But one of the big factors is that Coach Croom was involved with it. Plus, I already knew some of the guys that he was trying to assemble as a staff.

"Being back in the SEC as a coordinator, which I think is the premier conference year-in and year-out, is great. It was a professional opportunity that I thought was an exciting situation."

During his first tour of duty in Tuscaloosa, Johnson was a part of the 1992 national championship team. As a linebackers coach, Johnson helped coach a defense that finished first nationally against the run and total defense.

Johnson also served as Clemson's defensive coordinator for three years and has been on the sidelines since 1975. Johnson has tasted success at every stop along the way, a resume that includes nine bowl appearances and that 1992 national title.

The biggest adjustment Johnson had to make, other than moving his family, was surveying the newfound talent level on hand.

"Having been on the Division 1-AA level and coming back, you see there is a big change," said Johnson. "The first day I went to The Citadel, I could see the tremendous difference in the talent level. And then coming back over here (at Mississippi State), it an obvious difference (in talent) in the opposite direction.

"(Being familiar with this league) helps you to know what you are looking for and what you face."

And what Johnson currently faces is a steady work in progress.

The Bulldogs' defense has seen three coordinators in as many seasons, and ranked last in every significant defensive category in the SEC in 2003.

Like Croom, Johnson sees the foundation being laid properly this time around, along with hints of progression. It's also a defense that has just two seniors (Ronald Fields and Slovakia Griffith) within the main rotation.

"You have to realize these guys have been through their third system in three years," noted Johnson. "Hopefully that will be an advantage to us with the little things - the way we practice, practice organization and offseason training. All those things go into building a program. Obviously, the most important thing is discipline and the next thing is talent.

"You never stop trying to bring your talent level up. But it's going to be a big advantage to have some many experience guys in the system."

Johnson touched on a few pleasant surprises as State closed in on the halfway point of the season. And the majority of those catching Johnson's eyes bode well for the Bulldogs' future.

"I think the biggest surprise has been (Mario) Bobo," said Johnson. "He's been able to step into a starting role by the third game. He's there because he's played well and you can't take that away because he's a freshman.

"I feel like we've made a lot of progress at linebacker. Out of our young linebackers, Gabe's getting some reps at outside and Titus is now getting some work at mike linebacker. One of the best of the three is Anthony Littlejohn, who right now could tentatively redshirt. You just never know how things may play out in the season. But he could potentially be as good as any of them. We just have a little more depth at his position so that's a luxury."

Another luxury could be undergoing a second consecutive spring practice with the same system.

No doubt that last spring was more of an introduction phase with coaches and players attempting to learn as much as possible, and as quick as possible.

"Until our level of play is at a quality level, then I don't know that you ever get completely out of that mode of getting things established. As this season progresses, we will see the progress we've made and hopefully, be pleased. I think we are about where I thought we would be right now. We've played well enough to win in certain situations but have not reached the level these kids can reach.

"It's going to take a little while and we understand that. But I do hope by the end of the year we're looking at spring ball as a situation to take a step forward rather than continue to instill the program."

Paul Jones is a writer for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. Paul, also a sports writer for the Columbus Commercial Dispatch, can be reached by email at pjones@cdispatch.com.

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