MSU Defensive Coordinator Ellis Johnson Interview

With spring practice concluded a few weeks ago and the players headed home for about three weeks before coming back for the summer session, Mississippi State defensive coordinator, Ellis Johnson, gives an update as to where his defense stands.

What are your thoughts about what you saw from your defense during spring practice?
"We had some objectives coming into the spring to develop a more speed oriented scheme. To achieve that, we moved Deljuan (Robinson) to tackle, Titus (Brown) to defensive end, Quinton (Culberson) from corner to safety, then to linebacker, and (Mario) Bobo from corner to safety. We were trying to get players in positions where their speed was more of an asset. To do that, we had to change our front a little bit. We changed our alignments where our ends are playing a little wider. Overall, I think all of those things went real well.

"And our recruiting is now being more oriented toward that. We feel like we have some players who can step into our skill spots, which will allow us to recruit more toward speed. (Lack of speed) was our biggest problem last year. We were big and strong, but had very poor team speed. It hurt us in pass coverage, pass rush and pursing plays. We gave up too many big plays last year. While mistakes can be attributed to some of those, foot speed can also be attributed."

Do you feel all the players that you have moved to new positions will remain at those positions?
"Oh yeah, all of those moves went real well for them individually and for us as a team."

Is your first-team defense solidified?
"I think it is. I don't think that we have anybody coming in that I feel would beat one of our starters out. I will say there are a couple of positions that are up for grabs based on the progress during spring practice. (True freshman) Keith Fitzhugh is ready to take over the right corner spot. He wasn't as consistent as David (Heard), but David got hurt about two-thirds way through (spring practice). And that gave Keith a chance to make a move. Frankly, when it comes down to skill and cover ability and making plays, Keith Fitzhugh is a better corner. But he would bust some checks and coverages that a freshman is going to do. And those things can get you beat. I'm not sure if we are ready to pull the trigger yet, but, physically, he is already pushing him."

Do you feel you have quality depth at the cornerback spot?
"I think we have decent depth there. Those are actually two places where I think we have guys (Anthony Johnson and Derek Pegues) coming in who can play on this level right away. We don't want to throw them in the water too quickly, but I think they can physically play in this league. There's no question in my mind about that."

How is the depth at the safety positions?
"The safety spot is where we don't have depth. We have some guys coming in (that may be able to help). We'll try (freshman signees) Jarvis Kyles and Blake McAdams at safety, while (freshman signees) Johnson and Pegues will start out at corner. If that doesn't answer some questions that we have, then we could move Johnson, Pegues or Fitzhugh to safety, because they are physical enough to play there. We might even move an Aubrey Bell (a freshman signee who was signed as a wide receiver). All those questions will be answered over time."

How do you feel about your depth at linebacker?
"Linebacker is a spot that we don't have any depth. We didn't develop any quality depth during the spring. We felt like Gabe (O'Neal) had a decent spring, then he got hurt near the end. And he is still just a rising sophomore, and needed all the work he could get. Quinton (Culberson) had a good spring at (the) Mike (position). Clarence McDougal was very consistent, which allowed him to take the Will linebacker job away from (redshirt freshman) Anthony Littlejohn. We still think that Anthony can be a good player at that spot, but McDougal, due to age and experience, took the job away from him. Brad (Horton) is a player that had a good spring, but he is definitely well behind Quinton at Mike linebacker. (Redshirt freshman) Carlton Rice is another player who did some good things. For a guy who hadn't been there but for 15 days, he did a pretty good job. I think he will make his statement in the fall. I also think the two linebackers (Archie Sims and Jimmy Miller) that we signed have a chance to come in here and get in the two-deep pretty quickly."

What is your evaluation of the defensive line?
"We don't have the quality depth that we want for the Southeastern Conference. But we have Deljuan (Robinson) and Andrew (Powell). Deljuan is even making occasional plays that can make a difference (in a game). Powell is very steady. You are going to get a solid performance out of him most days. Behind him, you have Corey Clark. He's played some football. And (we also have) Avery Hannibal, who I think was the most improved player on our defense this spring. Last year, he was an absolute liability. He made mistakes, missed alignments, technique, fundamentals. And, he was only about 255 pounds. He is probably now up to 265 and is about as strong as most of our 300 pounders. He really made a lot of progress. We moved him from the nose tackle to the three-technique about halfway through the spring. He is a good football player. I will be surprised if he doesn't push the other two guys. And maybe get him a start here or there.

"Defensive end is not deep. We have bodies there, but when you get past (Mike) Heard, (Willie) Evans and Titus (Brown), who we have been very pleased with, there is a tremendous dropoff. We are hoping that (freshman signee) Quinton Wesley can come in and be that fourth guy. Robert Walker didn't have a good spring because he wasn't healthy. And he may be a guy that could move inside. That is a question that we need to answer. (Redshirt freshman) Jeremy Jones is a kid that we beat LSU for in a recruiting battle. But he hasn't played (due to an injury). Until he plays and gets physically tougher, we don't know if we have a player. We know we have a talent (in him). But, where does he go (defensive end or defensive tackle)? Right now, he is an end. But does he wind up being 295 pounds down the road? There are some potential bodies there that you hope will come around. But, right now, we are, at least, a guy shy at the defensive end position."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of Dawgs' Bite, Powered by, the source for Mississippi State sports on the sports network. You can contact him by email at

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