MSU Preparing for Murray State

Mississippi State defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson feels upcoming opponent Murray State will present a challenge for his defense.

Although most people think, because the Murray State Racers are a D-IAA school, Mississippi State will have no problems winning this game, don't count Mississippi State defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson among them. He sees a tough, hardnose team with a strong running game and a passing game with potential.

"They are hardnose and will line up and challenge you with their running game," said Johnson. "They run a two-back offense with a big, strong fullback and two excellent running backs. It is definitely the strength of their offense."

And their passing game, with athletic quarterback Ken Topps running it, will also present a challenge.

"Their passing game is certainly adequate and compliments their running game well," said the second year MSU coach. "They have a quarterback who is a junior college transfer from Mississippi, Ken Topps, who has great athleticism. We feel like they will spread the formation to get him in the shotgun and get some quarterback running plays for him such as the zone-option play where he can run the option and a counter play with him faking to the tailback and countering back to the other side with the pulling linemen. That is a very difficult play to stop and is very similar to what Arkansas did last year, although he's not Matt Jones, just a different style that is just as dangerous due to his speed.

"They also have big, tall receivers that are very difficult to defend on the deep ball. And they like to throw them the deep ball with the play-action off their running game."

While he and the rest of the Mississippi State coaching staff have a pretty good feel about who will start for Murray State on the offensive side, they aren't 100% sure.

"They have four guys that we think will start that didn't start last year, two that transferred in and two that will probably step up," said Johnson. "But we aren't really positive about their starting lineup. There are a few missing parts that we don't know who will start."

According to Johnson, his team will have to shut down the Racers' running game to be successful.

"Against this team, we have to line up, be very sound and stop their running game on first and second down," he said. "If we don't, then everything else will be immaterial. If we could ever get them playing from behind, then I think we could do some things from a pass-rush standpoint that may be successful. But I'm concerned about their running game and the fact that they will stay in it unless we get ahead of them."

As for his own defense, he has some concerns, especially in the secondary.

"I think there are still some big question marks," he said. "We have two walk-on safeties backing up our (starting) safeties. And two walk-on corners backing up our (starting) cornerbacks. Our two freshmen (Derek Pegues and Keith Fitzhugh) have had a great week of practice at corner. But they really hadn't, at that point, displaced (Jamaal) Johnson and (Leron) Yarbrough. We are still pushing them because they should be pushing the starters. They definitely should be backing the starters up right now. They are starting to come back this week. The first week was ok, then the middle two weeks weren't good. They just weren't getting it done. So, we just had to put them down and give the reps to the guys that we thought we would have to play with on Saturday. But Fitzhugh has had a great week this week and Pegues has had a better week this week."

Depth at linebacker is another concern of his, although there is a mixture of experience and talent.

"Right now, it's Clarence McDougal, Quinton Culberson and Anthony Littlejohn starting. The backups are Gabe O'Neal at one spot, Brad Horton and Carlton Rice are about equal at the MIKE, and Jamar Chaney at the other WILL. We may end moving McDougal back to the WILL, but right now we don't want to do that. If we get into our two-deep at linebacker, other than Gabe, you are talking about guys who haven't played much football (at State). Jamar Chaney will play, but he's still a long way off. He's a freshman and is still learning the system, but he makes a lot of mistakes. But talent-wise, he is going to help us at linebacker."

The defensive line appears to be the strength of the defense due to the talent on the starting unit and the quality depth backing them up.

"We have five tackles that I feel can play," said Johnson, who has veterans Deljuan Robinson and Andrew Powell starting and Antonio Johnson, Corey Clark and Avery Hannibal backing them up. "Now, how many snaps each can play and still be the best tackle on the field is a question mark.

"We probably have four and a half ends, including Titus Brown, Mike Heard and Willie Evans, who I feel can play with anybody. The two freshmen (Quinton Wesley and Charles Burns) are the fourth and fifth guys. Charlie's had a great camp, but he makes a lot of freshmen mistakes. And Quinton is a step behind him. He hasn't quite picked things up as fast, mentally. Physically, they both can play. But my wish is that we won't have to play them, because I don't want to get to the end of the year and each one of them has only played about 7 plays a game. If that's the case, then I think that's a wasted year."

So, what's his early analysis of his defense without seeing them in a game?

"At linebacker and safety, there are very definite questions about depth," said Johnson. "At corner, because we haven't come along like we thought we would, there are some questions there. Up front, I think we have depth and we are ready to go."

Since there are probably going to be a few freshmen playing as backups on the defense this year out of necessity, what are his plans for working them into the lineup?

"What you try to do is get to the point where you can trust them in the game as a two-deep player and then you force them into the special teams," said Johnson. "Then, they come out of the game having played 20 to 25 snaps, counting kicking and playing. If a kid is doing that, then he is probably helping himself as a future player and he's also helping the team. What I don't want to get into with some of these kids is them only playing a few plays each game.

"As an example, Quinton Wesley is a question mark. I don't want him to play 5 snaps the first game, 10 snaps the second game, not play the third game, then play 10 snaps the fourth game and 2 snaps the fifth game. If a kid does that, then he hasn't helped himself as a football player and he's lost the year."

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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