Q&A with Defensive Coordinator Ellis Johnson

Paul Jones sat down with Mississippi State defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to talk about how the MSU defense did during spring practice.

Q: What was the main focus of the spring, defensively?
Ellis Johnson: The big thing is we had seven kids out (with injuries) so our primary focus was really two-fold. We wanted to see where our backups are to solidify our two-deep roster. Having players out didn't help with our continuity. Our second focus was to find starters to replace Willie Evans and Kevin Dockery. Those were our main concerns and we probably were better at finding our two-deep roster. Titus Brown was playing well and was sliding into Evans' spot despite being injured somewhat during the spring. So we're more concerned about that cornerback slot. With David Heard and Derek Pegues back, we were hoping to help that position but neither were able to compete at full speed during the spring. But we've got to get that other cornerback slot solidified before the fall.

Q: Who was the biggest surprise to you in the spring?
Johnson: Probably the improvement of Jamar Chaney. We knew he was a good player from last year but he has made great strides since then. We had so many players back with nine starters so there wasn't going to be many surprises. But Jamar was a pleasant surprise.

Q: Who was the biggest disappointment to you in the spring?
Johnson: Nobody as far as individuals are concerned. But overall, it was the fact that so many didn't practice with injuries and couldn't go full speed this spring. Heard couldn't go full contact and Charles Burns struggled with a hamstring problem after showing good signs. But there wasn't a single player that we looked at not having made any progress and that's a major positive.

Q: What area in spring practice did you come away feeling good about?
Johnson: I felt very comfortable with where we are with the defensive front. With so many proven players back, we like our depth there. Of course we lost Corey Clark who left the team but once all our players are healthy, like Burns, we will be fine up front.

Q: At the conclusion of the spring, what questions marks remain as you look toward the fall?
Johnson: That's another two-fold answer. We didn't get to answer our problems in the secondary and didn't have enough players at linebacker. The ones who've played cornerback have been steady but you really need four solid players there. We are not stockpiled at linebacker with guys who have played a lot of SEC football. Jimmy Miller didn't get enough reps this spring and is not ready for SEC ball just yet. Carlton Rice was steady but we need more guys to step up. We are expecting (juco transfer) Tim Bailey to get a long look at linebacker.

Q: If you can tell at this point, which I know is difficult to speculate since you haven't seen them on the football field, will any newcomers help on State's defense this season?
Johnson: Well, first of all, you don't sign junior college kids unless you believe they can compete with the starters right away. And I think we did that with the juco guys we signed in February. Because of our problems at cornerback, (Anthony) Summers from Olive Branch will get a look. If that doesn't work out, then Summers could move to safety which would allow us to maybe move Demario Bobo back to cornerback. It's hard to say a freshman linebacker can come in and play right away, but Jamon Hughes from Humphreys County will get a look. No doubt he has the physical talent but there are so many other things needed to do well at this level in order to contribute. I think Tim Bailey has a good shot at linebacker but it's hard to say because he hasn't played football in two years. And I think (Rodney) Prince, the defensive end from Birmingham, may have a chance to help us this season because that is a position where (we) need bodies.

Q: If any, will there be many changes this year compared to last year's defense?
Johnson: I really don't think there will be many changes, from a scheme point-of-view. We will still be big and physical. Our speed is average when comparing it to the SEC speed on defense. We will still have our zone coverages and cover man when we can. Of course, there are some little things you like to add in each year, like in long-yardage situations we are working on three-man fronts. But I don't see many big changes with this defense compared to last year's defense. Most of the same guys are back in their same positions, which is a good thing.

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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