There are many talented athletes who make up Ellis Johnson's group, and if they indeed have a lighter load to carry in '06, that'll give them an opportunity to shine.
One of the best in the conference? Maybe. One of the best in the nation? Maybe. One of the best in MSU history? Maybe.
Those are all lofty goals, and it remains to be seen if they can reach any of them, but there's reason to think that, if they put in the same effort in games as they have in spring and summer, anything's possible.
So who are the names to look out for in the MSU D? Here's a unit by unit breakdown of who's who, and what's what.
Defensive Line: Willie Evans was a one-man wrecking crew for the MSU defense last season, terrorizing quarterbacks all year long to the tune of 15.5 sacks. The departure of MSU's third all-time sack leader leaves a large question mark at the front, as his sack numbers accounted for more than half of MSU's 2005 sack total. But from the looks of it, things should run smoothly on the MSU defensive line.
Junior Titus Brown looks set to take over Evans' spot at left defensive end, and he has the ability to fill that need for a speed rusher on the end. He was a highly-touted linebacker coming out of high school, and he made the freshman All-SEC team at that position in 2004.
He's been battling it out with another converted linebacker for that spot. Sophomore Charles Burns saw mostly special teams action last season, registering two tackles, but he stands to be in the middle of the fray in the upcoming campaign. Burns was one of the top prospects in Mississippi and one of the top prep linebackers in the country coming out of high school.
Evans will certainly be missed, but his replacements have the talent to excel in his place. Brown had an 18-tackle performance against Arkansas in his freshman year, and having a guy with that kind of eye for the ball in his position makes your defense doubly dangerous. Burns has the combination of strength and speed that will make him a load to handle when he sets foot on the field.
Senior Michael Heard has been rated as one of the top defensive ends in the country in preseason publications, and he'll be rushing the quarterback from the right side. He had 35 tackles and three sacks last season. He's got the strength to battle 300+ pound linemen, and once he gets past them, he's got the speed to hunt down the ballcarriers (he ran a 4.4 in high school, and I'd venture a guess that speed's still there). A man 6'2, 270 shouldn't be that fast, should he?
The tackle positions look to be a strength, with two talented and experienced seniors set to start. Big things have been expected out of Deljuan Robinson since he came to Starkville, and considering how highly he was regarded coming out of high school, those expectations haven't quite been reached. Beside him is Andrew Powell, who's coming off of a good 2005 campaign (39 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and an INT) and a solid spring. Those two are going to have to make their share of plays this year, but they could have just as big of an impact by keeping the offensive linemen occupied with their big bodies while Brown and Heard get loose on the ends.
If this unit can play up to and beyond its capabilities, SEC quarterbacks and ballcarriers will have to keep their head on a swivel at all times.
Like Little Richard says in that Geico commercial, 'Woo, lookout, lookout!', you might be hearing blockers screaming that quite a bit when white-helmeted defenders repeatedly come barreling at them this season.
A talented group of linebackers is anchored by senior and All-SEC selection Quinton Culberson, who looks to round out a stellar Bulldog career with a banner season. The former freshman All-SEC cornerback led the team with 78 tackles last season, and he could be set for a triple-digit total in '06. There have been some great 'backers at MSU in recent years, with Greg Favors, Barrin Simpson, and Mario Haggan, and Culberson could add his name to that list with a big '06. He's started 24 games in his Bulldog career, including being the first true freshman in nearly two decades to start the first game of his Bulldog career (vs. Oregon in 2003).
The next great Bulldog linebacker appears to be second-year hitman Jamar Chaney. Chaney dropped into MSU's lap last summer, and he made an immediate impact in his freshman campaign, racking up 31 tackles. He made three starts at the weakside linebacker position in '05, and he is solidly atop the depth chart there as the season is set to begin. With one year under his belt, and with offenses likely focusing more of their attentions on the dangerous Culberson, Chaney could sneak through into a breakout season.
Junior Gabe O'Neal has been pencilled in to start on the strong side, but due to injury problems, it appears as if speedy soph Anthony Littlejohn will be the #1 there for at least the opener against South Carolina. O'Neal has been a solid contributor in his first two seasons in Starkville, seeing action in MSU's last 21 games (10 starts) and making 63 tackles (29 in '04, 34 in '05) during that time. Having him in the starting lineup would solidify an excellent starting linebacker trio, so those injury issues must be curtailed ASAP. A healthy O'Neal would give MSU defensive threats coming from every direction, giving opposing offenses multiple somoenes to deal with on every down.
Littlejohn, however, is a more than capable fill-in. He started the first eight games of '05 as a weakside linebacker, making 22 tackles, but he's been in the rotation on the other side since spring practice.
MSU looks to get an immediate contribution from JC linebacker Tim Bailey, who's gained a bigger name for his service in Iraq than he has for his on-field talents, having gained national attention from the likes of ESPN and Sports Illustratred. Bailey hasn't played in a game since 2003, but that didn't keep him from receiving scholarship offers from Alabama, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss, along with MSU. Check these numbers out: 6'3, 241, 4.6 40 time, and a 41-inch vertical leap. To describe him in a word, the only one that comes to mind is freakish. With that combo of size and speed, you'd think he'd be better suited at defensive end, but it probably won't matter too much where he ends up on the field. He'll get to the ball (95 tackles and three sacks in his only JC season at Mississippi Delta CC in '03). And if MSU offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey needs some extra depth on offense, Bailey could chip in there, having played running back and tight end during a stellar high school career.
Secondary: Sophomore Derek Pegues is going to start at the left cornerback spot. He saw time on special teams and in the secondary for the Bulldogs last year, and he picked off the first pass of his career against Chris Leak and the Gators in Gainesville. Pegues was an All-American coming out of the University of South Panola at Batesville, and he has the talent to duplicate those honors in his college career. He'll be counted on to replace Kevin Dockery.
Senior David Heard has seen action in all 34 games of his Bulldog career, and he's been a #1 in 19 of those games. He's the #1 at the right cornerback spot, as he was for all of a solid 2005 season. The key for Heard is to stay healthy. A foot injury in 2002 prolonged the start of his Bulldog career by a year, and he missed all of spring practice this year with a shoulder injury. Heard has been around for the down days in the past few seasons, and he'll be determined to make sure his career ends on a high note. He'll be all over the field, including in the backfield.
Another sophomore looks to have locked down the starting strong safety spot. Keith Fitzhugh has the #1 on the back of his jersey, and he hopes to be #1 in the secondary for MSU. He saw action in every game in his debut campaign, and he was a starter against Florida, where he matched Pegues with his first career pick.
Highly-recruited athlete Anthony Summers should gain some playing time behind Fitzhugh. Summers played quarterback and safety for Olive Branch, and he could have made a move to wide receiver in Starkville, but he stands to make his biggest impact in the secondary. At 6'2, 205, he's got the size to match up well with most wide receivers. Warning to receivers who'll be meeting him in the next four years: Do not go over the middle. I repeat, do not go over the middle.
But the big man in the secondary is senior free safety Jeramie Johnson, who, like Fitzhugh, hails from the Peach State. Johnson was second on the team in tackles last season with 64. He was the defensive star of the Egg Bowl rout of Ole Miss, picking off three passes. If not for Jerious Norwood's 200-yard performance, Johnson would've received all of the headlines. That performance, did, however, land him in a tie for the SEC lead in interceptions with four. Johnson enters his final Bulldog campaign rated as one of the top defensive backs in the SEC and nationwide. More importantly, he's one of the leaders of the team, and if he can parlay the successful end to his 2005 season into an overall successful 2006, it'll reflect not only on an individual basis, but it'll have a direct effect on the team's success.
Team MVP (Defensive): Do I have to pick just one? Will it be one of the defensive ends, doing their part to make SEC offenses ask 'Willie who?' Or will it be Culberson, who'll be buzzing like a bee all over the field and putting a big sting on ballcarriers? Or will it be Johnson, who's had a penchant for big plays throughout his MSU career?
Most Exciting to Watch: Once again, do I have to pick just one? I'll take the defense as a whole. With Brown and Heard rushing the quarterback from both sides, the group of mouthpiece-dislodgers at linebacker, and the talented secondary led by Johnson, the entire defense looks to be a joy to watch in '06.
Most Improved: If Robinson has the season that he's capable of, he'll be worthy of this award. He battled serious heart problems that saw his MSU career put on hold for a year and threatened his life, and since then, he's been on the road to being the star he was once billed to be. He was in the best form of his career at the end of 2005, and if he can use that and a strong offseason to push him in '06, he can solidly round out his Bulldog career, a career that was nearly over before it even got started.
Top Newcomer: You've got to love Bailey, not just for what he brings to the table athletically, but because of the other characteristics he brings as well.
But the sleeper of the class might be another new linebacker, freshman Jamon Hughes. He flew under the radar during the recruiting process and didn't receive a great deal of high-profile attention, but that's MSU's gain. Hughes chalked up 643 tackles in four years at Humphreys County HS, including totals of 196 in his junior year and 215 in his senior year. Wow, wow, and wow. That stellar junior season was enough for him to be named the Mississippi 3A District 4 Player of the Year.
He's had some injury problems in the summer that might see him miss the opener, but when he does get onto the field, watch out. He'll be in the mix at outside linebacker, giving the 'Dog D yet another big, big-hitting, ball-hungry 'backer. Did I mention that Hughes benches 380 pounds?
Talk about offense and defense all you want, but the special teams is as integral a part of the game as the other two are, and what they do will certainly make a difference in just how well things turn out for the maroon and white this season.
Placekicker: Senior Keith Andrews and sophomore Adam Carlson were locked into a tight battle throughout summer practice. Andrews was the starter last season before being sidelined by a groin injury against Houston. Carlson handled field-goal and extra point duty for the final three games, and he'll be taking over that task full-time this season, after beating out Andrews.
The two combined to hit 7 of 11 three-pointers in '05, and that percentage will need to see some improvement this year. Ideally, you'd like to see your placekickers in at least the 70s. A missed field goal or extra point could be the difference between a win and a loss, or staying home and going bowling in December.
Andrews will handle the kickoff duties. He'll have to put that strong leg to use to pin opposing offenses deep and set things up well for the MSU defense.
Punter: There is, however, no debate here. Sophomore Blake McAdams will be booming punts for the 'Dogs, as he did all of 2005. He averaged nearly 42 yards a punt as a true freshman, and 14 of his punts were downed inside the 20.
This is a guy that you don't want to have to see too often, because if you do, you know the offense is struggling. But he is one of the more important members of the team, because a good, well-placed punt can put the opposition into a hole deep in their own territory and put the defense in a position to make some big plays. And, conversely, if he shanks one ... well, let's not think about that.
Kick/Punt Returns: The return man is as important a part of your offense as any of the starting eleven is. A solid return sets up your offense in a good position to drive the field, while a poor return severely limits the margin for any negative plays. The MSU return game had its share of problems in 2005, but hopefully it will see a marked improvement in 2006.
Pegues handled most of the kickoffs in 2005, and he'll be back at it again this season. He had some big returns last year, but he also had a few mistakes that should be corrected with a year behind him. His blazing speed makes him a threat if he can find a hole and get into the open field.
Omarr Conner will get a chance to return punts, but Pegues may also get some chances there as well. Conner's sure hands are an asset, because you can't run with the ball if you don't catch it first.
Eddie Griffin, a freelance writer who does monthly opinion columns for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .