One-on-one With MSU DC Ellis Johnson

Mississippi State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Ellis Johnson talks about his current players and the MSU defense in general.

Talk about your position players.
"When you talk about the linebackers you obviously have to mention the loss of Quinton Culberson. He was so productive that that will be a huge hole for us to fill. Because of that, we moved some kids from position to position.

"One thing that was a positive during the spring was that we had six scholarship linebackers that were all capable of being good football players in the SEC. And that was due to the fact that we had Dominic Douglas, a junior college transfer, at the beginning of the spring and five returning kids who have played some.

"Gabe (O'Neal) has held down the SAM linebacker spot for two and a half years. He had a good, solid spring. The most positive thing about his spring is he stayed healthy. He's had some injuries, but he stayed healthy this spring. I was able to take some reps from him and give them to Dominic because he needed them due to being a new player. At the end of the spring, we came away with two guys that were competing against each other. Frankly, Dominic is, physically, a more talented player, but he hasn't overtaken him yet and I don't think he will due to the experience standpoint. And there is also the possibility that those two guys need to be on the field at the same time. So, as we go into two-a-days there may be some switching around of Dominic to find the best place for him.

"At the WILL linebacker we moved Anthony Littlejohn from SAM back to WILL where he was in 2005. Jamon Hughes and Anthony had some pretty good competition. Anthony was hampered by a foot injury after about five practices, so he didn't get much work. That was good for Hughes, but I really wish Anthony had gotten more, too.

"At the MIKE linebacker we moved Jamar Chaney there to compete with Tim Bailey. Physically, they both look the part. And both of them had a pretty good spring. Chaney pulled a hamstring, but it was good for Bailey to get that much more work."

"(Overall) we are deeper at linebacker and we have good, young kids coming in who can compete in the two-deep."

As the defensive coordinator, what position would you say is the strength of your defense?
"I'm not sure where the strength of our defense is. The most productive kids that we had on the field during the spring were our two defensive ends, Titus Brown and Avery Hannibal. Avery Hannibal has been the consummate team player. We've moved him inside when we needed him there and we've moved him back outside. And, frankly, he never got to settle in at one spot and get better. But we've been able to do that through last season and this spring. And the kid had a fantastic spring. I think those two guys had a field day all spring. I thought they were exceptional, but there is nobody behind them that is proven.

"At linebacker, we are steady, stout and solid. We have a little bit of depth. While none of them are dominant football players, they are good football players that we can win with. The most optimistic thing is we will be able to play six of them fairly equally, which will keep them fresh. And if they are playing at top speed and playing fresh, then they will be able to play a little more physical and a little better in the fourth quarter. That will make us a little bit better."

What if you lose any of those six to a season-ending injury?
"If we lost one for the season, then we would probably have to get into some shuffling. But we have some good linebackers coming in. I think Jamie Jones is going to be a really physical kid who can step in and hold up physically. How much we will be able to depend on him will be decided by how quickly he can learn it. Karlin Brown is coming out of a great high school program and should be able to compete quicker than a couple of the other guys. K.J. Wright is probably about as physically talented as any kid that we have brought in here. K.J. and Terrell Johnson are both candidates for defensive end, but when they first come in the door they are going to have to be linebackers. We'll go from there to see where they fit in."

Do you hope to redshirt your linebacker signees if your top six stay healthy?
"We would love to, but I don't think they will be redshirted. I think, between the special teams and competing for the two-deep, at least two of those kids will figure in to some degree this season. We think it's a really good recruiting class and a real good mix of junior college and high school kids."

When Jamar Chaney came in he was very highly thought of. Is he the kind of player who has the talent to contend for post-season honors?
"Yes, he has that kind of talent. Physically, he has all the tools. He just needs to be more productive on Saturday. On the practice field, he makes all the plays. But the production has to come for him to be an All-SEC player. That's a key for any player, though. We have several players that have the kind of ability to compete for All-SEC type honors."

You seem to like Dominic Douglas. Does he have the type ability to contend for All-SEC?
"I hope he does. He has some physical abilities that will give him that chance. But he's still feeling his way. Some players come in and are very tentative until they are sure of themselves. He's not like that because he's very aggressive. When he makes mistakes, he makes them full-speed. He's a physical player who creates collisions. He's not just tough, he will attack you. Dominic can be a dominant player, but right now he's not as consistent."

Jamon Hughes was a dominating type player in high school. Has he shown that same type ability on the college level?
"He has, but the problem is his consistency. He has to learn to play within the system and scheme. But he is the most physical, the most natural, the most explosive linebacker that we have. He's a young player, though. So, he's too inconsistent right now."

Did you see improvement in his consistency during the spring?
"Yes. And I saw a little bit of it last year. Last year, when he went in, he would be productive, but he seemed to always make a mistake that would hurt us. He just needs to combine his aggressiveness and physical ability with more consistency. But he will as he gets older and learns the system."

Explain the difference between a WILL, a MIKE and a SAM linebacker.
"It really depends on what defense you are playing. A lot of people put their SAM on a tight end and he plays him one on one. Our SAMs don't play head up on the tight end that much. Our SAM linebacker has to be a big, strong safety. If we could find a 6-1, 6-2 safety who has 220 to 225 pound growth potential, he would be a good SAM linebacker in our system. Why? Because our SAM linebacker covers the tight end man to man, blitzs off the outside and plays drop zone. That's where the power play is going to be. You can't get away with a 195-pound linebacker in our scheme because he's not going to be able to take on a big, strong tight end and he's not going to be able to take on the power plays.

"Our WILL backers play more off the line of scrimmage in normal linebacker alignments. A lot of people think a WILL backer is the speed guy, he's the guy who goes out and covers. That's really not true of our guy. He's moved from the box in one-back set playing zone coverage. We never have our WILL linebacker play in man coverage on a receiver or a third receiver or anybody split out of the box. They end up taking on a lead play inside because our front is set to the tight end side. And the WILL backer is usually sitting on the bubble, he's the guy who has the open gap to fill. Our WILL is usually a bigger, physical guy.

"Our MIKE linebacker is protected a lot. He plays behind our tackles. And because of the way we play our fronts, the MIKE linebacker gets the fewest lead plays of a big fullback. In some aspects, he has to be our most mobile linebacker. He is usually lined up in one of the two guard-center gaps. And it's very hard to lead the fullback on him. Because of that, our MIKE linebacker very rarely takes something dead on. And he is usually a more athletic linebacker than typical middle linebackers."

Did you move Jamar Chaney to MIKE because he's your most mobile linebacker?
"We moved him because, from head to toe, he was the best with mobility, range, physicalness, and he has the most complete knowledge of the game of all our linebackers. (Jamon) Hughes would be a heck of a MIKE backer, physically. But he doesn't have total grasp of all the coverages and the overall defense yet."

Talk about the defensive line in general.
"What we have up front is a lack of game experience but a little bit more age. I know those don't go together, but we have more kids competing for playing time who have been in the program. So, our two-deep will, at least, be filled with kids who have been college football players. But, on the other hand, there will be a lot of fresh faces who have not played in a lot of games. The third thing is we have a little bit more depth. The one place that's not really true is at defensive end, because we've had a little more depth in the past.

"The key to our front will be how soon the inside tackles mature. It's not the physical element that bothers us right now, but the mental toughness. Another factor is finding a couple of guys who can back up the two ends that we have. Those two guys will be good football players if they stay healthy, but they can't play 60 to 70 snaps a game."

What about the defensive backs?
"Not to repeat myself, but we have more kids who practiced in the spring that have been college football players for a few years, but haven't played much in SEC games. In the past, though, we haven't had two deep in the secondary. We haven't had eight or nine players that we could put on the game field and not lose a tremendous dropoff in production. I think we have that now. On the other hand, we have very few kids back there that are absolutely proven starters and have played in a lot of SEC football games.

"Derek Pegues, a great athlete, was moved to safety and it was a good move. At safety he seems a lot more at home. We are really tickled about him. I thought he had a heck of a spring. And I think he is going to be a playmaker.

"(De'Mon) Glanton had a tremendous spring. (Demario) Bobo is healthy. (Keith) Fitzhugh is coming off a season where he was a starter and he's playing with more confidence. I don't know if we've had that kind of depth at safety since we have been here.

"At corner we have some good-looking kids, but we have to find the players that will be consistent. And we need to find more depth. Anthony Johnson and Marcus Washington were very effective during spring practice. Tay Bowser and Keon Humphries must contribute early. And we have junior college players Jasper O'Quinn and Chris Nance that should be able to figure in pretty quick and challenge these kids."

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

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