Quarterbacks and receivers working on their timing and tricks is familiar summer fare. Doing it against an organized, if unsupervised, defense is not as much so. But it is another sign of the year-round nature college football has assumed. And senior middle linebacker Chaney doesn't mind unwinding from an hour in the weightroom by chasing a running back or tight end around the practice field. Because the season isn't so far away.
"We run our seven-on-seven against the offense to try to get some pass coverage in," Chaney explained. "They run their routes. It's just freshening-up and trying to get ready for two-a-days, to make sure when we go into it we already know our stuff."
Now if any Bulldog ‘backer should know his stuff by now it's Chaney. Called to duty as a true 2005 freshman, he has played in all 36 games these three years and started 23 of the last 25. He has compiled 186 career tackles, with just under half of them coming in the 2007 season when Chaney moved from weak-side to take the middle-man spot opened by Quinton Culberson's graduation. To say it was a productive switch is understatement; the Fort Pierce, Fla., native responded with 89 tackles and won second-team All-SEC honors from the league coaches.
Yet as he takes a stance for these summer sessions, Chaney gives every impression of someone battling just to maintain the starting status everyone else takes for granted. There's an obvious reason, he says.
"I'm just trying to get better each and every day. Don't take any days off because every day is my last day. I've got six more months to be at Mississippi State and I'm trying to make the best of it, to do everything I can to help my team win."
And there is one specific thing Chaney says he and his unit must do if Mississippi State is to win more often than last season's successes. It's no huge inside secret, either; a defense that is confident on the ground has to improve against opposing air games. While fans might immediately assume this means putting more pressure on passers, Chaney points out this is just part of the plan. "We have to learn to cover," he says. "One of our problems last year is we weren't getting good depth as linebackers. We weren't getting good drops and teams were throwing right behind us." Especially teams such as South Carolina and Tennessee, which took blatant advantage of a constant gap in coverage about 15 yards down the middle. Some temporary patches eased the issue a bit in the '07 season stretch, but Chaney says the goal in '08 is a permanent fix.
"We're really good against the run, we just have to improve in the passing game as linebackers."
Certainly they are getting plenty of summer practice since, as Chaney notes, the offense has all sorts of advantages starting with quarterback time to think and then throw. "I mean, we blitz once in a while," he says, with a hint of frustration that says he and K.J. Wright and Dominic Douglas would love to tee-off more often. Yet they and the backup ‘backers all understand the purpose of such practice.
"I mean, it makes sure we get in our drops. Because if you mess up seven-on-sevens it's an easy completion because there is no pass rush, the quarterback is comfortable and what-not. But it makes us better, too." Indeed, because if they can cover under these conditions then the real thing will be…well, not easy but at least possible.
Not that Chaney himself has many individual assignments, unless a back or tight end drag through his territory. As middle linebacker he does more conducting than covering, directing his partners on the weak and strong sides. "Just dropping back, staying in my zone…and killing anything that comes across!" he says with an evil grin that tells offensive peers just how fortunate they are that these are no-hitting weeks.
In his central role Chaney has come to appreciate what the 2008 offense ought to be capable of. Big back Anthony Dixon is a load of course swinging out in the wings, and the varied talents of a rebuilt tight end corps are starting to show as they get a feel for the passers and vice-versa. Then there are the wideouts, who give the safeties and corners a real workout.
"Brandon McRae and Jamayel Smith get open a lot so it's a good challenge for our defense. We have four or five good receivers and if we can stop them we can stop anybody in the SEC."
By the same token, this upperclassman is convinced the Dog defense really should hold its own in conference competition. Especially at linebacker, where there is both experience and depth. "We should be real good," Chaney says. "We've got me, K.J., Dominic. And Jamie Jones, Terrell Johnson, and some good freshmen coming in to fit in roles. We'll see what they've got when we put the pads on, which freshmen are going to step up and play key roles for us this coming season."
Chaney's mention of rookies, whether redshirts or new arrivals, is intentional. He and Anthony Littlejohn are the elder Dogs of this group, along with second-year senior Douglas, so they carry an extra responsibility into this final season. Especially middle-man Chaney. While he definitely means to lead the team in tackles for a second-straight season, he is being asked to set another sort of pace with this squad.
"Just being more of a leader and make sure that everything on the defense is polished. Making sure we do the right things, all the little things. And getting the younger linebackers ready for when I leave so there won't be any drop-off."
Talking about the team after he leaves is another sign of the maturity Chaney has gained over the seasons. He's had his challenges, the largest right at the start when denied entrance at Georgia. The second-choice of Mississippi State has proved the best for his long-term development. Though, he would like to complete his SEC career with a special trip to the Peach State. In December, that is.
"I don't want it to end but it will in six months. So I want it to end with a SEC championship or something like that. I just want to be one of the best linebackers in the SEC and in the country. I mean, lead my team to a championship. And do whatever I can to help the team. Going out with a SEC championship is the biggest bang there can be."
Before that there will be a lot more banging around the practice field preparing for a senior season. Not this month of course. But come August and the second week of drills, Chaney and the linebackers will be more than ready to remind those throwers and catchers that it isn't tag-football anymore.
"When we put the pads on we'll see how everybody is."