A Q&A With MSU Safeties Coach Tony Hughes

Mississippi State assistant coach Tony Hughes discusses the overall safeties positions (starters and backups), each safety individually and his expectations for the newcomers.

Talk about the overall strengths of the safety positions.
"I think the strength is the experience factor because we have two or three guys who have played in the SEC. That's a strength because the first time you trot out there in front of 80,000 people and something bad happens they may not know how to react.

"The guys who I am talking about are (sophomore) Charles Mitchell and (junior) Zach Smith. They've played, had their ups and downs, but I feel very confident when I put them on the football field that they will do a good job. They've improved their strength and their speed during the offseason.

"The safeties are required in all of our schemes to basically be the two quarterbacks back there. They have to make all the coverage checks, have to come down against the run and tackle the big backs, have to play the speed receivers and not get beat deep. So it requires a lot of versatility and both are very versatile, very smart, good athletes. The entire core group is like that. (Sophomore) Wade Bonner was an offensive player who is now playing defense.

"Overall, our strengths are experience, our versatility, our athletic ability and our ability to adjust to different situations."

Individually, what do you like about each player. Talk about Charles Mitchell.
"Charles is a tough guy. He is not a real vocal type person but he's an old fashion, solid football player. He has a tremendous work ethic. He's a very unselfish team player. He loves the game. And he's a very talented kid who can run fast, jump high, he hits, has good hands, doesn't sit over in the corner when he gets hurts because he wants to play and wants to practice. He's just a very special type person to coach."

Zach Smith is your other tentative starter at safety.
"Zach is sort of like a quarterback on defense, all the guys always look up to him. When they look around they expect Zach to be there. It's almost like something is missing if Zach's not around. He's a very emotional person which is different from Charles because Charles is not an emotional, vocal type person. Zach's not that either but he's emotional in the respect that he loves to win, hates to lose, loves to compete. He keeps his confidence even when something bad happens."

Who are their backups?
"We have Wade who came over from the offensive side of the ball. He had a tremendous spring. He'll be our third safety off the bench if we started today. He's very versatile, very athletic, has good speed, tackles well. He can play free or strong and also be the nickel back against teams that spread you out. He'll play a lot of football for us."

Who are some others?
"We have Emmanuel Gatling who is a fourth year junior who redshirted and has played on special teams. He came out of nowhere and had a great spring. We are a new staff and we gave him an opportunity and he went out there and came to work everyday. What he lacks athletically, he makes up with smarts and experience. He has basically bought into what our philosophy is. He is going to be a very good backup player for us and also a tremendous special teams player for us. If we started today he would be the fourth guy.

"After Emmanuel you have Chris Cameron, another walk-on who is a redshirt freshman. He is really a good football player who could be a scholarship guy at some places. Coach Dan Mullen loves him. His dad played football for (the University) Florida and the Cincinnati Bengals.

"You also have Cameron Lawrence, a true freshman who came in early and bounced around at several different positions before landing at safety. He is a really good athlete who has been one of the real surprises of the offseason program. He has good size and good range but he didn't get over to safety until very late in the spring, so I didn't get a really good evaluation of him. But he does enough other things on our team athletically that will allow him to be a good fit. If we started the season today he would probably be third team due to being behind but athletically he's good enough. He reminds you of the safety at LSU who intercepted all the balls against Mississippi State, No. 16. He's a big safety, 6-0, 200 pounds, and he's a very good athlete."

Other than Lawrence, what are your expectations from the other true freshmen coming in?
"We have Nickoe Whitley. He's coming off knee surgery so we won't know about him until he gets here in July. We'll just have to see where he is physically at that point, but hopefully he's ready to go because he's a talented kid.

"We also signed some athletes that could end up as safeties such as Dennis Thames and Jonathan Banks but they'll probably start out as receivers."

What's the bottom line with the safeties positions?
"With three or four guys in the rotation we'll be fine - Bonner, Mitchell, Smith and either Gatling or Cameron or one of the other guys. The only thing that concerns me is if we lose either Mitchell or Smith to injury because we will be hurting if we lose either of those two guys. If we stay healthy, then I think we should be one of the better safety units in the SEC."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.

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