Clearly the senior defensive end has gotten used to squad-success in this spring season. His defense has put in an impressive camp through three weeks of work, winning the big Bulldog's share of matchups with the offensive squad in both drills and scrimmages. Not, however, to the point of domination as in much of last spring. McPhee's defensive side has had their job cut-out for them all camp, and in the final game-style scrimmage Saturday it came down to a couple of offensive turnovers and a touchdown return to give the defense a three-point margin of victory.
Close, sure. But only the final score mattered to McPhee. "We won again!" he grinned. "By hard work and knowing what we were doing and playing with great effort. Playing Bulldog defensive line, really."
If that sounds somewhat prideful, McPhee has a fair point. Over the course of camp Mississippi State's front foursome, both first and second units, has taken the lead on that side of the ball…just as planned by new coordinator Manny Diaz and first-year Dog line coach Chris Wilson. Of course the makings of a solid line was already there based on last fall's results.
But as the saying goes, this group has taken things to a higher level in 2010.
"We've got a lot more aggressive," said McPhee. "We play with a lot more technique. And we're faster getting off the ball." And thus more effective is tilting the practice playing-field in their direction. Again, the offense deserves a degree of credit for playing a better brand of football this spring, too, in no small part due to a maturing offensive line. Yet this has just inspired the guys across the line of scrimmage to better things, it turns out.
Especially, McPhee said, in the second scrimmage. "The defensive line, we really surprised ourselves. Because we were getting vertically up the field, knocking everything back, making collisions in the backfield. That's the thing that jumped out."
Making those collisions is exactly what Diaz had in mind when he took over State's defense. The new coordinator made it clear upon arrival that his theme for the defense in general and the line in particular was taking the fight to the other side of the line of scrimmage. While calling this approach simple risks over-simplifying, the fact is these Dogs have a clearer concept of what is supposed to happen when the ball moves.
"I mean, the hard work we put in these days is way different from last year. Because last year we were doing a whole lot of reading; this year we're doing a whole lot of attacking. So a lot of our job is to get vertical up the field and knock everything back."
Yeah, sounds simple enough. Yet McPhee points out something else which makes this scheme work. "I mean, it's more fun!" he said.
"Because you don't have to worry about just one man stunting you or knowing what you're doing through the whole game. Because you can switch-up, and the other offensive tackle doesn't know what's coming. So it's kind of fun!"
Productive fun, too. In no way does McPhee downplay the importance of sound technique at the point of contact; of understanding both individual and group gap-responsibility; of having a clear concept how both linemen and linebackers, and for that matter supporting safeties, are expected to move around the field. All that is part of daily spring instruction and practice. Yet an all-aggressive, all-the-time approach also has its advantages both tactically…and emotionally.
"Because no telling what situation we're going to be in in a game. It could be a turnover and no time at the end, we just have to run back on and play good defense." If one wonders, yes, this gets practiced, too. Coach Dan Mullen likes putting both offense and defense in play-or-pay situations on, usually, the one-yard line. Score it and the defense runs; stop it and the offense runs. And, naturally, "We don't want to run!" McPhee grinned. So far in spring the Saturday scores have been two wins for the defense and one by the offense, way back on March 27 in a semi-scrimmage.
While McPhee is an All-SEC anchor to build the first line around—and by the way, both he and cohort Nick Bell have alternated at each end in camp according to Wilson's goal of being able to flip ends and tackles alike—he isn't alone making this a first-class front.
"I love them guys," he said of true sophomore starters Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox, who have been stout as the first tackles. "They play with high motors, high energy, and they're going to get after whoever is in front of them." Speaking of motorvations, McPhee and Bell don't take their first-team status for granted either. Veteran Sean Ferguson is pushing Bell at right end, and redshirt Johnathan McKenzie is stating his case as a solid backup to McPhee and his eventual successor.
"Those guys are playing especially well," McPhee said of the backup ends. "Coach Wilson has got all of us playing hard-nosed football. Get off the ball, put our faces on people, and just go straight." To the ball, he means.
That's the approach both in the remaining full practices Tuesday and Thursday this last week, and in Saturday's spring game. Oh sure, even the most devout defensive Dog hopes that this fall sees their offensive teammates gain yards and score points in bunches. Just…not against them this weekend. Not even if Mullen and coordinator Les Koenning do what they tried this previous Saturday.
"Yeah, they had put in some more plays. Some that we recognized what they were doing, something we'd seen them in practice. They took offense to that!"