There certainly is a healthy, not to say hefty, measure of confidence being expressed by the Mississippi State defensive backfield this month. Re-read that comment and the implication is obvious: these Bulldogs are planning celebrating early and often in 2010. That's quite a lot of self-assurance from a unit that coordinator and coaches alike agree remains a work in progress.
Then again, making progress in the mindset matters, too. Now coordinator Manny Diaz wants the entire group putting confidence into real action. "I really think the issue is just the down and after down consistency, just getting after it. And really not being satisfied with just being a good player."
Just having good players in the mix is a good sign, though. Now cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith plans on having his guys become better than good, because he has seen some great signs already from several pups. Of the 17 interceptions accounted for by the 2009 defense, eleven belonged to players now lining up as cornerbacks.
Make that, ten to the pair that with a week left to kickoff Smith expects to take the first defensive snap. "We know if we started today it would be John Banks and Corey Broomfield," Smith said Thursday after practice. Not that this is a big surprise. When Diaz, Smith, and safeties coach Tony Hughes decided to move sophomore safety Banks to a corner position the last week of spring practicing, it was not to have this spectacular young play-maker watching from a sideline in a rotation role. Banks was going to be on the field somewhere, somehow, looking to add to the four interceptions and two pick-sixes (both against Florida) of his freshman year.
The challenge became choosing between third-year soph Broomfield and second-year senior Maurice Langston on the other corner. Langston had more ‘09 starts, five, despite having to miss the first three games. But the younger and smaller Broomfield made more memorable plays in three starts. His six interceptions tied the program season record, and were most since 1997; and his pick-six to seal the Egg Bowl victory will be on Bulldog highlight tapes for a long, long time.
Now Broomfield has come out ahead in August competition. "Maurice is the third guy," Smith said, with soph Louis Watson and/or junior Damein Anderson rounding out this two deep. Smith likes Anderson's size and experience, while Watson made his move in spring and has maintained rotation status in preseason.
Coordinator Diaz is a little less sold on how deep these charts run, at least as of today. "It's going to be a good question, we're going to have to find out on game day. One thing we love about Banks and Broomfield is they're both highly dependable kids, they're very competitive, they can both without question make a play. And they've done it in games." Though, Diaz adds, the fact that both are still second-year varsity players brings another sort of risk. "They could play great or go crazy and I don't think either would surprise us!" he said.
"But beyond that it's like pulling the slot machine handle, we don't have any idea what we're getting. We hope for some good things. As a coach you always think more than two, because in this day and age you have to have more. There's not a lot of certainty, I'll put it that way, there are guys who have a lot to prove."
Not just as individuals, but as a unit. It is no secret that while Mississippi State has built up an impressive stock of talent at all safety and cornerback spots, this is still somewhat of an unproven group in terms of consistency. Big play potential, sure, that was shown last fall. But every-down reliability? That only comes with time. The larger portion of letters held by this entire group is at safeties with senior Zach Smith and juniors Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner. Of these though Mitchell is the only old starter; redshirt Nickoe Whitley has won the other safety slot, so consider the group just getting a little greener as a result.
Then there are plans for nickel and dime sets. By the way, in spring Diaz even showed ‘quarter' schemes of six defensive backs, albeit one of them often being safeties-turned-linebackers Emmanuel Gatling or Cameron Lawrence. The fact remains that Mississippi State has made improved downfield pass coverage a preseason priority.
For very good reason, Broomfield said.
"We really want to cut out the big plays. You look at our games last year, we gave up like 300 yards and it would come off three or four plays. So if we cut out those big plays we feel we can do a lot better."
Smith affirms his player's perspective. "You know, LSU hit us with two big plays. Auburn hit us on some big plays. Georgia Tech hit us on some big plays. And we played really well against Middle Tennessee, Florida, really good against Alabama with the exception of one or two plays. And we played good against Ole Miss at times." Good enough to win that one, but not most of those preceding contests. Though, Smith said, that too offers a clue. "The older you get, the more experience you get and the harder it is to trick you."
And the easier to trick the other team, as Broomfield did by bluffing that he would drop a little deeper; then bolting ahead to snare that Rebel quarterback's throw for the easy pick and dancing return. Such skills show why Broomfield has won his starting role at corner…
…as well as an expanded role. "Corey would be the nickel, probably," Smith said yesterday. The ‘probably' hinges on whether that extra defensive back might have to be ready to run-support as well as drop into coverage on an iffy third-down situation. Langston had 2.5 tackles for losses last year by the way and is in that nickel mix; as would be subbing in a bonus true safety for even better run-stuffing.
Yet Smith isn't at all worried about using the 180, or so, pound Broomfield this way. "Nah, he's a good football player." A fearless one, too. Broomfield is more than eager to show he can blitz with the same ferocity as any defensive lineman…though "I think I'm a little bit smaller than McPhee!" he grins. But what does 105 pounds difference really make?
"That's another thing with Coach Diaz, he doesn't care about your size," Broomfield said. "It's how hard you go, and do you know your stuff." Besides, he really likes the sort of faith his coaches are showing. "That boosts your confidence a lot when they'll send you in there to go with the big dogs. They've put a lot on me and I want to live up to what they expect of me."
Expectations are high, in the longer run, for some of the newest defensive backs in town such as Matthew Wells and Jamerson Love. They've been seen working at safety and corner respectively, but will have time to develop. Which might well not take so long, the coach thinks.
"They have good football IQ," Smith said. "They're students of the game, good at meetings, the basic things you have to be good at first. Not on the field stuff, off the field things. So I really like them a lot."
Which can be said for the full secondary. There is a lot to like here, which leaves it up to the staff to find the best ways of utilizing the ability while allowing for experience. Broomfield has clear confidence about this, too.
"Coach Diaz is really a personnel man. He's trying to put everybody in their best position where they can be very effective."