Dog defense needs help

In his first year on the job Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen fixed the offense. Now he's got to do something about the defense.

Quickly embracing Mullen's spread attack, the Bulldogs improved by a whopping 124 points (183 to 307) and an amazing 1,511 rushing yards (1,220 to 2,731) from 2008 to 2009. That would've been enough to get them a low-level bowl bid if not for a defense that was simply awful. MSU allowed opponents to average 146 rushing yards, 220 passing yards and 26.8 points per game. Seven foes hung 30 or more points on the Dogs - led by Auburn (49), Arkansas (42) and Georgia Tech (42).

The 2010 stop unit will be more experienced, thanks to the return of 16 of the top 19 tacklers from '09. Mullen moved to further bolster the defense by bringing in Manny Diaz as coordinator. Diaz' Middle Tennessee defense ranked second nationally last fall in both tackles for loss and sacks. Mississippi State, by comparison, ranked 89th and 104th in those categories.

The key loss is standout middle linebacker Jamar Chaney, out of eligibility after posting a team-high 90 tackles as a senior last fall. The top returnee on defense is fellow 'backer K.J. Wright, a 6-4, 245-pound senior who recorded 82 stops last season.

State's pass defense should be improved, since the players who recorded all of the team's 15 interceptions a year ago will be back in 2010.

Offensively, the departure of workhorse tailback Anthony Dixon projects to be a big blow. The 6-0, 245-pounder averaged 5.4 yards per carry en route to 1,391 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.

The favorite to replace Dixon is junior college transfer Vick Ballard, a 5-11, 215-pounder who rushed 14 times for 72 yards in the spring game. Redshirt freshman Montrell Conner (6-2, 225) added 60 yards on nine carries and also figures in the rotation this fall.

Mullen, who worked with Tim Tebow while he was offensive coordinator at Florida, has a poor-man's Tebow at Starkville in 6-4, 240-pound junior quarterback Chris Relf. Relf ranked second among all Bulldogs with 500 rushing yards last fall, even though he never started a game. He completed just 22 of 41 passes for 283 yards last season but five of the connections produced touchdowns.

Relf should represent an upgrade over 2009 starter Tyson Lee, who threw for just 1,444 yards last fall with nearly four times as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (4).

Backing Relf will be Tyler Russell, a 6-5, 225-pound redshirt freshman. Relf completed 13 of 24 attempts for 184 yards and two touchdowns in MSU's spring game. Russell was 12 of 27 for 125 yards.

The return of four starters across the offensive line bodes well. So does the return of 2009's top two receivers - sophomore wideout Chad Bumphis (32 catches for 375 yards) and junior tight end Marcus Green (27 for 305).

Mississippi State ranked 12th nationally last season with a 24.8-yard kickoff return average. That was due mostly to Leon Berry, who averaged 26.7 yards on 38 runbacks. He's back for another year.

Mullen clearly has the Bulldogs on the right track. Still, his team appears to need a couple more good recruiting classes before it can contend for the SEC West top spot.

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