Over the next several weeks here on the HailState Beat, we’ll be running a new football-related series each week, a series of series, if you will. We finish this week with The Hinges: counting down the top five people, places or things that Mississippi State’s season will hinge on.
No. 5 in The Hinges: Nickoe Whitley
On the defensive line, MSU has more big bodies than it knows what to do with, even including the loss of Fletcher Cox. Cam Lawrence leads a deep and diverse group of linebackers, giving their coach Geoff Collins plenty to work with. At cornerback? The Bulldogs are deeper than the Marianas Trench with Johnthan Banks, Corey Broomfield, Darius Slay and a bevy of young talent eager to get in the game.
The one weak link in Chris Wilson’s defense: safety. Don’t get me wrong, there is some talent there. But no one is proven. Except for Nickoe Whitley. The Dawgs lost four-year starter Charles Mitchell to the NFL, as well as the other starting safety Wade Bonner who also graduated.
Whitley started most of the season before getting hurt late in 2011, and he was still recovering in spring practices a few short months ago. Left to fill the void were a pair of youngsters in Dee Arrington and Jay Hughes, both of whom only saw limited reps last season, primarily on special teams. The young pups are both talented and show promise, but neither are yet on the level of Whitley.
In only nine games last year, Whitley racked up four interceptions, just behind Banks, who tallied five in 13 games. In addition to athletic and often one-handed picks, Whitley was the intimidator on Wilson’s defense. He was the one laying the hard licks and making opposing receivers scared to come over the middle when he roamed from sideline-to-sideline.
Despite coming off an Achilles injury that ended his season, and even though he seems young for a junior, Whitley has to be the leader of safeties. He’s the oldest one back there, and only he has real experience, especially against SEC offenses.
The defensive line has Josh Boyd. The linebackers have Lawrence. The corners have Banks. The safeties? Well, it’s Whitley or no one.
Of course, MSU does have a couple options, though none of them quite match Whitley. With the stable of cornerbacks, it’s possible one of the seniors could spend some time at safety, particularly early in the season. When asked about the safeties, Banks expressed his confidence in that versatility, as well as his belief that Whitley should be ready for the season on September 1.
“Broomfield can do both, Slay can do both, I can do both,” Banks said. “Nickoe, he’s coming back. He’s looked real good in these little workout sessions we’ve had.”
Even in the spring, State’s coaches experimented with three corners and one safety on the field, plus linebacker Matt Wells has the frame and experience to drop back to safety, if need be, something he often did in the spring.
So, sure, MSU has some options if Whitley can’t return as quickly as they hope or if he takes some time to get back to his usual form. But all they would be doing is plugging the dam.
Whitley is the one person on the defense the Bulldogs don’t have anyone else like. The group will be in the upper half of the SEC no matter what. But if Whitley is patrolling the secondary, the Maroon and White could have its best defense in over a decade.