Pre-camp football roster breakdown: defense

With humidity making a trip to the mailbox wetter than a day at the water park, you can’t exactly feel football in the air, but I can feel it coming in my bones. I can hear the beat of Sandstorm kickoff music in my heart. Or something. You get the idea.

Football is almost here. The season doesn’t kickoff until September 1, but the first team meeting of the season is today, and the Bulldogs begin fall camp tomorrow. Dan Mullen’s fourth team at Mississippi State might be his best one yet.

As we get ready for practice to begin and breathlessly wait for updates and information, we’ll take a look at MSU’s roster on each side of the ball, using the recently-released depth chart as our guide.

Today, we’re breaking down the defensive side of the ball.

Safety

Starters on the depth chart: Free safety: Nickoe Whitley. Strong safety: Dee Arrington

On right: Nickoe Whitley

Bob’s take: Like the offensive line yesterday, safety, to me, is the only question on the defense. Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner both started and finished the season as starters at the spots last year before graduating and heading to the NFL, leaving behind a wealth of youth and talent but a lack of experience and dependability. Whitley, of course, took over as the starter for Bonner early in the season, but went down with an Achilles injury after playing eight games and change. I wrote about him last week, saying he is the one player on defense that can’t be replaced. MSU has no one else like him, and I stand by that. If he’s healthy, I have no fears at all about the safeties, and it seems that he will be ready to go, though he of course did not participate in spring practices.

If Whitley isn’t healthy, however, then we start seeing some problems. Arrington is a very talented young player, seeing action on special teams as a true freshman last year, but he has very little real, in-game experience. Paired with an able veteran like Whitley, he can carry his own weight. However, if Whitley can’t go and sophomore Jay Hughes is the starter at free safety, then Arrington makes a quick transition from understudy to leader. Hughes, like Arrington, is talented and plenty capable. But how comfortable do you feel about a pair of sophomores with no starting experience holding up the back end of the secondary against the likes of Tyler Wilson or Tyler Bray? The answer: nervous.

Cornerback

Starters on the depth chart: Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield

Bob’s take: I said yesterday that running back was one of the two most hotly-contested positions on the team. This is the other one. Banks and Broomfield have been stalwarts in the secondary since both were name freshman All-American back in 2009, but the wealth of talent scratching to get on the field behind them has reached an all-time high.

Darius Slay

The biggest competitor for a starting spot is senior Darius Slay. He saw limited reps last year in his first season on campus, but the 6’1” corner may be the fastest defensive player on the team and he showed in the spring that he has an eye for the ball when he picked off Tyler Russell three times in one scrimmage. Broomfield might be the starter on day one, but my gut tells me that sooner or later Slay will be the one with his face on the jumbotron when the starting cornerbacks are announced. Of course, one of those three could end up spending significant time at safety, given MSU’s general lack of experience at the position, and the defense spent plenty of time in the spring running formations with three cornerbacks.

Behind those three are a talented group of youngsters, including super-speedy Jamerson Love, long-armed Taveze Calhoun and highly-recruited freshmen Will Redmond and Cedric Jiles. As Banks told me a couple weeks ago, the Bulldogs will be fine at corner once he and his fellow seniors graduate.

Linebacker

Starters on the depth chart: Outside linebackers: Cam Lawrence and Deontae Skinner. Middle linebacker: Benardrick McKinney OR Ferlando Bohanna.

Bob’s take: While Lawrence may be the only name casual fans have heard of at this spot, MSU is stacked at linebacker, with a nice variety of players. Lawrence, as you may know, is the leading returning tackler in the SEC and is the obvious leader of the group. He’s been referred to as a coach on the field, and I have no reason to disagree. Skinner on the opposite side might be MSU’s most underrated player on either side of the ball, something I wrote about back in June. He quietly had one of the best stat lines of the entire defense last season, and I see no reason he won’t pick that back up this fall.

Cam Lawrence

For the middle spot, my money (though I don’t have much) is on McKinney. His teammates and coaches call him “Little KJ” because of his striking resemblance, both in stature and style, to former Bulldog linebacker K.J. Wright, now a starter for the Seattle Seahawks. At 6’5”, 235 pounds, McKinney is huge and equally athletic, with long arms and a knack for making plays. His coaches love him.

But behind the starters, Geoff Collins’ unit has a ton of talent. Sophomore Christian Holmes was one of the more impressive and athletic linebackers in the spring both rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. Matt Wells has the ability to play both linebacker and safety, Chris Hughes enters his junior season hoping to get back to the impressive and speedy linebacker we saw in his true freshman campaign, Bohanna is a strong and violent middle linebacker and MSU has a pair of big-time true freshmen on campus in Richie Brown and Beniquez Brown (no relation). So yeah, Collins has plenty to work with.

Defensive line

Starters on the depth chart: Defensive ends: Kaleb Eulls and Denico Autry. Defensive tackles: Josh Boyd and Curtis Virges.

Bob’s take: If the linebackers are stacked, the defensive line is stacked-er. (I believe the words I’m looking for are “more stacked.”) The starters on their own are a pretty fearsome foursome, with Autry grabbing that starting spot pretty much immediately after arriving on campus in January from junior college. Despite losing Fletcher Cox to the NFL, this year’s version of the defensive line might actually be better, thanks in large part to Autry. He brings something to the line that MSU hasn’t had in years: a speed rusher. Size and strength have never been an issue, but a fast end off the edge to terrorize quarterbacks has not been present. Now, I think, it is.

Fletcher Cox

Boyd, obviously, was the starter alongside Cox last year, and he has slimmed down a tad in an effort to do more of the same things his buddy did. Virges is a massive man as the other starter, but sophomore P.J. Jones is right behind him. Like I’ve said with a few other guys, I think Jones could emerge as the starter, possibly even by September 1. He’s big, strong and reminds me a bit of Cox with his ability to rush the passer as a tackle with a large frame. Of course, seniors Devin Jones and Dewayne Cherrington should be mentioned, as both are more than capable of causing some destruction with their massive bodies.

The two biggest – literally and figuratively – players to watch are a pair of tackles and freshmen, Quay Evans and Nick James. Evans got on campus in January and, after a somewhat slow start, turned a corner and shot up the depth chart. He enters fall listed as an “OR” on the second string, and he has as much natural talent, size and strength as anyone on the line. At minimum, he will be a regular contributor. At best, he works his way into the starting lineup, gets named freshman All-SEC and ends up in the NFL four years from now. He’s got that potential, he just has to make it happen. Then James, of course, is an absolutely enormous nose tackle, weighing somewhere in the 350-pound range, but apparently with the athleticism and nimbleness of a man half his size. He’s got the talent to contribute immediately, he just has to figure out what he’s doing, not having a head start like Evans.

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