In an odd twist, one of the seemingly younger and greener positions for Mississippi State is, apparently, becoming one of the deeper groups, too.
According to co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Geoff Collins, his group ran as many as six or seven different guys with the first-string linebackers in MSU’s first scrimmage of the fall Monday morning.
Of course, when you look at the six he mentioned, the group isn’t quite as inexperienced as they may seem.
Senior Cam Lawrence we know. He’s all-SEC and the leading returning tackler in the conference.
But, for whatever reason, junior Deontae Skinner is a relative unknown. The big-bodied linebacker/defensive end hybrid has garnered some attention locally, but he’s generally flown under the radar, perhaps due to his humble nature.
As a sophomore last year, Skinner was fifth on the team in tackles, and only Fletcher Cox had more tackles for loss (14.5) than Skinner (9) over the course of the season.
“He’s got his notepad taking notes constantly,” Collins said of Skinner. “He’s such a team guy, always putting other guys over himself … Deontae’s one that when he gets a lot of reps at something, he becomes a master at it.”
Sophomore Ferlando Bohanna and freshman Benardrick McKinney are listed as co-starters at middle linebacker, and neither has a vast amount of game experience to fall back on, though Bohanna did appear in 12 games last season, mostly in a special teams role.
However, two more “backups” behind that starting group have spent plenty of time under the lights.
Now sophomore Matt Wells started two games last fall as a freshman and played in all 13 for the Bulldogs. Now, Collins said, his deer-in-the-headlights eyes as a youngster are gone, and the coach said Wells played as many as three different positions Monday morning.
Yet another ‘backer to get first team reps was Chris Hughes, the athletic junior who struggled some last year, but was talented enough to play as a true freshman in 2010.
“This preseason, he’s been very impressive, very focused. He’s always been one of the smartest kids on defense,” Collins said. “I expect big things from Chris Hughes.”
All six of those got repetitions with the ones, and we didn’t even mention sophomore Christian Holmes, who Collins singled out as someone who improved greatly over the summer, and true freshmen Richie Brown and Beniquez Brown, both of whom Collins expects to play this year.
“Every day we just mix and match just to see who’s the best and who’s the best at playing with who,” Collins said.
One of the plusses to having so many options is the variety of players he has. McKinney and Skinner come with huge frames and a knack for big plays, while guys like Hughes and Wells have enough speed and athleticism to cover SEC running backs and tight ends.
The best part, Collins said, is that each of his linebackers seems to learn from the others, saying his speed guys have gotten more physical and his physical guys have learned how to drop into coverage.
So, while casual observers may only recognize Lawrence’s name (and his long hair coming out of the back of his helmet), Collins believe he has several names people should know, and even more he will be depending on.