Spring football positional review: defense

College football is never really “over,” but with the conclusion of spring practice, we can at least call it dormant as it hibernates for the hot summer months ahead.

Mississippi State’s football team finished the spring with its annual Maroon-White game in Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday afternoon in front of 21,000 people who are likely all sporting red foreheads and farmer’s tans at work today, so now seemed like the appropriate time to offer a spring review.

ONIVPJBZNNOGAVG.20121111020240I’m going to do this by position group, breaking it up into offense and defense in two separate posts. I’ll offer my thoughts, along with my paraphrasing and summarizing what coaches have said the last few weeks, so if there’s a Star Wars reference calling a defensive linemen an angry, indestructible Chewbacca, those are my words, not Dan Mullen’s.

We’ll start with the defense.

Defensive Tackle

Coach’s Take: This is an entire position of potential, which as defensive line coach David Turner said, is a fancy way of saying they haven’t done anything yet. That said, both he and the other coaches see a lot of talent, capable of producing as much inside pass-rush as MSU had when Fletcher Cox was still roaming the line of scrimmage, if not more, presuming everyone is mentally prepared by August 31.

Bob’s Take: Potential is certainly the right way to put it. Junior P.J. Jones and sophomores Quay Evans and Nick James are uber-talented, were top recruits and were good enough to play as true freshmen. To use a scouting term, all three have burst and are surprisingly nimble for their size. But, Turner’s definition of the P-Word arises, as none of the three has done much yet while guys like Cox, Josh Boyd and others have been in front of them on the field. Somewhere in the middle of potential and production is junior Kaleb Eulls, who switched from end to tackle this spring. He’s looked comfortable and impressive at tackle, but all of his experience the last two years is as a starting defensive end.

If the potential turns into production as coaches hopes, MSU could end up with one of the best and biggest defensive tackle rotations in the SEC, providing a ton of pressure up the middle. Honestly, just getting two of the four to take that next step would go a long way, but getting all on board would mean big things.

Defensive End

Bob’s Take: MSU lost a starter here, in a manner of speaking, with Eulls moving to tackle, but for the first time in a while, MSU looks like it may have good depth at the position. Junior Preston Smith actually led the team in sacks last year as backup to Eulls, and now in the spring he’s even being pushed by sophomore Ryan Brown who played as a true freshman last year. Denico Autry had an adjustment period last year arriving from junior college, but played his best as the season went on. Sure, it’s spring, and I hate to use hyperbole, but Autry seems like a new man. Last year, he was just running around. Now, he’s confident, loose and comfortable. He knows what he’s doing, basically, and is shooting for double-digit sacks in his senior campaign.

Coach’s Take: The coaches seem to have noticed Autry’s boost in confidence, too, as they’ve talked about him as a leader on defense, both in the locker room and on the field, at his position and elsewhere. They finally seem happy with the numbers and rotation they have, and that rotation ought to be pretty heavy if the substitution patterns new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins talks about remain in the fall. Redshirt freshmen A.J. Jefferson and Torrey Dale have both made significant jumps in their year of learning, offering Turner and Collins plenty of options.

Linebacker

Coach’s Take: Perhaps more than any other position, this is where Collins’ rotation is the heaviest. Over the course of spring, he put a baker’s dozen different groups of three on the field, switching people in and out of action as well as trying them out in different linebacker positions. Collins, also the linebackers coach, wants to play as many as he can. As many linebackers as he has prove themselves SEC-ready, he’s going to play, he says. Might be five, might be eight.

Bob’s Take: This is where MSU’s defense takes the biggest loss (not corner) with the graduation of Cam Lawrence. From my viewpoint, it looks like Collins is giving everyone a fresh start. Benardrick McKinney was a freshman All-American last year at middle linebacker, but he has occasionally sat in favor of senior Chris Hughes, who had typically played on the outside. The lean, long junior Matt Wells has been the most consistent “starter” at the other outside linebacker spot, replacing Lawrence. On the opposite side, senior Deontae Skinner has been his usual self, while redshirt freshman Beniquez Brown did a stupendous job filling in when Skinner sat out a scrimmage with a minor injury. Brown managed to pick off Tyler Russell twice and has been one of the young stars of the spring, as has fellow redshirt freshman Richie Brown. I have no clue who the starting three will end up being, but I don’t think it matters much as at least six will be seeing significant time and Collins will mix and match based on the opposing offense, which he certainly has the personnel to do.

Cornerback

Bob’s Take: As a group, MSU’s corners have proven next to nothing on the field. But even departed big-timers Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay have said the current collection may be even better than what they had last year. May be better one day, that is. JUCO transfer Justin Cox is as impressive a combination of size, speed and smarts as anyone, he just has to figure out what he’s doing. Cedric Jiles has been called by teammates a “three-year guy” because they think he’s good to enough to be in the NFL, Will Redmond was one of the top recruits in last year’s signing class and earned frequent first-team reps, while junior Jamerson Love is likely the fastest member of the defense and has the most game experience of anyone.

Coach’s Take: Like Turner’s tackles, new corners coach Deshea Townsend’s group is full of potential and lacking on production. A combined zero starts among the group is a cause for concern, while the clear talent offers plenty of hope. For now, Townsend’s main concern is technique. When August comes, he says, he’ll worry more about making sure they’re mentally up for primetime games.

Safety

Bob’s Take: Last season, safety was sort of a hodgepodge collection for MSU, as Corey Broomfield switched from corner to safety before eventually switching back to corner, Nickoe Whitley was less than 100 percent for the majority of the season and youngsters Jay Hughes and Dee Arrington were getting their first significant and extended play. Now, Whitley looks more like the breakout player he was as a sophomore in 2011 and Hughes, entering his junior year, has made significant strides from the beginning of spring to end. With Whitley sitting out the spring game, Hughes took the role of leader and ran with it. The depth isn’t incredibly, well, deep, but if Hughes and Whitley stay healthy, MSU has a strong duo at safety.

Coach’s Take: More than anything, Whitley’s emergence as a leader of the defense has been the pride of the coaches, everyone from safeties coach Tony Hughes to Mullen himself. Hughes is happy with the stability of having both starters return and hopes it remains. Both Whitley and Hughes (the player and son) offer Hughes (the coach and father) a bit of versatility, as each is comfortable in coverage as well stopping the run.

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