Mississippi State’s strength on defense last year, its defensive line, might be its greenest position in 2015. Gone are three starters from a dominant unit, including potential first-round NFL Draft pick Preston Smith.
So, who replaces those guys, as well as the two senior backups who are now off in the real world, too? Well, despite only one “starter” returning, the Bulldogs do have a few who were technically backups last year but played as many snaps as anyone. They’ve also got some young talent who hasn’t yet seen the field. Plus, they’ve got new guys, too. Having quality options isn’t the problem for defensive line coach David Turner. It’s figuring out which ones to use and when.
Obviously, there’s a ways to go before next season starts, giving Turner plenty of time to get things figured out. But halfway through spring practice, he’s got an idea of how things are shaping up, so we talked to him about it.
Now, here’s the thing about Turner. He’s much better than me at coaching football, as one would expect, but he’s also much than me at words. Typically, these type articles are heavy on my words and light on the quotes, but for someone with the gift of description like Turner, we’ll reverse that.
Anyway, let’s start with the big question, figuring out who replaces Preston Smith as the feared pass rusher. The natural answer seems to be senior defensive Ryan Brown, which Turner said is both accurate and not accurate.
“Ryan’s just gotta be Ryan and that’ll be good enough,” he said. “He’s a little different animal than Preston in terms of athletic ability. He does some things better than Preston. Probably not as fast as Preston, but very effective.
“Ryan does what Ryan does. He comes out every day and grinds and works. Every day is the same. I think he’s gonna have a tremendous year.”
Relying on Brown is expected, though. He’s the only returning starter from last year, after all. But who else adds to the pass rush? It sounds like junior A.J. Jefferson, who has consistently earned praise from Turner, might be one of the most important guys in the group, even if he doesn’t always seem that way.
“A.J. is kind of a hard hat guy,” Turner said. “He grinds and he’s kind of sneaky good. You don’t realize what he’s doing and how good he is until you stop and watch the tape. He has the ability to make a lot of plays. A.J., he loves football. He plays violent, he plays strong and he loves football. He’s a guy that should be the alpha dog of this group, kind of the bell cow of the group.”
Jefferson and Brown sound like the guys to beat at defensive end, but one guy I think has that ability is junior college transfer Jonathan Calvin. He’s impressed in practice, particularly with a diving one-handed interception over the weekend. Once again, Turner’s words on Calvin are better than mine could ever be.
“Well, right now he’s a lost ball in high weeds,” Turner said of Calvin. “His head is spinning. He’s going to be OK. He’s got some power, he’s got some pump, he’s got some explosion. Once we get him in the right direction learning what to do, he’s gonna be fine.”
Two other wild cards are senior Torrey Dale, who Turner said really turned a corner late in 2014, and junior college transfer Will Coleman who redshirted last year. Coleman offers something a little different than those competing with him.
“Will is a little faster than some of the other guys,” Turner said. “Which he’s probably gotta be because he’s not as heavy as some of the other guys. I’ve been pleased with him. Will wants to be good, works at it, studies it, asks questions.”
So, those are the ends. Strong, experienced group. At tackle, however, Turner said the depth is good but the experience is partially lacking. Juniors Chris Jones and Nelson Adams are the most game-experienced of the group, and Jones played as many downs as just about anyone on the line last year.
Few question the ability Jones has, being big, strong, fast and explosive. The key, Turner says, is for Jones to keep working.
“I just want Chris to lead himself,” Turner said. “I’m not worried about him leading anybody else, I just want him to lead himself and understand for him to be as good as he wants to be he’s gotta work hard every day at it.”
Pair those two likely starters with junior Nick James, who Turner said has continued to make strides in the offseason, and MSU has a good group of tackles who have at least played in the SEC. However, one of the most impressive players to me is one who hasn’t played a down. Big Cory Thomas redshirted last year, but he had all the physical tools to compete with the big boys as soon as he got on campus.
Natural size and ability, however, aren’t all it takes. Turner sees the physical characteristics of Thomas. It’s the rest of the game he said needed developing.
“He’s gotta learn how to play and play hard in this league,” Turner said. “It’s not high school. He hasn’t played ball in two years. He’s got a lot of ability. He’s no different than any other freshman. He’s gotta learn the tempo and understand that things are going to be moving a whole lot faster and everybody is going to be big and strong and it’s not gonna be a matter of just overpowering people. He’s gonna have to play with technique.”
Those aren’t all the candidates across the line, of course, as Turner will have plenty of freshmen coming in, a few others who redshirted last year and a host of other available and talented bodies to put in the fray.
Given his wish, he’d like to use 8-10 guys each game, but he’s got to find them first.
The spring has been a good start.