Thursday afternoon, late in Mississippi State’s football practice, a couple hundred coaches from various schools and levels watched from the sideline as Dan Mullen burst out in a fit of frustration. One of the defensive linemen, junior tackle Nick James, had jumped offside before the snap in 11-on-11 work. It wasn’t the first mistake in practice, nor would it be the last for either side of the ball, but it was the one that set Mullen off – the proverbial straw on the camel’s back.
MSU’s head coach ran from his spot behind the action and right into the middle of the fray of coaches and players to let them know – loudly – that he wasn’t happy. He wasn’t mad at James specifically, he was mad at the defense in general. That play happened to come a few days after the offense had a banner day in the first full scrimmage of the spring in Davis Wade Stadium, meaning the defense was less than stellar.
“I would say it was a pretty strong butt-kicking,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said about it, with only a hint of a smile.
If Mullen was frustrated, Diaz was even moreso, though he was a bit less obvious about it. However, since that moment Thursday, the defense has looked like an entirely different unit. The rest of practice, they flourished. For the majority of the second scrimmage this past Saturday, Diaz’s unit was dominant; fast, strong and swarming.
Now, all that improvement didn’t come just because of one heated talk from their coach. They’re football players – it would be strange if they went more than a week or two without one of those. But it was certainly a good reminder for a defense that has a lot of talent and has started to show it under their new defensive coordinator.
“Our blessing and our curse here is we have a bunch of guys who can make plays, and have made plays in big games,” Diaz said early last week, before the eventual improvement. “The issue is they have to be able to do it consistently … What stops us from doing that consistently?”
On Saturday in Davis Wade, they were consistent. In fact, even those who have never made plays in any game – because they’ve never played in one for MSU – were showing out.
Junior college transfer and defensive end Jonathan Calvin has been a star on the line and made a strong impact for his unit Saturday. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Cory Thomas was in on seemingly every play, the spark for many of them. Redshirt freshman safety Brandon Bryant looks like one of the most talented players on the field and junior corner Cedric Jiles – healthy for the first time – is showing why teammates called him a future NFL player the day he arrived on campus.
It can be easy for those around the program to forget, but Diaz is completely new to these players. The coaches know him from his last stop in Starkville, as do the fans and media, but not a one of the defensive players now had a single practice under him back in 2010. They were all in high school, and junior high for some of them.
As such, learning a similar-but-new system has been a process. Early in spring, as Diaz said, the issue wasn’t talent. More than anything, it seemed to be communication and comfort.
Seemingly, those issues have improved greatly. State’s defense looked fast Saturday, and that’s because they knew where they supposed to be. Speed does no one any good if they don’t know where they’re going.
“I think we’re getting a little bit better,” Mullen said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “It’s all the subtle changes. There’s little changes at certain positions and certain defenses that things look different than what they did in the past. You’ll see some guys, when it’s a high-stress, high-tempo situation, all of the sudden reverting. How the blitz is hitting, what gaps we’re hitting in, those will take some time as they continue to grow.”
The change on defense hasn’t been wholesale, however. Far from it. As Diaz said, what MSU did in the past was good. They’re just trying to make it even better. One of the favorite buzzwords for defensive coaches is “multiple,” but it appears to have truth under Diaz. MSU is sending blitzes from everywhere, disguising plans (as well as it can against it’s own offense, anyway) and moving people around frequently.
Reading between the lines, it also sounds as if the 1A and 1B defense may be a thing of the past. Diaz likes his depth, but when asked about it, he didn’t give the vibe of one who envisions subbing out his entire starting 11 at the same time.
“What we did here the last few years was good, but like anything, we’re trying to make it better,” Diaz said.
One of the more subtle differences, as Mullen pointed out Saturday, has been the demeanor of the defense, the collective attitude. It’s nothing malicious, but exchanges between offensive and defensive players have been slightly more chippy. No one is allowed to tackle Dak Prescott, of course, but when Chris Jones breaks through the line and has the play blown dead for a would-be sack, he makes sure to give his quarterback a bump on the shoulder as he runs backs to his defense.
Mullen joked that you won’t see any freshmen comfortable enough to do such a thing, but harmless exchanges like that speak to the enhanced aggression and drive from this unit.
To say everything is perfect, on either side of the ball, would be unwise at this moment. But it’s very easy to say this: MSU’s defense is starting to click under Manny Diaz. With the playmakers available on the field and the playcallers standing on the sideline, the Bulldogs have a great deal of potential.