To bridge the gap from the end of sports for the 2014-15 year to the unofficial beginning of sports for the 2015-16 year (SEC Media Days), we’ll be running four series of four items each over the next month in a feature appropriately, if not creatively, titled four-by-four. With Mississippi State football being the focus, we’ll look at four breakout candidates, four position battles, four potential All-SEC players and four possible statistical leaders.
This week, we’re predicting statistical leaders for MSU’s 2015 season, looking at sacks today.
For all the returning star power MSU has on both sides of the ball, State’s defense has huge hole to fill in the graduation of defensive end Preston Smith, a second round NFL Draft pick of the Washington Redskins. Smith opted to return for his senior season in 2014 and led the team with nine sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries, not to mention his two interceptions and multiple SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week awards.
The good news for defensive line coach David Turner is that he’s got a big list of capable candidates to take over the No. 1 pass rusher role. The question for us is who will it be? Sleeper candidates Jonathan Calvin (junior end), Will Coleman (junior end), Nelson Adams (junior tackle) and Torrey Dale (senior end) deserve mention here, and it’s worth factoring in the new style of blitzing defense Manny Diaz is going to employ, meaning linebackers and defensive backs are going to get in on the action, too. In fact, it was senior linebacker Matt Wells who had the second-most sacks on the team last year with four.
But for the moment, we’ll narrow it down to three veterans on the defensive line: senior end Ryan Brown, junior end A.J. Jefferson and junior tackle/end Chris Jones. Of the trio, Brown had the most sacks last year with 3.5, and was second on the team behind Smith with 10 quarterback hurries. Jones had three sacks and eight hurries while Jefferson had 2.5 sacks and nine hurries.
Jones, by most observations, is the most naturally-talented of the bunch, one of the top few players in the country when he signed with MSU just a couple years ago. He played immediately and his ability was evident from the first day of camp. What’s funny is that while he was named first-team All-American by Sporting News this week, he hasn’t even been a first-team player at his own school. Don’t be mistaken, he’s received the reps of a starter, but in 2015 as a junior, he will be a starter for technically the first time [we assume].
Jones has the highest ceiling of the bunch and has the potential to have a monster junior year and leave to be an early pick in next spring’s NFL Draft. He’ll be lined up all over the front line for MSU, but Jones will play the majority of his reps at tackle, which may keep his numbers from showing the impact he has. Such is the curse of defensive tackles.
The surprise of the big contenders is Jefferson. In the much-ballyhooed defensive signing class of 2012, Jefferson was close to an afterthought despite being named a Dandy Dozen player in Mississippi by The Clarion Ledger. Maybe it’s because Jefferson, somehow, doesn’t quite look the part of an elite defensive end. But he’s proven to be one of the most productive linemen of that class, despite the lack of credit and attention.
Maybe there’s a chip on his shoulder from that, maybe there’s not. But once every few months for pretty much the last two years, coaches have singled out Jefferson as the as the hardest worker in the group of defensive linemen in practice. During this year’s spring practice, there might not have been anyone on the entire defensive unit who was as impressive as Jefferson.
Then there’s Brown who, like Jefferson, received very little attention in the 2012 signing class, barely registering as one of the top 1,000 players in the country according to recruiting rankings. But the long-armed and mild-tempered Brown got to campus and played immediately, impressing coaches in practice and fans in games as a true freshman. Going into his senior season, Brown is one of the unquestioned leaders of the entire defense and he’s my pick to lead the team in sacks in 2015.
At 6’6” and 266 pounds, Brown started 12 games last year and was quietly one of the central pieces of MSU’s defense, which is sort of his style. He’s comfortable talking, regularly doing interviews with us media folk, but he’s what Turner often talks about – a lunch pail guy. He’s a hard worker who – apologies for the clichés – has kept his head down and his nose clean for three years while earning respect from those around him and causing trouble for those who play against him.
Others will get the hype going into the season, both for MSU and around the country, but like Smith in 2014, Brown is likely to have the numbers by the time the 2015 season ends.
Whoever it may be to lead the team, there will be one fun storyline to watch along the way: every year since 2012, MSU has increased its sacks, going from 19 in 2012 to 20 in 2013 and jumping to 37 in 2014. Can they top those numbers in 2015?