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. Today: predicting MSU’s leading tackler.
I thought about going with interceptions for the final prediction set, but those can be a little too random at times and MSU has its leading intercepter back, anyway. Though it’s him – Will Redmond – that I suppose I’d pick were I to do so.
However, while the interceptions leader is back, the team’s leading tackler and one of the best linebackers to ever play for the Bulldogs is off to the NFL after the Houston Texans drafted Benardrick McKinney and his team-high 71 tackles.
Now, Manny Diaz does have the No. 2 tackler returning in junior outside linebacker Beniquez Brown, a budding star for MSU who filled up the stat sheet with 62 tackles, seven for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and three quarterback hurries in his first season as a starter. In fact, word from NFL scouts is that when they were studying McKinney on tape before the draft, Brown stood out as much as anyone.
Lining up on the outside rather than in the middle like McKinney may lessen his opportunities for tackles somewhat, but Brown has one thing going for him we may not be able to say for others: as long as he is healthy and able, Brown will almost never come off the field. He’s one of the most vital parts of the defense, the central figure in making sure everyone is lined up and letting his teammates know what’s coming from the opposing offense. Plus, you know, he’s pretty good. That makes him the obvious choice, and he’s my pick, but it’s worth exploring other possibilities.
One option I’ll throw out there is a little off the wall, but inspired by a surprise I found when looking at the numbers from 2014. Any guesses who was MSU’s third-leading tackler after McKinney and Brown? Matt Wells, Taveze Calhoun, Richie Brown, maybe Preston Smith? All in the top 10, but none had as many tackles as Christian Holmes, the athletic linebacker and special teams ace, who racked up 60 stops, just two fewer than Beniquez.
Holmes, now graduated, accrued the majority of those tackles on kickoff and punt coverage, a place where his speed and strength flourished. Figuring out who will replace him is a crapshoot at this point, but one possibility could be Zach Jackson. He’ll play on defense far more than Holmes did, spending most of the spring as a starting linebacker along with the two [unrelated] Browns, but his skillset lends itself well to special teams. He’s big and strong as a linebacker should be, but he’s also very fast and agile, similar to Holmes. I’m expecting a bit of rotation among the linebackers (more on that momentarily), which could free up some time for Jackson to spend on special teams.
Jackson had 34 tackles himself in 2014, while he replaces Wells at OLB who had 45. If he steps even partially into the role of Holmes on special teams, too, he’ll be in position to make a lot of tackles and challenge for the most on the team in 2015.
Elsewhere, the two starting corners – Calhoun and Will Redmond – were fourth and fifth in tackles, respectively, and are worth watching on a Diaz defense that moves people all over the field. Safety Kendrick Market merits consideration, as well.
At linebacker, where one typically expects to find the leading tackler, Diaz has a bit of an embarrassment of riches. Behind Jackson and the Browns, MSU has a future star in redshirt freshman Gerri Green, a player coaches have bragged on for years as he’s struggled through injury in Dez Harris, an incoming junior college player who is reminiscent of Wells in Traver Jung, and that’s without even mentioning Leo Lewis, the true freshman who was the No. 1 inside linebacker in the country out of high school, or J.T. Gray who was freshman All-SEC last season.
It’s hard to imagine any of those linebackers not playing extensively in some fashion, meaning it may be hard for any of them to rack up enough tackles to lead the team without a little boost from special teams duties.
Beniquez Brown is the pick here, but if last year is any indication, there will be plenty of work to go around. In 2014, 26 different players had double-digit tackles for MSU.