Preston Smith, defensive end, drafted in the second round by the Washington Redskins.
Kaleb Eulls, defensive tackle, on the 53-man roster for the New Orleans Saints.
P.J. Jones, defensive tackle, signed by the Miami Dolphins.
Their mass exodus to the NFL left Ryan Brown, defensive end, the only returning starter on Mississippi State’s defensive line as the Bulldogs are breaking in three new starters beside him. Every new season means a new a team to go with it, as coaches often say, but MSU’s defensive line in 2015 takes the idea to something of an extreme. And two games into the year, their head coach Dan Mullen likes what he’s seen as his new number-ones, all juniors, transition from their two years as backups.
“I think they‘re coming along nicely,” Mullen said. “Those guys have really worked hard to be in that position. They’re understanding and taking that responsibility of going from a two to a one and what the standard of excellence is. They’re grasping onto that role.”
Two games in, it appears the group of four starters have the potential for great things, even if there is a bit of a learning curve. It’s a small sample-size, sure, but more plays than not it seems one or several of MSU’s linemen are in the opposing backfield. Running backs have been flattened trying to block them, quarterbacks have been surprised trying to run from them and ball carriers have been dropped on site attempting to get past them.
Brown is the leader, as any of his teammates will quickly share, and the three juniors all consider themselves jokesters of some sort. Defensive end A.J. Jefferson and defensive tackles Chris Jones and Nick James all have the natural ability to make people around them laugh. Of course, they’ve also got the ability to make people hurt, or at least regret trying to move the ball down the field. But they’re plenty nice off the field.
“We have a lot of different personalities in the group,” Jefferson said. “Obviously, me, Chris and Nick, we’re the goofy ones. Ryan is the serious one. He’s more of the grandpa of the group.”
Grandpa may be a fitting title for the stoic senior of the line. He’s always got a smile on his face off the field, but his work in practice and in games is what motivates his teammates.
“Ryan Brown,” Mullen said, “he’s steady. He’s been steady for a while. He’s a guy that always, from day one, he puts everything in.”
Even now, Jefferson said he’s still learning from Brown, and whatever Brown has taught Jefferson has apparently been quite beneficial. The junior end played extensively last year, but he’s burst onto the scene in 2015 in his first season as a starter.
Jefferson has four tackles for loss, two sacks, and what many would pick as the highlight defensive play of the season so far when a Southern Miss running back who tried to block him was knocked to the side by Jefferson’s powerful stride, a moment Jefferson simply recalled by saying, “I felt something on my leg.”
Said Mullen, “A.J. has become a playmaking performer for us and we’re really pleased with what he’s done.”
On the inside, the duo of Jones and James looks like it could be becoming one of the best in the conference. Both have always had All-SEC, even All-American talent. The trick has been to tap into that talent.
The emergence of James, specifically, has been a pleasant surprise for the team. His first couple years on campus were a struggle, hardly playing as a freshman and then being redshirted in what would have been his sophomore year in 2013. But in 2014, James slowly got on the field more. In the spring of 2015, he started improving his approach. By this fall, he came out of camp the most level-headed, prepared, in-shape and motivated he’d ever been.
The growth paid off when James was named a starter for the first time in MSU’s season-opener.
“I’m really pleased with how Nick’s been playing in the course of the game,” Mullen said. “He’s learning how to take the improvements he’s made at practice and translate them onto the field.”
James has had help, too, from his good friend Jones, a man who has had a big start to the year himself after what he deemed an “embarrassing” sophomore campaign in 2014.
Jones surprised everyone on the first play of the year when he lined up at linebacker. He surprised the Golden Eagles when he was a part of tackling them on just about every play of that opening drive. By the time LSU lined up against him, they knew to expect him, and even they couldn’t stop Jones as he racked up eight tackles in the game.
“You’re seeing Chris Jones, to me, trying to develop into being an every snap player,” Mullen said. “He makes some big plays, still makes some mistakes. We’ve talked to him. To become a dominating player, you show up every snap.”
The unit still has room for improvement, of course. None were pleased with allowing LSU and star running back Leonard Fournette the amount of success he had, and far more tests will certainly come over the course of the season. But with Brown as the leader and the three joking juniors as the muscle behind him, they’re ready for it. Together.
“I play hard, I see Nick James playing hard, I see A.J. and Ryan and we just try to keep each other going,” Jones said.