When A.J. Jefferson walked into Mississippi State’s football facility for breakfast one morning this week, he was surprised to hear his name called by strength coach Rick Court. He knew something was happening out of the norm, but he thought it was just some kind of workout for the young players. He was surprised when moments later he found himself at the opposite end of a thick rope from fellow defensive lineman Chris Jones.
A tug-of-war battle ensued with Dan Mullen watching and yelling the whole time, waiting on a winner to be decided before either could go eat breakfast.
Later that day, MSU went full-contact in practice for the first time since the season began over one month ago. Mullen, again in an animated state, was getting after his players throughout the practice, challenging them to go harder, faster and, most importantly, nastier.
Two plays after Mullen got in the face of his defense during team drills, senior defensive end Ryan Brown came around the edge and when he got to freshman quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, instead of pulling up like he’s supposed to, he followed through and drove Fitzgerald to the ground, green no-contact jersey and all.
“I thought Coach Mullen was fixing to snap, touching one of those green shirts,” Jefferson recalled. “But he didn’t.”
In fact, Mullen cheered his defense on.
“We got challenged this week to show how tough we really are,” Jefferson explained.
Live hits in practice, tug-of-war for breakfast and strong words from every coach on the staff were a part of the week leading up to MSU returning home and hosting Troy.
Fast forward to the first two drives of the game, and it appeared MSU’s players accepted the challenge. On offense, MSU won the toss and took the ball first, a departure from the norm. In two plays and 35 seconds, Dak Prescott and the Bulldogs scored their first touchdown of the game.
When Troy got the ball for the first time, they only made it three plays before safety Brandon Bryant flew into the backfield and dropped the quarterback for a 13-yard loss as he fumbled the ball, allowing defensive tackle Nelson Adams to scoop it up and score.
Later that quarter, junior receiver Fred Ross was back deep to return a punt for the Bulldogs. After catching it, he sped 77 yards down field for a touchdown, State’s third score of the quarter.
At halftime, MSU led 38-0. The Trojans actually had negative 20 yards rushing at that point. By the end of the game, State’s defense had amassed 15 tackles for loss, four sacks, nine passes deflected and two forced turnovers.
“In every phase,” Mullen said. “I thought we really got after it.”
Especially on defense, where “edge” has been the buzzword around the program. When defensive coordinator Manny Diaz spoke to reporters early in the week, he said his defense had a backbone, but now they needed an edge. His challenge in practice was for them to show him who had it. He didn’t care how old or young anyone was, he was just wanted to find the best 11 players – 11 players with an edge.
Said junior linebacker Beniquez Brown, “We wanted to get that swagger back that the Mississippi State defense has.”
Jefferson, the junior end with seven tackles, was a big part of that. On Troy’s second drive, when the Trojans were trying to find rhythm after their disastrous first possession, back-to-back tackles for loss by Jefferson on second and third downs ended the drive before it hard barely even begun, forcing the Trojans to punt. On their next drive, still trying to time find some kind of spark, Troy had eeked across midfield, and when a crucial third-and-nine came up on MSU’s 48 yard line, it was, of course, Jefferson who powered his way into the backfield to bring down the quarterback for a five-yard loss, forcing the Trojans to punt.
His performance was the perfect example for his teammates around him.
“It started with him, and we followed him, bringing that edge back,” Brown said after the game. “He brings it every day. You see him hit somebody, you want to hit somebody.”
“He’s a guy that plays with a little nastiness to him,” Mullen said. “He does a good job of setting the tempo for our defense out there on the field. It’s great to see his growth in that way of taking responsibility, of taking ownership, of being a guy that everyone looks to, to go make a play, to go be a leader, to go set the standard and be a bar for our defense.”
That nastiness Mullen mentioned is a key to the “edge” he and Diaz and all of the staff are trying to get into their team’s approach and mindset after what they considered to be a relatively-edgeless start to the season, even in games they won.
From the jump on Saturday, their was some chippiness between the Trojans and Bulldogs on the field, and while Mullen certainly wasn’t pleased with the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the second half, the general mood was indicative of the tone of he wanted his team to set.
After all, if defensive linemen are allowed to drive their own quarterback into the ground, what are they going to do to the one on the other team?
“That’s part of the whole dynamic,” Jefferson explained. “Coach wants us to be nasty, especially Coach Diaz. He preaches that. Play in the backfield. Get tackles for loss. Hunt TFLs. All of us want to play nasty.”
With the second half of the season to come, and four of those six games at home, MSU is hoping they can keep it up. Matter of fact, Mullen thinks they’ve just begun.
“We told our guys, don’t step on that field unless you’re ready to play our style of defense and get after people,” he said. “I think it’s going to get even better for us.”