NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 30: Deontae Skinner #51 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs pressures quarterback Tanner Price #10 of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during play at the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl at LP Field on December 30, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Spring football practice has sprung, and the Mississippi State football team finished up another successful spring practice with the Maroon team winning the annual spring game 33-22 last Saturday. Yesterday Croom Diaries broke down the Offense and what we could see there this fall, and today we'll talk about how State appears to be shaping up for the 2012 season in the defensive side of the ball.
2011 was definitely a successful campaign for Coach Chris Wilson and his defense, and he will return a strong unit for the 2012 season, which will be looking to improve on last year's Music City Bowl champion defense. Of course much of last year's success was due to Fletcher Cox, the former Bulldog who tomorrow night will hear his name called as a part of the first round of the NFL draft. But there was quite a bit of talented defenders around Cox that helped make 2011 a success. Let's take a look at who is gone this upcoming fall, who will return, and what new faces could make an impact.
Gone in 2012 is Fletcher Cox, along with a handful of other Bulldog defensive players. Some of the bigger names that State will look to replace in 2012 are MLB's Brandon Wilson, Jamie Jones and Brandon Maye, DE Sean Ferguson and S's Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner. The good news, however, is that State returns plenty of players who can help fill roles of the guys we just mentioned.
On the defensive front, State will be more than reloaded as they look to replace Cox with guys like Quay Evans and Corvell Harrison-Gay. Those two guys showed out in the spring game, and could really become key components to an already strong defensive front. Other members of State's deep d-line include Senior's Shane McCarddell and Josh Boyd, Sophomore's Curtis Virges and Kaleb Eulls, and newcomer Denico Autry. Autry is a name everyone will be watching this fall as he comes in highly touted and already drawing comparisons to Pernell McPhee, former Bulldog and current Baltimore Raven starter. It's really hard to give a star to watch this fall in this front, as so many guys can contribute so much, and I really expect this to be State's strongest point on defense, including a very strong Cornerback position.
In the middle at Linebacker, State looks to replace Brandon Wilson in the middle, and already 2 more-than-capable youngsters have stepped up to try and fill that role. Ferlando Bohanna and Bernardrick McKinney both had outstanding springs, and really either one could fill that starting role in the fall at MLB. Right now I would give it to Bernardrick, and kudos to the coaches for finding this kid. He has tremendous upside, and with that size could easily be a Sunday footballer someday. In addition to talented youth in the middle, State will return Cam Lawrence and Deontae Skinner on the outsides, and I expect both to have a great 2012.
Moving to the outside edges, State looks to have its' best group of Cornerbacks in well, quite awhile. Seniors Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield look to man the edges, but don't expect Darius Slay to sit back and let them do that. Slay had a great spring, which culminated in an outstanding final scrimmage last Thursday where he picked starting QB Tyler Russell off 3 times. These 3 guys anchor what many expect to be the strongest position on the whole team for State.
To me the biggest question mark lies at Safety, where Nickoe Whitley, Dee Arrington and the rest of the last line of the Bulldog's defense will look to replace Charles Mitchell, who will be joining Fletcher Cox in playing on Sundays very soon. If Dee, Louis Watson, or one of the other candidates at Safety can step up to have a big year this fall, State's defense could go from good to great.
Overall 2012 Expectations/Thoughts:
State will make upgrades on the defensive line with regards to depth and overall talent. We will certainly miss Fletcher, but I think this year's unit will still be outstanding in a more by-committee type way than having any one individual star. Look for the line's added depth to play a factor in some close games where last year the lack of depth shone through a bit. Who to watch for on d-line? Quay Evans. This guys is an absolute beast, and he will only get stronger and quicker working in the Balis weight room. Scary to think where he could be in 3 years.
At linebacker, I think overall State will take a step up talent-wise in 2012 and could really see a good year for all 3 LB's. I think having Cam Lawrence's experience will help out the young guys in the middle, and overall the unit should improve from its solid 2011 campaign. Who to watch at LB? Bernardrick McKinney. Long, athletic, and has quickly risen to starter competition status in the middle. I think his K.J. Wright frame gives him a lot to work with, but he does still have some muscle to put on before he hits K.J. status.
At Corner, you really have to feel comfortable this fall with veterans Broomfield and Banks (not a law firm) manning the edges. At Safety is where you start to get a bit concerned, but hopefully we can keep Nickoe healthy and another young safety will emerge to give us two solid options at the Safeties positions. Who to watch for at Corner? Darius Slay. All day, everyday. At Safety, I'd watch for Nickhoe Whitley.... to take your head off.
Overall, State should have an outstanding defense. Are we talking Bama/LSU 2011 level? Probably not as far as individual talent wise goes. At least not for this season. State does start several NFL talents though, just some are young and have some experience to gain before they can garner those accomplishments. I think the soft early schedule will work to the Dogs advantage as well as they look to break in some new faces like Autry and McKinney who are not familiar with SEC level competition. I think by the time that State hits the gauntlet of games that starts in November, this defense will be more than ready to accept the challenge and face some of the best offenses in the country.