The Mississippi State linebacker corps, in many people's eyes, is even more deep and talented than the defensive line. That's an interesting debate for sure, as the d-line projects to be one of the better ones in the SEC.
In my opinion, the linebackers are on that same level. There's a good mix of star power and young players with something to prove. You have a good combination of players that can stop the run, cover slot receivers, and some that are versatile enough to do both.
Stating the obvious, this unit is headlined by Benardrick McKinney. He's projected by most to be a first or second round draft pick at the end of his junior season, and this could very well be the last year you see him suit up in maroon and white.
Believe it or not, there are a couple of players in this group that have a chance to be even better than McKinney if they live up to their potential. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins' specialty is coaching linebackers, and he's one of the best in the business. He has a chance to place several of the linebackers currently on his roster into the NFL over the next several seasons.
Starting on the outside for the dogs will be Beniquez Brown and Matthew Wells. Brown really came on at the end of his freshman season, and Wells is a senior who is a personal favorite of mine.
Brown started last season as a backup but kept working his way up the depth chart throughout the season. By the end of the year, he was getting a significant amount of reps. With an injury to starter Deontae Skinner, Beniquez was able to come in and showcase his talent. In many ways he looked even better than Skinner. Teammates in the past have called him "little KJ" referring to former MSU linebacker great KJ Wright. His ceiling is as high as anybody's, and he might be even better than McKinney before he graduates.
Beniquez had 4.5 tackles for loss and recovered two fumbles on the year. He excelled in the run game, as 33 of his 39 tackles were against the run. That's as good of a redshirt freshman season as anyone could expect. As the full time starter going into 2014, he should get almost twice as many reps which should lead to some very solid numbers.
Matthew Wells is a senior who will be starting for the second year in a row. This guy flies around the field and always seems to be around the football. He tied with Brown for the team lead in fumble recoveries with two. He is the fastest linebacker the Bulldogs have and arguably one of the most important.
Why is he one of the most important? Wells is a very versatile player. He has the speed needed to cover slot receivers and fast tight ends, but is still big enough at 220 pounds to make a difference in the run game. I don't know about off the field but on the field he has a high energy personality. He can be a streaky player at times, but when he's on his game, he is wreaking havoc.
No two games evidence his streaky play more than Texas A&M and Ole Miss. He had six tackles against A&M, and half of those came on the Aggies first drive of the game. He had seven stops against Ole Miss, but four of those came on the Rebels' opening drive of the second half. It's like some drives he is unstoppable and other ones he doesn't really show up. If he can be more consistent he will have a really special year.
The backups at the OLB spot will be Dez Harris and Zach Jackson. Dez is a bigger type of linebacker and Jackson is more of a smaller one.
Jackson has been somewhat of a special teams hero the past couple of seasons, but has been a good backup linebacker as well. This will be his junior season so the time is now to make that next step forward.
Last season he recorded 33 tackles including 2.5 for loss. He didn't record any sacks or turnovers. While that's not as good of a sophomore season as he would have liked to have had, his numbers should improve this year as he sees more playing time. He has been lights out on special teams the last two seasons, finishing both first and second in tackles. If he can be half the player on defense that he has been on special teams, he will be one of MSU's better backups.
Dez Harris is the player that I'm most excited to see. He redshirted last year to learn behind guys like McKinney and Skinner. His name came up more than anyone in spring practice. Coaches and fans raved about how big and fast he looked. He's added some weight since last season and measures in at about 6-3, 240. He was one of the players to earn Geoff Collins' "psycho defense" award in the spring.
The two players that will hold down the middle linebacker spot are Benardrick McKinney and Richie Brown. McKinney is already established as one of the best linebackers in the SEC. Brown is starting to make a name for himself as well.
We all know that Benardrick is the superstar of the defense. He's the one that gets all the pre-season recognition. He will be the one getting praised if the defense has a good year and deservedly so.
He's just a monster. There is no other way to say it. He's a 6'5, 250 pound wrecking machine. He's racked up 173 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss the past two seasons. The defense will go as he goes. You have to wonder how much pressure will be on his shoulders as far as the draft is concerned. He knows if he has another big year he will be making some big money.
If his character is any indication, he will be able to handle that pressure. He was a two star recruit out of high school that team after team passed up on. McKinney has played his whole career like he has something to prove. He goes out there with a chip on his shoulder, and that's one of the qualities that make him so great. Fans should enjoy watching him this season. It will most likely be his last.
Richie Brown, like Beniquez, is another young guy with a ton of potential. He was an All-American in high school. So far that talent has carried over to the next level, although he's still in the early stages of his college career. Coaches brag about his knowledge of the game and how smart he is. It's safe to say he gets it. You won't see many missed assignments from him.
His redshirt freshman season looked almost identical to the one Beniquez had. Richie totaled 38 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, and an interception (even if he did fumble it right after he picked it off... facepalm).
Richie Brown is a player that can play either on the outside or the middle at linebacker. You will see him mostly on the inside this year. But with McKinney getting most of those reps, Richie could line up some on the outside as well. He's too talented to keep off the field. He is another player that has a good chance to join McKinney and Beniquez in the NFL some day.
Player to watch
Everyone should keep a close eye on freshman Gerri Green. The four star recruit by most publications is a physical specimen. When I first saw a picture of him during team workouts my only thought was "wow who in the world is that?" He definitely doesn't look like a freshman. At 6'5 230 pounds, he's pretty much another Benardrick McKinney on the field. Dan Mullen said that Green was the best player in the state last year in his opinion. He has a chance to be an immediate impact freshman if he learns the plays. He played outside linebacker in high school but I expect him to be the future starter at middle linebacker for Mississippi State.
This is the deepest that Mississippi State has been at linebacker in a very long time. They have it all: the senior leader in Matthew Wells, the workhorse in Benardrick McKinney, and future stars such as the Brown brothers and Gerri Green. This will be a fun group to watch in 2014.