Peeps, it's been a long offseason. WMD has been itching to get this written for a month. I'm so excited for the 2014 season, I can't stand it. Only 4 Saturdays to kickoff, and it can't get here quickly enough. With no further verbosity, here's Part I of my Preseason Preview. Let's see what the 2014 Dawg D might look like.
Mississippi State returns 19 of the 22 2-deep from last season. MSU only lost Denico Autry, Deontae Skinner, and Nickoe Whitley to graduation. Nickoe Whitley had the kind of big play ability on D you'll miss, regardless of who else is coming back. And replacing a 3-year starter like Skinner isn't easy, either. The good news is Mississippi State has plenty of experienced young players who've gotten snaps with those guys and are hungry for their chance to shine. Here's my position-by-position look:
DE: Mississippi state returns Preston Smith, Ryan Brown, AJ Jefferson, and Torrey Dale at DE. Smith was MSU's most consistent DE last season. He finished the 2013 season 7th on the team in total tackles with 44, tied for second in TFLs with 6.5, 3rd in sacks with 2.5, and had a forced fumble. I look for him to improve on those pressure numbers this season. WMD really likes both Ryan Brown and AJ Jefferson as a tandem at the DE spot opposite Smith. They showed some glimpses of being able to get good pressure in limited action last season. I also wouldn't be surprised if Chris Jones gets some situational snaps at DE this year.
DT: This group might be the strongest unit on the Bulldog D. Everyone returns from a year ago. Kaleb Eulls, PJ Jones, Chris Jones, Nelson Adams, and Curtis Virges are as formidable a group as there is in the SEC. MSU also gains Nick James, who redshirted last season. Word coming out of Starkville is that the light has come on for James. He's in the best shape of his career and his attitude is great. If that is true, this would be a HUGE improvement to the DT group. Just imagining Chris Jones and Nick James in the game at the same time makes WMD giddy. The best part of this group is how versatile it is. You've got great run stoppers in Eulls, PJ Jones, Adams, and James. Then for pass rush, you've got Chris Jones and PJ Jones. We can mix-and-match here as necessary. Plus the extraordinary depth will allow us to keep all these guys fresh.
LB: As mentioned above, MSU lost 3-year starter Deontae Skinner at OLB. But in some ways, he had been passed on the depth chart in the latter portion of 2013 by Beniquez Brown. Speaking of Beni Brown, WMD really likes him. He's big and fast. Sure tackler who can lower the boom if needed. This guy has a chance to be among the elite LBs in MSU history by the time he leaves. The leader of this group will be Benardrick McKinney at MLB. McKinney is projected to be a First Round NFL Draft Pick in 2015 as a Junior. He led MSU in tackles last season with 71. He also amassed 7 TFLs and 3.5 sacks. McKinney might quietly be the best LB in the SEC in 2014. The third starter for MSU will be Matt Wells. This kid just flat gets after it. He's ridiculously fast, able to cover slot WRs and hybrid TEs from spread offenses. The second unit will be nasty as well. Richie Brown, Dez Harris, and Zach Jackson are very solid players. Coaches rave about Harris. There's also a lot of talk surrounding true freshman Gerri Green. He's coming off an ACL injury in high school in 2013, but apparently has been a workout warrior in voluntary summer drills. Keep an eye on him this fall, as he could crack the LB rotation.
CB: Starters Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun both return. They'll be backed by Will Redmond and Cedric Jiles. Love & Calhoun both had 3 INTs last season. These two guys excel in coverage. Calhoun really came on strong late in 2013 and showed why Johnthan Banks predicted he'd be the next great MSU CB. Coaches also really love Redmond. He's a physical CB, and I look for him to take a big step forward this season. He should benefit from last years playing time after missing 1.5 seasons due to suspension (Thanks, Bracky!).
S: This group is the question mark of the MSU defense heading into 2014. Kendrick Market, WMD's personal favorite defensive player, is the lone returning starter. Market finished second on the team in 2013 with 64 total tackles. He also had 1.5 TFLs and a forced fumble. Justin Cox made the switch from CB to his natural S during Liberty Bowl practice last year and will remain there in 2014. Jay Hughes will return after rupturing his Achilles tendon on the 6th play of the season last year. Deontay Evans played well in MSU's Liberty Bowl victory and should see some playing time as well. Kivon Coleman and Quadry Antoine could also see some PT here. Right now, WMD projects Cox and Market to be the starters in 2014. WMD will be keeping a close eye on Hughes return from injury, as he could play a factor here. WMD thinks this unit will be plenty solid in 2014, as there's plenty of talent, just not a lot of experience other than Market.
P: Devon Bell will be the MSU punter in 2014. He split time with Baker Swedenburg in the second half of 2014, and averaged 41.2 YPP. He's got a big leg and gets good hang time. He'll be an effective weapon in this role. The one thing I'd like to see him improve is his release time. Bell had a couple blocked last season, so I'd like to see him get the ball away more quickly in 2014.
KO: Bell is also the favorite to handle kickoff duties in 2014. He had 25 touchbacks in 66 KOs last season. Not a good percentage, but some of that was a deliberate attempt to hang the ball high to prevent a return and pin the opponent inside the 25. MSU will have Michigan walk-on transfer JJ McGrath in 2014. WMD will keep an eye on him as a possibility to unseat Bell for KO duties.
Scheme: MSU will be multiple on defense this season, but the base defensive package will be a 4-3. Geoff Collins' promotion to DC last season renewed the energy (Juice Points!!!!) and aggressiveness (Psycho Defense!) of the Bulldog D. With a year under their belts and 19/22 returning players, Collins can focus on more complex schemes instead of needing to re-teach the basics. MSU's depth and diversity in player styles will allow MSU to mix-and-match personnel to create maximum chaos. Don't be surprised to see the Dawgs operate out of several different looks this season, possibly some 3-4, 3-3-5, 4-2-5, and traditional nickel package. Collins will also emphasize increased "mayhem" as he terms negative plays and turnovers. One thing is certain, this will be a fun, fun, fun unit to watch.
WMD's Outlook: I think MSU will be one of the top 3 defenses in the SEC this season. The front 7 might be the best in the SEC. They'll continue to excel stopping the run and should improve at creating pressure on the QB. Chris Jones is set to become one of the big stars in the SEC. I look for a whole lot of pressure up the middle from him and off the edge from Preston Smith. The DBs should excel in coverage. We have a nice mix of speed CBs like Love and physical DBs like Calhoun. Kendrick Market was quietly one of the most solid players on defense last season at safety. Justin Cox should benefit tremendously moving back to his natural S position. There may be some early growing pains in the defensive backfield, but the early season schedule should allow them to work out a lot of kinks prior the highly anticipated Week 4 match with LSU in Death Valley. This should be the deepest, fastest defense of the Mullen tenure with at least 8 future NFL players. WMD thinks this D has the chance to be in the discussion with the 1999 D for best D in school history. That might be a little wooly, but the front 7 alone has me that fired up.
Coming soon: Offense and related STs.
In Mullen We Trust,