2014 saw the Mississippi State defense decline. The Dawgs were great at Scoring D, finishing in the Top 3 in the SEC. But State dropped to 12 in Total Defense and 14 in Passing Defense. Needless to say, many State fans weren't sad to see Geoff Collins bolt for the Defensive Coordinator job at Florida.
MSU head coach Dan Mullen would go back to the past and hire former MSU DC Manny Diaz, who coached the Dawg D in 2010 then left for Texas. The reaction to bringing back Diaz was mostly positive from State fans. It will be interesting to see how Diaz has grown in his time away from Starkville and how he will go about improving the defense. The good news for Diaz is that he's going to have a whole lot of talent to work with this season. Let's take a look at the 2015 MSU D:
DE: 2015 will see Ryan Brown on one end and AJ Jefferson on the other. Brown was the starter opposite the departed Preston Brown last season. He's a solid pass rusher that's shown glimpses of being very good. Now is his time to put it all together and shine. Jefferson has played a lot in the last two seasons and is no slouch himself. He's been among the team leaders in Tackles For Loss two years in a row. Even though he's getting his first starting opportunity, he's got a lot of experience under his belt. State fans should feel pretty comfortable about both of these guys.
Behind Brown and Jefferson is where it gets tricky. Torrey Dale is one of the candidates to play a backup role. Will Coleman is another. Coleman is a JUCO player from Tyler, TX. Jonathan Calvin, another JUCO from Co-Lin, will be in the battle for backup reps. Keep an eye on true freshman Keith Joseph as well. Some of the defensive players have already been talking about how good he's looked so far in fall camp. He's got good bloodlines and should have excellent technique. The only problem I see is that he's a little light, listed at just 233 pounds. He might be a redshirt candidate just to give his body time to fill out and put some more weight on him.
DT: The Dawgs have three very good DTs this season. We all know about Chris Jones. If he lives up to his potential this season, he's going to make all of us very happy. Nick James finally looks to have gotten himself into shape and is ready to make money. I think he's primed for a big season, although it likely won't show up in the stats. His role will be to occupy two or more blockers and free up his teammates on the DL to wreak havoc. If Jones and/or our DEs go off big, one of the top reasons will be Nick James. Nelson Adams is the third man in this group who will see lots of PT. He's had a very solid first two seasons in Starkville and will provide us quality snaps when Jones or James need a blow. He may even start, if you're into counting "starters" by who's on the field for the first snap. Regardless, these three will rotate regularly and play a whole lot.
Like DE, our DT depth is a little shaky. Redshirt freshman Cory Thomas has drawn good reviews from those who've been watching open practices. I think he'll definitely play a role as a depth guy in 2015. After Thomas, we need one of the freshman DTs to step up and show he's capable of playing. The smart money is probably on Fletcher Adams, brother of Nelson Adams. He's a little bit of a tweener at 267 pounds, but could be a nice pass rush specialist. Also keep on eye on RS freshmen Grant Harris and Braxton Hoyett. Harris is another guy who's a little bit of a tweener at 273 pounds, but could be another pass rush specialist. Hoyett is a classic run stopper.
LB: As usual, the linebackers will be the strength of the MSU D in 2015. During MSU Media Days on Sunday, Manny Diaz said the best 6 LBs are going to play regardless of position. With that in mind, State is in really good shape. Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown are both locks to start. There's been talk of Beni moving inside to the Mike and Richie moving outside for 2015.
The third spot is where it gets interesting. Zach Jackson is the most experienced returning LB and was the primary backup to Matt Wells last season. Unfortunately, he was very up-and-down in 2014 and particularly struggled in coverage. JT Gray had a pretty typical freshman campaign in 2014, meaning he was inconsistent. He did some really good things then would do something really bad. That said, he's got a big upside and is very fast. I've personally been projecting him as the third starter based on how we've used our LBs the past couple of years.
In light of Diaz's statement on Sunday, I no longer think it's safe to assume we'll try to play a hybrid LB as the third LB starter. With that in mind, Gerri Green just might be the odds on favorite to win a starting job. He has been dominant so far in fall camp. He's clearly over the ACL injury that kept him out of action in 2014. Keep a sharp eye on Dez Harris as well. He's also attempting to return from an ACL injury, but the coaching staff was very high on him pre-injury. There's no reason to believe he can't return and have an impact.
Other players who could factor in at LB are JUCO Traver Jung from Holmes CC and true freshman Leo Lewis. Jung is extremely fast and the definition of a LB/Safety hybrid. He might see action as a pass coverage specialist. Lewis is in the mold of former Dawg greats KJ Wright and Benardrick McKinney, coming in at 6'2" and 240 lbs. He's your traditional downhill stopper at LB and could be a depth guy. Basically, State has eight LBs competing for 6 spots. If you put a gun to my head and asked me how it shakes out, I'd say the Brown Brothers and Green start with Gray, Harris and Lewis being the next three. Jung and Jackson will be the odd men out. But that's purely a guess.
S: This is the position everyone is talking about after the MSU safeties were a weakness in 2014. The Dawgs return starter Kendrick Market, who is coming off an Achilles injury in the Battle for the Golden Egg. As we saw with the recoveries of former Dawgs Nickoe Whitley and Jay Hughes from the same injury, it is fair to assume Market will be at least 1 step slower this season. And unlike Nickoe or Hughes, Market's injury occurred very late in the season. If I'm being completely objective, I don't see how he can be completely ready to play by the season opener. But the word from MSU is that he's fully healed and ready to play. With Market, we know what we have. A good run stopper with an extremely high football IQ. He overcomes some of his physical limitations with play recognition and putting himself in the right place at the right time. But if he's truly lost a step, he may have trouble, as he didn't really have any extra speed to lose.
The Dawgs also return Deontay Evans and Kivon Coman from last season. Evans struggled mightily in 2014 and was repeatedly exposed in pass coverage. Coman saw his first significant action in 2014 and was inconsistent. But I liked a lot of what I saw from him and think he'll have a very good 2015. In fact, I'm projecting him to start this season.
Behind those three, MSU has a bunch of freshmen vying for playing time. RS freshman Brandon Bryant is the fastest player on the team, running a 4.3 40 yard dash. He looked very good during spring practice and has picked up where he left off in fall camp. If Market or Coman don't start, I think Bryant will. The coaching staff is very high on him. At least one of true freshmen Jamal Peters and Mark McLaurin will see action in 2014. The early nod would probably go to Peters, considered by some to be the number one player at his position coming out of high school. Whichever one of these two doesn't play, I'd expect to see redshirt.
Personally, I expect State to be much improved at the safety position in 2015, regardless of how Market returns from injury. I'm expecting big things from Coman and Bryant and think Peters will be very good the second half of the season. If Market shows he's still got it, that's a bonus. The only problem I see is we're very thin at the position, so an injury would be disastrous.
CB: State has the best pair of tandem corners in the SEC this year and arguably the best in the nation with the return of Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun. Mel Kiper Jr. has rated Redmond as the best senior CB in the country this year. Calhoun has been a lockdown CB in his own right for two years running now. Opposing QBs will have to pick their poison when deciding who to pick on this season.
Behind Redmond and Calhoun, State has a very talented and deep group. Tolando Cleveland returns after an up-and-down year. But I like what I've seen from him so far in his career and expect him to be a solid backup. Cedric Jiles is attempting to come back from yet another injury. He's looked very good when he's played, but has had major struggles staying healthy over the course of his career. If he can stay healthy, he'll be an excellent backup. I'd look for him to be the nickel back when we go to that package. If he can't stay healthy, Cleveland is probably the odds on favorite to be the nickel.
After Cleveland and Jiles are Jamoral Graham, Chris Rayford, Chris Stamps, and Maurice Smitherman. Graham, as most State fans will remember, played WR last season. He moved to CB in the spring. He's still adjusting to the position, but has shown flashes of being a very good CB. He's another candidate to be the nickel back. Rayford redshirted last season, so this will be his first chance to compete for playing time. Stamps and Smitherman are true freshmen. There's been a lot of talk that Smitherman might play, but CB is one of the deepest positions on this Dawg D. I think both are likely to redshirt.
Scheme: The Dawgs base D will be an attacking 4-3. DC Manny Diaz is known for being unorthodox and bringing pressure from everywhere. We could also see a little bit of 3-4, as Nick James is the classic 3-4 nose guard and State is very deep at LB. Plus we could see Chris Jones bump out to DE in a 3-4. State will also use a nickel package at times. I'm extremely excited to see what Diaz does with all the talent he has on the Dawg D.
Related Special Teams
KO: It appears Logan Cooke will handle kickoff duties this year after taking over for Devon Bell in the Texas A&M game last season. Cooke has a strong leg and did a good job last year. State should have no problem pinning teams deep with Cooke. And with all of State's young talent, coverage should be very good.
P: It looks like Cooke will also handle punting duties this season. He looked promising splitting time with Bell last season, showing off very good hang time. And like with the KO unit, I expect excellent coverage from this group.
State has a lot of talent returning on D. Lots of guys who were "starters" in the sense of playing almost equal snaps to the first unit last year are back. Richie Brown would be the best example. He wasn't on the field for the first snap, so he isn't listed as a "starter" but he played almost as much as McKinney. Same for Redmond at CB, Jones at DT, and Jefferson at DE. Manny Diaz should have a lot of fun drawing up blitzes with the talent he has on D. State is a little thin on the DL and very thin at S. I expect DL depth will work itself out and not be a problem. I'd be very surprised if the 2015 D isn't drastically improved over the 2014. The one area where I want to see a major improvement is tackling. The Dawgs had way too many missed tackles last season.