2013 Mississippi State Preview – Defense

Posted Jul 9, 2013

CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Mississippi State Bulldog Defense

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Preview 2013 - Defense

- 2013 Miss State Preview | 2013 Miss State Offense
- 2013 Miss State Defense | 2013 Miss State Depth Chart

What You Need To Know: Get into the backfield and do nasty things. That's the demand from defensive coordinator Geoff Collins to his D that's full of veterans who struggled to get to the quarterback on a regular basis. This is a strong, athletic defense that should be able to use the front seven to swarm, and there's no excuse to not be better against the run with a great rotation up front. The secondary might be a bit of a concern after losing Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, and that's where the improved pass rush will hopefully kick in.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Benardrick McKinney, 102
Sacks: Preston Smith, 4.5
Interceptions: Nickoe Whitley, 3

Star of the defense: Sophomore LB Benardrick McKinney
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior DE Preston Smith
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Kaleb Eulls
Best pro prospect: McKinney
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McKinney, 2) S Nickoe Whitley, 3) DE Denico Autry
Strength of the defense: Experience, Linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Pass Rush, Cornerback

Defensive Line

After doing next to nothing with the pass rush last season, the line has to start getting behind the line on a regular basis. It starts with junior Preston Smith, the team's leading sacker last season with just 4.5 to go along with 35 tackles. The 6-6, 255-pound veteran is a tall, rangy athlete with excellent speed and quickness to start doing even more. He was good, but he has to become a bigger factor in the bigger games. He'll be backed up by sophomore Ryan Brown, a 6-7, 260-pound pass rusher with excellent athleticism and a word of upside. He got a little work in as a true freshman making 15 tackles with a half a sack.

Returning on the other side is junior Denico Autry, a former star JUCO transfer with tremendous burst and upside, and he turned in a nice first year. The 6-5, 265-pounder was considered a huge coup for the program, and while he was good with 42 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss, he wasn't a dominant force even with his four sacks. With attention paid to Smith, the talent is there to put up massive numbers. Behind him is 6-3, 260-pound redshirt freshman A.J. Jefferson, a four-star prospect who came in after a dominant career making 312 tackles and 42 sacks in three seasons. Extremely athletic and active, he could be a third down specialist.

At 6-4 and 290 pounds, sophomore Kaleb Eulls isn't huge, but he's a solid veteran SEC tackle with the ability to grow into an NFL 3-4 end with his good athleticism and quickness. A tremendous recruit – he was Scout's No. 5-ranked defensive lineman three years ago – all the tools are there to be outstanding, but he didn't come up with a sack, generated just one tackle for loss and finished with 29 tackles. Even so, he brings the athleticism while 6-5, 345-pound sophomore Nick James provides the raw bulk. The gigantic interior presence would perfect on the nose, but he needs more time after making six tackles as a true freshman.

6-3, 295-pound junior P.J. Jones was a big-time recruit for the Bulldogs in 2011, but he hasn't quite blown up yet with seven tackles in his true freshman season followed up by 11 stops last year. He has enough starting experience to not come in green, but now he has to use his excellent combination of size and quickness to be a force in the interior. He'll be backed up by 6-3, 315-pound junior Curtis Virges, a bigger option on the inside with a little bit of experience in the rotation. A run stuffer, he made ten tackles two seasons ago and came up with 11 last year, and while he won't get to the quarterback, he'll be a big veteran body who'll clog things up.

Watch Out For … Chris Jones, the nation's second-ranked defensive end prospect and a phenomenal get. An elite athlete who flies off the snap in a blur, he might be raw and he might need some polish, but the 6-5, 250-pounder has rare skills with NFL upside. Wanted by everyone including all the top SEC schools, he's already a tremendous talent with limitless potential.
Strength: The rotation. Part of the battle is keeping everyone up front alive and kicking against the brutish SEC offensive fronts. MSU has bigger bodies ready to step in at tackle behind the projected starters, and more speed and athleticism on the end waiting in the wings behind the main men.
Weakness: Pass rush. A disaster at times, the Bulldogs finished dead last in the SEC in sacks and second-to-last in tackles for loss. Smith and Autry combined for 8.5 sacks, but the team only came up with 19 and disappeared for massive stretches.
Outlook: The overall stats might not look great, but the line is full of excellent-sized veterans and options for all four spots. The call has gone out for the line to be more disruptive and more effective into the backfield, and the talent is there to do it.
Unit Rating: 7.5


Gone is leading tackler and tone-setter Cameron Lawrence, but the linebacking corps is hardly bare with sophomore Benardrick McKinney back after finishing second on the team with 102 tackles with a sack and 4.5 tackles for loss. At 6-5 and 235 pounds he's built more for the outside, or like a defensive end, but he's a former dual-threat quarterback who instantly showed off terrific range and hitting ability. Behind him is 6-0, 225-pound junior Ferlando Bohanna, a decent veteran who saw a little time over the last few seasons making 26 tackles during his time in the rotation. Built for the middle, he looks the part.

Returning to the outside is 6-2, 215-poiund junior Matthew Wells, a big-time athlete with plenty of experience seeing time as a special teamer and linebacker making 34 tackles with a sack and a pick. Extremely fast and athletic, he should be used as a pass rusher with the front seven needing to do more to get to the quarterback. He has the tools to do it, and so does 6-2, 215-pound sophomore Zach Jackson, a phenomenal special teamer who also made 16 tackles in his time in the front seven. The former high school quarterback had a hard time staying healthy before coming to MSU, but he's tough.

6-2, 250-pound senior Deontae Skinner is a very big, very strong defender who has shown flashes of greatness from time to time and was tough against the run last year making 62 tackles with five tackles for loss. While he has the skills to be more disruptive on the outside, he has yet to record a sack. Behind him will be 6-1, 225-pound redshirt freshman Beniquez Brown, one of the top prospects in last year's recruiting class with good quickness and range. The former high school running back can move, but he's also a good-hitting linebacker who'll put up big numbers when he gets his chance.

Watch Out For … Dezmond Harris. Already full of young linebacker prospects, MSU only brought in one likely linebacker. The 6-4, 220-pound Harris played quarterback in high school, and while he needs time to work on becoming a true defender, and he has to come back from a torn ACL, he'll someday be a key part of the puzzle.
Strength: Experience. With McKinney, Skinner and Wells back, the Bulldogs have an excellent base to work around. There's more than enough experience and depth to come up with a nice rotation.
Weakness: Disruptive plays. The linebackers are functional, and they can all hit, but considering the combination of size and athleticism there has to be more plays in the back field and more gamechanging moments. There's too much hitting ability to not be stronger.
Outlook: There might not be the big hubbub over this group like there will be over other SEC linebacking corps, but it's going to be rock-solid. Skinner and McKinney are potential all-stars, while Wells won't be that far behind if he can start to use his speed a little better. The defense has been waiting a few years for this season, and now the linebackers are matured.
Unit Rating: 8

Defensive Backs

The secondary didn't have too many problems last season with stars in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay spending a little more time in college before going off to the NFL, but there's a good star returning in senior Nickoe Whitley, a 6-0, 205-pound veteran with outstanding speed and range finishing third on the team with 88 tackles and three picks. The free safety came back healthy from the Achilles heel injury that sidelined him in 2011, and now he should be on the short list for All-SEC honors. Behind him will be junior Dee Arrington, a nice-sized 6-1, 215-pound veteran who made 18 tackles last season as part of the rotation. A Parade All-American and a great recruit for the program, he has yet to blossom. However, he's too athletic and too good to not see more time.

Former running back Jay Hughes moved over to the defensive side early in his career, and now he has the strong safety job to himself after making 32 tackles with two broken up passes. Very quick, he has worked his way up to this season, and now the junior should be one of the team's leading tacklers. 5-10, 190-pound sophomore Kendrick Market will work behind Hughes, and while he's not a big strong safety and he's built more like a corner, he can pop showing off a little of his potential making 13 tackles with a pick.

Replacing Banks and Slay will be next to impossible, but junior Jamerson Love has the speed to be more than fine against the SEC's faster receivers. The 5-10, 175-pound corner might not be big, but he has seen more than enough time to be ready to take over a job making 25 tackles with a pick. He'll take over on one side, while 6-3, 195-pound junior Justin Cox will come in from the JUCO ranks with a huge reputation. Very big for a corner with excellent speed and skills, he started at East Mississippi CC where he was a dangerous ball-hawker while making 119 tackles last season. With Alabama, Georgia, Nebraska and just about everyone else trying to get him, MSU scored big to get its starting corner.

Watch Out For … Brandon Wells, but will his stay at defensive back? While Cox was the star defensive back In the class, Wells is a corner for the future with 6-2, 180-pound size with the potential to move over to receiver and get the ball from time to time as a runner.
Strength: Safety. Getting Whitley back for one more season should be a settling factor for a secondary undergoing so much turnover. Hughes is a good veteran who knows what he's doing; he'll be a statistical star.
Weakness: Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks. Two of the nation's best defensive backs, they won't be easily and simply replaced. Cox might be great right out of the box, and Love can fly, but it's asking a lot to be better in the secondary after losing two pros.
Outlook: Considering the talent in the defensive backfield last season, it wasn't quite the lockdown group expected. Even so, it was a solid group that should be excellent at times again. Whitley is a star and Cox will soon be the team's No. 1 corner.
Unit Rating: 7

Special Teams

A wee bit of a surprise, sophomore Devon Bell took over the starting kicker job and did a decent job after a shaky start missing his first three kicks and then connecting on 14 of his final 18 field goal attempts with two getting blocked. Better as the year went on, he nailed a 47-yarder against LSU and another against Northwestern finishing with five made field goals in his last six tries.

The punting game was a major plus thanks to senior Baker Swedenberg. He put 18 inside the 20, but his real strength is hanging it up a mile high and forcing a fair catch making returners wave up their hands 33 times. He averaged 41.4 yards per try for the nation's 14th-ranked punting game.

Kickoff returns should once again be a plus with the return of receiver Jameon Lewis, who averaged 25.9 yards per try with a 100-yard return for a score against Ole Miss. Extremely good at getting up the field in a hurry, he can also make the first man miss. He'll also get a long look at Johnthan Banks' punt return duties after getting two tries for 11 yards.

Watch Out For … the punt returners. Everything else is set, and now it's up to Lewis and a slew of other quick options to improve a punt return game that was good, but not elite with Banks handling the duties.
Strength: The punting game. Swedenberg's average might not seem that great, but he never, ever allows a return. Opponents averaged a mere 0.5 yards per punt return with a long of just nine yards.
Weakness: Kickoff coverage. It wasn't awful overall, but the Bulldogs allowed two scores on massive returns against Auburn and Tennessee. The kickoff team allowed just 20.2 yards per try, and the big plays didn't turn out to matter, but they were still a concern.
Outlook: The special teams have the potential to be excellent if the placekicking is a little stronger and if the punt return game can be a bit more explosive. The punting game could be the most effective in the SEC.
Unit Rating: 7

- 2013 Miss State Preview | 2013 Miss State Offense
- 2013 Miss State Defense | 2013 Miss State Depth Chart