Unlike past seasons for a Mike Leach-led team, it was the defense that kept Mississippi State in games last season instead of a high-scoring offense. The Bulldogs were excellent at stopping the run, but too many passing yards and the offense’s struggles led to a disappointing 4-7 record.

It was, however, most of the coaching staff’s first season with the Bulldogs and, with COVID-19 interrupting spring practice, State was at a disadvantage with no time to get to know what they had. That’s not the case this year.

On defense, the Bulldogs return 7 starters along with some key reserves. If State wants to be successful this season, here are 5 things that will help define them defensively.

1. Defensive line grows up

State has been a haven for defensive linemen and it was no different last season with Marquiss Spencer and Kobe Jones dominating in the trenches. They are now gone and the Bulldogs will rely on Jack Harris and Aaron Odom, along with returning starter Jaden Crumedy at nose tackle, to fill those shoes. Harris and Odom made just 27 total tackles last year. How will they handle the pressure of being a starter and someone who is depended on?

2. Linebackers thrive without Erroll Thompson

Thompson was a machine last season, recording 96 total tackles (37 solo), 4.0 tackles for a loss, 3.0 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries, 1 pass breakup and 1 interception. The bad news is that he’s off to the NFL. The good news is that big-time producers Tyrus Wheat and Aaron Brule return at the Sam and Will position, respectively. In steps redshirt junior Nathaniel Watson for Thompson and all signs point toward him being an asset. Watson had 8 tackles in the Maroon-White Game.

3. Offense gives them a breather

Leach’s offense can score in a hurry, but last season, it was more about the offense going 3-and-out than short scoring drives that put the Bulldogs back on the field too quickly.

The issue didn’t necessarily show up in time of possession. On average, State had the ball for more than 30 minutes. But the Bulldogs were 13th in the SEC in 3rd-down conversions, moving the chains just 32.48% of the time. Three SEC teams converted at least half of their 3rd-down tries, and Ole Miss just missed that mark (49.65%).

Look for that problem to be fixed with the offense now set to thrive in Leach’s second season. The defense kept State in games last season. Now it is the offense’s turn to repay the favor and give them some long breaks on the sideline.

4. The secondary balls out

The return of safeties Fred Peters, who missed the final 7 games last season after a fast start, and CJ Morgan, who was out all of 2020 after suffering a serious injury against Alabama in 2019, can help make this a secondary that no one wants to pass on. It will certainly help improve on a team that finished 105th in passing defense last year.

Only 3 SEC teams allowed more passing TDs than the Bulldogs (23 in 11 games).

Cornerbacks Martin Emerson and Esaias Furdge also return. Emerson recorded 72 total tackles (45 solo) along with 11 pass breakups. Oh, and don’t forget Emmanuel Forbes, who returns after a freshman season in which he led the SEC with 5 interceptions. Forbes could be the star of this secondary.

5. Depth grown on defensive line

The starters are pretty much set, but depth needs to be developed. That means defensive coordinator Zach Arnett and defensive line coach Jeff Phelps must find a few guys that they can count on to be as productive. Jevon Banks (3 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL in Maroon-White Game) could fill that role along with Cameron Young (4 tackles). No matter who it is, the depth must get better along the defensive front.

MORE BULLDOGS: 5 things that will define the offense in 2021