Better or worse? Previewing Mississippi State's defense in 2019
Editor’s note: After previewing every SEC East defense last week, this is the 5th in a series on the SEC West. Coming Saturday: Ole Miss.
A guiding force for the Bulldogs 8-win season in 2018, the first under HC Joe Moorhead, was their ferocious defense. You can not only make the case that it was the best defense in program history, but the best in the country last year.
After all, the defense finished the year ranked top 10 nationally in passing yards per game (168), rushing (95.8), yards per carry (2.9) and first downs (16.3), while finishing No. 2 in scoring defense (13.2) and No. 1 in total yards (263.8). It was truly a banner year for coordinator Bob Shoop.
Shoop will have a more difficult task this year, however. Three of the starting 11 on defense were picked in the 1st round of the 2019 NFL Draft (safety Johnathan Abram and linemen Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons), and there are 7 starters to replace in total, including the entire front 4.
Pressuring the QB: Worse
You don’t usually lose your entire front 4 to the NFL and wind up with an improved pass rush the next year. The toughest guys to replace will be Sweat and Simmons, who combined for 29.5 sacks over the past two seasons, and perhaps more important, forced constant double teams, which opened things up for the rest of the defense.
The Bulldogs will be hard-pressed to equal or better the 3.0 sacks per game they averaged last year (tied for 10th nationally), but they should still have some bite (pardon the sorry pun). One thing State has done successfully, under Dan Mullen and Moorhead, is recruit talented defensive linemen who can get upfield in a hurry.
They’ll rely heavily on senior ends Chauncey Rivers, Fletcher Adams and Marquiss Spencer to continue setting the edge on the outside, and they need seniors Lee Autry and Kendell Jones to provide pressure up the middle. In a perfect world, one of the numerous 4-star linemen signed in the recent signing class also steps up.
Don’t forget, this defense also likes to bring pressure from their back 7, too, so you can expect a heavy blitz package from linebackers Erroll Thompson (5 sacks in 2018) and Willie Gay (4 sacks) this fall.
Run defense: Worse
Again, considering the personnel losses up front, the Bulldogs will be hard-pressed to equal or better the 95.8 rushing yards allowed per game last year, which was No. 3 nationally. The combo of Simmons and Braxton Hoyett in the middle closed down the middle of the field, and there was speed and athleticism to sweep up the action pushed outside.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of experienced seniors replacing much of the lost production from last year, and they’ve proven adept at stopping the run at and behind the line of scrimmage. Rivers and Jones, who combined for 14 TFLs last year, will especially be counted on to close down rushing lanes. I wouldn’t be surprised if redshirt freshman Fabien Lovett, who cut his teeth on the scout team last year going against the vaunted interior of the offensive line, emerges as an impact run defender as well, and he’ll add some girth at 6-4, 335.
The Bulldogs will also need the linebacking corps, which was the lone unit of the defense that was unscathed by graduation and the NFL Draft, to assume an even larger role, both from a production standpoint as well as leadership.
Thompson and Gay should again contend for All-SEC honors this year, and the team is hoping senior Leo Lewis finally gets back to where he was as a freshman, when he racked up 79 tackles and 5 TFLs. The unfortunate NCAA notoriety has done him no favors on or off the field — here’s to hoping he’s finally past all of that.
Passing defense: Worse
Just like the defensive line, the secondary lost numerous key players this offseason from the highly successful unit from 2018. Gone are Abram (1st-round draft pick), Jamal Peters (one of the bigger and more physical corners in the SEC), Mark McLaurin (who shared the SEC lead with 6 INTs in 2017), and the versatile Chris Rayford, who played all over the place for the Bulldogs.
The secondary needs Cam Dantzler, a long and athletic marvel who has flashed 1st round talent, to assume an even larger role than last year, when he was the most reliable cover man on the team. He could be in store for a huge year this fall. Senior Maurice Smitherman played well in reserve last year and will be expected to become more of an impact player in coverage.
The highly versatile Jaquarius Landrews also returns after racking up 4.5 TFLs and 3 sacks last year – he could be this year’s version of Abram, with his ability to play the run, rush the passer and cover the slot.
While there’s enough returning talent in the secondary to get excited about, much of the success against the pass will be determined by the amount of pressure the defensive line and linebacking corps can generate. If the Bulldogs can apply even half as much pressure as they did last year, there’s enough skill and playmakers returning for this unit to rival the secondary from 2018.
Special teams: Better
I’m going to assume that Tucker Day, the returning starter at punter, has made developmental strides this offseason after a rather disappointing 2018, when he averaged 39.4 yards per punt, good for 106th nationally. Hopefully, the ridiculous punt cover teams is as effective as it was last year, when they allowed just 7 punts to be returned.
C’mon. Let’s be realistic. Considering the staggering personnel losses, is there any possible way for the unit to be as good or better this year? Of course not.
Simply put, there’s no one on the roster who has proven to be as talented or productive as some of the freakishly gifted players they’re now replacing. Guys that are 6-6, 260-pounds who run 4.4s (like Sweat) don’t come around often, even at places like Alabama or Clemson.
It’s practical to believe that the defense naturally takes a step back this year. A step, mind you – not a giant leap backward. Just because this defense likely will allow more than 13.2 points per game this year doesn’t mean it’s about to bottom out and begin getting carved up at will.
There’s talent to work with here, thanks to consistent recruiting and player development, and the current staff did a nice job adding a combination of defensive prospects who can potentially make an early impact this year, guys like Fred Peters and Nate Pickering.
And of course, knowing the calls will be made by a creative and aggressive mind like Shoop should also comfort Bulldogs fans.