Time for another list. Yesterday we looked at MSU’s five most important offensive players, and today we go to the other side of the ball. As I wrote yesterday, this is not a list of the best players, but the most important ones.
These five guys are in many ways irreplaceable, and thus the success of this season hinges in large part on how they perform. I present them in no particular order.
• DE Denico Autry: A juco transfer last year, the senior has the tools to be an elite SEC pass rusher, and he showed signs of it late last season. Autry (6-foot-6, 265 pounds) began to wreak more havoc in opposing backfields against some quality teams, something the numbers don’t fully reflect. On the year, he finished with 4.0 sacks and 9.5 tackles-for-loss, and he’s expected to spearhead what MSU hopes is a much improved pass rush this fall.
• LB Benardrick McKinney: He’ll be just a sophomore, but McKinney is already considered one of the best linebackers in the SEC. He was second on the team in tackles last year (102) and showed an ability to defend both the run and pass. He’s got speed, size and length, and as the mike linebacker is in charge of making sure the other 10 guys know what’s happening. He’ll be the proverbial QB of the defense this year.
• LB Matthew Wells: I see Wells as a wild-card sort of player. He played a safety/linebacker hybrid role last year and will do some of that this season, too. He’s stepping in at weakside linebacker for the departed Cam Lawrence, whose savvy will be tough to replace. But Wells has superb athleticism and can cover a lot of field. He can get in the backfield and shouldn’t have much trouble checking a receiver when needed.
• CB Jamerson Love: MSU lost three really good corners off last year’s squad, and so this group is sort of starting over. But Love does have experience as a fourth-year junior, and coach Dan Mullen hasn’t disguised his expectations for the Aberdeen product. MSU’s first game will be against a pass-happy Oklahoma State team, so Love needs to establish a shutdown presence early on.
• FS Nickoe Whitley: The senior is the most experienced defensive back on the team, a former high school quarterback who’s known for his ball-hawking and head-hunting skills. Whitley has 10 career interceptions and an assortment of jaw-rattling hits on his résumé, and he can make quarterbacks think twice about throwing up top. Last season, Whitley at times seemed to be affected by the Achilles’ tendon injury he’d suffered near the end of 2011, so if he stays fully healthy this fall, MSU’s cornerbacks will have quite the safety net.