By Brad Locke
STARKVILLE – They might not be roommates, but Chris Wilson and Geoff Collins have been on the same wavelength from the beginning.
Collins was hired by Mississippi State in January after defensive coordinator Manny Diaz left for the same job at Texas. Diaz and Wilson, the co-defensive coordinator at the time, had lived together for five months after being hired a year earlier.
They had a strong working relationship, and now the same can be said of Wilson and Collins, who was hired as linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator when Wilson was promoted to full-time DC.
Collins’ transition from the staff at Florida International to MSU was aided by his familiarity with the Bulldogs’ defensive schemes. It was further helped by how quickly he hit it off with Wilson and the other coaches.
“Coming into it, I didn’t know what to expect, because I’d never been a part of it,” Collins said. “The way the personalities have meshed together has been really positive, and you can see the kids, our players kind of feed off of how much we like each other, and how much respect we have for each other when we’re out on the field, when we’re in the meetings, and those kinds of things.”
At defensive coordinator at FIU, Collins turned one of the Sun Belt’s worst defenses into its best in just a year’s time. He has a reputation for developing linebackers, and MSU certainly needed a little magic after losing all three starters from last year, two of which were NFL draft picks.
Entering this season, the outside expectations of MSU’s linebackers were at best tempered, and the group was an assortment of young and inexperienced players.
“My expectations for the group were through the roof,” Collins said, “and I think the players’ expectations, the more we went, they started raising, and to see Cam (Lawrence) and Brandon (Wilson) rank so high in tackles, it’s positive.”
The Bulldogs’ linebackers are starting to take shape, with Lawrence turning into a tackling machine (61, third in the SEC); Wilson and Brandon Maye making plays in the middle; and big sophomore Deontae Skinner (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) grabbing hold of the starting strongside spot.
“He’s been able to not only carry on what we were establishing a year ago, he’s been able to enhance it,” Wilson said of Collins. “When I look at Geoff Collins, he is a linebackers coach. Obviously he’s a great coordinator also, but he is a linebackers coach.
“He prides himself on it, he knows the ins and outs of it, so it gives me a bit of comfort when you see a guy who can go back there and fix those guys ASAP.”
It’s not just the linebackers who have progressed. Wilson has been happy with the defense as a whole, and it’s shown definite improvement over the last three games, giving up an average of 314.7 yards and 13.7 points.
Over its last two games, State has allowed 17 total points. The defensive line play has had a lot to do with that, and Collins had high praise for Wilson not only as defensive coordinator but as a position coach.
“Just as a D-line coach he is one of the best I’ve ever been around,” Collins said. “Technique-wise, motivation, fiery, stresses fundamentals – all those things that you look for in a great D-line coach, he has that. He’s a great play caller, and I think everybody’s seen the development of us as a defense over the last seven games.”
Just as Collins and Wilson work well together, so do their players.
Linebackers and defensive linemen often do film study together, and not at the coaches’ behest. But it does seem to be an extension of the relationship between Collins and Wilson.
“They’re pulling guys in, they’re getting together as a unit,” Collins said. “You see Brandon Wilson and Wade Bonner meeting together. So those things just organically happen, and then another two guys jump in that meeting, and then another two guys.
“That’s when you have something special going on.”