MSU busy shuffling linebackers

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

STARKVILLE – Cam Lawrence never knows where he might line up next.
Last week, the Mississippi State junior found himself at middle linebacker, where he said he hadn’t worked “in a while.” Lawrence was a strongside linebacker last season, so he’s been working there this spring, as well as at the weakside spot.
He’s not at risk of getting lost in the shuffle, though. This is just how Geoff Collins operates.
The first-year linebackers coach, who also holds the title of co-defensive coordinator, is a big believer in building versatility into his players. All of MSU’s linebackers are learning every position, and for good reason.
The Bulldogs are trying to replace three starting linebackers from last season, most notably Chris White and K.J. Wright, but Collins doesn’t see the losses as creating a void.
“If they all know everything, they can go play whatever position, and injuries don’t matter, circumstances don’t matter, the style of offense that you’re playing against doesn’t matter,” Collins said. “If Cameron Lawrence is one week better suited to go play the sam linebacker based on what the team’s doing and who they’re doing it with, you’ve got that flexibility now. If all he knows is will, then you’re kind of in a bind.”
Lawrence likes the approach.
“I try to be a well-rounded athlete,” he said, “and learning all three of them is one thing I feel like is going to help my game out.”
Collins said he treats his linebackers like quarterbacks, in that he wants them to understand all 11 positions on the defense. Doing so, he said, will make players more effective than if they were just focusing on one position.
“Deontae Skinner, all he was focused on was one position last year; well, he never really knew the defense, all he knew was his one little bitty window,” he said. “The whole didn’t ever make sense to him. Well now, he kind of knows the whole system, and kind of learning how he fits into it is much easier.”
In Collins’ perfect scenario, the linebackers will be seamlessly interchangeable. But the reality is, each has his own position where he’s strongest. For example, Lawrence will be an outside linebacker, while Brandon Wilson will play mostly in the middle.
Collins said there are currently six linebackers he feels particularly comfortable with, and he always lets them know where they stand. After a scrimmage, he lists where each player would be in the rotation – or if they’d be in it at all – if the season started that day.
Smaller, but still physical
The 2011 edition will be a little smaller than last season’s. None of MSU’s current linebackers are taller than 6-foot-2 – Wright and White were both 6-4 – and the heaviest is 240-pound Jamie Jones.
That shouldn’t be a problem, in Collins’ view. The unit has speed and doesn’t shy away from contact.
“They’re hungry to go and search out some hits on people, and that’s nice to have,” he said.
An X-factor in all of this is the impending arrival of Brandon Maye, a post-graduate transfer from Clemson who should be eligible to play this fall. He prefers playing middle linebacker and will challenge Wilson for the starting job, but he’ll have to go through the same learning process as everybody else.
Wilson, a senior, doesn’t foresee any problems, and he credits the constant shuffling of personnel as a big reason for keeping selfishness tamped down.
“We’ve just got to work, regardless of who’s coming in or how this and that, we just continue to work,” Wilson said. “We’re going to push each other, and we all have one common goal, and that’s to get to Atlanta.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571
or brad.locke@journalinc.com.