By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – There’s one word Manny Diaz likes to use in describing the type of defense he wants to build at Mississippi State: Go.
It’s that simple, and yet it isn’t. Because before the Bulldogs can go, they have to stop thinking so much.
Diaz, the first-year defensive coordinator, pointed to a third-down play against Georgia last weekend. On a third-and-2 in the third quarter, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was looking for his fullback, but he was covered, so Murray tucked it under and ran 3 yards for the first down.
“We half-rushed and then stopped; people start taking out our protractors and Rosetta Stones and trying to figure out what it is,” Diaz said. “And that’s the whole point, we try to eliminate all that. This is a ‘go’ defense, so when we get to that point, that’ll be a big step for us.”
As they get ready for Alcorn State this week, the Bulldogs are getting closer to Diaz’s standard. They held Georgia to 113 rushing yards, and while Murray passed for 274, he couldn’t get his team in the end zone until the waning minutes of MSU’s 24-12 victory.
Of Murray’s 13 incompletions, nine were credited as break-ups to MSU defenders.
Through four games, State ranks fifth in scoring defense (16.2 points per game) and sixth in total defense (309.0 yards per game). Last season, the Bulldogs ranked 11th and 10th in those categories.
That’s a good start, but it’s only a start.
“We even told the kids at halftime (Saturday), we’re already good,” Diaz said. “If all we’re concerned about is being good, we’re already there, and we can have a ‘good’ parade if we want to. I see glimpses of dominance, and that’s what we want to be, we want to be dominant.”
Last year’s defense, run by Carl Torbush, wasn’t as aggressive or as diverse as what Diaz likes to run. Here’s another key word for this defense: multiple.
Diaz was asked if senior defensive end Pernell McPhee gave him the kind of options Lawrence Taylor once gave the New York Giants.
“We would love to have a Lawrence Taylor. Too many Lawrence Welks right now,” he said. “We want to have that guy who has the ability to have his hand on the ground or to stand up and sometimes drop and sometimes rush at the d-end spot.”
The philosophy applies to all players.
As co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Chris Wilson put it, “At one point we all become the same person. If you’re an end dropping into the flat, you just became a trap corner. If you’re a corner who’s rushing the edge, you just became a defensive end. At some point being multiple allows everyone to play the same position.”
While he’s no Lawrence Taylor, senior weakside linebacker K.J. Wright has been the anchor of MSU’s defense so far this season. He leads the team with 30 tackles and six pass break-ups. He had seven stops and four break-ups against Georgia.
Wright’s become more comfortable in what Diaz runs, and as he goes, the rest of the defense follows.
“From a leadership standpoint, I think K.J. sort of hit another gear of understanding that our guys respect him, and they will follow him,” Diaz said.
Diaz noted a play Wright made last week, when he was lined up at defensive end and ran from one side of the field to the other to make a tackle on a screen pass, stopping the ball carrier shy of the first down and forcing Georgia to settle for a field goal.
“Everyone can give a big Hollywood speech, but the way you lead is you lead with your feet and with your shoulder pads, and K.J.’s done an amazing job of doing both.”
Wright thinks it’s a simple matter of maturing.
“I’ve been playing for a long time,” he said, “and this year is something I expect out of myself.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571