With a full spring now under his belt, new linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Geoff Collins feels he has a handle on Mississippi State's linebackers situation, which is possibly the biggest question mark heading into the 2011 season.
Replacing three starting linebackers, two of which are likely to be drafted by NFL teams later this month, is a tall task, especially for a new guy. But in talking with Collins after Saturday's Maroon-White game, I got the impression he was very comfortable under the circumstances and comfortable with his group.
"They've had a really good spring," Collins said. "The guys came out and worked hard, had a really good mindset, came out to be leaders, came out to try to see who could be in the top six and then play on special teams, be contributors on special teams. And I think after the spring we have a pretty good idea of who those guys are going to be."
MSU is holding its final spring practice today. (It was supposed to be Monday, but it was postponed by inclement weather.) Over the past several weeks, Collins moved his players all over the place, which made it really hard to guess at a depth chart while watching practice. As I recently wrote, he likes for his players to know all the linebacker positions.
So the knowledge should be there, but a bigger question is whether any of the linebackers have a playmaking ability. White and Wright both possessed that quality, combining for 9.0 sacks and 23.5 tackles-for-loss last season.
When I asked Collins whether he was concerned about the unit's playmaking ability, he started talking about Thursday's practice, which featured more wide-open scrimmage work than in the spring game.
"Thursday we did everything, and the offense did everything, so we kind of got to see where guys were mentally, assignment-wise, and who could make plays in pressure situations," he said. "They knew that was a game-type environment."
Collins said junior Cam Lawrence and senior Brandon Wilson were consistent throughout the spring, and younger players like Ferlando Bohanna, Deontae Skinner and Matthew Wells did some things Saturday "that maybe in the first 13 practices they haven't done – making plays, being all over the field, being assignment-ready."
From my own observations, the younger linebackers seem a bit more athletic than the older guys. But, according to Collins, the less experienced players are watching Lawrence and Wilson closely. That should help them get on the field rather quickly.
"They've really become students of the game. I'm sure you saw it today, they're playmakers. Matt Wells makes plays that maybe some guys in the past around here haven't made. The same with Chris Hughes – he is just a ball of energy running around the field.
"And Deontae Skinner, the first thing that pops out is how big he is. He's 6-3, 240, he runs a 4.5, and his eyes and his feet are starting to go in the right direction, and he's making plays. You saw him make that (interception) today. He's been close the first 13 practices, but today it all came together, and he made the play."