By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Mississippi State had the nation’s top defense in 1999, and that was largely due to a large infusion of talent in that year’s signing class.
Then-coach Jackie Sherrill had brought in the likes of Dorsett Davis, Toby Golliday and Fred Smoot. They helped the Bulldogs rank first in the country in rushing defense and total defense, while ranking fourth in pass efficiency defense and sixth in scoring defense.
“That class is probably the best class that was ever brought in, other than you go back to the (1977) class with Johnie (Cooks), Tyrone Keys,” Sherrill said. “The number of players that actually went on and played at the next level percentage-wise was outstanding.”
MSU had been vulnerable along the defensive front the previous season, so Sherrill filled a need with Davis, Golliday and Willie Blade, all of them from the junior college ranks. Grouped with the likes of junior Ellis Wyms, State suddenly had a formidable front line.
The Bulldogs recorded 34 sacks that season, fourth-most in school history, en route to a 10-2 season and Peach Bowl win over Clemson.
Sherrill said he knew immediately he had a special group of defenders coming in, especially up front, and he said they were the biggest reason 1999 was such a special season.
“We were good enough, we swapped every series, we had a three-down linemen one series and a four-down linemen the next series,” he said. “We kept them fresh going into the fourth quarter.”
It was a heck of a class. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the class Dan Mullen just put together for 2012 might rival the ’99 group, at least on defense.
There are eight defensive linemen in this class, including end Denico Autry, rated the second-best junior college player in this class by Rivals.com. Defensive tackle Quay Evans was rated the 15th-best defensive tackle among high schoolers.
There’s also tackle Nick James and end A.J. Jefferson, both ranked in the top 50 at their respective positions.
Autry will likely start next season, while Evans and some of the others could see the field quickly, too. They should greatly improve MSU’s pass rush – in 2011 the defense recorded 21 sacks, tied for eighth in the SEC. Only six of those came from the defensive ends.
Making it tougher is the early departure of tackle Fletcher Cox, who could wind up a first-round pick in April’s NFL Draft.
“One of them (Evans) is a run stopper, and the other one (Autry) has the ability to make plays all over the field,” Sherrill said. “They’ll be able to do a lot of things with them.”
Let’s get physical
It’s obviously too soon to draw comparisons between the 1999 and 2012 classes beyond the potential of this current group. Sherrill’s group set a high standard.
But Mullen understands how important it is to have a dynamic defense, especially in the trenches. While he’s made his mark as an offensive coach, Mullen knows what Sherrill and most any coach knows: You’ve got to win with defense.
“It’s hard for Mississippi State to get into a track meet with Florida or LSU, because you don’t have the same speed as those teams have,” Sherrill said. “You’re going to have to play a very physical game, and I think that’s what Dan has understood, and that’s what he plays. Being able to run the ball, being able to defensively stop the run.”
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at djournal.com.