By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State’s secondary is tackling its communication issues head-on this spring.
During a late-season slide last fall, MSU experienced breakdowns in its pass coverage. Cornerbacks and safeties weren’t on the same page, and coaches said it was a matter of miscommunication.
So that’s been a big focus during spring practices. Safeties coach Tony Hughes said the Bulldogs are going “overboard making sure that we have what we need to get that done.”
Hughes is emphasizing persistence and repetition, which is especially important considering the secondary is replacing three starters, including Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks. The defensive backs are also going to rely heavily on hand signals, with safety Kendrick Market saying, “that’s all we’ve been working on, hand signals.”
New defensive coordinator Geoff Collins wants his players communicating non-stop from whistle to snap, and he thinks the addition of cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend will aid in that effort because of his NFL background.
“I don’t know if we always had that at times,” Collins said. “That’s from all of us, is just from Day 1, they’re talking, they’re speaking, they’re communicating, hand signals, the whole deal.”
Hughes said it wasn’t particular plays by opposing offenses or certain coverages that gave the Bulldogs trouble last season. It was more a matter of adjusting to each team’s offense.
Over the last five games of the regular season, MSU allowed 273.4 passing yards per game, nearly 85 yards more than the average through the first seven games.
“You play a different style of team every week, and then when you change coverages and you do different things, and things happen,” Hughes said.
Nickoe Whitley is the lone senior in the secondary, and thus a leader, but he’s a quiet sort. Junior Jay Hughes, Tony Hughes’ son, is the one who Collins expects to be the point man on communication.
“Jay started the last half of the season, and he’s a tremendous player, tremendous athlete, very fast, very intelligent,” Collins said.
“Gets us all lined up, makes the checks, makes the calls.”
Much also depends on the development of younger players like Market, a third-year sophomore who played in 12 of State’s 13 games last season. He’s had a good spring so far and was named MVP during a recent scrimmage.
Market is one of several young players expected to be part of a deep safety rotation, and he’s not lacking for confidence.
“I ain’t scared to go shoot my gun or get on any receiver,” he said.
Tony Hughes likes the group he has at safety, and he feels confident the communication issues will be resolved.
“Now with a younger group of kids,” he said, “starting all over sometimes is an easier transition once they know what you expect of them.”