By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State players need not be reminded of the key losses to the defensive front seven. Really, they’re kind of tired of hearing about it.
Defensive end Pernell McPhee and linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright are now on NFL rosters, leaving in their wake gaping holes in MSU’s defense. Just how gaping those holes will be this season has yet to be determined, although the current Bulldogs feel they’re more than capable of filling the empty spaces.
Just so you know.
“At first when we started hearing it, it affected us, but now it means nothing to us no more,” sophomore linebacker Deontae Skinner said. “We just go out and work every day.”
Hard work can cover a multitude of deficiencies, and for MSU’s front seven, that list includes experience and size. While the Bulldogs are strong at defensive tackle with Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox, the defensive end position and linebackers are looking for some answers.
The closest State has to a leader among that group is senior end Sean Ferguson, who’s the only member of the front seven aside from Boyd and Cox with significant starting experience at MSU (16 career starts). Middle linebacker Brandon Maye was a starter at Clemson, but he’s still trying to work his way up the depth chart.
Ferguson has talked before about being a leader, but right now it’s too soon to tell if he’s ready to take it on.
“I think right now Sean’s at a place right now where he’s got to be the best Sean he can be before he can ever be the leader of this group,” defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said. “He’s got to be the best football player he can be for the guys just to follow him. When he’s there, maybe he can take that role.”
Said Ferguson, “I don’t try to be a leader, I just go hard. And if somebody else chooses to follow, I just lead by example.”
Speed over size
His leadership abilities aside, Ferguson embodies the look of MSU’s ends and linebackers: undersized, but fast. He’s listed at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, and that’s 30 pounds heavier than his freshman weight.
The other end spot is being vied for by Shane McCardell (6-5, 265) and Trevor Stigers (6-5, 245). McPhee was 6-4, 285 last year.
“We’re not as strong as Pernell McPhee, we probably will never be as strong and as big as he is,” Ferguson said. “We just use what we’ve got.”
Several bodies could be in the rotation. Sophomore Corvell Harrison-Gay will see time there, Skinner could line up at end on occasion, and junior Devin Jones has been working at both tackle and end.
Linebacker will also try to achieve quality through quantity. Linebackers coach Geoff Collins, who’s in his first season here, hopes to have as many as eight players in his regular rotation.
The leading candidates at linebacker – Chris Hughes (6-1, 215), Brandon Wilson (6-1, 240) and Cam Lawrence (6-2, 230) – aren’t severely undersized for their position. But they’re not as big as White (6-4, 245) and Wright (6-4, 250).
“It’s just finding out what each kid can do within the scheme,” Collins said, “and the biggest thing is at that position being leaders, getting everybody lined up, everybody in the right defense, everybody making the right checks and adjustments, and then we just play as hard as we can possibly play.”
Coaches feel a strength that could offset any other shortcomings of the front seven is the scheme MSU employs. The multiple defense directed by Wilson allows the Bulldogs to change looks with just a call, which can make a QB’s head spin as the play clock winds down.
“What we want on the field at all times are A) guys who play with great effort, B) they’re physical, and three, smart,” Wilson said. “Those are three things we have to have for us to compete in the SEC.”