STARKVILLE — Gifted pass rusher Pernell McPhee leans in to speak and little more than a rasp comes out.
Turns out Mississippi State’s new emotional leader wore his voice out trying to fire up his teammates. He’s not the first to try and instill some life in a team that needs its spirits lifted. But McPhee is intent on success.
And if you get to know Pernell McPhee, you’ll find when he puts his mind on something — like crushing the opposing quarterback or rallying an entire football team during a steamy afternoon practice — it usually gets accomplished.
“In a way, that kind of is my role, because I seen the guys last year and they didn’t have too many players on the field that do that,” McPhee said. “I’m going to try to be that player this year.”
The Bulldogs desperately need someone like McPhee as they prepare for their first season under new coach Dan Mullen. The team had just 19 sacks last year and returns only one significant pass rusher, K.J. Wright, who led the team with four.
Mullen is looking for players with the kind of energy to match his own and McPhee fits the description. He has been unblockable in early practices and constantly lifts him teammates with shouts of encouragement and examples of effort.
“He is a newer guy, but he is still a leader with the emotional energy he brings, because the other guys feed off that,” Mullen said. “As far as him as a pass rusher, it will be a familiar thing to him. He is a guy we ask a lot of things from, and it is our responsibility to place him in the right position each down, because football is about matchups and we want to make sure he will win his matchups.”
That’s something he did every game playing for Itawamba Community College in Fulton.
When ICC defensive coordinator Kenneth Jackson found him in Pahokee, Fla., McPhee was a 218-pound kid with a wide back and big forearms who didn’t have the test scores to play at Southern Miss where he signed after just one season of high school football. He’d helped lead his team to a 14-0 record and the state title, but it took a little imagination to see what McPhee might become.
McPhee credits Jackson with what happened next, but the coach brushes away the sentiment.
“I’m not the type of person who likes to take credit for kids’ hard work,” Jackson said. “When we first got him he was real raw and he couldn’t even get into a good three-point stance. He bugged me, he stayed around and worked extra. Everything he does is a credit to his hard work.”
Two years later McPhee is 6-foot-4, 260 pounds and a former junior college all-American who finished his two-year career with 33 sacks. He led the nation as a freshman with 19.5 sacks and had 37 tackles for loss.
The thin, little-known kid playing in the muck around South Florida’s Lake Okeechobee was now a full-grown terror. After getting little notice coming out of high school, he now had everyone’s attention but was intent on honoring his commitment to Mississippi State.
Just as he was wrapping up his degree early in December, though, things changed dramatically. Coach Sylvester Croom was forced out and replaced by Mullen, and McPhee wasn’t sure what to do. The decision kept getting harder now that scholarship offers were coming in from all over — Georgia, Florida, Michigan, the list growing each day.
In the end, though, he decided to stick with Mississippi State, just like defensive line coach David Turner, a holdover from Croom’s staff.
“I’ve got to give credit to (Jackson),” McPhee said. “He got me where I am now and he turned me over to coach Turner and coach Turner is going to lead me to I hope a big stage and success for life.”
McPhee’s goal is simple now that he’s made it into the Southeastern Conference. He’s going to draw attention to himself. He wants to be the best defensive lineman in the league, an annual factory for pass rushers. He wants offensive coordinators and linemen to notice, he wants reporters and photographers to notice, and most of all he wants NFL scouts to notice.
He thinks something big is about to happen.
“The goal is to get a lot of sacks,” McPhee said. “To me, I feel like I’m a sack machine. That’s my main priority right there. If you get sacks, you’ll shake the quarterback up. He ain’t going to want to throw the ball, so they’re going to have to run, and I’m going to stop the run automatically.”
There’s nothing boastful about what McPhee is saying. He does these things in practice every day. Center J.C. Brignone says other players call McPhee “kryptonite” and cringe when they are matched up with him in drills. But Brignone doesn’t shy away. While there’s no question McPhee makes the defensive line better, Brignone believes he’s improving the offensive line along the way.
“To me that’s what competition is all about,” Brignone said. “If you go against somebody that’s not going to get you better then you’re just wasting your time.”
And nobody is wasting time around McPhee. You’re either getting better or you’re getting run over.
“Since I’ve been here he’s probably the best defensive lineman I’ve seen,” said middle linebacker Jamar Chaney, a fifth-year senior.
“You can look at him on the field, and they can have a 10-play drive on offense and when he walks into the huddle he looks like he’s about to fall like he’s tired. But when the ball snaps he’s 100 percent like he just got out there. Not only that, he’s going real hard and he’s bringing everybody else with him.”
Chris Talbott/The Associated Press