By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Dan Mullen is the head coach, but Chris Wilson gets first dibs on the talent.
That’s the way Mullen wants it. While the fourth-year Mississippi State coach has built his reputation on offense, and while much attention is given to that side of the ball, he’s always staked MSU’s success on defense.
It’s why he lets Wilson, the second-year defensive coordinator, have his pick of the players who performed well on both offense and defense in high school. Those players are often come in with the ‘ATH’ designation – that is, an athlete whose position is to be determined.
“Unless it’s a guy they don’t think is going to be an impact player on defense – hey, he might be a down-the-road guy on defense – and he could be a starter on offense, then we move him,” Mullen said. “But we start with defense. We want to be a great defensive team.”
A couple of examples include linebacker/safety Matthew Wells, who was rated the No. 17 running back in the nation in 2009 by Scout.com; and linebacker Cam Lawrence, a high school quarterback who was tried at several different positions after coming to State.
Both Wells and Lawrence are key players on defense, with Wells starting the first two games of this season for the Bulldogs (2-0). He’s one of several reasons MSU has allowed only 19 points and 481 yards heading into Saturday’s game at Troy.
“When I came in, I really liked playing offense,” Wells said. “It was like that for a while, but whatever the best move to help the team, that’s what I was willing to do.”
Depth is key
MSU’s offense seems to have taken a step forward behind quarterback Tyler Russell, but it’s the defense that will carry State to whatever heights it ultimately reaches.
That’s because Wilson, who joined the staff in 2010 as co-defensive coordinator and was promoted a year later, has his deepest group to date.
“One of the great things was to watch Josh Boyd play 35 snaps and grade a championship grade,” Wilson said of the senior defensive tackle. “A year ago, or two years ago, he might’ve had to play 60 snaps to do that.
“That’s the biggest indicator, so now you’re looking at the third and fourth quarter, our guys are still really playing at a high level because you’ve developed some depth.”
Wilson is running the same defense as his predecessor, Manny Diaz, who now runs the Texas defense. The philosophy hasn’t changed, it’s just that Wilson now has more tools to work with.
That allows him to put a greater emphasis on players earning their spots, because the current depth means there’s always someone else ready to step in and do the job.
“That’s coach Mullen’s whole factor, who’s earned the right to be on the field,” Wilson said. “And when those guys have shown that they’ve earned the right, we formulate our packages around our players.
“That’s what really made us good, because kids know that if they put the time and effort in, they’ll be on the football field.”
Earning that right normally starts by playing on special teams, which is the route taken by Lawrence, a senior. And now, he said, “I definitely prefer defense over offense now looking back on it.”