In his one year at MSU, Diaz fielded one of the SEC's stingiest defenses, a unit that gave up a few yards but bowed up in the red zone. State allowed just 19.8 points per game in 2010, which ranked third in the SEC and 21st in the nation.
Three players were lost to the NFL, however, and after Diaz left, there was a question whether MSU could maintain or improve upon last season's effort. That question lingered through the first few weeks as the linebackers and defensive line had issues with tackling and general playmaking.
Improvement has been evident over the past three weeks, and the Bulldogs enter this bye week feeling good about the progress being made.
"Go back to coach (Geoff) Collins and coach Wilson, they've given us some great schemes," junior linebacker Brandon Wilson said following Saturday's 14-12 loss to South Carolina. "It's basically up to us to go out and execute it. Within the week we're doing a lot of film study, and I would definitely say that more film study is getting us in great position, recognizing plays, and we've been able to go out there and make them."
Collins is the new co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, someone who brought with him a reputation for developing linebackers. He and Wilson seem to work well together, as Wilson and Diaz did last season.
But Diaz, as media-savvy as they come, received most of the praise for the defense's play last season. When Wilson was promoted, he said it had been a near equal partnership between himself and Diaz - or as Wilson put it, "51 percent and 49 percent."
Now Wilson is the 51 percent, and the numbers suggest that the Bulldogs are ahead in certain categories from last season.
The passing defense has improved (188.4 yards per game), sacks are coming at a slightly higher rate (2.0 per game) and the Bulldogs have recorded 11 interceptions, tied for seventh nationally and just two fewer than all of last season.
State's still tough to score on, allowing 19.3 points per game. It's allowed 17 points to its last two opponents.
getting a better grip
The tackling has gotten better, led by Brandon Wilson, the middle linebacker, and weakside linebacker Cam Lawrence, who leads the team with 61 tackles. Wilson had eight tackles against South Carolina and made some one-on-one stops of tailback Marcus Lattimore.
The linebackers as a whole have improved, and defensive tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox, both juniors, had their best combined game of the season Saturday.
Some younger players are coming along well, including linebacker Deontae Skinner, defensive end Kaleb Eulls and cornerback Darius Slay.
"Those guys had to go learn and get their experience playing No. 1 teams in the country, national champions and all those people," head coach Dan Mullen said. "I think what you're starting to see right now is those guys starting to develop, those guys starting to get used to playing SEC football right here at the midpoint of the season.
"And they're coming along; we're improving across the board at almost every position."