Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Bulldogs linebackers are ready for limelight
By Edward Aschoff
You have to admire Brandon Wilson’s patience.
Ever since Mississippi State said goodbye to three starting linebackers -- Emmanuel Gatling, Chris White and K.J. Wright -- from 2010, he, his teammates and coaches have had to field questions about replacing the trio.
It was old the second time he was asked, and it was even older when he lost count of the linebacker queries.
But even when the question was raised again just a week before the Bulldogs’ season-opener Thursday against Memphis, Wilson was cool and collected. There was no anger or annoyance in his voice. He expected the questions and was quick to say he and his teammates can’t worry about the past because they are the present.
Cameron Lawrence is one player Mississippi State is counting on to fill the void at linebacker.
“Now is our time to shine and I definitely think we’ll do that,” Wilson said.
According to the Bulldogs’ opening depth chart, Wilson, a senior, will man the middle, while junior Cameron Lawrence and redshirt freshman Matthew Wells will hold down the outside spots.
While the talk has centered around what Mississippi State lost, this group isn’t completely new to things. Lawrence, who Wilson said has the potential to be one of the fastest, most athletic linebackers in the conference, played in 10 games last season before suffering an injury. He registered 31 tackles, while Wilson played in all 13 games last season, recording 17 tackles.
This group hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers, like the 253 combined tackles and nine sacks last year’s starters produced, but Wilson assures this group has the talent to pull its weight. Though he’s tired of hearing about who isn’t around, he understands that this year’s linebacker unit has a lot to live up to and a lot of responsibility.
Wilson claims the Bulldogs have “the best defensive backfield in the SEC, hands down,” and a disruptive interior line combo in Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd, but it’s the linebackers who have to do most of the communicating. It’s the linebackers who run the defense. And it’s the linebackers who have to make sure they’ve got their jobs covered.
“If you go hard, everything will be all right,” Wilson said.
The Bulldogs got a veteran dose of help this offseason when former Clemson linebacker Brandon Maye transferred in. The fifth-year senior is battling Wilson in the middle, but has brought needed competition and leadership to the group.
Maye said his transition to Starkville was easy for the most part, but learning the playbook was the toughest obstacle. He has most of it down, but admits he’s still learning.
What didn’t take him time to realize was the determination he saw out of his new teammates. He knew about the inexperience coming in, but Maye said guys have been flying around nonstop since he arrived.
“You see a young group. You see a young group that’s hungry and eager to prove people wrong,“ Maye said. “We’ve been working and training all summer for this opportunity to go out and prove all these doubters wrong.
“These guys are very hungry. They’re young, but talent overrides experience sometimes.”
There will be growing pains, for sure. Wilson sees those issues in practice when the linebackers aren't on the same page or are confused. He knows this group has to read offenses better and know the defense like they know their last names.
But Wilson isn’t worried about being perfect just yet. It's going to take some time for this group to really mesh. Experience will help, but Wilson said this group needs to concentrate on playing its way, and its way only.
“As long as I know we get in that film room, we workout hard, we practice hard and we’re going to hit hard, everything else will fall into place,” he said. “We have to go out and play our game. We can’t play like Chris White and K.J. played last year. We’re going to play our young, fast, more athletic style of play.”