NCF Nation: Nickoe Whitley


STARKVILLE, Miss. -- An iPhone App said that it was 84 degrees on Mississippi State's campus Tuesday afternoon, which could only be true if Starkville was located at the bottom of a lake. It's only a few minutes into the start of practice and you can see the players struggling with the humid, sapping conditions. Coaches shout at the medical staff to "Water the O-line!" as if the assembly of 300-pound men were a patch of wilting dandelions.

One of the team doctors takes issue with the readout. Robert Collins, a white-haired holdover from the Jackie Sherrill era, says it's at least 5-6 degrees warmer on the practice field most days, and that's not counting the radiant heat, a measurement he argues is a much more accurate gauge of how hot it actually feels. Inside the players helmets, it's a good 20 degrees warmer, he says.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreThe Mississippi State defensive coaches hope to see more "juice" out of Benardick McKinney and the rest of the Bulldogs defenders.
It feels hot watching the Bulldogs run through individual and team drills. There's no shade for onlookers and even less relief for the players trying to catch their breath. Rick Ray, the school's basketball coach, wears a oversized bucket hat to keep from burning. He's here to watch 6-foot-5 freshman wideout De'Runnya Wilson, who came to school this summer with intentions of playing both sports, though it looks like football will keep him from doing so.

"They're killing the sled," said Ray, craning his neck to the far side of the field where the defensive linemen are working. "You can hear it all the way over here."

A few minutes later, players break from their position groups and begin to practice live action. What happened next should have looked familiar to Ray. It wasn't basketball, but the tempo sure looked like it. All that was missing was the high pitch of sneakers screeching on hardwood floor.

Mississippi State has long been a team that likes to run the football and control the clock, but today both sides of the ball are working at a full sprint. The NASCAR offense, as coaches call it, is in full effect. There's almost no break between plays. The first series is over before there's even time to measure it by hand. Ready for the second series, the average time between the blow of the whistle and the snap clocks in at roughly 19 seconds.

Players aren't the only ones running. Coaches are, too. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins waves his hands like a man possessed and screams at his cornerback to, "Crank your a-- up!" before he's dropped to the scout team.

Time, you see, is of the essence.

Oklahoma State and its high-octane offense await Mississippi State on Saturday. The Cowboys, who finished seventh nationally in passing a year ago, averaged one play every 20.3 seconds. Fifty-eight of their 69 offensive touchdowns came on drives that lasted 3 minutes or less. Under the direction of coach Mike Gundy, they scored 19 touchdowns in under 60 seconds, good enough for third in the country.

"Once their tempo gets started, it's like a train rolling downhill," Collins said earlier in the day, "it's kind of hard to stop it."

For more than seven months, Mississippi State has been preparing for Oklahoma State and its no-huddle offense. Collins has stressed to his players that the best way to stop it is to never let it get going in the first place. Negative plays and pass breakups, he says, put the offense at a disadvantage. Throwing off the tempo is the only real option, because once the Cowboys have a defense on its heels, it's lights out.

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Ranking the SEC safeties

July, 10, 2013
7/10/13
5:19
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We've checked out the top cornerbacks in this league, now it's time to look at the top safeties:

1. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Jr., Alabama: He might be the nation's best safety prospect with his range, speed, athleticism and physical nature. Clinton-Dix has a great football mind when he's on the field and isn't afraid to play high or in the box. What makes him so good is that he's not only a ballhawk and a banger, but he's excellent in coverage, too. He had five interceptions and defended nine passes last season.

2. Craig Loston, Sr., LSU: It has taken some time for Loston to come into his own at LSU, but he is in position to be one of the nation's best. It's not like he ever lacked the talent, but his work ethic needed some improvement. Having more responsibility thrown his way helped turn his game up and he started to play like the top-flight athlete LSU's coaching staff had been waiting for. He's a ballhawk and can lay the lumber with ease.

[+] EnlargeKenny Ladler
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesKenny Ladler was a playmaker for the Commodores last season, notching 90 tackles and forcing three turnovers.
3. Kenny Ladler, Sr., Vanderbilt: He's another one of those safeties who likes to mix it up all over the field and doesn't run from contact. You'll see him in the box ready to pounce. He led Vandy with 90 tackles last year and tied for the team lead with 60 solo stops. He also registered 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and two interceptions.

4. Nickoe Whitley, Sr., Mississippi State: He's basically the grandpa of Mississippi State's secondary, but he certainly doesn't play like an old man. He has 10 career interceptions and was third on Mississippi State's team with 88 tackles last season. Whitley is a big-play threat at the safety spot and covers a lot of ground with his speed.

5. Byron Moore, Sr., Tennessee: His team-high five interceptions were probably overlooked because of how poorly Tennessee's defense played, but Moore was a heck of a player. Moore, who was second on the team with 86 tackles last year, is extremely versatile as well. He started the first three games of the season at strong safety before moving over to free safety after Brian Randolph got hurt. He started the final nine games there.

6. Jaylen Watkins, Sr., Florida: He's played in 36 games with 19 starts, but the majority of his work has come at cornerback. But Watkins is talented enough and knows Florida's defense well enough that moving to safety wasn't an issue. He played there at the end of last season and cross-trained there all year. He's a physical player, has good coverage skills and should be able to fly all over the field.

7. Demetruce McNeal, Sr., Auburn: There weren't many positive things to say about Auburn's defense last year, but McNeal was pretty impressive. Off-field issues this spring made his status for the fall uncertain, but now that he's cleared everything up, he should be good to go. He notched a team-high 53 solo tackles last year and was tied for first with seven tackles for loss. Anytime you have a safety who isn't afraid to get rough up front, that's a very good thing.

8. Trae Elston, So., Ole Miss: The Rebels expected him to play early last year and he didn't disappoint. He played in 12 games and made nine starts as the Rebels' Rover. Elston led the team with six pass breakups, had a sack and recovered a fumble last year. Elston is a big-hitting safety who can play all over. He'll get in the box and cover guys. He's a very dynamic athlete in the Rebels' defense.

9. T.J. Gurley, So., South Carolina: A knee injury cut his 2012 season short, but even with only eight games under his belt he was selected to the SEC All-Freshman team. South Carolina's coaches are extremely excited about his potential and think he could have been a tremendous player if he was able to finish last season. He didn't go through spring, but should be 100 percent this fall. Gurley has the skill to make plays all over the field and be a solid ballhawk.

10. Tray Matthews, Fr., Georgia: No, he hasn't played a down in college, but he could be one of the most physically gifted safeties in the SEC right now. He made an immediate impression on his coaches, especially defensive coordinator Todd Grantham this spring, and was an easy choice for the starting free safety spot. He's an excellent tackler, lays bone-crushing hits and has tremendous field range.
Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.

Eight just doesn’t feel good enough in Starkville.

Looking back at a 2012 season that saw Mississippi State’s football team start 7-0, reach its third straight bowl for only the second time in school history and reel off at least seven wins for the third straight year, players, coaches and administrators can’t help but want more after an 8-5 season.

“I remember when it was acceptable for Mississippi State to win four games, beat Ole Miss and everything was fine,” fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Russell told ESPN.com last week. “Now, if you don’t go to a good bowl game -- and win a bowl game -- it’s like you don’t have a successful season. That’s great.”

It’s great because expectations are higher and people believe that under Dan Mullen, who will coach in his fifth season at Mississippi State this fall, the Bulldogs can push through and become real contenders in the SEC.

It’s not something that was ever supposed to be quick, but Mullen hasn’t strayed from his patient plan of slowly building up this program. In his four seasons, Mullen has gone 29-22, is 2-1 in bowl games, and has watched as the Bulldogs have sold out 23 straight home games. He’s also beaten eight of the 11 other SEC teams that were around when he arrived at Mississippi State in 2009. The school has even thrown $75 million into expanding and renovating Davis Wade Stadium.

“I can see that things have changed since I’ve been here,” Russell said. “Three years, four years ago, nobody would have said anything (negative) if we would have had the season that we had last year. They probably would have been happy that we won as many games as we did.”

But fans -- and just about everyone in and around the program -- are craving more. Three straight winning seasons for the first time since Mississippi State and four straight from 1997-2000 has Starkville beaming about the future, but last year’s late-season stumble brought plenty of concern.

After a 7-0 start and a rise to No. 11 in the BCS standings, the Bulldogs limped to a 1-5 finish and were outscored 188-81 in the process, conjuring past feelings of the historical inconsistency this program has had. All their losses were by double digits and none were closer than 14 points (a 34-20 loss to Northwestern in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl). A 41-24 loss to archrival Ole Miss also stopped the Bulldogs’ three-game winning streak over the Rebels.

A soft early-season schedule helped mask glaring defensive issues this team had, causing Mississippi State to go from a force to a phony in a matter of weeks.

Russell, who went from being one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country to throwing nine interceptions to five touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ five losses, said players got complacent after seven wins and developed an almost invincible mindset.

“I wouldn’t say you don’t work as hard, but I feel like we were like, ‘We can’t be beat,’” Russell said. “Then, you take that first loss and everything goes down hill and you try to catch back up.”

Mississippi State didn’t catch up, but with the 2013 season approaching, confidence is being restored. A slew of starters are gone, questions surround a much younger receiving corps, the defensive front has to make major strides this year and the secondary lost three valuable weapons, including Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks. But core players like Russell, 1,000-yard back LaDarius Perkins, linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Deontae Skinner, safety Nickoe Whitley, and four starting offensive linemen return.

Mullen has endured some backlash since the season ended. Foolish talk of him being on the hot seat has made the rounds, and athletic director Scott Stricklin couldn’t be more annoyed by it.

“Well, that is silly because he’s not on the hot seat,” Stricklin told ESPN.com Sunday night.

Mullen isn’t even in a hot room, according to Stricklin. Sure, he wasn’t thrilled with last November or a poor bowl experience, but Stricklin believes in Mullen’s product and loves the organization and structure he has behind the scenes.

“All of those pieces of it are phenomenal,” Stricklin said. “Dan has the traits that all really good coaches have. He’s very bright, very smart and he’s very organized. That’s a pretty powerful combination.”

What Stricklin wants -- and expects -- is consistent play to build a championship-like program. That means regularly moving past the eight-win mark, annual bowl trips, keeping a recruiting edge and being more competitive in the SEC West, where Mullen has beaten just three teams -- Arkansas, Auburn and Ole Miss.

There will be more stumbles along the way, but Stricklin truly sees a program built for long-term success under Mullen.

“You don’t see a lot of Johnny-come-latelys having great success at a high level in this league,” he said. “It’s the schools that are there year after year after year, and that’s what we want to be.”
Those who have the unfortunate task of facing Mississippi State's secondary must deal with the thought of going into lockdown mode.

Wide receivers have to face facts as they enter "Precinct 913” run by cornerbacks Darius Slay (9) and Johnthan Banks (13).

The clever title involving both players’ uniform numbers supposedly came from the mind of a fan, but the two have grown to love and live it, as they own the title of the SEC’s best corner duo.

"Me and Slay work real good together," Banks said.

[+] EnlargeDarius Slay
Spruce Derden/US PresswireDarius Slay is helping Mississippi State make its case for having the best secondary in the country.
Their seven combined interceptions (Slay 4, Banks 3) are more interceptions than 108 Football Bowl Subdivision teams have, they haven’t allowed a touchdown against them, Slay is one of four players nationally averaging 1.0 interceptions per game and Banks is allowing just 4.2 yards per pass thrown his way in man coverage.

Banks was thrown at 11 times through the first three games, but watched offenses pay the price, as Slay ended up being the only player in the nation to intercept a pass in each of the first three weeks of the season.

South Alabama avoided Slay, throwing 10 passes at Banks, but he left the game with yet another interception.

Things only get better when you add safeties Corey Broomfield, who moved from corner, and Nickoe Whitley. The foursome has combined to defend 12 passes and intercept eight. It's also helped Mississippi State's defense allow just 53 points in four games, the lowest allowed through the first four games since 1999 (28).

The Bulldogs are giving up 213.5 passing yards per game, but have allowed just two passing touchdowns while registering nine interceptions.

Yet, Banks feels the jury is still out on this unit.

"I don't think anybody else thinks we have a really good secondary, but we know we have a good secondary," Banks said. "It kind of makes us mad that I get singled out, out of the four. That motivates us. We know that people are going to come watch me and praise me, but that makes them go even harder to show what I can do, they can do, and maybe do it better."

Added Broomfield: "You can say what you want to say. You can put any list together that you want to, but we're going to put it on tape that we're the best secondary in the nation."

Through three seasons of work, these players have 32 career interceptions among them, but nearly half go to Banks, who ranks first among active FBS players with 15 career interceptions. He's also tied for third nationally with Broomfield with three interceptions returned for touchdowns. He's an excellent cover man who moonlights as a ball hawk.

But he’s nothing without his posse.

"I know I get all the praise, but I'd say we're all dangerous," Banks said. "All those guys just get it done -- 'Broom,' Slay, Nickoe -- all of them do the same things I do. It's just ridiculous how good these three guys that play with me are."

Banks said the crew really started to jell when Slay moved into the starting lineup. It gave the Bulldogs a chance to be in nickel on every down with Broomfield still on the field. Having three corners on the field at all times makes for more versatile packages for the secondary and provides more opportunities for man coverage, which they all love.

It’s also helped make them more competitive in practice. Defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said his players have to keep an edge in the secondary, and they do that by constantly challenging each other in practice.

It’s almost another game to see who can out-do the other each day in order to eliminate complacency.

“In the big picture, if these guys can really prepare as well as I think they can, week in and week out, they'll only get better,” Wilson said.

Saturday, this secondary should feast off Kentucky's pass game, which will be without starting quarterback Maxwell Smith. The thought of possibly playing against two true freshmen quarterbacks has to make State's foursome salivate uncontrollably.

But in two weeks, Tennessee comes to town. Tyler Bray and his band of receiving threats will invade Starkville on a mission to rule the skies. However, they should tread lightly when around the precinct.

Handcuffing is its specialty.

“We're ready,” Slay said. “We're built for good competition and we look forward to playing good receivers.”
With the LSU-Mississippi State game just hours away, fellow SEC blogger Chris Low and I decided to look at the keys to victory for each team.

LSU comes in with all the momentum after two tremendous showings by its defense. Mississippi State was a trendy dark-horse pick to win the West before the season started, but that talk was halted after a tough loss to Auburn last week.

Starkville will no doubt be jumping for tonight's game, but how can each team win? I looked into three ways that the Bulldogs could pull the upset, while Chris looked at how LSU can stay undefeated in a hostile environment.

Mississippi State's keys to victory:

1. Stop the run: Mississippi State was awful when it came to stopping the run last week. Auburn carved up the Bulldogs' front seven for 235 yards on the ground inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. Maybe we should have seen it coming after the Bulldogs surrendered more than 160 yards to Memphis a week earlier. LSU brings in a tough running game that features multiple backs, so stamina won't be an issue. The Tigers have put up back-to-back 175-yard rushing performances and if the Bulldogs don't get tougher in the trenches, it could be another long day for Mississippi State's defense. Mississippi State barely got any push from defensive tackle Fletcher Cox when he returned last week, but he and Josh Boyd can't afford to slump tonight.

2. Force Jarrett Lee to beat you: Lee hasn't been spectacular this season, but he has run the offense the way his coaches have asked him to. Lee's unsettled football past is well documented and if he gets in trouble, he can be a defense's best friend. He has had interception problems in the past and Mississippi State fields one of the most athletic and dangerous secondaries in the SEC. Cornerbacks Corey Broomfield and Johnthan Banks are big plays waiting to happen, while Charles Mitchell and Nickoe Whitley have a tremendous knack for finding the ball. Lee has yet to feel rattled this season, but the Bulldogs have the personnel in the secondary to do that.

3. Get the wide receivers more involved: Quarterback Chris Relf showed that he can be a one-man wrecking crew, but even that wasn't enough to push the Bulldogs past Auburn last week. He needs more help from his receivers. In two games, Mississippi State's leading receiver, Jameon Lewis, has just five catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. He had one catch for 3 yards against Auburn. Last week, Relf passed for 198 yards, but running back Vick Ballard led the team in catches with five. In order to get more variety out of the offense, Mississippi State's receivers have to get more separation and be more of a factor.

LSU's keys to victory:

1. Take control early: Scott Field is a tough place to play, and those cowbells have a way of ringing in your ears after a while. They don’t ring nearly as much or as loudly when Mississippi State is down, though. So taking the crowd out of the game early would be a huge help to LSU, which is at its best when it’s playing with the lead, running the football and dictating the flow of the game.

2. Hit some plays in the passing game: The Tigers don’t necessarily need to throw for 250 or 300 yards, but they do need to keep the Mississippi State defense honest by hitting a few big pass plays down the field. LSU’s longest completion to a wide receiver in the Oregon game was 10 yards to Rueben Randle, but Randle came back with a big outing last week in the blowout of Northwestern State. LSU is going to need Randle, Odell Beckham and Kadron Boone to stretch that Mississippi State defense tonight so that the Bulldogs aren’t able to walk a safety up and stack the box.

3. Ground the Bulldogs’ ground game: Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard is tied for third nationally in rushing. He has 301 yards in his first two games and is averaging 9.1 yards per carry. It’s not just Ballard, either. Quarterback Chris Relf is a big part of the Mississippi running game along with backup running back LaDarius Perkins, who had a 40-yard touchdown run last week against Auburn. LSU’s challenge is to keep Mississippi State from getting that running game going, particularly on first and second down, and forcing Relf into a lot of third-and-long situations. The Tigers are ranked eighth nationally against the run and are allowing just 1.65 yards per attempt. If they play that way tonight, they’ll make it 12 in a row over the Bulldogs.
We head into high-flyer mode as we discuss defensive backs today. They are athletic as ever this season, and some teams return a bevy of secondary talent in 2011.

Here’s how the teams look:

[+] EnlargeMark Barron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMark Barron decided to return to Alabama instead of making himself eligible for the NFL draft.
1. Alabama: This was an area of the team that was a problem and it wasn’t so much the yardage given up but the lack of consistency, especially in big games (see the Auburn game). This year, the Tide should have one of the best defensive backfields in the country. Safety Mark Barron could have entered the NFL draft, but stayed. And while he was in a non-contact jersey this spring, he’ll be one of the top safeties around this fall. Robert Lester is another solid safety who is also making everyone’s short list of top safeties for next year’s draft. At corner, everyone knows Dre Kirkpatrick, but DeQuan Menzie could be Alabama’s best weapon in the secondary. Dee Milliner is still in the mix at corner and there is a lot of good young talent as well.

2. LSU: No Patrick Peterson? No problem. The Tigers are once again loaded in their secondary with corners Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu. Both are All-SEC material and Claiborne led the Tigers with five interceptions last season. Mathieu found a way to get to the ball often last season and both should make it tough for any quarterback to throw on LSU this fall. Sophomore Tharold Simon made strong improvements at corner this spring as well. Safety Brandon Taylor is another top player at his position and he should be fine after suffering a foot injury at the end of last season. Youngsters Eric Reid and Craig Loston look like stars in the making at safety.

3. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return five players who started at some point in 2010. Johnthan Banks, Corey Broomfield and Nickoe Whitley each recorded three interceptions and had 50-plus tackles last year. Broomfield should be the Bulldogs' top option at corner, while Banks can play both corner and safety. Charles Mitchell returns at safety and was third on the team with 93 tackles last season. All of Mississippi State’s defensive backs not only have a knack for making big plays down field but they can each play efficiently in the box.

4. Arkansas: This group is a little inexperienced, but there is a lot of talent to go around. Things start with safety Tramain Thomas. Thomas was fourth on the team in tackles last season and grabbed four interceptions. Thomas looked even better this spring, making play after play. Fellow senior Elton Ford should get time at safety, and converted corner Eric Bennett should get reps as well. Hybrid linebacker Jerico Nelson enhances the group when he drops back with the safeties and Isaac Madison returns at one of the corner spots and should team up with Darius Winston. The two have 27 career starts under their belts.

5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ secondary has to improve after underachieving a year ago, and South Carolina has the weapons to do it. Corner Stephon Gilmore wasn’t at his best last year, but has tremendous cover ability and speed to be tops at his position. Akeem Auguste moved from safety back to his more natural position at corner and should give the Gamecocks one of the top corner tandems in the SEC. DeVonte Holloman moved to the Spur linebacker spot, so there are still questions at safety, but D.J. Swearinger really impressed this spring and some think he’s the most gifted defensive back in Columbia. Replacing Holloman’s spot is going to be tough, and the coaches have yet to find someone to solidify that position.

6. Vanderbilt: This is the strongest part of Vanderbilt’s team. The Commodores return a heap of talent, starting with senior corner Casey Hayward, who was a second-team All-SEC pick a year ago. Hayward led the SEC with 11 pass breakups and had six interceptions. Safety Sean Richardson led the team with 98 tackles and would start on a lot of teams in the SEC. The other safety spot is occupied by Kenny Ladler, who was one of the top safeties in the league last season, even as a freshman. Junior Trey Wilson had a great spring and could move past last year’s starter Eddie Foster on the depth chart.

7. Georgia: Like most positions at Georgia, there’s no shortage of talent. However, there are still questions. Senior Brandon Boykin is solid at one of the corner spots with his natural corner instincts, great speed and is the defensive leader. Sanders Commings is talented and has the best size, but he’ll have to battle Branden Smith at the other corner spot. Smith is a total athlete, but he has to improve his coverage skills. Bacarri Rambo is solid at safety, but he needs to return to the form he had as a freshman. Finding someone to line up next to him is important. With Alec Ogletree moving to linebacker, there is a hole at safety and one of Georgia’s newcomers might have to step in this fall.

8. Florida: The Gators would have been higher on this list had it not been for the dismissal of All-SEC corner Janoris Jenkins. There’s a gaping hole at corner, and the hope is that junior Jeremy Brown can help fill it. He finally played after a severe back injury kept him out for two years, and while he struggled at times, Florida’s coaches were very impressed with his play this spring. Sophomore Cody Riggs was a pleasant surprise at corner last season and is battling unproven senior Moses Jenkins. There is nothing but youth and inexperience behind them. At safety, Matt Elam had a good spring at strong safety, while free safety wasn’t totally locked down by Josh Evans. The good news is that Florida signed six defensive backs this year.

9. Tennessee: This group could be decent, but there are so many questions. We aren’t sure if star Janzen Jackson will return after leaving school this spring. Prentiss Waggner moved from safety to corner last season, where he was an All-SEC performer, and then back to safety when Jackson left. But he might be back at corner this fall. If Waggner is a corner and there’s no Jackson, there’s an enormous hole at safety. If he stays at safety, then there’s one at corner. Fortunately, Brent Brewer, a former minor league baseball player, is a solid safety, and corner Marsalis Teague returns after converting from receiver last season. Incoming junior college transfer Byron Moore should compete immediately for time at corner.

10. Kentucky: There is a lot of experience with four senior starters returning, but the unit has to show that it can be consistent in big games. Safety/linebacker hybrid Winston Guy leads the group with his speed, strength and athleticism, and will move down into the box as the nickel linebacker. Seniors Randall Burden and Anthony Mosley are back at corner after combing for 11 pass breakups and two interceptions. Junior Martavius Neloms began the spring as the starter at corner, but could see more time at safety this fall. Mychal Bailey will line up at safety and was second behind Guy with two interceptions last season. Inexperience behind this group is still a problem.

11. Auburn: Things started off poorly when senior safety Michael McNeil was one of the four players arrested for robbery and later dismissed this spring. McNeil, who started seven games last season, was supposed to be one of the stars of the Tigers’ defense this fall. Now he’s gone and former corner Neiko Thorpe is moving over to safety. The move actually benefits the hit-first defensive back. T’Sharvan Bell is at corner and has the speed and tight cover skills to be one of the best at his position. After that, it’s a free-for-all. Incoming freshman Erique Florence should get an opportunity to come in and play immediately at safety.

12. Ole Miss: This group had to hear about how it was the goat of last season’s 4-8 campaign after allowing 246 passing yards a game. It was a motivational tool this spring, but there’s a lot of work to do. New defensive backs coach Keith Burns was pleased with the spring progress and really liked how JUCO transfer Wesley Pendleton played at corner. He’s competing to take one of those spots from either Marcus Temple, who missed spring with injury, or Charles Sawyer, who had to be pushed at times this spring. The reliable Damien Jackson is back at safety and could line up next to Brishen Mathews, who got good playing time last season, but is still unproven. JUCO transfer Ivan Nicholas and freshman Cliff Coleman will compete for time at safety and corner, respectively.

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