In front of every great secondary is an ever better defensive line.
Well, that's what it certainly seems like at times. The truth is that you can mask a lot of issues on defense if you have enough of the goods up front.
For Mississippi State, that's exactly what the Bulldogs are looking to accomplish this fall, as they replace three starters in the defensive backfield. Quality bodies are certainly needed to cover holes left by the likes of Johnthan Banks, Darius Slay and Corey Broomfield, but the Bulldogs are hoping to get the much-needed pass-rush up front to make things even easier on its less experienced defensive backfield.
No one has really questioned Mississippi State's talent up front, but people in Starkville, Miss., are waiting for real production. Last year, the Bulldogs registered just 18 sacks in 13 games.
A poor pass rush late in the season helped result in the defense surrendering more than 400 yards in three of the final six games and more than 230 passing yards in five of those games. The Bulldogs went 1-5 during that span and were outscored 202-126.
Most of the talk in the last year has revolved around junior college transfer end Denico Autry. He was highly recruited before joining the Bulldogs, but took a while to really get comfortable in the defense last year. He came on stronger toward the end of the 2012 season, so the hope is that he's much more consistent this fall. The staff knows he's a physical freak and is probably the team's most talented/gifted lineman, but it's all about combining his athleticism with consistency.
Autry could be the linchpin of the defensive line, but junior Kaleb Eulls will be very important as he makes the move from end to tackle. Eulls started the last two season on the outside, but has just one career sack and four tackles for loss. That has to change. For the Bulldogs to be better in the middle, Eulls has to be way more disruptive in 2013.
Junior P.J. Jones will likely start at the other tackle spot, while classmate Preston Smith, who led the Bulldogs in sacks last year (4.5), will start opposite Autry. Jones played in nine games last year, but dealt with a suspension for violating team rules. He has games under his belt, but, again, his play must vastly improve.
Physically, that's a good base to work with, but Mississippi State needs that base to cause more chaos for teams.
Like the starters, Mississippi State's reserves have a lot of room to grow too. Sophomore tackles Quay Evans and Nick James will have to be more consistent going forward. When you talk to people around the program, it sounds like both have shown flashes in practices, but conditioning has been an issue. Getting pushed around on plays won't fly this fall.
Sophomore end Ryan Brown has turned some heads during his short time in Starkville, and the staff is pretty excited about his potential. He's an athletic guy, who could be a terror against the pass as he continues to grow in the Bulldogs' defense. He's certainly one to keep an eye on.
And then there's freshman Chris Jones, who could move around all over up front. The highly recruited end is hovering around the 300-pound mark (mostly muscle), and while he's staying outside for the time being, he could move inside if needed. The staff is really high on him and he worked with the second-team defense on Sunday.
New defensive line coach David Turner has served as more of a teacher for his linemen, which has really made the transition to his coaching easier, and Geoff Collins' is running significantly more blitzes and has a more pressure-heavy defense for his players to work with. Both of those factors should help this line grow, but we know coaching and schemes can only go so far.
The Bulldogs have the pieces in place to excel up front, but it's time for this group to act the part, not just look the part.