- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Make no mistake, Dan Mullen is a coach who thinks offense first. In addition to being the head coach at Mississippi State, he fancies himself the quarterbacks coach, sitting in on meetings and delivering pointers during practice. He wants his offense to go places in 2014, and with Dak Prescott, Jameon Lewis and Da’Runnya Wilson in place, he has the tools to see that vision through.
But Mullen is also a practical man. He knows that however good his offense is or however good it will be, Mississippi State will rely most heavily on its defense. He acknowledges that the unit, led by defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, is the strength of the program entering a season that promises to be special as both players and coaches are embracing expectations now, rather than playing the familiar role of underdog in the SEC West.
Mississippi State has the momentum of three straight wins to end last season thanks to its defense, which surrendered an average of 11.3 points per game against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Rice. If not for the scoreless second half the defense pitched in the Egg Bowl, the tenor of this spring might have been much different. The fairytale ending might have gone sideways.
“They grew up,” Mullen said of his defense, which lost three-quarters of its secondary from 2012, and then watched as its only returning starter, Jay Hughes, went down with a season-ending injury Week 1 against Oklahoma State. It was an uphill battle, but the defense eventually coalesced. “Coming into the season, we knew we had talent on the defensive side of the ball. We were just young. Both corners had gone on to the NFL. Our corners now are maybe better. They just hadn’t played. They were developing.”
It must be ringing in his ears constantly, because in multiple conversations with Mullen over the past few months he’s cited the fact that of the 25 or so defensive players who saw action a season ago, 22 are back. It’s been an emphasis for obvious reasons. There aren’t many SEC teams that can boast such strong numbers, which are usually a good indicator of future success. By developing them even further this spring -- “We put the pressure on them,” Mullen said -- the hope is they will become a defense capable of keeping Mississippi State close in games.
Losing Deontae Skinner, Nickoe Whitley and Denico Autry hurt, but there’s reason for optimism at every level of the defense this spring. Chris Jones is poised to become a household name on the defensive line, and he’s not even technically a starter, Nick James, a highly rated defensive tackle coming out of high school a season ago, is developing quickly, and the secondary is loaded with talent at corner and safety.
As Collins said: “They got thrown into the fire of SEC play last year. Now they’ve had a spring to sink their teeth into it.”
“He’s such a big, physical presence,” Collins said of Jones. “He’s a freakish athlete. The good thing about him is everyone talks about him a lot and he’s a high-profile kid, but the thing that’s nice about Chris is he knew his fundamentals and his technique had to improve. Last year we had to rely on his God-given ability. So he really took the time to be with [defensive line coach David Turner] to focus on technique, focus on fundamentals, really learn the scheme even more and invest in playing hard.”
Collins was overwhelmingly positive in assessing his defense this spring. The two major questions he said he had entering the spring -- leadership and an eagerness to compete -- his defense passed with flying colors. Getting Benardrick McKinney back for his senior year was a huge boost in both areas.
“He’s such a great kid,” Collins said of McKinney, who is a vocal presence during every practice. “He’s blessed to be 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and run a 4.6. He has a 40-inch vertical jump. But he’s even a better kid than he is an athlete. His attention to detail, a great leader.
“The nice thing for us is we have Dak Prescott, who’s an incredible leader on the offense, and then you have Benardrick McKinney, who’s an incredible leader on the defensive side of the ball. And both of them are big-time players for us. So that’s a nice thing to have during the summer when the coaches can’t be around.”
It’s not just the front seven that has Collins excited, though. The secondary, he said, has “10 kids that can play SEC ball.”
“It’s just a lot of confidence, a lot of positive guys about kids who can step in and play for us,” he said.
One such defensive back to watch is Justin Cox, who was a high-profile junior college transfer to Mississippi State last season that ultimately played more of a reserve role at cornerback. Now he’s been moved to safety, where he said he’s much more comfortable.
At 6-3 and in the neighborhood of 200 pounds, he fits the part. Mullen called him a “violent, aggressive player with some toughness -- and he runs a 4.3 [40-yard dash] so he can cover lots of ground out there.”
“You can see the light coming on for him,” Collins said. “He’s going to be another kid with tremendous physical gifts. With more confidence we’ll see him make a big impact for us.”
Armed with confidence, talent and depth, look for the entire Mississippi State defense to take off. The end of last season might have just been the prelude. Now Mullen and his staff hope they’re ready to turn the defense into the blockbuster surprise of the SEC.