SEC: Justin Cox

Ranking the SEC safeties

June, 19, 2014
6/19/14
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We could have sold ourselves short with a top 10 comprised of all the league's defensive backs. Instead of leaving out too many talented players, we took the long route and split the secondary in two.

Earlier this afternoon you should have read Chris Low's breakdown of the top-10 cornerbacks in the SEC. Now it's time for the safety rankings entering 2014.

Safety position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the anchor of what could be the SEC's best secondary.
1. Cody Prewitt, Sr., Ole Miss: On a defense loaded with former blue-chip recruits, it was Prewitt, a three-star safety from the tiny town of Bay Springs, Mississippi, who stood out the most last season. The 6-foot-2 junior showed the complete package as he led the SEC with six interceptions and became a near unanimous first team All-America selection. Now a senior, he’s the clear face of a secondary that could be the best in the conference.

2. Landon Collins, Soph., Alabama: It’s scary to think what he’ll do as a starter from Day 1. Alabama fans will remember that Collins was the backup to Vinnie Sunseri at strong safety last season and only became a full-time starter after Sunseri tore his ACL. Despite starting only nine games, Collins led the team in passes defended and finished second in total tackles. A heavy hitter as much as he is a ball hawk, Collins could easily develop into a first-round pick with a strong junior season.

3. Tony Conner, Soph., Ole Miss: Talk about fulfilling on promise. Conner, a four-star safety prospect coming out of high school, was an immediate impact player for Ole Miss, playing in all 12 games and earning Freshman All-America honors for his 66 tackles, one interception and seven passes defended.

4. Braylon Webb, Sr., Missouri: Gary Pinkel’s defense could use a veteran presence now that E.J. Gaines, Matt White and Randy Ponder are all gone. Webb, fortunately, is just the stabilizing force that’s needed. He has 30 career starts, and last season he was the team’s second leading tackler in addition to picking off three passes.

[+] EnlargeBrison Williams
AP Photo/Richard ShiroBrison Williams, who had three INTs last season, hits like a linebacker and adds valuable experience to the South Carolina secondary.
5. Brison Williams, Sr., South Carolina: He may look like a linebacker in a helmet and shoulder pads, but the 5-11, 218-pound Williams is all safety. In the past two years he has started 23 games and racked up 97 tackles and three interceptions. In a secondary lacking experience, his leadership will be vital.

6. Jermaine Whitehead, Sr., Auburn: The Tigers’ secondary was unspectacular last season, but Whitehead wasn’t the problem. The soon-to-be senior finished fourth on the team in tackles (65) and third in passes defended (6), two of which he turned into interceptions. Now with a full year in Ellis Johnson’s system, he and the rest of the defense could take a big step forward in 2014.

7. Brian Randolph, Jr., Tennessee: Count Randolph among the better players you probably don’t hear much of. A year after suffering a season-ending injury, the former SEC coaches’ All-Freshman team selection had the best year of his career in 2013, finishing second in the team with 75 tackles. On top of that, he finished fifth in the SEC with four interceptions.

8. Alan Turner, Sr., Arkansas: You’d be hard pressed to come up with a more productive, experienced safety in the SEC this season than Turner, who has played in more than 30 games for Arkansas. The 6-foot senior was the team leader in tackles last season with 97 and also hauled in two interceptions.

9. Ronald Martin, Sr., LSU: This might be Jalen Mills’ spot had he not been arrested and subsequently suspended indefinitely by coach Les Miles. Martin, nonetheless, is a worthy selection. Though he had a quiet 2013, expect a big senior season from him as he takes over for Craig Loston at strong safety in 2014, a spot where his 6-1, 218-pound frame should come in handy in run support.

10. Justin Cox, Sr., Mississippi State: Cox was admittedly a step behind last season after transferring from a junior college. He was asked to play cornerback and ended up contributing very little. But this spring he came up to speed and was welcomed back with a new position that better suits his 6-3 frame: safety. Now the word from Starkville is what an upside he has at safety, how it’s a more natural fit and how he can really cover some ground. Though he may not start right away, don’t be surprised if he climbs the depth chart quickly.
Today, we continue our break down of each position group in the SEC by looking at an area of defense that has a lot to prove after last season.

We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.

Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.

With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.

Secondary position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the leader of an experienced, talented Rebels secondary.
1. Ole Miss: Talent and experience. Both are worth their weight in gold, and Ole Miss has loads of each. We’re probably not giving anything away when we say that both Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner will make the list of the league’s top 10 safeties later today. Prewitt led the league in interceptions last season, and Conner, a former four-star recruit, has barely scratched the surface on what he can do. Trae Elston and Senquez Golson, meanwhile, are potential impact players, along with Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones. If C.J. Hampton lives up to the hype, he could be a true freshman to keep an eye on.

2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.

3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.

4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.

5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.

6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.

7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.

9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett has all-conference potential, but the Texas A&M secondary is filled with question marks.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies return plenty of experience in the secondary this season. That's good in the sense that they have a defensive backfield with a lot of SEC football under its belt but make no mistake, this unit has a lot of room for improvement. Cornerback Deshazor Everett is the best player of the group and could be headed for an all-conference season, while junior corner De'Vante Harris continues to grow as a player. The safeties -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt -- must show improvement this season after last year's performance. The nickel position is open and a number of candidates could step in, including sophomore Noel Ellis or junior Devonta Burns.

11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.

12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.

13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.
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.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisDan Mullen sees the defense as Mississippi State's strength.
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.”

[+] EnlargeJustin Cox
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJustin Cox is expected to be an impact player on defense this fall.
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.

SEC lunchtime links

April, 10, 2014
4/10/14
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Plenty going on as spring practices continue in the SEC. We have pro days, coaching talk, players adapting to new positions and even reality TV news in today's lunch links:

SEC's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
4/09/14
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Ten of the Top 25 tailgating schools reside in the SEC, including all of the top six. Does this surprise anyone?
Schedule: The Bulldogs begin practice today and will conclude with Mississippi State's annual Maroon-White Spring Game on April 12 at 1 p.m. ET. Fourteen of the Bulldogs' practices will be open to the public.

What's new: Former offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Les Koenning left the Bulldogs to become the new wide receivers coach at Texas. Former Utah offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson was hired to coach Mississippi State's quarterbacks. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy are listed as co-offensive coordinators.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBenardrick McKinney returns at linebacker after leading the Bulldogs in tackles last season.
On the move: Tight end Rufus Warren will get work at left tackle this spring. Dee Arrington is switching from safety to linebacker. Brandon Holloway, who is a real speedster, could have the chance to move from wide receiver to running back. Also, keep an eye on cornerback Justin Cox, who switched to safety during the Bulldogs' bowl practices last season. He worked well at safety during the week and could have a chance to play there this spring.

On the mend: Offensive guard Justin Malone is coming back from a season-ending foot injury that he suffered in last year's season opener. The Bulldogs are also hoping to get some work out of safety Jay Hughes, whose season ended with Malone because of an Achilles injury. Arrignton is also going to be limited this spring after suffering a season-ending injury last fall.

New faces: The Bulldogs welcomed early enrollees Nick Fitzgerald (quarterback, high school) and Jocquell Johnson (offensive line, junior college).

Question marks: With the reliable LaDarius Perkins gone, Mississippi State will have a relatively fresh start at running back. The coaching staff likes the depth it has there, but there isn't a proven back on the roster right now. Junior Josh Robinson did well as Perkins' backup last season, rushing for 459 yards and three touchdowns, so he'll have the early edge to replace Perkins. He's still learning to block and mature on the field. Behind him there is senior Nick Griffin, who is finally healthy for the first time and could push Robinson this spring. Obviously, not having Gabe Jackson means the Bulldogs have a pretty big hole to fill up front. Jammal Clayborn played last season as a freshman and could take Jackson's spot, but getting Malone back and at 100 percent is key for the line. The right tackle spot remains a mystery as well with Charles Siddoway gone. Johnson should compete with Damien Robinson and redshirt freshman Jake Thomas for that tackle spot.

Breaking out: The guy everyone is excited about on the defensive side in 2014 is defensive lineman Chris Jones, who could be a household name in this league before he takes off for the NFL. He only had three sacks last season as a freshman, but he eventually caught double-teams from opponents despite his youth. With his talent and skill, the former top-flight recruit could be special in 2014. Again, he'll get work at both end and tackle for the Bulldogs. Also, keep an eye on sophomore receiver De'Runnya Wilson, who caught 26 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns last season. The 6-foot-5, 215-pounder is the total athlete and also suited up for the Bulldogs' basketball team. He's fast, has high football IQ and can really leap. He could be a good red zone threat and wouldn't surprise anyone by taking a starting job.

Don't forget about: Junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney returns as one of the SEC's top linebackers. With all the big names that come through this conference, McKinney has gotten lost in the shuffle at times, but he led the Bulldogs with 71 tackles, seven tackles for loss and three sacks. Two years ago, he recorded 102. With Deontae Skinner gone, more onus will be put on McKinney this fall, but that shouldn't bother him. McKinney has a chance to throw his name near the top of the SEC linebacker board this season.

All eyes on: Of course everyone is waiting to see what quarterback Dak Prescott will do as the man in Starkville. This is his football team and he's even been viewed as a dark horse in the Heisman Trophy race with his dual-threat ability. He ended the 2013 season with two impressive performances in wins against Ole Miss and Rice. But the pressure is on. Prescott will see an increase in the attention he receives and the hype will only continue to grow. He has to continue to develop and make better decisions in the pocket. He can hurry throws too often and has to take care of the ball going forward.

 

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.

(Read full post)

Mississippi State season preview

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
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Our SEC preview continues today with a look at the Mississippi State Bulldogs

Coach: Dan Mullen (29-22 overall, all at MSU)

2012 record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/US PresswireDan Mullen says the Bulldogs have a chip on their shoulder about the way their season ended last year.
Key losses: WR Chad Bumphis, LB Cameron Lawrence, DB Darius Slay, DB Johnthan Banks, WR Chris Smith, WR Arceto Clark.

Key returnees: QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, LB Benardrick McKinney, OG Gabe Jackson, DE Kaleb Eulls, S Nickoe Whitley.

Newcomer to watch: DE Chris Jones, WR Jeremey Chappelle, CB Justin Cox, WR Fred Ross.

Biggest games in 2013: Oklahoma State (In Houston), Aug. 31; LSU, Oct. 5; at South Carolina, Nov. 2; at Texas A&M, Nov. 9; Alabama, Nov. 16; Ole Miss, Nov. 30.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can the Bulldogs take the next step? Last season, they started 7-0 and were in the top 15 nationally before a loss to Alabama began a stretch where they lost five of their final six games, which also happened to be when their schedule became its toughest. All five of those losses were by double digits. With the return of quarterback Tyler Russell, guard Gabe Jackson and a talented offensive line, as well as some key pieces in the front seven and secondary, the question is whether the Bulldogs can fare better against the top SEC West squads. One plus for the Bulldogs is that they get LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss all in the friendly confines of Davis Wade Stadium. Mullen has said several times that the Bulldogs' goal is to get to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game.

Forecast: This is a young group for Mullen with only 10 seniors on the roster and Mullen said that he thinks the team let the Alabama loss affect them in the weeks following. This young squad will have to learn how to respond to defeats like that this year and Mullen said he feels the group comes in with a chip on its shoulder after the way 2012 ended.

But there are key pieces back at key positions, namely at quarterback with Russell and along the offensive line led by Jackson at guard. There is production to be replaced at receiver. On defense, guys like Benardrick McKinney, Nickoe Whitley and Kaleb Eulls are part of a group of six returning starters on that side of the ball.

Taking the next step won't be easy for this crew though, considering the schedule. There are five ranked teams on the slate (Oklahoma State, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama) and those last three fall in consecutive weeks in November. That doesn't count the Egg Bowl rivalry game against Ole Miss, which the Bulldogs lost last season. This year, though, they host the Rebels.

Winning around eight games again, as they did a season ago, is certainly achievable, but taking the leap forward into the top three in the SEC West might be asking too much, at least this season, unless one of those three (Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M) falter. A win against Oklahoma State to start the season would go a long way toward building some momentum early in the year, which they hope to carry into the Oct. 5 tilt against LSU. Bottom line is for the Bulldogs to be real contenders in the SEC West, they have to show that they can beat one of the big dogs in the division.
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.
Earlier this week, we took a look at five true freshman to keep two eyes on in the SEC this fall.

But there are some other first-year players who could make immediate splashes with their respective teams. Of course, I'm talking about junior college transfers. You don't bring veterans in just to stand around and watch. Coaches sign juco players because they need immediate help at certain positions.

This year is no different for league coaches, as a handful of juco players are expected to help out this fall. Will another Nick Fairley or, dare I say, Cam Newton emerge from this year's crop of juco transfers? We'll find out soon enough.

Here are five juco transfers (in alphabetical order) to keep an eye on in 2013:
  • Justin Cox, CB, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have to replace three starters in their secondary, including Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay. That won't be easy, but Cox could ease some of the coaches' worries with his speed and athleticism. He was one of the fastest players on the team this spring and had a superb juco career, intercepting 11 passes and breaking up 19 during his two years at East Mississippi Community College.
  • Lavon Hooks, DT, Ole Miss: Depth in the interior of the Rebels' defensive line is crucial going forward. That means Hooks has a great chance to see the field early. He did a great job of securing a spot in Ole Miss' rotation with a very solid spring. He's extremely strong and athletic and should help the Rebels against both the run and pass this fall.
  • Toby Johnson, DT, Georgia: The Bulldogs need help in the interior of their defensive line and Johnson could be the answer. Johnson was one of the top juco players last year, but he's rehabbing from an anterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered last November. He should be able to go through fall -- and if he's in the right shape he'll have a shot a starting spot.
  • Za'Darius Smith, DE, Kentucky: New coach Mark Stoops has a very good foundation to work with along his defensive line, and adding Smith to the rotation makes that unit even stronger. He was a monster in the weight room before spring practice and was just as good once he got out on the field. He should help enhance what looks to already be a pretty solid pass rush for the Wildcats this fall.
  • Brandon Vandenburg, TE, Vanderbilt: The Commodores might have some solid skill players coming back on offense, but coach James Franklin has made it clear that there is some concern at tight end. Help is needed and Vandenburg could certainly provide it with his speed and solid blocking ability. He could be a deceptive weapon for the Commodores this fall and will have every opportunity to take the starting job.

Edward Aschoff talks about the emergence of Mississippi State cornerback Justin Cox this spring.
2012 record: 8-5
2012 conference record: 4-4
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense 5; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, OG Gabe Jackson, C Dillon Day, DE Denico Autry, DE Preston Smith, LB Benardrick McKinney, S Nickoe Whitley

Key losses

WR Chad Bumphis, TE Marcus Green, DT Josh Boyd, LB Cameron Lawrence, CB Johnthan Banks, CB Darius Slay

2012 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: LaDarius Perkins* (1,024 yards)
Passing: Tyler Russell* (2,897 yards)
Receiving: Chad Bumphis (922 yards)
Tackles: Cameron Lawrence (120)
Sacks: Preston Smith* (4.5)
Interceptions: Darius Slay (5)

Spring answers

1. Russell’s experience: Fifth-year senior Tyler Russell is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the SEC. He was also one of the league’s most improved quarterbacks from his sophomore to junior season. The Bulldogs feel like they’ll be able to do even more things with Russell next season because of his experience and knowledge of the offense. He has the coaches’ trust, and more importantly, the trust and respect of all of his teammates. Coach Dan Mullen says confidently, “We expect him to have a huge year.”

2. Young guns on defense: New defensive coordinator Geoff Collins wants to dial up the pressure and adopt more of an attacking style. He has some promising young talent to work with and liked what he saw from those guys this spring. Sophomore tackles Quay Evans and Nick James, sophomore end Ryan Brown, sophomore middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney, redshirt freshman outside linebacker Beniquez Brown and sophomore cornerback Cedric Jiles form what should be a stout nucleus defensively for a couple of years to come.

3. Cox steps right in: Programs bring in junior college players to help right away, and Justin Cox came in this spring and established himself at cornerback. The Bulldogs needed reinforcements at cornerback with second-round draft picks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay both departing. Cox could also be a factor at safety and the nickel spot and should be ready to go in the fall now that he’s had the spring to acclimate himself to Mississippi State’s defensive scheme.

Fall questions

1. On the receiving end: With the four leading receivers from a year ago gone, the Bulldogs identified several candidates this spring to take those spots. But now they have to go out and prove they can do it in games. Junior Jameon Lewis is the heir apparent to Chad Bumphis in the slot. Junior Robert Johnson has all the physical tools to be a big-time receiver, and junior college newcomer Jeremey Chappelle showed up big in the spring game. Even with the loss of Marcus Green, there’s good depth at tight end, which means there could be more two-tight end sets next season.

2. Smith’s future: It sounds as if team leader and veteran offensive guard Tobias Smith will stay on next season, but do so as a student coach. He’s yet to finalize his decision after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. He’s played through an assortment of injuries and gutted it out last season on a bad knee. If he does indeed opt not to play, sophomore Justin Malone would step in at guard. Malone started in five games last season when Smith was unable to go. The Bulldogs return four other starters in the offensive line, and junior Damien Robinson made a move at tackle this spring.

3. Coming out swinging: The Bulldogs still have a bad taste in their mouths over the way last season ended. They lost five of their last six games after starting out 7-0. Getting that winning edge back to start next season will be important, and the opener will go a long way toward setting the tone. Mississippi State kicks off the season against Oklahoma State in Houston’s Reliant Stadium. It’s one of only two games away from home for the Bulldogs in the months of September and October.
Earlier today, we examined those newcomers in the East who made big splashes this spring.

Again, these are players on campus and practicing for the first time, transfers or true freshmen who enrolled early. We didn’t include redshirt freshmen.

We’ll turn our attention now to the West and some of the new faces who look like they’re going to be able to help their teams in the fall.

Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: The junior college transfer gives the Tigers a bigger, downhill running threat. Tre Mason will be healthy in the fall, and Corey Grant also had a nice spring. But Artis-Payne should be a nice complement as the power back.

Cameron Clear, TE, Texas A&M: He started his career at Tennessee and was dismissed from the team after getting into trouble off the field. After a year at junior college, Clear was hard to miss this spring in Aggieland. He’s 270 pounds, catches the ball extremely well and will add another dimension to that offense.

Justin Cox, CB, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost both of their starting cornerbacks from a year ago, including Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, but Cox eased a lot of their concern by the way he performed this spring after coming over from junior college.

Mark Dodson Jr., RB, Ole Miss: An early enrollee freshman from Memphis, Dodson turned a lot of heads this spring. He’s an explosive threat who may be able to fill that all-purpose role that Randall Mackey played so well for the Rebels.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: It was an unfortunate end to the spring for Henry, who broke his fibula last Saturday in a scrimmage. But prior to that injury, the 6-3, 238-pound freshman was a beast and pushing to earn a spot in the Tide’s running back rotation. He’s one of those guys nobody wants to tackle.

Lavon Hooks, DT, Ole Miss: The Rebels brought Hooks in from junior college to help right away on the defensive line, and he didn’t disappoint. One of the top-rated junior college prospects in the country, the 6-4, 290-pound Hooks played well enough this spring to secure a spot in the tackle rotation.

O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Once Howard gets the blocking part of it down, look out. At 6-6 and 237 pounds, he catches everything and will give the Crimson Tide yet another option in their passing game, especially down the middle of the field. Physically, he simply doesn't look like a true freshman.

Ethan Pocic, C, LSU: The LSU staff was thrilled with Pocic’s development this spring, and the 6-7, 285-pound true freshman emerged as one of their best five offensive linemen. He’s starting at center in Saturday’s spring game and is a good bet to stay in the starting lineup come fall.

Tommy Sanders, LB, Texas A&M: The first thing that jumps out at you about Sanders is his speed. The junior college newcomer was all over the field this spring, and he’ll put that speed to good use in the fall as one of the Aggies’ starters at linebacker.

Ja’Quay Williams, WR, Texas A&M: He originally signed with Auburn but spent last season at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. Williams was impressive this spring with his ability to get open and make plays down the field. The Aggies have some more talent coming in at receiver this summer, but Williams will be difficult to unseat.
We now shift our attention to the West to examine some of the more promising developments to come out of spring practice.

The SEC champion has come out of the West each of the past four seasons, although nobody has repeated as SEC champion since Tennessee in 1997 and 1998. Alabama will be looking to end that 15-year drought this coming season.

Here’s a look at what we’ve learned so far this spring in the rugged West:

Aggies’ go-to guy: Ryan Swope made a ton of key plays for Texas A&M during his career and will be missed. But sophomore Mike Evans has picked up this spring right where he left off a year ago and looks more than capable of being the Aggies’ go-to guy in the passing game. He led the team with 82 catches for 1,105 yards last season as a redshirt freshman and should be even better his second time through the league.

Dialing up the pressure: The last thing Alabama coach Nick Saban is worried about is racking up a bunch of sack numbers, but he does want to harass the quarterback. Look for senior outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard to be even better in that role in 2013, and the guy who’s made a big push this spring is sophomore Denzel Devall, who looks like a natural as an edge pass-rusher when the Tide go to their nickel package.

Passing the test: With Cam Cameron taking over as offensive coordinator at LSU, the Tigers have zeroed in this spring on a passing game that failed them on more than one occasion the past two years. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has put up good numbers in scrimmages and has made what coach Les Miles described as more intuitive throws. The other encouraging thing for the Tigers is that junior receiver Jarvis Landry seems to be coming into his own.

Cox jumps right in: Three of the four starters in Mississippi State’s starting secondary last season are gone, including Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks. The Bulldogs needed some immediate help, and junior college cornerback Justin Cox has answered that call. He’s an aggressive cover guy, plays the ball well and isn’t afraid to be physical. Mississippi State needs a big season from him, and Cox looks like he’s up to the task.

Shackelford’s back: After fighting back from knee injuries and missing the past two seasons, senior linebacker D.T. Shackelford is back on the practice field and pointing toward a healthy 2013 season. He gives the Rebels some much-needed depth at linebacker. But more than that, he’s their emotional leader, and having him back on the field and playing will provide a huge boost for a team that's still pretty young.
Schedule: The Bulldogs opened spring practice Wednesday afternoon, a day earlier than scheduled to take advantage of better weather. All practices are open to the public. Their spring will conclude with the annual Maroon-White spring game on April 20 at 2 p.m. ET in Davis Wade Stadium as part of Super Bulldog Weekend.

What’s new: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has three new assistants, and he also shifted around some responsibilities. Geoff Collins was promoted to defensive coordinator after serving as co-defensive coordinator the past two seasons. Collins, who will still coach the linebackers, replaces Chris Wilson, who left and is now the defensive line coach at Georgia. Also, Scott Sallach is back as the tight ends coach after being moved to coordinator of scouting in February. Sallach was switched to that off-the-field position after Mullen hired Billy Gonzales as receivers coach and moved Tim Brewster to tight ends. But Brewster left to take a job on the Florida State staff, and Mullen announced this week that Sallach was returning to his old job of coaching tight ends. The other two new assistants are David Turner, who will coach the defensive line, and Deshea Townsend, who will coach cornerbacks. This is Turner’s second stint on the Mississippi State staff. He coached the Bulldogs’ defensive line from 2007-09 and was Kentucky’s defensive line coach for the past three seasons. Townsend was an All-SEC player at Alabama and played 13 seasons in the NFL. He was a part of the Arizona Cardinals’ staff for the past two seasons.

On the mend: Among the players who are recovering from injuries and won’t be going through contact this spring are quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Nick Griffin, running back Johnathan Long, receiver Michael Hodges and cornerback Taveze Calhoun.

On the move: Junior Christian Holmes has moved from linebacker to tight end, and junior Kaleb Eulls has moved inside to defensive tackle from defensive end.

Question marks: The secondary was depleted with cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay and safety Corey Broomfield all departing. Banks and Slay combined to intercept nine passes last season, and Banks was the 2012 Jim Thorpe Award winner as the top defensive back in college football. The Bulldogs will be breaking in three new starters back there, and they also need to prove they can get more pressure on the quarterback. They finished with 18 sacks in 13 games last season, which ranked 13th in the SEC. One of Collins’ goals as the Bulldogs’ new defensive coordinator is to put more of an attacking unit on the field and create more negative plays. That’s where sophomore tackles Nick James and Quay Evans come in. Both have star potential after playing some last season as true freshmen. Junior end Preston Smith has also been impressive in the offseason conditioning program and now weighs more than 250 pounds after coming to Mississippi State closer to 225. He led the team with 4.5 sacks last season and was a reserve. It’s imperative that the Bulldogs make more happen up front defensively in 2013.

New faces: The Bulldogs have four new players on campus and participating in spring practice, including two junior college transfers who could end up starting right away. Cornerback Justin Cox is listed as one of the starters on the pre-spring depth chart, while receiver Jeremey Chappelle is listed as a backup. Freshman safety Kivon Coman and freshman tight end Artimas Samuel both attended Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy last fall after initially signing with Mississippi State in 2012.

Key battle: Gone are four senior receivers, including three starters. Chad Bumphis led the SEC last season with 12 touchdown receptions. The Bulldogs will be looking for playmakers on the perimeter. Juniors Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis will be vying with sophomore Joe Morrow and Chappelle to fill those receiver spots. The 6-foot-4 Morrow has been impressive the past two springs, but needs to take it to the game field next season. Junior Michael Carr is also back with the team after leaving the program during the latter part of the 2011 season. Heralded true freshmen Fred Ross and De'Runnya Wilson arrive this summer. There’s a ton of opportunity to play at receiver. Johnson is the leading returning pass-catcher among wide receivers, and he only caught 17 passes last season.

Breaking out: With Banks and Slay both departing, the Bulldogs will be looking for cornerback help. Junior Jamerson Love has all the skills to slide into that ball-hawking role that Banks played so well for four years in Starkville. Love played extensively last season, and had 25 tackles and an interception. Look for him to take that next step in 2013.

Don’t forget about: The Bulldogs return four starters in the offensive line, including All-SEC guard Gabe Jackson. Guard Tobias Smith was awarded a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA and would have been a fifth starter returning up front. He won’t be going through spring practice and has yet to decide whether he’ll play next season. He’s been plagued by a glut of injuries (knee, leg and ankle) during his career and could opt to serve as a student coach. Sophomore Justin Malone, who filled in some a year ago for Smith, would be first in line to replace Smith.

All eyes on: Despite a rough outing in the bowl game, quarterback Tyler Russell made huge strides last season and set school records with 2,897 passing yards and 24 touchdown passes. His senior season needs to be his best yet, and he’s going to be throwing to a whole new group of starting receivers. The Bulldogs will also lean heavily offensively on senior running back LaDarius Perkins, who rushed for 1,024 yards last season and was second in the SEC in all-purpose yardage. Perkins is one of the more underrated players in the league, but it’s also important that the Bulldogs find him some help. Sophomores Josh Robinson and Derrick Milton are both more than capable of sharing the backfield load with Perkins.

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