SEC: K.J. Wright
Ever since Mississippi State said goodbye to three starting linebackers -- Emmanuel Gatling, Chris White and K.J. Wright -- from 2010, he, his teammates and coaches have had to field questions about replacing the trio.
It was old the second time he was asked, and it was even older when he lost count of the linebacker queries.
But even when the question was raised again just a week before the Bulldogs’ season-opener Thursday against Memphis, Wilson was cool and collected. There was no anger or annoyance in his voice. He expected the questions and was quick to say he and his teammates can’t worry about the past because they are the present.
According to the Bulldogs’ opening depth chart, Wilson, a senior, will man the middle, while junior Cameron Lawrence and redshirt freshman Matthew Wells will hold down the outside spots.
While the talk has centered around what Mississippi State lost, this group isn’t completely new to things. Lawrence, who Wilson said has the potential to be one of the fastest, most athletic linebackers in the conference, played in 10 games last season before suffering an injury. He registered 31 tackles, while Wilson played in all 13 games last season, recording 17 tackles.
This group hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers, like the 253 combined tackles and nine sacks last year’s starters produced, but Wilson assures this group has the talent to pull its weight. Though he’s tired of hearing about who isn’t around, he understands that this year’s linebacker unit has a lot to live up to and a lot of responsibility.
Wilson claims the Bulldogs have “the best defensive backfield in the SEC, hands down,” and a disruptive interior line combo in Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd, but it’s the linebackers who have to do most of the communicating. It’s the linebackers who run the defense. And it’s the linebackers who have to make sure they’ve got their jobs covered.
“If you go hard, everything will be all right,” Wilson said.
The Bulldogs got a veteran dose of help this offseason when former Clemson linebacker Brandon Maye transferred in. The fifth-year senior is battling Wilson in the middle, but has brought needed competition and leadership to the group.
Maye said his transition to Starkville was easy for the most part, but learning the playbook was the toughest obstacle. He has most of it down, but admits he’s still learning.
What didn’t take him time to realize was the determination he saw out of his new teammates. He knew about the inexperience coming in, but Maye said guys have been flying around nonstop since he arrived.
“You see a young group. You see a young group that’s hungry and eager to prove people wrong,“ Maye said. “We’ve been working and training all summer for this opportunity to go out and prove all these doubters wrong.
“These guys are very hungry. They’re young, but talent overrides experience sometimes.”
There will be growing pains, for sure. Wilson sees those issues in practice when the linebackers aren't on the same page or are confused. He knows this group has to read offenses better and know the defense like they know their last names.
But Wilson isn’t worried about being perfect just yet. It's going to take some time for this group to really mesh. Experience will help, but Wilson said this group needs to concentrate on playing its way, and its way only.
“As long as I know we get in that film room, we workout hard, we practice hard and we’re going to hit hard, everything else will fall into place,” he said. “We have to go out and play our game. We can’t play like Chris White and K.J. played last year. We’re going to play our young, fast, more athletic style of play.”
Coach: Chris Wilson
Position: Defensive coordinator and defensive line.
Experience: He's entering his second season on the Mississippi State staff and was co-defensive coordinator last season, assisting Manny Diaz. A 16-year coaching veteran, Wilson was the defensive ends coach for five seasons at Oklahoma before coming to Starkville prior to the 2010 season. He also served as the Sooners' special teams coordinator his final three seasons in Norman. Wilson got his start in coaching at Indiana State as a graduate assistant in 1993 and has also worked on the staffs at Northern Illinois, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, Illinois State, Army and Colorado. Wilson was promoted to defensive coordinator in January, a day after Diaz left Mississippi State to become the defensive coordinator at Texas.
Of note: Earlier in his career, Wilson also coached linebackers. ... In his final season on the Oklahoma staff, the Sooners finished sixth in the country in sacks and were also in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense. ... He played his college football at Oklahoma and was a four-year letterman at linebacker from 1988-91. He finished his career with 311 tackles, which at the time placed him 11th all-time among Oklahoma linebackers.
His challenge: Obviously, this won't be completely new ground for Wilson. He was a co-defensive coordinator working under Diaz last season, but it was still Diaz's defense and he was the one game-planning each week and making all of the calls. That duty now falls on Wilson, who will have help from co-defensive coordinator Geoff Collins in his first year on the Mississippi State staff after coming over from Florida International. Diaz had the Mississippi State defense playing at a high level last season. The Bulldogs finished 21st nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 19.8 points per game. There will be considerable pressure on Wilson and the Bulldogs to pick up where they left off a year ago. He doesn't plan on changing up a whole lot in terms of scheme, but the Bulldogs lost all three of their starting linebackers. K.J. Wright and Chris White made a ton of plays, too. This figures to be Mississippi State's best secondary under Dan Mullen, and there's a lot of experience back there. Moreover, the defensive tackle tandem of Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd should be one of the best in the league. The Bulldogs still need to find a finisher off the edge, but Wilson's track record of producing top pass-rushing ends speaks for itself. The potential is there for this to be a very good defense. The Bulldogs have gotten better each season under Mullen, and now it's up to Wilson to navigate that next step of making this a championship-caliber defense.
Those linebackers – Chris White, K.J. Wright and Emmanuel Gatling -- accounted for 253 tackles, including 24.5 for loss last fall. The Bulldogs had the bodies to throw out onto the field, but they all lacked ideal experience.
Enter Clemson transfer Brandon Maye.
Maye, who was a three-year starter at for the Tigers and compiled 233 total tackles, graduated with his bachelors' degree in May and abruptly transferred to Mississippi State because of a personal issue -- that he did not disclose -- at home in Mobile, Ala. The three-time Academic All-ACC selection said the short distance between Starkville, Miss., and Mobile motivated his transfer.
Now, the Bulldogs have a true weapon to plug in at middle linebacker, where Maye could end up starting for the Mississippi State's season opener at Memphis.
Maye, who arrived on campus last week, brings valuable experience and playmaking skills to a position of need for the Bulldogs. He proved in 2009 that he's got a nose for the ball and packs some extra punch out there when he set the Clemson single-season record by forcing five fumbles.
Maye didn't have a great final year at Clemson; starting just eight of the nine games he played in and recorded 43 tackles. His starting spot also wasn’t guaranteed this spring with all the young talent Clemson acquired. Now that he’s in a new place and possibly a better situation, expect that figurative chip to be on one of his shoulders this fall.
Though he didn't go through practice with the Bulldogs this spring and will have to get used to defensive coordinator Chris Wilson's philosophy, it will be tough for any of the Bulldogs' current linebackers to keep Maye off the field.
People at Mississippi State feel like could come right in and immediately be the guy in the middle for the Bulldogs. He's talented enough and has enough field knowledge that he should be able to pick everything up pretty quickly.
For the Bulldogs to ease some of the pain from losing three starters from a year ago, they need to find someone to man this linebacker ship. Maye seems to be that person.
He might be the newcomer, but he could be the most talented of the bunch, and he certainly is the most experienced to see a majority of the playing time at linebacker.
Here’s a quick preview of the Progressive Gator Bowl:
WHO TO WATCH: Middle linebacker Chris White had an All-SEC senior season after moving over from an outside linebacker spot as a junior. He was fourth in the SEC with 15.5 tackles for loss and led the Bulldogs with 105 total tackles. White and fellow senior linebacker K.J. Wright combined for 198 tackles and were the backbone of a Mississippi State defense that was 27th nationally in scoring defense, allowing an average of 20.3 points per game. White, who's always around the football, will no doubt keep close tabs on Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.
WHAT TO WATCH: When the Bulldogs were at their best this season, they leaned heavily on the running game and played keep-away from teams. That will be especially important in this game in terms of trying to keep Robinson and that Michigan offense on the sideline. The Bulldogs were second in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging 215.8 yards per game. They’d like to get Vick Ballard going early and keep him going. Ballard is one of those move-the-chains kind of backs who has 16 rushing touchdowns, and he’s complemented by LaDarius Perkins, who’s more of a speed guy. The Bulldogs would love nothing more than to turn this game into a smash-mouth affair and shorten the game with long, sustained drives.
WHY TO WATCH: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen just received a new contract that will pay him $2.65 million per year, and he has the Bulldogs on the move in his second season in Starkville. The Mississippi State fans are genuinely stoked for the future. For Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, there’s no guarantee of a future, at least not in Ann Arbor. Whether or not he returns for a fourth season remains to be seen, but a loss to Mississippi State certainly wouldn’t help his cause.
PREDICTION: Mississippi State 28, Michigan 24. Robinson is as healthy as he’s been since early in the season, which means he’s probably going to get his yards. The key is keeping him out of the end zone, and the Bulldogs have been stingy all season when it comes to giving up points. They also thrive on pounding teams in the running game, and the Wolverines haven’t been able to stop the run all season. What makes anybody think that's going to change now?
- Kevin Scarbinsky of The Birmingham News writes that the best freshman running back in the SEC will be on display one way or the other Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
- Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is turning linebacker K.J. Wright loose.
- Tennessee tailback Tauren Poole is nursing a thigh bruise, but vows to play Saturday against UAB.
- The kicking part of special teams has improved significantly for Arkansas in the first three games.
- The second (SEC) season is a whole new ballgame for No. 1-ranked Alabama.
- Two passes he didn't catch are what LSU's Russell Shepard can't get out of his mind from last week.
- Kentucky is the only team in the country to have played three games without a turnover.
- With his back problems in the past, Florida cornerback Jeremy Brown is making a big impact for the Gators.
- Georgia's tight ends have been missing in action.
Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State all placed two players on this year's watch list. Dont'a Hightower and Nico Johnson made it for the Crimson Tide, Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens for the Tigers and K.J. Wright and Chris White for the Bulldogs.
The other SEC players making the cut were Jonathan Cornell of Ole Miss, Jerry Franklin of Arkansas, Justin Houston of Georgia, Chris Marve of Vanderbilt and Kelvin Sheppard of LSU.
Here's a link to the entire 2010 Butkus Award watch list.
Here’s a rundown:
2. Georgia: With the Bulldogs going to a 3-4 scheme this season, that means junior pass-rushing specialist Justin Houston now falls into the linebacker category. Houston had 7.5 sacks last season from his end position. Sophomore Cornelius Washington also shifts from end to outside linebacker after collecting four sacks a year ago. The Bulldogs have moved senior starter Darryl Gamble from inside to outside linebacker, while senior Akeem Dent and junior Marcus Dowtin are also back. Dent and Dowtin were part-time starters last season.
3. Ole Miss: Two of the more underrated linebackers in the SEC are Ole Miss seniors Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker. Cornell started all 13 games in the middle last season and was third on the team with 79 tackles, including eight for loss. Walker started 11 games last season at strongside linebacker. Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix also likes his younger talent, including D.T. Shackelford, Joel Kight and Mike Marry. Shackelford, in particular, could be poised for a breakout season. This is a productive and versatile group.
4. Auburn: The Tigers will line up with a pair of senior All-SEC candidates in Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens. They both finished among the top 10 tacklers in the league last season, combining for 199 total tackles. The only problem was that they had to play just about every meaningful snap. The Tigers hope to have more depth this season. They didn’t have any last season and are moving Daren Bates from safety to a hybrid outside linebacker position. Bates led all SEC freshmen a year ago with 70 tackles. He wasn’t able to go through spring, though, because he was recovering from shoulder surgery.
5. Florida: Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper were major cogs in the Gators’ linebacker corps a year ago and made a ton of plays. Life without them will be different, but not impossible. That’s what happens when you recruit talented players like Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic, both of whom had big springs. There’s also some experience returning. Senior A.J. Jones has 30 career starts and started the first 11 games a year ago at outside linebacker before injuring his knee. Senior Brandon Hicks has also been a part-time starter each of the past two seasons. There’s a lot of speed in this group.
6. South Carolina: The Gamecocks might have a little more depth than they had a year ago at linebacker, but what they don’t have is that proven playmaker on the outside. Eric Norwood filled that role as well as anybody the past two seasons, but now he’s gone. Junior Shaq Wilson was the team’s leading tackler last season, and he’s moving to one of the outside spots from middle linebacker. Senior Rodney Paulk returns in the middle after suffering through season-ending knee injuries each of the past two seasons. Senior Josh Dickerson is another guy who can move around and play different spots.
7. Tennessee: One of the most experienced positions on Tennessee’s team is at linebacker. The Vols had several players playing at a high level there last season only to be injured. They’re all back, including senior Nick Reveiz in the middle. Tennessee’s defense was never the same after he left the lineup with a knee injury. Senior LaMarcus Thompson is also back after battling through injuries a year ago, and the same goes for senior Savion Frazier. Sophomore linebacker Greg King is currently suspended, but he also showed promise last season as a freshman.
8. LSU: Senior Kelvin Sheppard returns as one of the top middle linebackers in the SEC. He’s a tackling machine who was fourth in the league in tackles a year ago with 110. He’s one of those defenders who’s a factor on every play. The key for the Tigers will be how quickly the players around him grow up now that veterans Jacob Cutrera, Harry Coleman and Perry Riley have all moved on. Sheppard thinks junior Ryan Baker is ready to shine at weakside linebacker after being a force on special teams the past two seasons. Junior Stefoin Francois is the top candidate to step in on the strong side after starting his career as a safety.
9. Vanderbilt: Linebacker has been one of the Commodores’ strong suits for several years now, and that shouldn’t change this season with junior Chris Marve manning the middle. A first-team preseason All-SEC selection, Marve has racked up more than 100 tackles in each of his first two seasons. Senior John Stokes, who’s already been accepted into Vanderbilt’s medical school, returns at one of the outside linebacker spots. The Commodores could use a healthy Tristan Strong, who tore his ACL last season as a redshirt freshman.
10. Mississippi State: Gone is hard-hitting Jamar Chaney, who came back from an injury last season and helped anchor the Bulldogs’ defense. Senior Chris White will move over to play in the middle after starting all 12 games and recording 75 tackles last season. Senior K.J. Wright returns as one of the best big-play defenders on the team after finishing with 6.5 tackles for loss and forcing two fumbles last season. After White and Wright, the Bulldogs will be counting on several younger players at linebacker.
11. Arkansas: The Hogs need to improve across the board on defense, and linebacker is no exception. Junior Jerry Franklin has started since he was a freshman and finished with 94 tackles last season. He’s capable of playing in the middle, but Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino wants to leave him at weakside linebacker and give him a chance to make more plays against both the run and pass. The Hogs still need to settle on a middle linebacker. Senior Jermaine Love and sophomore Terrell Williams were battling it out in the spring.
12. Kentucky: Junior Danny Trevathan returns at weakside linebacker. He’s the Wildcats’ leading returning tackler. But after Trevathan, there’s not much game experience at linebacker. Redshirt freshman Qua Huzzie made a big impression on the coaches last preseason before hurting his shoulder. Sophomore Ridge Wilson is another younger player who needs to come through for the Wildcats at linebacker.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
|AP Photo/Jim Lytle|
|Linebacker Jamar Chaney, left, is thrilled to be with the Bulldogs for another season.|
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Jamar Chaney is a big believer that everything happens for a reason.
He probably wouldn't have chosen to still be at Mississippi State this time a year ago, but he is.
And as he says with conviction, "I wouldn't change it for nothing."
Chaney, the Bulldogs' fifth-year senior middle linebacker, suffered a nasty injury in the opener a year ago. He tore ligaments in his ankle and broke his left fibula, which turned out to be a terrible omen for the Bulldogs.
He was lost for the season, and Mississippi State's season quickly went down the tubes.
Undecided about whether to enter his name in the NFL draft or apply for a medical redshirt and return to Mississippi State, Chaney admits that he went back and forth.
It didn't take him long once first-year coach Dan Mullen and the rest of his staff settled in to realize that he'd made the right choice.
"I see it as a blessing in disguise," said Chaney, a second-team All-SEC selection in 2007. "At first, I was down and wondering about everything, wondering if this was the right thing. But to come back and go through a whole offseason and now a season with Coach Mullen and his staff has been exactly what I needed.
"Coach (Matt) Balis (the Bulldogs' strength coach) has me in the best shape of my life, and Coach (Carl) Torbush is the best linebacker coach I've had and the best defensive coordinator I've had. I'm happy where I'm at. I'm happy with the career I've had, and I'm happy with how it's going to end."
Chaney is part of a Mississippi State linebacker unit that rivals any in the league. All three of the Bulldogs' starters are at least 240 pounds, and they all can run. The 6-1, 245-pound Chaney has been timed at just under 4.5 seconds.
Junior K.J. Wright will play one of the two outside spots. The 6-4 Wright is pushing 250 pounds, while junior college newcomer Chris White (6-3, 245) will play the other outside spot.
"It's going to be the best linebacker corps we've had in years here at Mississippi State," Chaney said. "We have a lot of guys who can really get to the ball, and it's not just at linebacker."
He said that junior college newcomer Pernell McPhee continues to be dominant at defensive tackle after bursting onto the scene in the spring.
"You're not going to be able to block him one-on-one," Chaney said. "If you try, you're going to suffer the consequences."
The Bulldogs might be able to slide the 275-pound McPhee outside to end some, too, especially if true freshmen Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox keep progressing the way they are.
"They don't play like freshmen. They're going to play this year," Chaney said.
Getting Chaney back for another season was a huge coup for Mullen, and it goes much deeper than just Chaney's ability to blow up opposing ball-carriers.
"It's the leadership he brings, and not only the leadership he brings on the field, but that demeanor he brings off the field," Mullen said. "He comes in as an older guy who everybody looks up to and is experienced, and he 100 percent buys into the new coach's program.
"As soon as Jamar Chaney buys in, the younger kids look at each other and say, 'If he buys in, then we need to buy in.' That's what makes him irreplaceable for our team."