SEC: Nick James

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

August, 6, 2013
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Now that he has fully recovered from a knee injury that wiped out most of last season, Alabama running back Jalston Fowler is ready to pick up where he left off last season.

Crimson Tide kicker Cade Foster talks about spending some time in the offseason with former NFL kicker Morten Andersen, the league's all-time leading scorer.

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee says the next four to five days are critical in the Tigers' quarterback battle.

Mammoth Mississippi State defensive tackle Nick James is learning how important technique is to having success in the SEC.

In the wake of Johnny Manziel's latest controversy, Ole Miss players and coach Hugh Freeze have mixed views on whether players should receive stipends.

Robert Nkemdiche is already practicing with the Rebels' first-team defense.

Georgia defensive line coach Chris Wilson has little patience for players who aren't getting the job done correctly.

LSU players voted to allow running back Jeremy Hill to re-join the team shortly after a judge decided not to send Hill to jail for violating his probation.

Texas A&M's hiring of the law firm that helped defend Auburn and Cam Newton in 2010 speaks volumes about the Aggies' game plan in dealing with the Manziel autograph situation.

Here's an Aggies season preview from GigEmNation.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones is making sure his players don't get bored or comfortable at practice.

Members of the Vols' secondary are tired of the critics and are ready to prove them wrong.

Florida coach Will Muschamp said the Gators' tight ends, who struggled in the spring, are making progress.

The Gators are also trying to develop depth at safety, which is why Muschamp isn't taking the easy way out and sticking Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins into the starting lineup.

South Carolina's former defensive coordinator first saw the potential in linebacker Cedrick Cooper. The Gamecocks' current defensive coordinator is just as enamored with him.

Arkansas began camp on Monday. The Razorbacks will have a new quarterback, and Brandon Allen says he's ready to take over for Tyler Wilson.

Video: Mississippi State defense

March, 25, 2013
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Chris Low discusses Geoff Collins taking over the Mississippi State defense.
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.

Lunchtime links

July, 16, 2012
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Checking out some SEC links before we head over to Hoover, Ala., for SEC media days.

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