|Since the picture I'm about to paint isn't a pretty one, here's a shot of some State cheerleaders to help deal with the ugly.|
Although the Mississippi State D wasn't the reason Coach Croom was hired, it's been the only truly consistent strength during his brief tenure. While they gave up a lot of yardage at the end of last year, that experienced unit is, for all intents and purposes, gone, replaced by new faces or familiar ones in new roles. Last season, the Bulldogs finished strong against the run, but wholly unable to stop the pass.
|Red Zone Defense||12th|
|Opponent 1st Downs||2nd|
|Opponent 3rd Down Conversions||6th|
Their success against the run was due largely to the efforts of LB Quinton Culberson (the leading tackler with 102), who has moved on, along with three of four starters on the D-line. The effectiveness of the defense will be a huge question mark this year, so let's take a look at the guys who are going to have to step up to keep the Bulldogs in games this season.
The Front Seven
DE Titus Brown
Titus Brown posted 7.5 sacks last season, best on the team and fifth best in the conference, and 7 tfls, again best on the team and third in the conference. He's joined on the line by a lot of question marks, as only So. DT Quinton Wesley has any real playing time, seeing action in 9 games last season as a redshirt freshman before being injured. Filling out the line are Avery Hannibal at DE, who had 8 tkls last year, and Jesse Bowman, a transfer NT rated as the #56 JUCO player in the country by Rivals that will likely see plenty of playing time.
While the line might be a question mark, there is experience among the linebacking corp from returning starters MLB Jamar Chaney and SLB Gabe O'Neal. Chaney is the leading returning tackler, posting 66 stops last season, with 2.5 sacks and 5 tfls, and he'll move to MLB from the weak side to fill Culberson's shoes. Joining him on the strong side is Gabe O'Neal, who posted 40 tkls last season with 3 going for a loss, and replacing him on the weak side is Jamon Hughes, who saw one start last season as a true freshman, when he recorded 17 tkls.
With the front seven's effectiveness in doubt, the burden falls on a secondary that's hardly up to the task.
The corners should be a huge area of concern for the Bulldogs, as Derek Pegues, the speedy playmaker at CB last season, has moved to FS, leaving the corners manned by a pair of 5'10" sophomores. Anthony Johnson managed twelve tackles and pass break up last season in a back up role, while Marcus Washington managed 6 tkls in a reserve role last year, and is hardly secure in his starting position coming out of spring. Looking to get playing time behind them are Keon Humphries, a converted WR, and Tay Bowser. Also in the mix is Demario Bobo, who saw 9 starts and 38 tkls in '05 as a SS.
And speaking of safeties, the best DB State can put on the field has to be Derek Pegues, the former CB turned FS who returns to the team with his 5 pass breakups (3rd best on the team, best among the returners) and 4 picks (team best). His move to safety and Chaney's move to MLB signal not just a willingness on the part of the coaching staff to put players where they can play (which is a good thing), but also a defense big on need but short on playmakers (which is bad).
Brown, Chaney, and Pegues are the stars, but everyone else around them is a face in the crowd without much time to stand out, with brutal contests against LSU, at Auburn, and at South Carolina in the first half of the season. Fortunately, there are some rebound games, with a trip to Tulane, and visits from 1-AA Jacksonville State and UAB amid the chaos. Tomorrow I'll break down the entire schedule and take a few guesses at what will have to happen for the Bulldogs to get to a bowl this year.