MSU fall camp 2018: Defense

Mississippi State's defense is expected to be a loaded and talented group in 2018.

Staff Writer

Football season has arrived.

On Friday, Mississippi State hits the practice fields for the first time as the Bulldogs begin preparations for the 2018 season.

Over the next two days, the Starkville Daily News takes a look at several questions facing MSU in training camp with just over four weeks to go before State’s Sept. 1 season opener against Stephen F. Austin. Today, the SDN delves into questions facing the Mississippi State defense.

Can Shoop help
MSU be stingy again?

The Mississippi State defense under previous defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was a big reason the Bulldogs put together a 9-4 season a year ago.

MSU finished 10th in the country in total defense, allowing just 306.3 yards per game on average in 2017.

Most of the guys that contributed to that are back for the Bulldogs. However Grantham is not. The State defense is now under the eye of veteran defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Shoop has a history of leading top defenses. Five of the last seven groups he has led have finished in the top 25 rankings in total defense. However it at least bears watching to see how well MSU’s defense adapts to Shoop’s 4-2-5 scheme as opposed to the 3-4 base scheme of Grantham.

MSU players said in the spring that the defenses orchestrated by Shoop and Grantham are similar, so it might not be that great of an adjustment for the Bulldogs. Still, with camp opening, it’s almost time to start finding out for sure

Can Lewis begin
to bounce back?

Everyone knows about Mississippi State’s imposing defensive line that features a pair of All-Southeastern Conference first team selections and a host of other experienced, talented players, so it’s easy to forget the Bulldogs are solid at linebacker too.

Though the group is young – there isn’t a senior in the bunch – there is plenty of upside with names like Erroll Thompson, who was an All-SEC Freshman a year ago, Leo Lewis, who was an All-SEC Freshman two seasons ago, as well as blossoming star and Starkville High product Willie Gay and others.

Lewis is maybe the most intriguing player of the group, if not the entire MSU defense. Only two years ago, Lewis looked like he was bound for stardom when he burst onto the scene and led all SEC freshmen with 79 tackles in 2016. However, last year, Lewis took a pretty big step back, collecting 31 fewer tackles.

One could argue Lewis was distracted. He was a centerpiece of the NCAA’s infractions case against Ole Miss. He’s also a defendant in a still-ongoing legal matter that came forth as a result of the Ole Miss situation when an Oxford-based business accused Lewis of knowingly providing false statements about the business to the NCAA.

Perhaps now, a year further down the road, Lewis can be more focused on football and thus increase his production back to 2016 levels. If he does, an already-talented MSU defense has the chance to be even better than originally thought.

Who steps up
in the secondary?

Probably the biggest defensive question mark heading into training camp revolves around MSU’s defensive backs.

The Bulldogs are pretty set at safety with a pair of reliable seniors – Mark McLaurin and Johnathan Abram – leading the charge, but who will step up at corner?

There are options for sure. Jamal Peters is a senior now and says he’s finally settled at corner after shifting around all over the gridiron over the course of his MSU career. Cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley has always spoken highly of Peters’ potential at corner.

Cameron Dantzler is only a sophomore, but he too could blossom. At 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds, Dantzler physically looks a bit like former MSU star corner and Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks. The Bulldogs would love to see Dantzler start reminding everyone of Banks with more than just his body type.

Other names who should factor into the secondary mix include Brian Cole and Marcus Murphy. Cole redshirted last year after transferring in from East Mississippi Community College and could start as State’s nickel corner. He’ll be pushed though by Murphy, the true freshman out of West Point.

There are other players too that could work their way into the secondary mix. It’s perhaps the toughest spot on the field to predict MSU’s starters. The next four weeks should settle most of that though.

What first-year Bulldogs
make early waves?

As far as true freshmen go, Murphy is likely to make the biggest immediate impact on the defensive side.

The versatile Golden Triangle product came to MSU as a four-star athlete and one of the top recruits in the state. He was starting to live up to his lofty reputation in the spring as he was bragged on several times by teammates and the coaching staff.

Two other players that will see game action for the first time as Bulldogs might steal the show though as far as first-year active performers go. Cole and fellow EMCC transfer, defensive end Chauncey Rivers, are expected to play big roles for State’s 2018 defense and that could start to become increasingly apparent in the days ahead.