For most people, the story of Mississippi State’s defense in 2019 will likely revolve around the players that are no longer around.
Last year’s standouts such as defensive linemen Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons, along with safety Johnathan Abram, are soon to be National Football League Draft picks. Several others will likely also join professional franchises. Many pundits will likely discuss in the coming weeks how the Bulldogs can replicate last year’s production with so many players gone.
For State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop though, as he entered spring practice last week, he’s not all that concerned with the players he’s lost. He’s pretty much singularly focused on those who remain in Starkville.
“That’s the nature of college football,” Shoop said of the players who have graduated or entered the NFL Draft. “I mean you only have guys for three or four years as it is, so hopefully you recruit well and rather than replace, we use the term reload.”
The guys who are still wearing maroon and white happen to be extremely talented, extremely promising players in their own rights. They’ll look to live up to the standard set by last year’s defense that led the nation in total defense, giving up only 263.1 yards per game.
The foundation of that stingy unit was the defensive line. There are definitely questions there this spring as the Bulldogs look to find playmakers on the inside of the defensive front. Names like Lee Autry, Fabien Lovett, Jaden Crumedy and Kendall Jones will look to step up. Meanwhile, Shoop thinks State’s ends won’t see much drop off, despite the departures of Sweat and Gerri Green.
“Up front, we still think we’re as good as anybody at the defensive end position,” Shoop said. “You’ve got guys like Kobe Jones and Chauncey Rivers and Fletcher Adams who all played a lot last year, then there’s a guy like Marquiss Spencer, who a year ago at this time we thought was one of our best players, but he missed the entire year (with injury), so (getting him back) is like signing a free agent.”
Shoop also has confidence in those at the second and third levels of State’s defense. At linebacker, it should come as no surprise that the Bulldogs feel comfortable there. The group didn’t have a senior last season, so the unit returns in full force led by Errol Thompson, Leo Lewis, Willie Gay and Tim Washington.
At defensive back, Shoop sees a group that could shine, boosted in part by many of them being forced into action last year.
“Our corners are very solid,” Shoop said. “Cam (Dantzler) will be an upper-level SEC player. Mo Smitherman was as consistent as any player on the unit last year, and one of the negatives last year was (Brian) Cole got hurt early and (Jaquarius Landrews) got hurt, but the positive was that it allowed a lot of people to play.
“So Brian Cole being back and really not missing much of a beat, he looks really good through the first two days (of spring practice). (Landrews) is now going to work out at strong safety and he’s doing a great job in communicating well. C.J. Morgan, he’s limited right now, but what a great last four or five games he had last year. Marcus Murphy stepping in there has done a really good job through the first two practices and we’ve got a junior college guy named Fred Peters who had an interception (Thursday) in practice who’s so far as advertised.”
As optimistic as Shoop is in the talent that still remains in his cupboard, the reality is it’ll be extremely tough for the Bulldogs to replicate the same level of success they had last year on the defensive side. At the same time, like Shoop mentioned, it’s the life of a college football coach to deal with players coming and going.
Can the Bulldogs keep up what last year’s group started? That’s to be determined. As for Shoop though this spring, it seems the challenge has been accepted even without the former stars around.
“It’s not so much about the guys that aren’t here,” Shoop said. “I’m just looking forward to working with the guys that are here and developing the identity of the 2019 version of this unit.”