November 14, 2017 10:34:42 AM
Brett Hudson - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- A good way to take a good defense and reduce it to rubble is to take away its top linebacker -- even mighty Alabama struggled in its first game without Shaun Dion Hamilton last week against Mississippi State.
One week after benefitting from a linebacker loss, No. 17 MSU (7-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference, No. 16 College Football Playoff) could be afflicted with it. MSU head coach Dan Mullen said Monday it won't know the game status of senior linebacker Dez Harris, MSU's second-leading tackler, until later in the week (thigh bruise).
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham doesn't worry; he has Erroll Thompson.
The redshirt freshman from Florence, Alabama, has turned himself into a solidified rotation linebacker for MSU as it travels to Arkansas (4-6, 1-5 SEC) 11 a.m. Saturday (CBS) at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. In fact, he's already done this before.
"I'm comfortable because (Harris) got hurt in the (Texas) A&M game and Erroll played 55 plays. It's been done," Grantham said.
In that game, Thompson delivered seven tackles, one for a loss, and a pass break up. It was far from an outlier.
In MSU's last three conference games, Thompson has averaged 6.6 tackles per game, which over the course of a full season would currently rank among the top 20 in the conference. For context, Thomson tallied six tackles over his first three games combined -- and most of those came in mop-up duty during blowouts of Charleston Southern and Louisiana Tech.
Thompson sees the surge in production as a simple matter of opportunity. The reality is two aspects of Thompson's game have stood out to earn him the extra playing time.
First, he's provided a physical element to the linebacking corps.
"The one thing about Erroll is when he hits somebody, they normally stop," Grantham said. "A three-year gain is a three-yard gain, which is a big thing as a coordinator, because second-and-7 is a big difference from second-and-5. That's the thing he really does."
Now he's in position to deliver those hits more frequently.
"Erroll's done a good job of understanding the misdirection stuff, understanding who my match is relative to the formation, being a little more of a leader in terms of command of the huddle, command of the call and command of what we have to do," Grantham said. "I think that comes with snaps, comfort and those kinds of things."
Diagnosing misdirection is no small task for linebackers in the modern era of college football, in which misdirection has become a nearly every-snap element of spread offenses. LSU, for example, hired an offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, who has built a reputation on using motion on every play. Auburn has been using misdirection as a staple for years under coach Gus Malzahn; Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky are all teams have added elements of it in recent years.
Gone are the days of the classic counter play being the only misdirection linebackers have to handle. Thompson said the speed of it can be difficult for a young player, but he's adjusted.
"It's a discipline thing, it's an eye thing and I think it's an experience thing as you get more comfortable, and I think that's something he's done a good job with," Grantham said.
Now all that's left is to replace Harris on a permanent basis.
Only three games separate Harris from the end of his college career and Thompson has separated himself as the heir apparent, beyond this weekend's game. Thompson is not blind to this fact and has used the final weeks of Harris' career to soak up as much as possible.
"Really, the biggest thing is he's a great leader, so I can take his leadership qualities from him," Thompson said. "We're in the film room all the time and he's always coaching me up on the smallest things: I might take a wrong step or the wrong direction, he'll get me on that.
"I've got to take those qualities."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson