STARKVILLE — Through two games, Mississippi State”s defense has taken a “fresh” approach to which players are in the game.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz prefers deeper rotations across all three levels, which means first-year players or first-time contributors are being asked to learn quickly this season.
Six redshirt freshmen or junior college transfers have seen action on defense in the first two games, while sophomore linebackers Brandon Wilson, Cameron Lawrence, and Michael Hunt are seeing significant time as backups.
There have been bright spots, like safety Nickoe Whitley”s interception against Auburn, but Diaz also is trying to establish greater depth to ensure all of the players are fresh for the entire game.
The approach helps players gain more experience in the deep and frequent substitution packages.
Against Auburn, the Bulldogs ran Lawrence, Hunt, and Wilson in place of starters Chris White, K.J. Wright, and Emmanuel Gatling — all seniors — on multiple series.
That lineup could have happened in more instances if not for a turnover, as Diaz prefers to return the starting 11 to the field following changes in possession.
“Up front, we played eight defensive linemen by the time the first quarter was over, and I usually have six linebackers do the same thing,” Diaz said.
Lawrence, who spent last season as a special teams player, moved to linebacker in the spring. He was locked in a strong-side position battle with Gatling in the, so he knew he”d contribute even though Gatling was named starter.
How Diaz has worked the backup linebackers into the mix, especially against Southeastern Conference competition, is encouraging to inexperienced players, Lawrence said.
“I feel like I came away from the Auburn game feeling more experienced as a player,” Lawrence said. “It”s always good just to get in there, get on the field, and get a little playing time. I”m glad (Diaz) is working us into the rotation. He”s not just kind of throwing you in the middle of things.”
The comfort level between the players in MSU”s second wave of linebackers is vital, especially if they”re in the game together. Lawrence said the chemistry on the field and the communication off the field is solid.
“A group of guys go in, they come off the field and tell us what they”re seeing,” Lawrence said. “We”re fresh. We go in there and we”re not trying to catch our breath. We”re ready to focus on our jobs.”
Running three inexperienced linebackers on the field for multiple plays might seem like a risky approach, but Diaz”s pressure-based system brings blitzes from different areas and angles, which can make younger players” jobs easier.
“One of the great things about our defense is it”s an equal-opportunity defense,” Diaz said. “You”ve got corners rushing the passer and defensive linemen covering down the field, so everybody”s got a role to play and they can all change roles.”
Forcing opponents into mistakes might make life easier for MSU”s defenders, but Diaz has yet to see the type of production needed to run his scheme. He has exited the first two games feeling his defense failed to create enough backfield pressure and big plays.
MSU will face No. 15 LSU on Saturday in Baton Rouge, La., where it will play a team unsettled with starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson. LSU mustered just 10 points through three quarters against Vanderbilt, and Jefferson was 8 of 20 for 96 yards and an interception.
Although the Bulldogs are preparing for an offense that could feature Jefferson and 2008 starter Jarrett Lee under center, Diaz isn”t focusing on LSU”s two quarterbacks or its ground game. Rather, he”s concerned with his players progressing.
“We”re not nearly creating enough negative plays — that”s what we said we were going to be and we”re not holding up our end of the bargain,” Diaz said. “We”ve had our opportunities — a lot to make turnovers and a lot to tackle people behind the line of scrimmage. We”re not producing both of those because that”s what wins you ballgames. We”ll win us the football game, and that”s what we”re predicated on. We”ve not yet established that identity.”
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