STARKVILLE — Deshea Townsend has no idea who will start in the Mississippi State University defensive backfield this season.
That’s how the Bulldogs’ first-year coach wants it.
“The way I was brought up playing football, nobody has a job,” Townsend said. “Every day you have to go out and prove yourself. It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-now business, and that’s the mind-set you have to have to be a good player.”
Townsend, 37, joined MSU’s staff in January after spending two years as an assistant defensive backs coach with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. He replaces Melvin Smith, who left for a similar position at Auburn University. Townsend has tried to instill in the players at his position group that what they show at practice dictates the amount of playing time they receive.
“I talk to guys a lot about being complete players, (and) a lot of them have goals on playing at the next level,” Townsend said. “Competition brings the best out of everybody, and I talk to them daily about that. I tell them I don’t know who the starter is, we’ll find that out come the first game.”
A 13-year NFL veteran with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts, Townsend won two Super Bowls as a player with the Steelers in 2006 and 2009. He was a coaching casualty last season when Arizona opted not to retain head coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff.
When Smith left for Auburn, MSU coach Dan Mullen was excited about adding Townsend, who is from Batesville, to his staff. Before MSU started spring practices, Mullen said he wasn’t concerned about Townsend’s lack of coaching experience and how he would teach the Bulldogs’ young players what they need to know to be ready.
“Here’s a guy that has tremendous experience, that’s been through it at every level, and had great success at every level,” Mullen said. “I think what he can talk to the players (about is) not just the Xs and Os, but how to be a player. He really brings that and that really helps the kids, too.”
Townsend isn’t concerned about giving is cornerbacks labels. In a modern world of tempo offenses and with the amount of substituting he wants, Townsend wants his players to know all of their responsibilities.
“We’re going to just play,” Townsend said. “A lot of times you get in trouble running around looking for the field, looking for the boundary in chaos with them snapping the ball. Nowadays you’d better be able to play both.”
Townsend’s experience in the NFL has helped him earn the respect of MSU’s secondary members. A player like East Mississippi Community College transfer Justin Cox knew in the spring he would listen to Townsend based on his coach’s background.
“The big thing about coach Townsend is he played and coached in the league,” Cox said. “That’s where I want to be, so you’re going to listen to him because of that instant credibility.”
Cox signed with MSU in 2011 out of West Point High School, but the 6-foot-2 cornerback didn’t qualify and spent the past two seasons at EMCC. After he had 11 interceptions and 19 pass breakups and won a national championship in his two seasons at EMCC, Cox went from an unknown talent to a player who re-committed to MSU and passed on the likes of the University of Alabama, the University of Arkansas, the University of Georgia, the University of Kentucky, the University of Mississippi, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Tennessee.
“His talent is there,” Townsend said. “Now he’s getting to the point where he doesn’t have to think so much just about the call, but he’s actually able to let his athletic ability come out and show. When we do one-on-one you see how athletic he is because he’s not thinking. Now when he really gets into the playbook he’s going to be that much more of a better player.”
Cox and junior Jamerson Love, a former standout at Aberdeen High, are projected starters, but Cox worked last week with the second-team unit in favor of sophomore Cedric Jiles.
“What’s really neat for (Townsend) in that role is these guys are coming back as first-year starters (and) he’s coming in as a first-year coach,” Mullen said, “so they’re all kind of going through it together with us. I like that.”
Townsend’s ability to develop talent will be tested in the season opener against No. 14 Oklahoma State University at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 31. OSU averaged 38 pass attempts per game and was seventh in the nation in pass offense last season, so Townsend knows he’ll have to have more than two starters ready to contribute right away.
“When you become complacent, that’s when the next guy passes you,” Townsend said, “so I want them to always have that hunger, always have that ability to want to compete. That’s when they’ll be their best player.”
Against such a high-powered offense in the season opener, Mullen is confident Townsend will find the depth to help replace the departed Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks.
“I like the fact that in his mind there’s no preconceived notions of any of these guys,” Mullen said. “There’s no depth chart at that position. (Deshea) could put anybody he wants on the field at any time. We’ve got to see who can do what.”