STARKVILLE — Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins can’t mention senior linebacker Deontae Skinner without getting emotional.
It’s that human emotion that makes Skinner not only of the favorite players of Collins and the MSU staff but has allowed him to transform into one of the more dominant three-down linebackers in the Southeastern Conference.
“Deontae Skinner is the heart and soul of what he we do here at Mississippi State,” Collins said. “He is the most favorite player that I’ve ever coached in my entire career.”
When Skinner arrived on the MSU campus as a physical athletic option at linebacker from nearby Noxubee County High School, he was asked to do a lot of mixing between standing up at linebacker and being in a stance at defensive line. Three years later, Skinner is completely comfortable with not only the free flowing havoc system of Collins but also in his element chasing down speed backs that led to three tackles at Auburn last week.
“There’s not much that Deontae Skinner doesn’t do well in this defense by now,” MSU freshman linebacker Richie Brown said. “Whether he is blitzing or backpedalling or even switching up on the fly his pursuit, it’s not an accident why he’s always around the ball.”
While fellow teammate and starting middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney got all the preseason attention in the second level of MSU’s defense, Skinner is the one that is tied with him for the Bulldogs (1-2) lead in tackles with 19. It was Skinner that came up with the first turnover of the 2013 season in the first possession of the second week of the season versus Alcorn State.
“We always are practicing either knocking the ball out or going up and getting it when it’s in the air,” Skinner said. “It’s something people don’t realize just watching but causing turnovers doesn’t just happen by luck. It is a skill that can be developed.”
When the MSU defense had questions about ability to rush the passer, it was Skinner that took Nick Marshall to the ground for the first of three sacks in a 24-20 loss at Auburn last weekend. It was only the third time in 15 games that MSU had recorded three or more sacks in a game.
“I think Benardrick McKinney said it best after the game Saturday that we stopped worrying about our individual assignments and just started to try having more fun flying around,” Skinner said. “When we started getting the three-and-outs on defense, we started noticing that we were having more fun but still doing our jobs at the same time.”
Skinner and his ability to react to the zone-read option better than in the season-opening loss to then No. 13 Oklahoma State was a big reason why Auburn’s highly acclaimed running attack was held to just 120 yards Saturday. The Tigers running backs Tre Mason, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne weren’t able to get to the perimeter and held to just 3.33 yards per carry.
“Our main thing each and every week is to stop the run first as a point of pride for this defense,” Skinner said. “I take it upon myself to make sure teams can’t run the ball physically on us because that’s simply an effort thing. Stopping the pass gets more into scheme and coaching. Run defense is how much does one side want it.”
On a defense that is void of much senior leadership, Skinner is seen as a veteran among arguably the deepest talent pools position-wise for the Bulldogs on that side of the ball. He arrived at MSU as a 230-pound athlete that needed to be coached directly the intricacy of playing linebacker consistently in the SEC. Five years later, Skinner is a 250-pound ready-made prospect in the middle of the field that has eye of many scouts and player personnel executives in the National Football League as a possible middle to late round selection.
“Skinner brings plenty of size to the inside of the Bulldogs’ linebacking corps,” NFL.com draft analyst Chase Goodbread said after watching Skinner practice in August. “Skinner started every game last season and is showing good instincts for finding the ball between the tackles.”
Skinner has learned slowly the instincts needed to be a highly productive linebacker after dominating at defensive end as a senior for coach M.C. Miller at Noxubee County High School. He led his Tigers team to the Class 4A championship as a senior but was considered a project at the next level after being ranked as the No. 28 strong linebacker prospect in the country by national recruiting website Scout.com.
Even as a fifth-year senior, you’ll still see Skinner using his Twitter account or on the sidelines in person on Friday nights supporting the defending Class 4A champion Noxubee County Tigers program now led by Tyrone Shorter.
Off the field, Skinner has even rebounded from the controversy of two years ago when he was arrested in July 2011 on a domestic violence charge where it was later determined Justice Court judge to have the charges retired. Because of how he conducted himself through that process and handled the negative attention brought to Skinner and the MSU program for a short time in that summer, Skinner is seen as a person open to talking with younger players on their responsibilities once they arrive on campus. It’s also why he was a easy choice by the committee for the Butkus Award, given to the best linebacker in college football, to put him on its preseason watch list for the 2013 season.
“From the time I’ve got here to where he is right now, you’re talking about a unbelievable human being and a high character player for us in this program,” Collins said.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.