STARKVILLE – Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins just nodded when asked, as if he knew the question was coming.
In 2013, his first year as defensive coordinator, Collins led the MSU defense to top five finishes in scoring defense, passing defense and rush defense within the Southeastern Conference, and with eight starters back, the possibility of the Bulldogs making the leap from a good defense to elite seems possible. But after finishing a disappointing 11th in the conference in quarterback sacks in 2013, the question remains: Can MSU’s defense become elite without an improved pass rush?
“There’s always a priority on pass rush,” said Collins. “We want to do that, and a big priority is also stopping the run. We are going to stop the run. We do want to increase our sack total though. I known (defensive line coach David Turner) has put emphasis on it, the kids have put emphasis on it. We want to get that number up.”
That number is 20, the number of sacks MSU had in 13 games a season ago, topping only Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the SEC. In five seasons under head coach Dan Mullen, the Bulldogs have never finished higher than seventh in the league in sacks.
But with six of seven starters returning in the defensive front seven, including a pair of All-America candidates in DT Chris Jones and LB Benardrick McKinney, the depth and talent of MSU’s defensive front could be poised for a breakout.
And if the sack numbers are to improve, it will likely start with a trio of returning defensive ends.
Preston Smith rarely appears before the media without a smile on his face. When asked about the competition for the four spots in the defensive end rotation, the smile only grows.
“Oh man, we’re out there fighting for it,” said Smith, a 6-foot-4, 277-pound senior defensive end from Stone Mountain, Georgia, with seven career sacks. “Guys like Ryan Brown, A.J. Jefferson, myself….we’re just trying to make plays. I feel good with any of us out there.”
Brown is a 6-6, 260-pound DE from New Orleans who defensive line coach David Turner says “Works harder than anybody on our team. He just comes to work every day.”
Jefferson, meanwhile, is a 6-3, 265 pound redshirt freshman from North Pike High School with plenty of upside. Jefferson has also drawn positive reviews for his offseason work, and he was listed as the backup to Smith and Brown at both starting DE spots in the Bulldogs’ post-spring depth chart.
Smith, who had two-and-a-half sacks as a junior, says an improved pass rush has been a priority for the MSU defensive line in the offseason.
“It’s definitely something we have talked about,” said Smith. “I feel like I’m more explosive this year, I worked on getting off the ball quicker, studying offensive lineman to know their strengths and weaknesses. We all dedicated ourselves to better film study this offseason.”
So, aside from defensive end, where does the answer lie for an improved pass rush at Mississippi State? Could be a number of places.
McKinney, who runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, led the Bulldogs in sacks in 2013 with three-and-a-half. With the size and speed to project to an outside linebacker or defensive end at the NFL level, McKinney could see more opportunities as a pass rusher.
Defensive lineman Jones, ranked by ESPN.com as the No. 2 defensive tackle in the conference entering his sophomore season, is another potential source for sacks. A matchup nightmare for offensive linemen at 6-6, 305, Jones led MSU with 10 quarterback hurries as a freshman and finished the season second on the team with three sacks.
He also provided a glimpse of his next-level ability to disrupt opposing quarterbacks with a powerful one-on-one move in that resulted in a sack of Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace.
“He’s still a young guy, but he does provide some leadership up front,” said Mullen of Jones. “He’s a guy who made plays last year. He has play-making ability. There is a big difference between being a playmaker and being a dominant player. We want him to be that dominant player.”
With eight starters back defensively, MSU believes it has the experience and talent to improve its sack total from a year ago. And the Bulldogs’ schedule should provide the opportunity. Four of MSU’s eight conference opponents finished in the bottom half of the league in sacks allowed last season, including LSU (ninth), Ole Miss (10th), Vanderbilt (13th) and Kentucky (14th). In the non-conference portion of the schedule, only one of MSU’s four opponents, South Alabama at No. 21, finished in the top 50 nationally in sacks allowed. MSU will open against Southern Miss, which finished 109th in the country in sacks allowed and will play UAB, 65th in the nation, in week two.
Additionally, five of MSU’s eight conference opponents will be breaking in new quarterbacks this season, a fact not lost on McKinney.
“I love playing against new quarterbacks,” said McKinney. “Whenever I’m playing a new quarterback, I like to try to get in their head. Me, I’m trying to disrupt a play in any way possible. And if that means jumping up and down at the line of scrimmage, getting in the quarterback’s head, I’m going to do it. If they are paying attention to me, they’re not thinking about their reads.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat