With the Mississippi State football team’s 34-29 win at LSU and subsequent bye week, the Bulldogs are one-third of the way through the season.
All the early returns are good, as MSU has climbed to 4-0 and is No. 12 in The Associated Press Top 25. Here is a deeper look at each of MSU’s position groups on offense and a grade for their work.
Today, The Dispatch will grade each of MSU’s position groups on defense.
Defensive line – A+
Neck and neck with the linebacker spot in a race for best unit on the team, the defensive line has been outstanding. The Bulldogs lead the SEC in tackles-for-loss (35), are second in sacks (14), and have allowed 2.37 yards per carry this year, easily the lowest total in the SEC. Against LSU, the defensive line sacked quarterback Anthony Jennings three times and allowed 87 rushing yards. The Bulldogs are getting contributions from everywhere. Sophomore Chris Jones has eight tackles and two sacks; sophomore Nelson Adams has two sacks; senior defensive end Preston Smith has 14 tackles and three sacks; and the list goes on.
Star performer: If there were a SEC Defensive Player Award handed out for the first third of a season, MSU defensive end Preston Smith would get it. The 6-6, 267-pound senior from Stone Mountain, Georgia, has been one of the nation’s best players and has made an impact in a number of ways. He leads MSU with five tackles for loss and three sacks, is second in the nation with two blocked kicks, is tied for the team lead with two interceptions, and scored on a 26-yard interception return.
“He’s making all the plays,” MSU linebacker Benardrick McKinney said of Smith.
What needs to improve: Not much. The Bulldogs are stingy against the run, allowing 330 yards on 137 carries, and they’re creating negative plays, as MSU’s total of tackles for loss is No. 3 in the nation. If that production improves, MSU’s ceiling for this season remains very high.
What’s to come: The road will get tougher. Four teams ranked in the top 10 of The Associated Press poll remain on the schedule, and all four — Alabama, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Auburn — have offenses that rank in the nation’s top 25 in total yardage and scoring. If Smith continues to deliver and sophomore Chris Jones continues to mature, the MSU defensive line will be key in those matchups.
Linebackers – A
Another easy grade. The defensive line steals the headlines, but the linebackers may be the heart of the defense. Case in point: In MSU’s goal-line stand against LSU, linebackers McKinney and Richie Brown combined for three of the four stops to give MSU momentum. Three of MSU’s leading tacklers — McKinney, Beniquez Brown, and Christian Holmes — are linebackers. McKinney leads with 27, while Beniquez Brown has 22 and Holmes 18.
Star performer: McKinney. A preseason second-team All-SEC selection, McKinney has been outstanding as a redshirt junior. He is tied with Smith for the team lead in tackles for loss with five and has two sacks.
“He’s the leader of our defense,” Prescott said of McKinney. “I watch how he gets those guys juiced up, how he leads those guys. … It gets me ready to go.”
What must improve: While it’s hard to find a place for improvement among the linebackers, it’s clear opposing offenses will try to stretch them out more than any to this point.
What’s to come: Texas A&M and Auburn. The Aggies, the No. 1 passing offense in the league, will test the linebackers vertically, while Auburn, the league’s top rushing team, will test their toughness. The next two games will reveal how well the defense can adapt to stronger competition.
Defensive backs – C
It hasn’t been all sunshine. The one weakness that has emerged has been a propensity to give up the deep ball, particularly by cornerbacks and safeties. UAB passed for a season-high 435 yards and connected for three touchdowns of more than 75 yards, while South Alabama passed for 288 yards. For the first three quarters against LSU, the pass defense was better, but LSU moved the ball through the air in big chunks in the fourth quarter and scored 19 points to turn a blowout into a five-point victory. Still, MSU’s pass defense has been solid at times.
Star performer: There hasn’t been a breakout star, though junior cornerback Will Redmond — two interceptions the past two games — is coming along. So for now, the star is junior cornerback Taveze Calhoun, who has allowed one touchdown this season. LSU rarely attempted to throw to Calhoun’ side of the field, which shows opponents respect the Morton native as MSU’s most dependable cornerback.
What needs to improve: Stopping the deep threat. UAB repeatedly gouged MSU, and though that outburst looks a bit like an aberration, holes still exist. If Redmond can continue to improve and banged-up safety Justin Cox turns into the playmaker he was at East Mississippi Community College — 11 interceptions in two years — then MSU’s pass defense will improve.
What’s to come: Texas A&M. Freshman sensation Kenny Hill is among the nation’s most prolific passers. He and the Aggies will test MSU’s abilities against the deep ball early and often.
Special Teams – B
This grade would have looked a little silly just a few weeks ago. After MSU kickers missed a short field goal against Southern Miss and whiffed on a pair of extra points against UAB, the kicking game looked like a disaster. But the Bulldogs haven’t missed since, as kicker Evan Sobiesk was true on two field goals at LSU. Special teams isn’t just about the kickers. MSU has blocked two field goals and a punt. It returned one of those blocks 70 yards against Southern Mississippi. Further, freshman Jamoral Graham has brought stability to the team’s punt returns.
Star performer: It could be several players, but defensive end Preston Smith has become nearly unblockable in the kicking game, using his speed and long arms to deflect a pair of field goals.
What needs to improve: The kicking game still has a long way to go. Missed extra points can’t happen, and if MSU is going to compete for a SEC title, there will be a game the Bulldogs need to convert a field goal. Sobiesk, who is 2-for-2, appears to have locked up the kicking job with his performance at LSU.
What’s to come: Mullen has done a good job limiting pressure situations for his kickers. MSU has attempted three this season, and hasn’t attempted one of more than 40 yards. Eventually, though, MSU figures to face a time it needs to make a big kick.
Follow Dispatch Sports Writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat