STARKVILLE — With an entirely new defensive staff, questions about how the Mississippi State football defense will perform this season is one of the most asked by Bulldog fans.
Not only did MSU lose a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach in Manny Diaz (Miami), it lost its entire staff. That includes defensive line coach David Turner (Texas A&M), cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend (Tennessee Titans) and safeties coach Tony Hughes (head coach at Jackson State).
MSU coach Dan Mullen went about filling those spots and hired four new coaches before spring drills got underway. Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon has tried to make the transition easy for his staff and the players by being open about how to go about approaching a unique situation.
“Being a coach is managing people and bringing people together,” Sirmon said. “I’ve been around some really fine coaches. I think I’m very firm in what I want to do, but I’m very flexible in how I want to get it done. I think it would be unwise to not take good counsel from Bake (defensive line coach Brian Baker), Mo (safeties coach Maurice Linguist) and T-buck (cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley).”
After stints at Central Washington, Tennessee, Washington and Southern California, Sirmon became a defensive coordinator for the first time. Buckley, who played at Pascagoula High School and won the Thorpe Award at Florida State, spent the two seasons at Akron and then two seasons at Louisville. Linguist spent the last two seasons as the defensive passing game coordinator at Iowa State, and Baker has 19 years of NFL experience.
Buckley said the most exciting thing about coming in with an entire new staff is the opportunity to keep some of the language they have used at other programs.
“If you leave and switch schools and the defensive coordinator is already there, your language that you just left is gone,” Buckley said. “‘This is our language, make sure you speak the same language. This is what we’re going to do.’ Peter allowed us to bring and have some input, which is very, very rare.”
The bonding process started in the spring and the four seem to get along very well. Buckley, the jokester of the group, said he, Sirmon and Linguist have played golf together a few times. That has strengthened their bond.
Baker decided not to play golf, but rather fish when they had their coaches retreat in the summer. That hasn’t hurt his chances to bond with the other coaches.
Like Buckley, he has been impressed with the way Sirmon has handled things.
“Peter’s done a great job understanding that everybody’s got different experiences in that room, they come from different places, they’ve been involved with different systems, so everybody has something different to bring to the table,” Baker said. “He’s very, very receptive and demanding. He’s asked for opinions all the time and he considers everything we talk about. When you do that, whether we go with the way one guy wants to go or not, because you know that your point is being heard, things are being considered, you leave the room unified.”
Baker said they not only had to bond as a defensive group, but they had to bond with Mullen. Sirmon is the third defensive coordinator in the last three seasons for Mullen. In his second stint with Mullen and the Bulldogs, Diaz served one season. Before Diaz took over, Geoff Collins worked as the defensive coordinator for four seasons, but he took the same position at Florida.
The bonding doesn’t matter if they can’t put a quality product on the field and compete in a rouged Southeastern Conference. Sirmon has stated numerous times that he wants to use multiple schemes to utilize the versatility of his players. The players have taken to the new schemes.
After a four-year career as a linebacker at Oregon from 1996-99, he spent seven seasons (2000-06) with the Tennessee Titans.
“I really like him,” senior linebacker Richie Brown said. “He’s taught me a lot of things. I take something unique from each coach and I’m taking something unique from him right now as we speak. It’s really been a blessing in disguise.
“He’s really good at communicating. He understands guys like us because he’s been in our shoes. He understands how to coach it, show it and demonstrate it.”
Brown served under Collins and Diaz. The Long Beach native led MSU with 109 tackles (13.0 for loss) last season. The middle linebacker had 6.5 sacks, one interception, two pass breakups, three passes defended and three quarterback hurries.
At 32-years old, Linguist is the youngest and his safeties group has taken to him. Sophomore Brandon Bryant called him a real good coach, but it’s not all fun and games.
“He’s demanding of us every play,” Bryant said. “He wants the best out of you every play. He doesn’t want you to take time off and lack on anything. He wants you to keep getting better every play and keep building. If you make a mistake, just don’t make the same mistake twice.”
Like Sirmon, Linguist is a great communicator and easily breaks down drills, schemes and plays in practice. He’s constantly trying to make his players better. He said he only knows one way and that’s going hard in practice like it’s a game.
“We’ll coach them hard, we’ll coach fair, we’re going to love them up, we’re going to have discipline on our unit, we’re going to do things the right way, we’re going to be knowledgeable in what we do, we’re going to lead the nation in effort hopefully and just put out a quality secondary that can hopefully give us an opportunity to win the SEC,” Linguist said.
Sirmon doesn’t believe his openness with the coaches has made the transition easier for the players. But the reason they are collaborating is for the players.
The Bulldog defense may have a few hiccups in the early going, but that won’t be the case by the end of the season if Sirmon and his staff continue to collaborate and bounce ideas off each other.
“It’s not about me, it’s not about the coaches, it’s about trying to help the kids put the best product on the field. We have to put that to a standard and we’re proud of what we’re working towards,” Sirmon said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.