STARKVILLE — Mississippi State nickelbacks coach Tony Hughes knows playing defensive back in the Southeastern Conference typically requires playing through some pain.
But Hughes and the Bulldogs got more than they bargained for last season as safety after safety went down with an injury. Fred Peters, C.J. Morgan, Janari Dean and Dylan Lawrence all got hurt, forcing Mississippi State to dig deep into its rotation.
Often, that cost the Bulldogs to the tune of big plays and points on the board. It wasn’t easy for MSU’s healthy defensive backs, either.
“Last year, it’s hard when you look sideways and it’s a new person every game,” cornerback Martin Emerson said Friday.
But in 2021, the Bulldogs believe they have the players to not only stay healthy but excel in the defensive backfield. With a strong duo on the outside and a host of 14 safeties, including a talented transfer, Mississippi State’s secondary can become its primary asset on defense.
“The more depth we have, the better for everybody,” Morgan said. “That’ll help us out a whole bunch immediately and as far as longevity goes.”
For Emerson and fellow cornerback Emmanuel Forbes, players like Jaylon Reed and Esaias Furdge are ready to help. So is sophomore Decamerion Richardson, who has made significant improvement, Emerson said.
“I just stay on him, tell him to be consistent and make every play that comes to him,” Emerson said. “I wish you guys had seen Decam last fall camp. He came a long way. I’m proud of him because I know he’ll help fill somebody’s shoes this year and help us win games.”
At the three safety positions in Mississippi State’s 3-3-5 defense — free safety, strong safety and the “Bulldog” spot — the depth is even greater. Texas transfer Jalen Green, Peters and junior Collin Duncan have received first-team reps at the three positions, respectively.
But each player — and those behind them — are ready to move around at a moment’s notice, safeties coach Jason Washington said.
“I’ve told those guys they have to be interchangeable,” Washington said. “After the COVID year, that was a great indication of, ‘You never know what’s going to happen.’ All those guys are cross-training. They all kind of know each other’s job. It’s been good to interchange everybody as we go through practices and meetings.”
Green, who comes to Starkville after playing cornerback for the Longhorns, is a good example. Redshirt senior safety Londyn Craft praised the Houston product’s ability to cover and to deliver punishing hits; Washington called Green a “hands-on” player when it comes to getting physical with receivers.
“From the corners’ skills he’s had, we’re trying to work on playing off with a lot of space,” Washington said. “If he’s able to get his hands on you, he’s pretty dominant.”
Washington said the Bulldogs’ talent and depth — not to mention the benefits of a full spring and summer — have allowed them to expand on what they did last season. That includes teaching technique and more advanced concepts.
“Now, we’re not just teaching little things, we’re teaching fundamentals,” he said. “It’s been good having some bodies there in that room.”
Hughes, a veteran defensive coach with decades of experience, can’t overstate the importance of that instruction. He’s seen too many game-breaking — and back-breaking — plays go against his teams to think otherwise.
“Especially on the back end, you have to really be sound in what you’re doing so that you don’t give up big plays,” Hughes said.
The battle for playing time has helped the Bulldogs improve those skills, Craft said. With players like Morgan, Dean, Lawrence, Shawn Preston Jr., Jay Jimison and Corey Ellington hoping to earn snaps, Craft and his teammates have been motivated to refine their game.
“It’s been a good competition, but that just only makes you better,” Craft said. “Iron sharpens iron, and it’s going to make me better as a player and make the team better overall.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.