April 11, 2019 11:09:26 AM
By BEN PORTNOY
The defensive tides are shifting in Starkville.
With the losses of Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons to the NFL Draft, Mississippi State will look to its secondary and linebackers to be the ever-reliable cogs in a unit that ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense last season.
"Definitely this team will be different," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "The identity will be different."
With a secondary that returns senior safety Brian Cole and junior cornerback Cameron Dantzler, Shoop will lean on his upperclassmen to anchor the group.
Cole may prove an enigma for Southeastern Conference foes this fall.
A one-time receiver at Michigan, he played a season at East Mississippi Community College before arriving at MSU.
Cole was also sidelined with a shoulder injury for all but five games in 2018.
Shoop said Tuesday that Cole will find most of his snaps in the "star" position -- a pseudo-linebacker/coverage spot where he can match up with slot receivers and running backs on passing downs while bumping up toward the line in running situations.
"He's got All-SEC talent," Shoop said. "I love John Abram and Mark McLaurin and we're going to miss them a lot, but Brian Cole is every bit the athlete those guys are."
On the outside, Dantzler's hype continues to rise.
Cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley said earlier this spring he believes the 6-foot-3 cover man is the "best corner in the country."
Shoop didn't exactly double down on Buckley's sentiments, but he came close to affirming that notion.
"I feel the same way about Cam as I do Brian," Shoop said. "I think we have a chance to be a really good secondary."
In the middle, the Bulldogs will rely on redshirt junior Erroll Thompson and junior Starkville native Willie Gay Jr.
Thompson, a member of the SEC All-Freshman team in 2017, notched 87 tackles and 2 interceptions in 13 games last season.
Gay was similarly prolific. He finished with 48 tackles, 5 sacks and 2 interceptions.
This isn't to say the cupboard is completely bare on the defensive line. Senior Chauncey Rivers, redshirt junior Kobe Jones and junior Marquiss Spencer will occupy the edges.
Inside, the Bulldogs return redshirt seniors Lee Autry and Kendell Jones -- who is out the rest of the spring with an upper body injury.
But with a group that has trended toward the back seven from a depth perspective, it should be Cole and Dantzler who lead this year's defense.
"Obviously, when you lose potential three of the top 40 players taken in the draft, it is what it is," Shoop said. "As we talked about before, that's the business that we're in."
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