Collin Duncan has heard the stories.
Mississippi State nickelbacks coach and assistant head coach Tony Hughes is happy to tell them to the junior safety and any teammate who will listen: tales of how standout Bulldogs like Fletcher Cox set the standard in Starkville and never let it waver.
“If you look back in the years of Mississippi State, we’ve always been known for hard-nosed defense and hard-nosed football,” Duncan said.
Under second-year defensive coordinator Zach Arnett, the Bulldogs have their sights set on the very same thing in 2021. But as Arnett told reporters Tuesday night, Mississippi State has a long way to go.
“We’re not a very good defense right now,” he admitted.
The Bulldogs are nine practices into their spring season, which will culminate in the Maroon and White spring game at 11 a.m. April 17 at Davis Wade Stadium. So far, Arnett said Tuesday, he bears responsibility for not having his players where he wants them.
“I’ve done a poor job,” Arnett said. “It’s not the players’ fault; it’s our fault as coaches, but we’ve better get it right in these last six practices because they don’t give you more than 15 in the spring.”
Duncan said he completely agreed with his defensive coordinator’s assessment, pointing to the Bulldogs’ performances in Saturday’s closed scrimmage on Scott Field. Although rules were loosened and several defensive stops were essentially wiped out, Mississippi State’s offense managed to score a touchdown on nearly every drive.
The same has held true in other practices, according to Duncan. He credited the offense for driving the ball well but said his own unit must step up.
“I feel like these past few weeks, the offense has gotten in the end zone a little bit too much,” he said.
Arnett said the defense’s performance hasn’t lived up to his — or any given defensive coordinator’s — hopes thus far.
“It’s a pretty simple standard: If the offense goes up and down the field, that’s bad defense,” he said. “If an offense moves the ball and scores points, that’s not good defense. It’s kind of a universal standard: The scoreboard don’t lie.”
In 2020, Arnett’s unit considerably exceeded preseason expectations. Despite a host of opt-outs and injuries Bulldogs posted the Southeastern Conference’s sixth-best scoring defense and finished fifth best in the league in total yards allowed per game.
Duncan said he struggled early on in the 10-game, SEC-only slate but got more comfortable as the season wore on, trusting more in himself and his coaches. He said his goal heading into this spring has remained the same: just get “1 percent better” with every day.
“For me and for the secondary and for the defense, that’s all we ask for,” Duncan said. “Defense is hard enough as it is.”
Arnett said assignment errors and allowing big plays have been the main areas of weakness for his defense so far this spring. Duncan, for his part, mentioned a lack of leadership as of yet, saying as a junior he expects to step into that position soon.
“As that happens, I feel like it will trickle down into different areas of the defense,” he said.
Despite that, the Bulldogs are more locked in than one might expect. With so many young players pressed into service last season, Duncan said there’s only one returning player on the defensive side of the ball who didn’t see the field in 2020.
“That helps a lot when a majority of your room has in-game experience,” Duncan said. “There’s always growing pains around this time of year just trying to make sure that everybody’s on the right page …”
So rather than putting together a disjointed defense, the Bulldogs are hitting the field united, even if they’ve been struggling early.
“I feel like every player on this defense from the first team to the second team to the people who are just now coming in, I feel like we’re all picking up what (Arnett’s) putting down,” Duncan said.
He acknowledged the Bulldogs need to improve but felt confident they know what it will take to get there.
“It’s pretty simple to go, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll get it next time,’” Duncan said. “No, we’ve got to get it now. We need it now.”