April 9, 2013 10:34:16 AM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Preston Smith smiles when he sees the double teams and cut blocks running backs deliver against defensive end counterpart Denico Autry.
The junior defensive end wants Autry to succeed on the other side of the line and would be fine with him having an easier path to the quarterback on pass rushes. But Smith also understands what the attention Autry receives means for him and his teammates on the other side of the Mississippi State University football team's defensive line.
"We all see the attention he is getting because of his talent, athleticism, and all of those things and realize they can't double all of us up front," Smith said. "Somebody coming up the field is unblocked or seeing a one-on-one situation. That means it's on that person to make a play, and we know it. We have to make protections adjust to us."
Last season, MSU was 13th in the 14-team Southeastern Conference and tied for 99th in the country with 19 sacks. Smith led MSU with four-and-a-half sacks, but he knows that number isn't nearly enough.
"Our coaching staff does all the thinking for us in the meeting rooms, film preparation we do, and wants us by the time we get on that field to just instinctually go play and have fun," Smith said. "It's not a new system, but it's a new personality to create negative plays and not think so much about what the offensive line is doing. They need to worry about us, not the other way around."
New MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has preached at every spring practice about the need for players to create mayhem. Mayhem is everything you can do as a defensive player before, during, and after the initial or tackle.
"The one stat that is not talked about a lot, but one that I've been talking to guys a lot is a stat called defensive mayhem," Collins said. "It's tackles for loss, sacks, passes broken up, interceptions. That stat we'll hopefully see a great improvement.
"Aggressiveness is the key to defensive mayhem with guys flying around, making plays and creating negative plays on the offensive side. Beyond a tackle or tackle for a loss, you can also force a turnover, be the product of a turnover, get a sack, get a quarterback pressure. Those are what I want to see beyond just getting a stop."
Earlier this year, MSU coach Dan Mullen announced the promotion of Collins to defensive coordinator. On the same day, MSU hired David Turner to return to Starkville to coach the defensive line. Turner was in charge of the defensive line at MSU from 2007-09 after being hired by Sylvester Croom in 2007. He was one of the few coaches Mullen kept when arrived for his first season with the Bulldogs. He is trying to simplify the defensive scheme by teaching ends and tackles the same principles of gap responsibility.
"No matter what gap you have, it's the same technique," Turner said. "That's what I'm trying to get across to my guys this spring. This is a group that wants to improve and knows it has underperformed in the past. Our job is to change that, and change that fast."
In its first scrimmage of the spring inside Davis Wade Stadium, MSU's first-team defense created plenty of situations where a sack could've been called but it allowed quarterback Tyler Russell to finish the play after protection broke down. With so much depth at defensive end, including former East Mississippi Community College transfer Denico Autry, Smith, sophomore Ryan Brown, and sophomore John Harris, MSU hopes the new aggressive scheme means more negative plays and sacks for 2013.
"We're trying to just get to that quarterback as best we can, and I think we all understand what we're doing better this season," Autry said Saturday. "I know I do being a junior college player."
Autry had four sacks in 2012, but fans can expect the former four-star recruit to attract plenty of attention as he attempts to replicate the numbers of former Itawamba C.C. and MSU standout Pernell McPhee, who had two sacks and 10 tackles for loss as a senior in 2010. The Baltimore Ravens selected McPhee in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL draft. He has played in 28 games for the Ravens, including 12 last season when the team won the Super Bowl.
"Denico Autry and Preston Smith are getting older, and now you've now become the pace-setter for all these young guys," Mullen said. "I do think there takes some time in transition in that they're worried about becoming great football players, or worried about becoming starters. Now they have to transition into that role (that) they're leading the position instead of following the older guys."