April 10, 2014 10:11:25 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State football team has talked in the past few offseasons about beefing up its pass rush.
And while the Bulldogs haven't been able to deliver the consistent pressure on the quarterback coach Dan Mullen wants, they hope a decision to add size and length to the defensive line will help produce results.
That's why MSU is considering leaving highly touted prospect Chris Jones at defensive tackle, at least for the time being, to ensure one-on-one matchups for defensive ends Preston Smith and Ryan Brown.
"We always say they can't double everybody with a five-man offensive line, so somebody has to win a one-on-one matchup," MSU defensive line coach David Turner said. "It really determines who were playing, too, if those sack numbers can look great or not."
Despite having a better defensive season under new coordinator Geoff Collins, MSU was 11th in sacks in the Southeastern Conference with 20 in 13 games. In the past seven years, MSU hasn't ranked in the top half of the league in sacks. It also hasn't ranked that high in tackles for loss since 2010.
In January, Collins received a two-year extension and a raise that included a salary of $575,000 for this season and a salary of $625,000 in 2015. According to USA Today, the figure in the final year would make Collins the seventh-highest paid defensive coordinator in the Southeastern Conference.
With that financial commitment to its defensive leader, MSU believes Collins will be able to get the most out of a veteran defense this season. In spring practice, Chris Jones has been lined up beside Tupelo native P.J. Jones when both have been healthy. With massive Nick James at defensive tackle with Curtis Virges and Kaleb Eulls, the Bulldogs should have plenty of depth up the middle.
"What a lot of our inside guys do from a tackle perspective is disrupt the scheme enough to where they command attention, and we think that will allow for our outside guys to shine," Turner said.
Last season, MSU struggled to get to quarterbacks that led tempo offenses. At Auburn and Texas A&M, MSU managed two quarterback hurries in the losses.
Even at nearly 300 pounds, Chris Jones is the Bulldogs' most athletic defensive lineman. His three sacks last season led the group even though he was playing out of position, according to him. Jones' desire to play defensive end has led Collins to experiment with a 3-4 alignment so Jones can line up at end and show he can be a disruptive force.
Asked what he sees when lined up next to Chris Jones, Preston Smith breaks into a boyish grin.
"That's my time to shine because you just can't block him one on one," Smith said. "It's fine with me if they want to try because that'll change the minute he gets in the backfield. And he will."
Smith and Brown highlight Mullen's recruiting philosophy of signing defensive end who are long and quick. At 255 and 260 pounds, respectively, Smith and Brown look more like basketball power forwards when they line up next to the defensive tackles, but Collins' attacking system values long arms and height to make moves on offensive tackles in the SEC.
Brown had one sack, two and a half tackles for loss, and three quarterback hurries last season playing behind Denico Autry. This spring, Brown understands he can earn a starting job by bringing his same mentality to the field.
"Ryan Brown is a guy that shows up and works his tail off each and every single day," Turner said. "I should've probably played him more than I did last year, and that's my mistake and not his. It's his chance now."
With Autry as the only departed starter from the front four, the Bulldogs should have the personnel to generate a stronger pass rush this season. MSU front seven will need to produce to take pressure off a developing secondary.
"That's why we're out here in the spring, to experiment on how we can get better as a unit," Collins said. "The kids are trying to do what we demand of them and we are getting better every single day as coaches by figuring out what works and what doesn't from practice to practice in terms of personnel."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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