August 15, 2014 1:53:31 PM
STARKVILLE -- As fall practice rolls on, one debate keeps cropping up among members of Mississippi State's defensive line.
That debate centers around one question: Is Chris Jones a defensive end or a defensive tackle?
"Oh man, he thinks he's a defensive end," MSU senior DE Preston Smith said with a smile. "He'll say he's a defensive end all day long. He wants to be out there with us."
Jones doesn't dispute this.
"I love playing defensive tackle, and I'm getting used to it," said Jones, a former five-star prospect from Houston who was a member of the Bulldogs' class of 2013. "But there's something about playing defensive end. I still think I'm a defensive end."
Jones played defensive end at Houston High School, and had 160 tackles and 14 sacks as a senior. He also played defensive end early in his freshman season at MSU. But at 6-foot-6, 290 pounds, Jones is a perfect fit for the interior of the defensive line, which grew stingier each week last season.
But one question might be even more important than the defensive end/defensive tackle quandary surrounding Jones.
Does it matter?
"He's just a football player," MSU defensive tackle P.J. Jones of Chris Jones. "I remember what it was like when I was a freshman and how lost I was at times. Then this guy comes along last year and he just walked out there and dominated. I couldn't believe it. I told him he's blessed because you're not supposed to be able to walk in as a freshman and play like he did."
Chris Jones is the center of attention at MSU in his second fall camp for good reason. After fighting for playing time early in his freshman season, Jones improved throughout the year and was nearly impossible to block at the end of the season. He finished with 34 tackles, three sacks, and a team-high 10 quarterback hurries. More importantly, he set the stage for huge expectations as a sophomore. That's why many people believe MSU's defensive line will go as Chris Jones goes. On a team with as much talent as depth as any under sixth-year coach Dan Mullen, the defensive line is a snapshot of the team as a whole. There's veteran leadership (seniors Kaleb Eulls, Smith, Curtis Virges), there's superstar potential (Chris Jones), and there's a stream of younger players looking to break through like Jones did a season ago.
"I think we have a good mix of young guys and older guys," said Virges, a former standout at West Point High. "Everybody knows about Chris Jones, but I think we have a bunch of guys who can play and put up numbers."
That mix could help determine the success of MSU's defense this season. Returning seven of its top eight players from last season, MSU's defensive line was a force at the end of 2013, helping the Bulldogs limit their last three opponents to 34 points. The defensive line finished fourth in the Southeastern Conference against the run, yielding 1,874 yards. Only Alabama, Florida, and LSU were better up front.
But the defensive line needs to generate a more effective pass rush, as the Bulldogs finished with 20 sacks, which was 11th in the league.
"When we look at our defense, you always place getting to the quarterback as a priority," said second-year defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, whose unit finished fourth in the league in total defense. "On our team, the number one priority will always be stopping the run. That's what we want to do first and foremost, but we want that sack number to rise."
That responsibility could fall on Smith, a senior who had 44 tackles and two-and-a-half sacks as a junior.
"We've talked about it a lot," said Smith of MSU's desire to increase its sack total. "I think we've improved the way we watched film. I pay a lot more attention to the offensive lineman, trying to learn what they're going to do and why they're doing it. I feel like I'm more explosive this year."
Behind Smith at defensive end will be 6-foot-6, 260-pound sophomore Ryan Brown and 6-foot-3, 265-pound sophomore A.J. Jefferson. Of that duo, Smith said, "Those guys are both working hard. Ryan Brown is one of the hardest working guys on the team, and A.J. Jefferson is having a great camp."
Brown played in 13 games last season but started only once, generating two-and-a-half sacks.
In the middle of the defense, there's Chris Jones, picked as the No. 2 defensive tackle in the SEC by ESPN.com and a Second-Team preseason All-America selection by SI.com. P.J. Jones, Eulls, and Virges return as seniors.
Eulls had 27 tackles last season, while P.J. Jones, a former four-star prospect out of Tupelo, had 25. Sophomore Nick James, a former four-star prospect out of Long Beach, also will compete for playing time. While MSU defensive line coach David Turner said James is "still a work in progress," the 6-foot-5, 310-pounder possesses next-level size and strength at defensive tackle.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat