August 19, 2014 10:37:27 PM
STARKVILLE - Confidence is not a problem for Mississippi State senior safety Jay Hughes.
That confidence extends to his teammates.
Selected as one of MSU's three player representatives for the Southeastern Conference's Media Days in July, Hughes reinforced his belief in the Bulldogs' defensive backfield.
"I feel like there's no dropoff, no matter who is out there," said Hughes, who is fighting back from a season-ending Achilles injury suffered in the 2013 season-opener against Oklahoma State. "I watched the rest of the season from the sideline, I went to every meeting, every practice. And I saw us get better every single game. I wanted to be out there but at the same time, I took pride watching our DBs play so well by the end of the season."
Backing up their teammates' words, Mississippi State's defensive backfield was a key part of a Bulldog defense that finished fourth overall in the SEC a season ago. Even without Hughes, who entered his junior season with 43 career tackles, MSU's defensive backs were rock solid, delivering 14 interceptions and holding opponents to 205 passing yards per game. Both totals were good for fifth in the conference.
And true to Hughes' words, the Bulldogs were at their best near the end of the season. Following a 51-41 loss to Texas A&M in early November, MSU's defense allowed just one more passing touchdown - to Alabama QB A.J. McCarron in a 20-7 loss - and finished the season with six interceptions and zero touchdowns allowed over the final three games, all wins.
And now, most of that experience returns.
While safety Nickoe Whitley, who finished second in the conference with five interceptions, is gone, six of MSU's top seven defensive backs return in 2014, making the defensive backfield one of MSU's deepest - and most talented - spots.
"Any time you have guys coming back that have been there before, that's a good thing," said MSU cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend. "I like where we're at. We've got guys who have been through it, now they've been through a year with me. So they know what we want and the older guys are leading."
Those older players include a pair of cornerbacks who emerged as playmakers in 2013. Taveze Calhoun, a junior from Morton, and senior Jamerson Love, from Aberdeen, give the Bulldogs a pair of veteran leaders at cornerback. Calhoun and Love each finished 2013 with three interceptions, while Calhoun finished sixth on the team with 45 tackles.
Others have taken notice of MSU's talent at cornerback, as ESPN.com listed Calhoun as the league's No. 2 corner and Love was listed at No. 8.
"We can't really pay any attention to the hype," said Calhoun. "It's nice but all that matters is what happens on the field."
Joining Calhoun and Love in MSU's cornerback rotation will be junior Will Redmond, who recorded 23 tackles and two pass breakups in seven games. With Redmond at No. 3 in the rotation, the Memphis native will figure into MSU's nickel packages and will provide relief on passing downs. Townsend also mentioned sophomore Tolando Cleveland and redshirt freshman Jahmere Irvin-Sills as players who get see meaningful playing time.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat
1. MSU women will face biggest test at South Carolina COLLEGE SPORTS
2. MSU announces extension, raise for Mullen COLLEGE SPORTS
4. No. 11 MSU women fall at No. 2 South Carolina COLLEGE SPORTS