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Simmons in middle of MSU's dominating defensive day

 

Slim Smith

 

 

STARKVILLE 

 

It would be premature to say the Mississippi State football team will have a dominant defense this season based on its performance Saturday in a season-opening 49-0 victory against Charleston Southern, a Football Championship Subdivision team that was playing out of its league. 

 

But it took only a few plays to recognize the defense that throttled the Buccaneers is vastly improved from last year. 

 

Charleston Southern ran 47 plays and finished with 33 yards. That's about two feet a play, folks, which shatters the previous record of 1.35 yards per play set against Howard College 54 years ago. 

 

That's impressive no matter the competition. 

 

If you insist on an apples-to-apples comparison, you will recall that in MSU's game against a FCS team last year, its defense was shredded for 627 yards and 41 points against Samford. 

 

There is little question that, no matter what lies ahead, MSU's defense isn't going to be the one that gave up 459 yards per game, including 177 rushing yards per game. 

 

"I was really proud of the way our defense played," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "That's the kind of defense we expect to have at Mississippi State." 

 

The numbers tell the story, but only to a certain point. The Bulldogs held the Bucs to 18 rushing yards on 39 carries. The Bulldogs had nine tackles for loss, and while they didn't force a turnover, they had two safeties, the first time that has happened in a game since the 2000 game against Florida. 

 

But it wasn't so much the end result as it was the manner in which the defense asserted its dominance. The defensive line blew the line of scrimmage up and linebackers and safeties flew to the ball like heat-seeking missiles. It was an impressive display of naked aggression, but disciplined at that. 

 

Last year, it seemed, someone always was out of position. On Saturday, the Bulldogs played with discipline and passion. 

 

In the middle of it all was Jeffery Simmons, the sophomore nose tackle from Noxubee County High School, who seems almost certain to be a star this season after he earned All-Southeastern Conference freshman honors in 2016. 

 

MSU defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who is in his first year with the program, said he knew in training camp Simmons could be a difference-maker. 

 

"I really liked his attitude and his explosiveness off the ball," Grantham said. "We're an aggressive, attacking defense, and I think the style we're going to play this year lends itself to Jeffery being a dominant player He's a guy that can make plays in this league." 

 

Nose tackles typically don't fill up the statistic sheets. Their job is to disrupt, to push, to create the gaps in the blocking that linebackers and safeties can exploit. Against the Bucs, Simmons had five tackles and a sack. Those big numbers highlight Simmons' dominance. 

 

"We knew right away they couldn't block us," Simmons said. "I'm still bragging to my guys about that sack -- my first college sack. I told them that was something I wanted to do this year, get some sacks." 

 

Mullen said it would have been easy for Simmons to cruise into his sophomore year. 

 

"He was a guy who got accolades, so he could have just been content with that. But I've seen him really step up," Mullen said. "You see it and how hard he practices and runs to the ball. That's what's going to make him a special player." 

 

In the next two weeks, MSU will step up in class, to borrow a boxing term. It will visit Louisiana Tech next Saturday and then play host to LSU on Sept. 16 in its SEC opener. 

 

Those games represent bigger challenges. 

 

Bring it on, Simmons said. 

 

"We have wristbands that say fast, physical, aggressive," Simmons said. "That's our style. That's what we plan to do every week. Every game will be different, but our part as players is to be fast, physical and aggressive in the game plan our coaches have for us. 

 

"Last year was embarrassing, especially giving up that many rushing yards. But we've moved on from that." 

 

You could see that Saturday. 

 

 

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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