September 7, 2017 10:19:02 AM
STARKVILLE -- Dan Mullen keeps going back to the Charles Mitchell example.
Mullen wants to change how his Mississippi State football program uses its defensive backs and uses what Mitchell did on Nov. 20, 2010.
On that day MSU hosted Arkansas and played a double overtime game, a 38-31 loss. Mitchell played something like 109 snaps in that game; Mullen remembers other starters on that team playing something like 40 snaps and making important plays down the stretch.
With that in mind, Mullen gave new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham one task.
"I keep telling Todd I want to find 30," Mullen said. "I want to find enough guys where we can roll guys through and go wave after wave, keep attacking you."
That creed matters more in the secondary than any other this week as MSU (1-0) prepares for the Louisiana Tech (1-0) offense and its offense more geared to the pass. Grantham and safeties coach Ron English are all on board.
"What you try to do is develop depth because if you want to win the kind of games we're trying to win, you're going to need to be fresh in the fourth quarter to finish people off," Grantham said. "You have to have depth and you have to cross train guys to play different spots to allow guys a breather. If a guy goes down, it's the next-best guy up, not the next guy on the depth chart."
At no position is that more apparent than the one Mitchell played: safety. J.T Gray led the team in tackles from the position -- in his first game at the position after a change from linebacker in the spring -- but didn't even start the game: Mark McLaurin and Brandon Bryant did. Chris Rayford, Johnathan Abram and C.J. Morgan are also expected to be significant parts of the rotation and all three played.
Grantham credited their work for some of the gaudy numbers the MSU defense put up in the 49-0 win, including holding the Bucs to 33 yards of offense.
"I thought the safeties played really well. The biggest thing was we were very minimal in our missed tackles: the longest run of the day was eight yards," Grantham said. "That's the way you have to be to be good on defense: you have to make them drive it through you and not get explosive plays, easy yards. It can come from breakdowns and things like that, but it can also come from yards after the catch and missed tackles."
Safety is not alone: cornerback is another position that sees consistent rotation. Tolando Cleveland and Lashard Durr were listed as starters and followed through, but Cam Dantzler and Jamal Peters were seen early and often in the season opener.
Mullen has not reached the point of those four being interchangeable: he said in Wednesday's Southeastern Conference teleconference they, "bring different things to the table for us," but he does think all four can rotate freely without a drop off.
The players have bought in.
"Every snap, we're going hard as ever. The rotation is great," Bryant said. "Those guys bring my energy level up every day. We've been bonding and coming together as a unit."
At both positions, the rotation was a hit: Mullen said he didn't think any defender played more than 30 snaps and that some did not hit the 20-play minimum the coaching staff uses to grade, "championship effort."
There is a case to be made dividing the playing time up among a larger crew of players can make each player at that position better. Mullen said the system created a dynamic in practice in which players know they are competing reps, the best currency players can grasp to earn improvement.
No matter the role, they're guaranteed to be at their best when the game requires such.
"On the final drive of the game, if the guys on the field have only played 35 or 40 plays," Mullen said, "they're pretty fresh, they can fly around and make things happen."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson
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