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Versatility, depth keys in MSU secondary's performance vs. run


Brett Hudson



STARKVILLE -- The classic Dime package was never meant to be strong against the run. With six defensive backs on the field compared to -- based on personal preference, four defensive linemen and a linebacker or three defensive linemen and two linebackers -- the obvious weakness lies in the box. 


Mississippi State has the players to neutralize that. 


Mark McLaurin and Johnathan Abram led MSU in tackles in last week's win over Louisiana Tech -- as safeties. They were part of MSU's four-safety dime package, joining J.T. Gray and Brandon Bryant in the starting lineup, that gives MSU all the positional strength Dime offers against the pass with none of the worries against the run. 


"We knew going into that week whoever was coming into the box had to be physical," McLaurin said. 


They did just that and did so in no small capacity: McLaurin and Abram were the team's leading tacklers in last week's win over Louisiana Tech, McLaurin with a game-high 10 and Abram with seven. Their abilities in that role, one they were thrown into often, helped MSU hold Louisiana Tech to 3.02 yards per carry. 


Those two in particular weren't put there on accident. 


"You have to just schematically with that," MSU head coach Dan Mullen said. "They're essentially playing linebacker against the run." 


McLaurin did it from the strong safety position and Abram did it from what MSU defensive coordinator Todd Grantham calls Money, his title for the sixth defensive back position that enters the game in the dime package. MSU safeties coach Ron English told The Dispatch in the Louisiana Tech game, the money position was used as a second nickelback, played by Gray. 


Both were asked to be physical against the run. 


"If they bring the tight end in the box, you're in the box," English said. "(Abram's) a physical player anyway. In one-back football with not a lot of lead blockers, per say, he can play that position." 


Gray is another of Grantham's favorite dime defenders in the run game. He enters the LSU game with nine tackles this season, fifth on the team, and a forced fumble. 


"This game nowadays, you have the run game inside but you also have the perimeter run game. J.T.'s a really strong guy and J.T. can set the edge," Grantham said. "We call the guy a nickel but he can really set the edge. He's going to hit somebody, he's going to attack somebody." 


Grantham likened Gray to Josh Harvey-Clemons, who he coached for two years at Louisville. Harvey-Clemons' junior season showed that similar jack-of-all-trades quality: third on the team in tackles (80), fifth in passes defended (5) and tied for second with three interceptions. 


For all the possibilities the Louisiana Tech game showed MSU had in its dime package defensive backs, it showed the same at linebacker. MSU tended to keep only one linebacker in a traditional stacked position when in dime, with outside linebackers presented on the line of scrimmage in a similar fashion to defensive ends. When translating from MSU's base defenses to the dime, the position that best fits the dime scheme is that of Dez Harris, but Grantham commended the effort of linebacker Leo Lewis learning a second position to play that Dime linebacker spot. 


The point of it all is it can fit any situation, even ones that the Dime wasn't designed to fit. It already fit a modern spread team like Louisiana Tech, one that formations in pass-heavy sets and throws accordingly but runs effectively from the same formations. 


"If you can get away with it, you like to play with more speed on the field and that allows us to get away with it," English said, "playing a guy like Abram, playing a guy like J.T. down there. Both can run and both are physical, so it helps us." 


Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson



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