January 2, 2018 10:22:40 AM
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The celebration for Mark McLaurin spanned at least half of the sideline.
After the Mississippi State safety intercepted Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson for the third time in the TaxSlayer Bowl, McLaurin crossed paths with freshman linebacker Willie Gay Jr. Montez Sweat, Johnathan Abram, Jeffery Simmons, and others also were celebrating and preparing for the next possession.
All five players could return in 2018 to help MSU build on its 31-27 victory Saturday that wrapped up a 9-4 season.
MSU will try to do that with new coach Joe Moorhead and a defense that showed significant improvement from 2016 under first-year coordinator Todd Grantham. The defense finished third in the Southeastern Conference in tackles for a loss (86, 6.62 per game), tied for second in sacks (36), and second in forced fumbles (17)
MSU's defense in 2018 will work under new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
"I think we all just come in and work like we've been doing and take it from there," freshman linebacker Erroll Thompson said.
Thompson is part of a position group that will lose senior Dez Harris. Thompson, classmate Gay Jr., and sophomore Leo Lewis were among the team's top 15 tacklers. Thompson and Lewis were in the top 10. They combined for eight tackles for a loss. MSU will be able to lean on that trio and look for contributions from outside linebacker Gerri Green and junior college linebacker Sh'mar Kilby-Lane.
If Sweat, a 6-foot-6, 241-pound junior, MSU figures to have one of the SEC's deepest defensive fronts. Sweat has earned plenty of attention from NFL scouts following a season in which he led the Southeastern Conference with 10 1/2 sacks. He said prior to the TaxSlayer Bowl he didn't plan to talk to his family about making a decision to enter the NFL draft early until after the game.
If Sweat declares for the NFL draft, MSU still figures to have defensive tackle and Macon native Jeffery Simmons, Braxton Hoyett, Cory Thomas, Fletcher Adams, and others back. Simmons was a first-team All-SEC selection and second on the team with 12 tackles for a loss.
MSU also received contributions from freshman Starkville native Kobe Jones, of Starkville, and it will get East Mississippi Community College transfer Chauncey Rivers back after his academic redshirt year.
Mark McLaurin, who had three interceptions in the TaxSlayer Bowl, figures to return to anchor the secondary. McLaurin and Abram, a safety, were the team's two top tacklers (79 and 71, respectively). They combined for seven interceptions and 14 pass breakups. MSU will lose senior defensive back J.T. Gray, but EMCC transfer Brian Cole could take his place after an academic redshirt year.
MSU also loses cornerbacks Tolando Cleveland and Lashard Durr to graduation, but Jamal Peters and Cameron Dantzler were consistent contributors. They figure to return. Dantzler had an interception in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Shoop has shown the ability to put together a strong defense in his first season at a school. In 2011, his defense at Vanderbilt was 14th in the nation in yards per play. In 2014, his Penn State defense was third in that category.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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