August 31, 2018 11:38:39 AM
STARKVILLE -- Seven games into its 2017 season, Mississippi State's cornerbacks looked around the room and addressed the obvious problem: it had no interceptions. Then Jamal Peters and Lashard Durr intercepted a pass each against Texas A&M; they hoped it was a turning point.
MSU's corners did not pick off another pass for the rest of the season. Their redemption tour begins Saturday.
For an entire season in the Todd Grantham system, cornerbacks were necessary cogs in the machine that forced 13 interceptions, fourth in the Southeastern Conference, even if they weren't the ones doing it. Everyone in the program expects that to change beginning 6:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU) against Stephen F. Austin.
"Last year, what they were asked to do a lot of the time is play press and what really amounts to man-to-man almost," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "They played a lot of match concepts, where you're going to have bodies on bodies but your vision isn't on the ball. There might be a lower completion percentage, but there might be lower interceptions.
"We'll have more vision of the quarterback and more sets of eyes on the quarterback, you're seeing the ball a little better."
In the Grantham system, the primary job of the cornerback is to buy time. His jam at the line of scrimmage is to give the pass rushers an extra step to the quarterback, to give safeties more freedom to be part of the pass rush or make complicated moves postsnap as part of disguising coverage.
As Shoop put it, "you're doing your job but you're not going to get a lot of interceptions." Now, they are more likely to drop into a shallow zone coverage, granting them a clean view of the quarterback and the opportunity to jump a short pass.
The players taking on the change love it.
"It's a great thing, the changes have been good for us," sophomore Cameron Dantzler said. "We're not going to press every time at the next level, so I'm kind of glad we're playing more off coverage than press because it'll be easier when you get to the next level. You have to be ready for all coverages."
Shoop also looks at the cornerback room and sees the players capable of executing the new job.
Dantzler was listed as one of the starters in the depth chart released Monday; the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Louisiana native was a deadly dual-threat quarterback for St. Thomas Aquinas in Hammond. The other starter will be senior Jamal Peters, also an offensive standout in high school who has three interceptions to his name and returned his last one for 90 yards. Shoop saw junior Maurice Smitherman separate himself as the No. 3 cornerback with freshman Tyler Williams in hot pursuit, to the point that Chris Rayford move from corner to backup strong safety.
These are the kinds of players Shoop would recruit if given the opportunity. He sees no differences in what he looks for in a corner and what offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach Luke Getsy look for in a wide receiver.
"Cam Dantzler has good hands and has played the ball, he's long and athletic. Jamal Peters is the same way, plays the ball well," Shoop said. "Those guys are embracing the fact that they're in positions that aren't just press corner positions. I think vision of the quarterback, and Buck (corners coach Terrell Buckley) does a good job of coaching those guys to go get the ball."
The corners also know they will have help. Dantzler pointed to what he believes is, "one of the best defensive lines in the nation," to forced tipped passes and overthrows, all ripe for intercepting.
Whether it comes through the defensive line's help or through their own mastery of the system, the cornerbacks know they have no other option. They have to come away with more interceptions.
"We talk about that every day," Dantzler said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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