September 6, 2018 12:04:42 PM
STARKVILLE -- Brian Cole's path to Mississippi State was already a winding one even with no considerations for what he does on the field. The Saginaw, Michigan, native went from the in-state Wolverines just to be one of the first casualties of the Jim Harbaugh era in Ann Arbor; he landed at East Mississippi Community College, where he earned a second chance at MSU.
Through it all, Cole has changed positions -- changed sides of the ball, even -- and added another position. Through all of the change, he is finding the best way to make an impact.
Cole was physically ready to play last season while he sat as an academic redshirt -- he made that clear in practice. That fact is now clear to everyone, as he starts at Star (nickelback) and kick returner for No. 18 MSU (1-0). He will do both 11 a.m. Saturday (ESPN2) against Kansas State (1-0).
"He's a very gifted player. Very athletic, long, physical and he's a great nickelback," safety Mark McLaurin said.
It's one thing to make this switch going from high school to college, as that is relatively common. MSU has two players as living examples, as cornerback Cameron Dantzler and safety Marcus Murphy were used as multipurpose offensive athletes before going to defense in college. Making that change while a college athlete is a different animal, and one Cole navigated by compartmentalizing the mental and the physical.
Each side had its challenges and its moments of ease.
"Honestly, defense is easier than offense as far as playbook, where to line up on the hash, knowing what route to run depending on where he's lined up on you and where the safety's at," Cole said. "It's totally different, but I like the position I'm in. It's all in God's plan.
"At a physical standpoint, it's easier to run a route and catch a ball than it is doing all that backpedalling. Judging the ball from an offensive standpoint and a defensive standpoint is totally different. It's honestly technique, but I also think it's the urge to make plays. When you drop into curl-flat, you want to go rob that hitch, but you stand where you need to be and try to get to the hitch in time."
As Cole has played more defense, in his one year at EMCC before his academic redshirt year at MSU, he has come to appreciate the improvisational aspect of defense. He says it's all about adapting to an offense -- a unit he knows well, given his experience.
"Defense is about adapting," Cole said. "If you're guessing out there, most of the time you'll be wrong. You just have to adapt and play, play your leverage and do your job. If you do your job, most of the time everything else will fall in place."
That improvisational ability has helped him become one of Joey Jones' favorite players.
Jones took over as MSU's special teams coordinator with one of his most pressing jobs being to find a kick returner. He had a list of options as many as 10 in spring practice, but Cole stands out.
"He has a natural feel for what I call vision," Jones said. "You can't block every kickoff return perfectly, so if there's a hole that's supposed to be here and it ends up being there, he sees it. He has a natural ability.
"I would think being a receiver probably helped him out. I think a lot of that is God-given and kind of an innate ability to see things."
To Jones, Cole is much more than a defensive and special teams starter. He has become an example for the team to follow.
"You look at Brian Cole, I show players film of him frequently about how he practices. He practices extremely hard, he hits the hole extremely hard, he's instinctive, he's a great athlete," Jones said. "He practices the way you want everybody to practice and that's why he's No. 1.
"I want to play him on every special team but I can't."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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