August 7, 2010 11:10:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- The only changes made to Mississippi State''s coaching staff after Dan Mullen''s first year at the helm came on the defensive side of the ball and it''s had an effect on all three levels.
Manny Diaz left Middle Tennessee State and Chris Wilson left the University of Oklahoma and joined MSU to help retool a young defense that flashed just as much big-play potential as big plays given up.
Diaz and Wilson have a spring practice under their belts as they co-coordinate the defense. In addition, Diaz coaches the linebackers and Wilson tutors the defensive line in a system run by some NFL teams.
In the spring, the idea was to simplify reads and attack from every angle. Mullen saw the change in system as a mirror of what he liked to do as an offensive coordinator -- make the opposition do something it doesn''t feel comfortable doing.
In the span of a year, optimism has grown with a deep defensive line rotation and an experienced group on the back end.
Senior linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright further drive up the expectations that this year''s MSU defense will be light years beyond the unit that finished next to last in points allowed and pass defense.
"This defense is real dynamic," Wright said Saturday at MSU''s media day. "A lot of NFL teams run it and it''s a deal where we''re going to pride ourselves on doing a real good job of attacking. It''s real multiple and you''re going to see us make a lot of plays."
Wright said the only challenge for he and his teammates in making the adjustment to their third defensive system and fourth defensive coordinator in the last four years is just learning what to do.
"After we get the reps, that''s when the fun starts and we''ll be able to dominate offenses," Wright said.
Diaz admits the defense will be better, but how much better is unknown. The team must fill one linebacker spot and find a steady end to compliment preseason All-Southeasstern Conference selection Pernell McPhee.
Eight starters return, but depth will be an issue at linebacker.
Diaz''s first impression of the defense when he took over was "a program in Year 2 of a transition." But aside from the need to add more speed in the secondary, Diaz believes he has the parts to run his style of defense effectively.
"I think everyone understands there''s still a lot of guys who are young in our program," Diaz said. "A lot of our better players are still in their first year here or one year removed from junior college. Some of the special guys we have, KJ or a (Derek) Sherrod, a great team you have is going to be built around guys who''ve been in your program for a long time. I think we have enough of those guys this year."
Diaz needs the likes of McPhee, White, Wright and Emmanuel Gatling -- all seniors -- to have special seasons for the Bulldogs'' defense to be successful.
Gatling is currently in a position battle with sophomore Cameron Lawrence for a starting outside linebacker job alongside Wright and White. Diaz says Gatling has a slight advantage right now, and that his final year in Starkville makes up some of the fuel behind his move from safety to linebacker.
"What you see in Gatling is that senior year urgency," Diaz said. "You can just tell that Gatling, like K.J. and Chris, they understand this is their last go around. And not that Cameron Lawrence doesn''t want it, but there''s something different when you understand these are the last 12 games you''ve got.
"You only play as well as your seniors play."
There''s just one senior, safety Zach Smith, in the secondary this season. The rest is mostly made up of first- and second-year players, who in Mullen''s mind should build on the 17 interceptions and SEC-best five touchdowns from last season. In 2009, Corey Broomfield, Damein Anderson, Charles Mitchell and Johnthan Banks played mostly off ability, so the coaches expected mistakes, Mullen said.
That should change this year.
"The big plays given up, a lot of those are made with lack of experience and just being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Mullen said. "So hopefully we can continue to make the big plays with the talent we have there and erase the negative plays with the experience and them having the understanding and being more mature players back there."
The noticeable change has been in the level of intensity Diaz and Wilson operate. It''s yet another mirror of Mullen and how he wants his team to operate. The philosophy shared is a no-brainer for defense, Diaz said.
"All I know is defense is a high-intensity exercise," Diaz said. "You can''t play a great defense any other way. The way I know from the way I''ve been taught is that if you coach casually, they''re going to play casually. Casual is a bad word to describe a defense. And when you''re young, that''s generally how young players play. You''re trying to get them to play with an urgency they''ve never had before."