December 31, 2013 10:34:12 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins was determined to change the compartmentalized nature of the sport in his first year as full-time play caller.
One of the first things Collins did after Chris Wilson left MSU to become the defensive line coach at Georgia was to utilize the bigger film session space in the new Seal Family Football Complex. Collins demanded that all of MSU's defensive personnel and coaches meet in the film room to dissect practice tape, previous games, and future opponents.
" I was the linebackers coach in the previous years, but the secondary or lineman weren't comfortable with me simply because I didn't have a relationship with them," Collins said. "That doesn't build cohesion and chemistry."
Collins, who is MSU's lead recruiter, knew that he and new assistants David Turner and Deshea Townsend could help establish a new system that relied on collaborative thinking and very little on employment hierarchy. MSU (6-6) has used that system to qualify for a bowl game for the fourth-consecutive season. It will put that thinking to the test at 3 p.m. today when it takes on Conference USA champion Rice (10-3) in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
"It's no different a collective deal with our players than in our coaching room because each guy is responsible for an aspect of the game plan booth during the preparation and on the day of the game," Collins said. "This is such a different group I've gotten to coach with even over the last month of bowl preparations because it's just so much fun to be around these guys."
Hours before kickoff on New Year's Day 2013, MSU coach Dan Mullen announced Collins would be the defensive play caller for the first time in his two seasons at MSU. Collins was then promoted to defensive coordinator days after MSU returned from its loss to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. Immediately after that loss, Collins started recruiting a different type of athlete, and fans saw five-star, 300-pound defensive lineman Chris Jones rapidly appear on the scene as a physical playmaker at the line of scrimmage.
"When you look at the young men Mississippi State brought to the rib eating competition and other events this week at the Liberty Bowl, they are impressive looking physical young men that will look even better with their uniforms on," Rice coach David Bailiff said.
In 2009, Collins was the defensive coordinator at Florida International, which led the Sun Belt Conference in total defense, scoring defense, pass efficiency defense, and turnover margin. For his efforts, Collins was a finalist for the Broyles Award, which is given annually to the nation's top assistant coach. This past winter, Collins was mentioned several times in media outlets as a possible candidate for the open defensive coordinator position at Georgia Tech University and the head coaching vacancy at FIU.
Collins' main focus has been trying to ensure all 22 players on MSU's two-deep chart get equal number of repetitions in practice and in games.
"I think the defensive coaches even get mad at me because I'll say I want the second-team defense in at practice and they'll scream back at me that, 'Coach, we don't have a number two defense' because they believe they have a 1 and then 1A defense," Mullen said.
Collins has brought more intensity to MSU's vocabulary with words such as "havoc" and "juice" to describe the passion he demands from his players. That train of thought has allowed Collins to move up the coaching ladder after starting as a 24-year-old junior varsity defensive coordinator at Fordham who also worked with the outside linebackers.
"I looked at my wife and asked her if I was ready to become a defensive coordinator," Collins said with a laugh. "She said to me, 'Heck yeah you're ready for that.' I've been doing this as a career ever since."
This season, MSU's defense has improved in rushing yards allowed (165 to 151), passing yards allowed (221 to 215), tackles for loss (64 to 70), and opponents' third-down conversions (42.08 percent to 35.76). Today, MSU will try to contain the nation's 15th-best rushing attack.
"Coach Collins immediately brought that juice and some life to these guys that were desperately needing more energy into the program," MSU sophomore middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney said. "We as linebackers knew what kind of coordinator he would be, but he immediately sold himself to the rest of the team by making this a big family."
The chemistry could be felt in MSU's final two regular-season victories against Arkansas and Ole Miss. Collins said he didn't have to signal in what play or formation he wanted on a given down and distance.
"That's when it began to turn because guys like Benardrick McKinney knew what I wanted and were already making the calls and lining guys up properly," Collins said. "From the Texas A&M game on, I'd say it was on McKinney and the other veterans just to get us in the right spot because they were going so fast. When those guys speak, I don't have to."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.