September 30, 2010 7:15:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Pernell McPhee''s statistics through four games don''t reflect how vital he has been to the Mississippi State football team''s defense.
The senior defensive end has zero sacks and only two-and-a-half tackles behind the line of scrimmage, which is third best on the team.
A year after leading MSU (2-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) in sacks (five) and tackles for loss (12), McPhee admits he expected better numbers this year, especially after transferring from junior college and not missing a beat in the SEC.
But as the stud of a young defensive line in an imaginative scheme, McPhee is being asked to do something he had done a handful of times prior to this season: Drop into coverage.
The days of lining up on one side of the ball and playing from a three-point stance have given way to playing at both ends and blitzing from a two-point stance.
Playing coverage and moving back is an adjustment the 6-foot-4, 275-pound McPhee hasn''t made alone, though, as all of MSU''s defensive ends have had what he calls an "opportunity" to show their versatility.
"It really hasn''t made it tougher, it''s made it more exciting," said McPhee, who is tied for fifth on the team with 16 tackles (six solo). "But it''s a lot of things we''ve got to know. We''ve got to be real disciplined."
Defensive line coach Chris Wilson said McPhee, who transferred to MSU from Itawamba Community College in Fulton, has been MSU''s best edge player, and that his lack of game-changing plays stems from increased double teams and slide protections to his side.
Getting McPhee in position to make plays, even if it means taking him farther away from the ball, is the team''s goal for one of its "variables."
Asking your best athletes to play multiple roles creates more looks. And Wilson believes MSU''s scheme is a progressive way of competing in a tough league.
"If you''re not (multiple), people see you, they find you, and attack you," Wilson said. "Everybody in this conference is pretty good at finding your indicators and attacking you."
Still, unfamiliarity in new roles and lack of personal statistics to gauge productivity has frustrated McPhee, who earned All-SEC honors last year.
"I''m real competitive and I like to make plays," McPhee said. "Unfortunately, I haven''t been able to do that like I thought I was."
Wilson wants McPhee to remain confident despite feeling frustrated from teams'' increased efforts to contain him.
MSU has just one more tackle for loss (23) though four games than it did last season. But coaches feel this year''s defense has just scratched the surface of its potential.
"Productivity will come the more we clean up our package," Wilson said. "We''ve got a car that gets about 30 miles a gallon and we''re getting about 20 out of it. We really got to keep growing it and keep fixing the things we''ve got to fix."
MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has been pleased with his unit''s output even though the different offenses it has faced has slowed its progression.
Diaz feels he has the players who fit the "multiple" label, which gives him greater flexibility in playcalling. As the defensive ends become more comfortable in the scheme, they should become impact players, he said.
"We want to have that guy who will have the ability to have his hand in the ground or to stand up, and sometimes drop, sometimes rush from the D-end spot," Diaz said. "It''s new to McPhee, and it''s new to all of them, but we''re still trying to push, even in recruiting, to get that guy. Our D-ends in this defense should really be big-time playmakers. We like the ones we have, but we''re still learning to play the role."