Mississippi State football: Can Nathan Pickering reach his potential?

Sep 10, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Arizona Wildcats quarterback Jayden de Laura (7) against Mississippi State Bulldogs defensive tackle Nathan Pickering (22) at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 10, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Arizona Wildcats quarterback Jayden de Laura (7) against Mississippi State Bulldogs defensive tackle Nathan Pickering (22) at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

With the 2023 college football season fast approaching, it’s time to start breaking down the Mississippi State football team. Today we’re starting a 3-part series discussing the biggest questions for the Bulldog defense.

A new era of Mississippi State football will kickoff September 2, as Zach Arnett will begin his first full season of head coach of the Bulldogs. And with training camp now underway, now’s the time to break down the 2023 squad.

There’s been plenty of change within the program since the end of last season, and that includes the defensive side of the ball.

With Arnett taking over as head coach, linebackers coach Matt Brock was promoted to defensive coordinator and will now handle play-calling duties. Seven starters from last year’s defense, including four out of five members of the secondary, are now gone. Per SP+, the Bulldogs rank 86th nationally in returning production on defense, putting them at 11th in the Southeastern Conference.

But it’s not all new on the MSU defense.

They return the SEC’s top two tacklers with the outstanding LB tandem of Jett Johnson and Nathaniel Watson. Star DL Jaden Crumedy made a surprising announcement to return to Starkville after missing eight games last season. 10/11 projected starters on defense are seniors. And despite the change in play-caller, the scheme remains the same.

Since Arnett first brought his attacking, 3-3-5 defense to Mississippi State, the Bulldog defense has improved each season, going from 49th in SP+ in 2020 to 20th in SP+ in 2022. And despite several new starters, the pieces are in place to field a strong defense once again in 2023. Preseason SP+ projections have MSU with the 32nd ranked defense this year.

Great defensive play has long been the standard and expectation in Starkville, and that won’t change for 2023. So as we inch closer to the season kicking off, let’s breakdown the Bulldog defense.

In the first part of this series, we’re going to look at a key player along the defensive line.

Defensive Line: Can Nathan Pickering finally become a dominant force along the defensive interior?

Mississippi State is synonymous with great defensive line play. The group of high-level D-lineman MSU currently has in the NFL is as good, if not better, than any other program. In 2023, that group is headlined by DT Jaden Crumedy.

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Crumedy missed the first two months of the 2022 season with injury but made a major impact in the final five games of the year. He recorded two sacks and five TFL in that short time, and MSU allowed 50 fewer yards per game with Crumedy playing that without.

He’s poised to be the next dominant DL to come out of Starkville. But you can argue that one of the player’s starting alongside him will actually be the most important to MSU’s defensive success this season.

Nathan Pickering was a prized recruit for Mississippi State in the 2019 signing class. A 95-overall four star prospect, Pickering was rated as the nation’s 64th-best player per 247 Sports and was MSU’s 2nd-highest ranked signee behind only future NFL first round pick Charles Cross. But Pickering hasn’t quite lived up to that hype.

He’s been solid throughout his career. His 11 sacks and 20.5 TFL in 39 career games are decent numbers for an interior DL. But he’s certainly not been the dominant force his recruiting profile suggested. There have been flashes, such as his game-sealing sack for a safety against Texas A&M in 2021.

But plays like that have not been a regular occurrence from Pickering, which is why he hasn’t been a full-time starter through four seasons at MSU. Cameron Young, now a member of the Seattle Seahawks, has been the Bulldogs’ starting NT over the past few seasons. Young was never one to put up big numbers, but he perfectly played the role of being a space-eater in the middle, creating opportunities for other defenders to run freely towards the ball-carrier.

Here’s an example of Young being that space eater in a pass rush situation. MSU only rushes three, and Cam Young ends up taking on the blocks of both guards and the center. He successfully fights through them, allowing the two edge rushers (one of them Pickering in this case) to get 1-on-1s vs the tackles. The pocket quickly collapses, and Bryce Young is forced to escape and throw it away.

Having an interior DL who can eat up double and occasionally triple-teams in a 3-3-5 is paramount. With lighter personnel than a four down front, you need a player that can take up space and create better pass rush and run stop opportunities for the rest of the defense. And it’s now on Nathan Pickering to take on that role full-time.

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This is especially true with Randy Charlton gone at DE. Charlton was one of State’s best pass rushers. Stepping in will be either Jordan Davis or De’Monte Russell, neither of whom have shown they can consistently get pressure on QBs. If Pickering can elevate his game at NT, that should make life easier for the new starter at DE.

And it should be worth noting that Pickering has the talent to be more than just a space eater in the middle. He’s more athletic than Young was and is better as a pass rusher, which is why Arnett was comfortable putting him Crumedy’s spot while he was hurt. While attention tends to go towards edge defenders when it comes to pass rushing, there are few positions more impactful to a defense than an interior DL who can get after the QB.

Justin Frommer of the Commercial Dispatch listed Pickering as one of the early standouts of fall camp. 247 Sports’ Paul Jones reported him making an impressive tackle for loss against Tulu Griffin. Those are the plays MSU needs out of Pickering. Him maximizing his potential could be the difference between Mississippi State fielding a good defense in 2023 and a great one.

In Part 2, we’ll look at one of those edge rusher positions that Pickering could have a positive impact on.

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