Mississippi State football: Can the defense replace Tyrus Wheat?

Sep 10, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs linebacker J.P. Purvis (26) against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 10, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs linebacker J.P. Purvis (26) against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

College football will be back soon, and we’re getting ready by previewing Mississippi State football. Let’s continue to examine the Bulldogs’ defense.

In this 3-part series ahead of the 2023 Mississippi State football season, we break down the biggest questions surrounding the defense. In Part 1, we examined Nathan Pickering’s importance to the season.

Today, we dive-in to whether or not MSU can replace Tyrus Wheat.

The 3-3-5’s effectiveness comes in it’s ability to create confusion for offenses. The hybridized personnel allows for the defense to mask where pressure comes from on any given play. And their alignment allows for more post-snap shifts to throw offenses for a loop.

The front showed by the defense pre-snap may not look the same once the ball is in play.

The late, great Joe Lee Dunn, the man responsible for inventing the 3-3-5 and, of course, bringing it to Starkville to reign havoc over the SEC in the 90s, has stated that despite being in a constant nickel package with five DBs on the field, his defense wasn’t meant to be a scheme designed for stopping spread attacks.

Instead, it was his answer for stopping run-heavy, power offenses with smaller personnel.

Rather than playing in a more traditional alignment and allowing bigger and stronger offensive lines to simply run his defense over, Dunn devised a way to take lighter but more athletic players and stifle power-running teams. And the answer was create as much confusion as possible with alignment and pre and post-snap movement.

If the offense doesn’t have a sense for who’s bringing pressure and how the defense plans to fit the run, their talent advantage is negated.

Zach Arnett is continuing to innovate and carry on the chaos that comes with the 3-3-5

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That mentality lives on now at MSU under Zach Arnett, whose brand of 3-3-5 originates from Dunn’s. Arnett’s mentor, Rocky Long, learned the defense from Dunn, having great success with it at New Mexico and San Diego State. And though Arnett’s version of the defense has some noticeable differences from the one Dunn ran two decades ago, the attacking nature and chaotic energy still exists.

Few players better fit the 3-3-5 than Tyrus Wheat.

At 6’2, 260, Wheat had the size to go 1-on-1 against SEC OL and win. And that he did. Wheat was a terror off the edge for opposing offenses. In 2022 he was tied for the team lead in sacks with six and recorded 10.5 TFL.

But he was also athletic enough to play the role of a true LB.

When MSU wasn’t rushing him off the edge, they’d drop him into zone coverage in the flats or short middle of the field. They’d match him up in man coverage with TEs and RB. And Wheat handled this role exceptionally well.

In a defense meant to constantly disguise its intentions, having a player like Wheat who could threaten the rush off thee edge only to drop in coverage while someone like Bookie Watson attacks the A-gap. The defense expects they’re bringing at least four rushers. But who are those four?

Unfortunately for MSU, Wheat’s time in Starkville is up, leaving a massive gap at Sam LB.

How does Mississippi State football move forward after losing Tyrus Wheat?

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That role with go to either JP Purvis or John Lewis. Purvis is a converted safety going into his senior year. Lewis, a sophomore, is a former four star prospect. Both players have made big strides at transforming their bodies in the offseason as they battle it out for the position, putting on extra muscle to handle the pass-rushing aspect of the job.

Despite Tyrus Wheat’s versatility, his primary role within the defense was to act as an edge rusher. On standard downs, the pass rush was going to come from State’s three DL and Wheat. And both edge rush positions (DE and SLB) will have new starters in 2023.

That makes it all the more pivotal that either Purvis or Lewis (or both) step up this fall. They’re going to tasked with providing much of the pass rush for a defense that will need it with four new starters in the secondary. There are other ways to go about pressuring QBs, but that typically means blitzing, an approach that, with so many new faces in the secondary, could get you into trouble on passing downs.

Both Jett Johnson and Bookie Watson are capable pass rushers. Watson tied Wheat with six sacks last season. But they, mostly, patrol the middle of the field as tackling machines. And neither is suited to consistently rush off the edge, which is where most of your pass rush opportunities come from. And if you are going to send either of them without blitzing, you better hope that whoever is playing SLB can handle coverage responsibilities like Wheat could.

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Purvis flashed as a reserve player last season, though that was as a MLB as opposed to SLB. Lewis has an incredibly high ceiling. Both players showed flashes in the spring and will continue battling it out through camp, where they need to impress.

Arnett has noted a several times now that if he and DC Matt Brock feel they can get more consistent pass rush production by playing a 4-down front and replacing the SLB with another DE, they will.

Based on reports out of fall camp so far, it seems State still intends to keep its 3-3-5 alignment.

In my opinion, if MSU is going to maximize it’s potential in 2023 defensively, you need Purvis or Lewis to breakout. Right now, I think both of them are more talented options to have on the field than whoever would be the second DE. And if you go to more of a 4-2-5, much of that versatility discussed above gets taken away. But that means you need your SLB to once again be a stud.

State has proven commodities at MLB and WLB with Bookie Watson and Jett Johnson. They’re absolute monsters who will lead the way on defense. SLB is a crucial position within this defense, and it’s up to either Purvis or Lewis to keep things rolling there.

In part three, we’ll dive into the MSU secondary. Stick around and tune in for that. Or, catch up and read part one.

Next. Can Nathan Pickering reach his potential?. dark