Today we close out a 3-part series discussing the biggest questions for Mississippi State football’s defense. Let’s wrap things up with one more question.
In Part 1, we looked at Nathan Pickering’s importance to the defense. In Part 2, we discussed if MSU can effectively replace Tyrus Wheat. Today, we break down if the new pieces in the secondary can fit together for the Mississippi State football team.
A common refrain from Bulldog fans this offseason has been that “we bring everyone back on defense.”
This is a comment that has given some media members pause, as it’s ultimately not reality. As noted in the opening to this series, the MSU defense lost seven starters from 2022 and ranks towards the bottom of the SEC in returning production.
So, why are State fans claiming “everyone’s back”?
For one, the announcements of several key players in the defensive front six, which otherwise would’ve experienced massive turnover, generated a lot of buzz from the fanbase for the defense’s potential.
Secondly, outside of Emmanuel Forbes, not much attention has previously been put on MSU’s secondary, and if I were to speculate, I’m not sure many fans see the loses on the backend as an issue.
Regardless of the reasoning, there are several key spots that must be filled throughout all three levels of the defense. And the secondary, specifically, is experiencing a near total overhaul. Four out of five starters must be replaced, including all three safeties and the aforementioned Emmanuel Forbes who was taken in the 1st round of the NFL Draft.
Mississippi State football is overhauling its secondary heading into 2023
CB Decamerion Richardson is the lone returning starter. He put together a strong 2022 campaign opposite in Forbes and is now generating some early buzz as a player who could shoot up draft boards throughout the season. There’s expectation for him to be the lockdown player in this secondary.
Esaias Furdge has been the early leader to take the second CB spot, but he’s a senior who has yet to ever make an impact during his career. Four star transfer Khamauri Rogers was a major pickup for State out of the portal. His talent is legit, but he’s a redshirt freshman who saw action in just one game in 2022. DeCarlos Nicholson was a strong JUCO addition for State who saw reserve snaps last season, but he’s yet to prove he’s ready to be a SEC starter.
There’s real questions with any of those options.
Safety is a near total crapshoot for lack of a better term, but it needs to be sorted out as it’s a vital position group within Arnett’s 3-3-5. MSU’s safety group is broken down into three positions: Field, Boundary, and Dog. The Field and Boundary safeties are the two outside players. The Field aligns away from the hash the ball is on, while the Boundary aligns to the same side as the hash. These tend to be coverage players as they are most frequently matched up with slot WRs and TEs. Between the two, the Field is typically the best cover safety, as they have the most space to defend. In many cases, they’ll act as a nickel corner.
The middle safety of the three is called the “Dog”. This is a change from the Joe Lee Dunn 3-3-5. For Dunn, his two outside safeties were the “Dogs” while his middle safety was a true free safety. The difference is philosophy is a product of how offenses have changed. Remember, Dunn’s defense was meant to stop run-first, power offenses. He wanted his Dog safeties to occupy the edges of the defensive box to act as pseudo-outside linebackers to stop the run. When the majority of offenses are coming out with a blocking TE and a fullback, this approach made sense.
But now we’re in a spread, pass-first era of football. Gone are FBs (mostly), and TEs are heavily involved in the passing game. Slot WRs have become go-to options for offenses. Whoever your slot defenders are better be strong in coverage, which is why that’s the preferred skillset for Arnett’s outside safeties.
But the usage of the Dog safety actually isn’t that different.
What on earth does that mean?
Because that player is still frequently used as an extra box defender in run support. But instead of coming off the edge, they’re flying in from the middle of the field. Ian Boyd of Inside Texas and America’s War Game (a blog I highly recommend subscribing to if you’re interested in football schematics) wrote this piece back in 2017 for Football Study Hall about the San Diego State defense, which Arnett coached, and the role of their middle safety called the “Aztec”.
The Dog plays a wide range of roles within the defense. Sometimes they’re a true deep coverage player. Other times they’re walked down into the box as an extra linebacker. And then, on many plays, they handle both of those roles simultaneously, to play what Boyd has dubbed the “Inverted Tampa 2” or “Flyover Defense.”
The Dog is heavily involved in RPO defense, making him a crucial player in how the 3-3-5 stops modern attacks. His function as a run-stopper allows potential conflict players to play coverage against receivers, thus forcing the QB into a handoff. When this happens, the Dog comes flying in to make the tackle.
Or, those roles can be reversed.
Sometimes the LBs will be told to play the run while the Dog steps up as the pass coverage player. The QB will read “pass”, throwing to what he assumes should be an open receiver only for the Dog to blow the play up. You’ll often see the Dog flow with a receiver in motion, particularly if they look to be going out for a quick screen outside. His job in these instances is to attack the screen after the QB has been forced into throwing it by his read key. It’s the defense using the offense’s RPO rules against them.
Needless to say, it’s an incredibly important position within the defense. And this year, the job is likely Shawn Preston’s.
Preston has seen a lot of action for State over the last few years with mixed results. He’s a hard hitter that’s well suited for the Dog position. But his aggressiveness has gotten him beat over the top more than once. He’ll need to find the right balance between those extremes in 2023. If he can’t, 4-star freshman Isaac Smith may earn early playing-time.
Converted CB Marcus Banks looks poised to takeover at the Field spot. His coverage experience makes him a good fit there, and it could be a spot that sees improvement for State, as offenses have, at times, picked on the Field in the past. Boundary is going to be a highly contested battle, much like the second CB spot, as there are several options for who could win the job, be it a veteran like Corey Ellington or a newcomer like JaKobi Albert.
The secondary is in an interesting conundrum for 2023.
Outside of Richardson, most of the veteran players are, largely, unheralded and haven’t exactly impressed throughout their careers. Will they finally breakthrough after several years of playing college ball? The young guys are immensely talented, but, well…young. Are they ready to go up against SEC receivers?
How do Arnett and Brock adjust this defense given the changes in the secondary?
What will be interesting is if the turnover in the secondary results in a philosophical change from State on defense. Arnett’s M.O. was aggressiveness. He wanted to attack quarterbacks and do so frequently. And when he did, he was going to play man coverage. This was a high risk, high reward approach, and it was much easier to take that risk when you had Emmanuel Forbes, and previously Martin Emerson, locking it down on the outside.
Arnett is no longer calling the defense, however, and he has stated that new DC Matt Brock tends to be “less emotional” when it comes to blitzing. But what does that look like? Perhaps they go the conservative route. Iowa State plays a brand of 3-3-5 that’s incredibly conservative yet highly effective at stopping the wide open offenses of the Big 12 and utilizes many of the same principles that MSU’s does.
Or, do they change how they pressure offenses?
Arnett’s blitzing was largely the traditional approach of playing man in those situations. But the 3-3-5 naturally lends itself to allowing for zone blitzing, as the hybridized nature of players within the system makes it easier to disguise when are where pressure will come from, which can either bait the QB into a bad decision or panic them into holding onto the ball and taking a sack.
Though zone blitzing can create large windows for the QB to throw into (if he’s able to diagnose what was thrown at him), you’re far less likely to give up a big play if the pass is completed because you still have safety help over the top. With a secondary that may not be equipped to regularly play man coverage, this may be the way MSU needs to go about being aggressive.
Of course lots of this hinges on if MSU can get players to step up as pass rushers. If you can consistently pressure QBs without having to blitz, that takes a ton of pressure off your secondary. The concerns for the secondary are precisely why Mississippi State desperately needs players like Nathan Pickering, JP Purvis, and John Lewis in the defensive front to have big seasons.
In a perfect world, you get both the ramped up pass rush and lockdown coverage on the back end. But at the very least, the Bulldogs need to be capable of one or the other.