STARKVILLE • Last year, Mississippi State had the best defense in college football.
The Bulldogs led the nation in total defense at 263.1 yards, 12.1 yards fewer than any other team. MSU was also second in scoring defense and rushing defense and was seventh overall in pass defense.
But the Bulldogs also graduated a bulk of their defensive talent and depth. Seven starters are gone, including NFL first rounders Jeffery Simmons, Montez Sweat and Johnathan Abram, but they expect to put a product on the field that fans can be proud of.
“We lost a lot of talent and certainly a lot of production but at the same time we haven’t lowered the expectation and the standard in which we want to perform,” said MSU head coach Joe Moorhead. “At linebacker, we bring both of the guys back and two of the top guys in the country. At other positions, it’s talent that requires experience.”
Half of the returning defensive starters are back at the linebacker position in Erroll Thompson and Leo Lewis. Throw Willie Gay Jr. into the mix and State should have one of the top linebacker units in the SEC.
But the Bulldogs are tasked with replacing the entire defensive line and don’t have much depth or experience on the interior. In the secondary, Mississippi State has a Preseason All-SEC cornerback in Cameron Dantzler and several safeties such as Brian Cole, Jaquarius Landrews and C.J. Morgan that drew spot starts last season.
Despite the turnover, Bulldog defensive coordinator Bob Shoop expects his unit to play with the same sort of intensity as its predecessor and will adapt his play-calling to fit the personnel on current the roster.
“Our style of play is non-negotiable,” Shoop said. “Each year what we try to do is tailor our system to the talent that we have. One year the strength might be on the D-line, one year it might be the linebackers or the secondary. Rather than recruiting players to fit into a scheme or a style, you tailor your scheme to what your players are capable of doing.”
The Bulldogs surrendered six fewer touchdowns than any other team last season while racking up 103 tackles for loss, 39 sacks and 20 takeaways.
“Everything we do in the staff room is trying to find a way to attack, trying to find a way to make the offensive coordinator, offensive play-caller and the quarterback as incredibly uncomfortable as they can possibly be for those three hours on a Saturday,” Shoop said. “It’s not going to change. Who the blitzers are and what blitzes we run may be different than they were a year ago but that style of play will remain very similar.”