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Mississippi State plans to get defensive this season

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) is expected to make solid contributions to the Bulldogs’ upcoming season.
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) is expected to make solid contributions to the Bulldogs’ upcoming season. Associated Press

Every year has presented a different challenge for Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen.

The Bulldogs entered the 2009 season as one of the worst teams in the SEC when Mullen took over his first head coaching job. The Florida offensive coordinator got to within one win of a bowl game right away and his program was off to the races.

Since that time, MSU has made it to a school-record seven-straight bowl games and Mullen is closing in on becoming the second-winningest coach in school history. It hasn’t been without its ups and downs, however.

Last year saw the Bulldogs put its worst defense on the field under Mullen. First-time defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon had a hard time stopping any offense in 13 games as the Bulldogs struggled to six wins and a bowl game against Miami (OH). MSU gave up 32 points a game a year ago with over 450 yards of total offense against them per contest, 282 passing yards and 177 rushing.

Mullen made a change in the offseason hiring veteran defensive coordinator Todd Grantham away from Louisville. So far, so good.

“I think Todd is an excellent football coach and is extremely knowledgeable,” Mullen said. “I think he has fit in really well to the staff but is also extremely professional in understanding what he needs to do to get his defense to be successful as well as what my expectations are in the program.”

The players have seen a difference in the way things operate under Grantham already.

Gerri Green and his fellow linebackers often seemed confused and lethargic running the 3-4 alignment last season. Grantham has brought life back through a group that has taken pride in itself under Mullen.

“He is a fiery and passionate guy, and he comes with it every day on the field,” Green said. “He gets after players. You will hear him and the guys respond to it in a positive way. They don’t hang their heads. They go out there and make plays off it.

“Coach Grantham did come with the energy that we needed,” Green said. “Everyone wanted to forget about last year and just move forward. The way he came in and attacked the defense and challenged us to play faster and more aggressive. We really needed that.”

Grantham’s defenses in the NFL, Georgia and Louisville have been as good as anyone in the country and he’s hopes to continue that trend this year. To do that, they have to make a serious jump from a year ago when they were among the worst nationally in most defensive categories.

Starting in the offseason with Grantham’s hire, the Bulldogs took initiative. Mullen and Grantham brought in one of the nation’s best Junior College classes defensively, a list that includes former Georgia stars Johnathan Abram of Jones County and defensive lineman Chauncey Rivers, former Michigan State lineman Montez Sweat of Co-Lin and former Michigan athlete Brian Cole of East Mississippi who adds athleticism to the secondary.

All of those players combined to what the team already has should make for a big season.

“I can talk about a lot of things about keeping points down and creating turnovers,” Grantham said. “All of those things matter, but at the end of the day it really gets down to don’t let them run the ball and finding ways to make the quarterback play bad.”

With the Bulldogs returning many pieces on the offensive side of the ball that includes preseason All-SEC pick Nick Fitzgerald at quarterback, the defense could be the missing link. Grantham is hoping to put the final puzzle piece together before State starts their season on Sept. 3 at Davis Wade Stadium.

MSU at a glance

2016 record: 6-7, 3-5

Conference: SEC

Coach: Dan Mullen (ninth year)

Key returnees: QB Nick Fitzgerald, OL Martinas Rankins, CB Lashard Durr.

Key losses: LB Richie Brown, NT Nick James.

Postseason: beat Miami, OH 17-16 in St. Pete Bowl

Projected starters

Offense

QB: Nick FItzgerald

RB: Aeris Williams

WR: Donald Gray

WR: Keith Mixon

WR: Gabe Myles

TE:Farrod Green

LT: Martinas Rankin

LG: Darryl Williams

C: Elgton Jenkins

RG: Deion Calhoun

RT: Stewart Reese

Defense

DE: Chauncey Rivers

DT: Cory Thomas

NT: Jeffery Simmons

OLB: Marquiss Spencer

ILB: Dez Harris

ILB: Leo Lewis

OLB: Gerri Green

CB: Tolando Cleveland

CB: Lashard Durr

SS: Johnathan Abram

FS: Mark McLaurin

P: Logan Cooke

K: Tucker Day

Schedule

Sept 2: Charleston Southern, 3 p.m.

Sept. 9: at Louisiana Tech, 6:30 p.m.

Sept. 16: LSU, 6 p.m.

Sept. 23: at Georgia, TBA

Sept. 30: at Auburn, TBA

Oct. 14: BYU, TBA

Oct. 21: Kentucky, TBA

Oct. 28: at Texas A&M, TBA

Nov. 4: UMASS, TBA

Nov. 11: Alabama, TBA

Nov. 18: at Arkansas, TBA

Nov. 23: Ole Miss, 6:30 p.m.

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