It’s hard for Mississippi State to escape the force that is Dak Prescott.
Forget the simple fact that the Bulldogs are trying to find one player out of three to replace the record-setting quarterback. State coaches and players now see the face of their program making national headlines as the Dallas Cowboys rookie who is winning over fans in Texas and around the country as well as the Cowboy brass with his play in the preseason.
With all of those questions surrounding exactly who will replace No. 15 this fall, the most important pieces on the field might not even come on the offensive side of the ball.
MSU is breaking in not only a new defensive coordinator in Peter Sirmon, but it also has a whole new defensive staff after an offseason of transition cleared the room with those position coaches moving on to other programs.
Even with the transition, head coach Dan Mullen expects some of the same good things he’s seen in the past from his defense under Sirmon with a few new wrinkles.
“Our defensive philosophy is not going to change, but our personality is with Peter Sirmon coming in as our D coordinator,” Mullen said this summer at SEC Media Days. “(There are) a lot of new defensive coaches on our staff. That’s always going to change a little bit of that personality, a little bit of the play call, but our philosophy will not change.”
Big role for Brown
Sirmon is a former college and NFL linebacker and, though being a coordinator is brand new, he’s quickly become a favorite with his players. One player in particular has been drawn in by Sirmon, who sees a lot of himself in senior linebacker Richie Brown.
Last season, Brown was one of the leading tacklers in the SEC when he made 109 stops, 13 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. The former Long Beach High School All-State linebacker became a leader on the team early on and has helped lead the defense throughout his career.
Heading into his final season, Brown is being counted on to transition his team through multiple sets, which includes running more of a 3-4 scheme. Brown said Sirmon has made that move easier.
“He is an NFL guy. He has done a lot for our defense already,” Brown said. “He relates really well to the players, NFL guys tend to relate to us a lot better because they kind of know what we have been through. He is bringing new things to the table but we are still Mississippi State defense. I’m really excited for this season.”
Brown headlines a linebacker group that is full of talent with former four-star Leo Lewis making his debut as a redshirt freshman alongside Brown at inside linebacker. MSU also has sophomore Gerri Green growing into an expanded role. Trevor Jung and J.T. Gray add speed and athleticism to the group.
On the defensive line, it’s a year that senior Nick James is ready to showcase. Brown’s high school teammate is finally getting his chance to shine in the middle of that line as a nose tackle and feels that he’s going to see his game go to new heights on Sept. 3 after several months under new defensive line coach and longtime NFL assistant Brian Baker.
“He shocked me with so much stuff in the spring,” James said of Baker. “He came in here to camp and taught me how to use my power, my athleticism and leadership skills.
“I started using my hands in the spring and coach (David) Turner left us with that. Coach Baker kind of re-did that. Now I’m starting to realize how powerful I really am when I use my hands.”
While all eyes will be on the Bulldog quarterback race, MSU’s success in 2016 might lie in the work put in by their defense. Especially up front, MSU has to be solid against the tumultuous SEC. James believes that people across the country will be able to see just how talented that defense will be.
“I’m ready to attack this season and let the nation know what the defensive line can do,” James said. “The nation is going to see, it’s going to be different. We’ve got a great d-line.”
The Bulldogs start their season against South Alabama on Sept. 3 before jumping right into conference play against South Carolina.
Ole Miss at a glance
Coach: Dan Mullen (eighth year)
Key losses: QB Dak Prescott, WR De'Runnya Wilson, DL Chris Jones, LB Beniquez Brown, CB Taveze Calhoun, CB Will Redmond
Key returnees: WR Fred Ross, WR Malik Dear, RB Brandon Holloway, C Jamaal Clayborn, DE AJ Jefferson, LB Richie Brown, S Brandon Bryant
Postseason: Beat North Carolina State 51-28 in the Belk Bowl
QB Nick Fitzgerald/Damian Williams
RB Brandon Holloway
WR Fred Ross
WR Malik Dear
WR Donald Gray
TE Justin Johnson
LT Martinas Rankin
LG Deion Calhoun
C Jamaal Clayborn
RG Devon Desper
RT Justin Senior
K Westin Graves
DE AJ Jefferson
NT Nick James
DE Jonathan Calvin
Viper Gerri Green
ILB Leo Lewis
ILB Richie Brown
Star JT Gray/Trevor Jung
CB Jamoral Graham
CB Lashard Durr
SS Kivon Coman
FS Brandon Bryant
P Logan Cooke
Sept. 3 SOUTH ALABAMA
Sept. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA
Sept. 17 At Louisiana State
Sept. 24 At UMass
Oct. 8 AUBURN
Oct. 14 At Brigham Young University
Oct. 22 At Kentucky
Oct. 29 SAMFORD
Nov. 5 TEXAS A&M
Nov. 12 At Alabama
Nov. 19 ARKANSAS
Nov. 26 At Ole Miss