After losing two starting linebackers who were the leaders of the team both on and off the field, it would be natural for Mississippi State players to be worried. Having only one linebacker with starting and significant playing experience, no one would blame players if they were concerned.
As it turns out, though, they aren't worried. They aren't concerned. In fact, they think the linebackers will be just fine.
"I feel like our linebackers this year are just as good as our linebackers we had last year," junior cornerback Johnthan Banks said.
Said Corey Broomfield, also a junior cornerback, "I look out there and all of them look like starters, so I'm not worrying about the linebackers at all."
K.J. Wright and Chris White graduated and are now playing in the NFL, leaving behind a big gap in the middle of the defense.
Senior linebacker Brandon Maye transferred over from Clemson hoping to fill that gap. Brandon Wilson, also a senior, hopes to go from reserve player to entrenched starter, as does fellow senior Jamie Jones. Chris Hughes hopes to build on a promising freshman season with limited experience. Matthew Wells, Ferlando Bohanna and Christian Holmes all redshirted in 2010 and are ready for real game action.
The bodies are there, they just haven't done anything yet. Especially the redshirt guys.
"The biggest thing that you can't teach is experience," defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said. "Those guys have got to get a ton and tons and tons of reps. The world they play in, they've got to be able to see everything. The biggest thing that we try to focus on with those guys is making sure they know what to do. We'll teach them how to do it. The key for them is to know what to do."
For MSU, the most talked about linebacker has been Maye, who many expected to step straight in to a starting role when he got to campus. Mullen said Monday that Maye has a long way to go, but linebackers coach Geoff Collins said it is not a surprise to Maye.
"Our whole thing when we recruit guys is we're honest with them," Collins said. "Our message since we started recruiting him was he's gotta earn his spot. Nothing is gonna be given to him. So when he got here and that was the case, it wasn't a surprise. If we had recruited him selling him the world and you're gonna come in and be the No. 1 right away, then there would be issues. We were honest and we were up front. He comes in and he proves his value and makes all the plays and is a leader and whenever the time is, that's the time."
Wilson said Maye has been impressive in practice, where he started out training camp working with the third team, and that the biggest obstacle is comfort.
"I've been pleased with Brandon," Wilson said. "Obviously, he's gotta get used to our culture and how we do things as far as tempo and energy and physicalness we play with, that's taking nothing from where he was at. But obviously when you change after five years, it's a bit of a transition, but he's doing really, really well."
Early on in fall practices, it was Wells who caught the eyes of reporters and fans, often working with the first team linebackers. Wells was a safety last year, but switched to linebacker in the spring. Collins considers him a hybrid player, similar to Cameron Lawrence.
Wells bulked up for the switch, now weighing in at 217-pounds.
"The big thing for him is keeping the weight on," Collins said. "He can run all day. He's got speed like a corner or safety, but he's got the build of a big-time SEC linebacker. Just the development, he's gonna keep getting better and better every day the more he sees, the more reps he gets. We're all excited about the future with him, and the present."
While starting experience is thin, coaches and players feel they have numbers at the position and those young guys are a big reason why. Mullen said the progress of the redshirt freshmen is speeding up because they now feel a sense of urgency, knowing they will be playing in a real football game in just two weeks, unlike last year when they knew they wouldn't play. Mullen believes they have stepped up to the challenge of preparing for game action.
In particular, Collins said he is happy to see his linebackers keeping up mentally. Several times in the open sessions of MSU's fall training camp, middle linebackers could be seen adjusting the defense, barking orders at other linebackers and defensive linemen, in scrimmage situations.
"You've got Ferlando, you've got Brandon Wilson, you've got Brandon Maye, and each of them at times has taken on that role," Collins said. "We were in a two-minute situation yesterday and we're in a defense that would have been OK, but Ferlando on his own checked to another defense that was better and took charge. Brandon Maye has done that, Ferlando has done that. I think everybody knows Brandon Wilson has those qualities about him and continues to do that. Brandon Maye, the biggest thing was the leadership role, and the more he is making plays and taking charge, I think he's gonna be good for us."
Banks, who works closely with the linebackers as a corner himself, said Wilson has been particularly impressive to him.
"Brandon Wilson could've started last year, but Chris White was a senior," Banks said. "He had a little a little advantage over him with that, but Brandon Wilson goes harder than anybody on this team. Chris Hughes, Matt Wells, Cam Lawrence, Bohanna, those guys right there, they're big playmakers. I watch them in practice all the time."
Said Banks, "I ain't concerned about the linebackers at all. Nobody on the team is concerned about the linebackers because we know what kind of guys we have. They're all hard-nosed guys and they want to hit people. That's the big thing."
Broomfield, a pensive and intelligent corner, said he pays close attention to the linebackers and he likes what he sees.
"I've seen big time steps there," Broomfield said. "That's an encouraging group. We've got so many guys, we've got three groups. I look out there and all of them look like starters, so I'm not worrying about the linebackers at all."
Collins has said on several occasions that his expectations for the linebackers are to have at least six guys who can play in and help win SEC football games.
Of course, only three can start, while nearly a dozen of them are battling to do so. The competition helps though, Collins said, and there are no hard feelings among the tight-knit group.
"They're always all together, Collins said. "I mean, they're always together. I'll send out a mass text to all the linebackers, all 12 of them, and five or six of them will say, 'Yeah coach, we're all together. You don't need to send us the mass text because we're all here together.' Just that family type bond."