Not just on the defensive side, it is evident that the Mississippi State's collection of safeties for 2011 exhibit the most depth and experience on the entire squad. This spring, those veterans took most of the spotlight and hope to do the same this fall.
"I think we did okay," said MSU safeties coach Tony Hughes. "And I thought we were adequate. I think we still have a lot to improve on going into the fall. But overall in what we tried to accomplish I believe we did a good job. We just have to work on the overall schemes, tackling and trying to get more productivity out of the whole group."
Leading that group this spring were a pair of seniors - strong safety Charles Mitchell and free safety Wade Bonner. Mitchell, an All-SEC candidate, ranked third on the team last year with 93 tackles and also had three tackles for loss.
"Charles is a three-year starter in the program and we look at him as one of the leaders for the entire team," said Hughes. "He plays extremely hard, is athletic, is one of our best tacklers and is a guy we are very excited about this fall. It is a blessing to have him as a great senior leader and the leader of the defense."
Despite Mitchell's obvious talent, it was likely that Bonner made the biggest jump last fall. After playing mostly on special teams early in the year, Bonner worked himself into the starting lineup late in the year and finished the season with 39 tackles, including 1.5 sacks.
"Bonner is a hard-nosed kid that has really developed in the program," said Hughes. "He has worked for everything he's gotten and nobody has given him anything. He has earned a lot of respect, not just from the coaches but also by the players. He plays with emotion, is physical and a spiritual leader for the team. He is an older guy going into his last season. And you can tell that means a lot to him by his committment to the team and to helping us be the best we can be."
Late in spring drills, the MSU safeties also welcomed back a familiar face in junior Johnthan Banks, who has seven career interceptions in his first two years on campus. Banks began his college career at safety before moving to cornerback last year.
"Banks has played safety before," said Hughes. "So in case of a situation where we may have to use him there, we put him to get him more experience this spring. It was not a major adjustment for us or for him. Athletically, he is a very, very talented young man as everybody knows. We are just glad he is on our team and that we can utilize him at different spots and use his flexability."
Also returning this fall with starting experience is redshirt sophomore Nickoe Whitley. In his first season of action last year, Whitley started several games at free safety and tied for team honors with three interceptions and ranked fifth with 52 tackles.
Whitley suffered a minor knee injury late in spring drills but is expected to not miss a beat this summer.
"Before his injury, Nickoe really improved this spring from what I saw," said Hughes. "He is also a very talented young man with a lot of potential. He played well in spots for us last year and we expect this fall for him to again make a major contribution to our defense and in the secondary. We expect him to shake his injury off and be back to full speed when all the kids get back this summer for workouts."
Another Bulldog upperclassmen making the move from corner to safety this spring was junior Louis Watson. He saw limited action last year and played in six games and totaled six tackles.
"We moved Louis from corner and worked him in this spring," said Hughes. "Hopefully he can give us some depth there. It was a learning curve for him with all the different things he had to do and it was a major adjustment for him. We hope to have some carryover with him this fall."
The Bulldogs also have a trio of younger guys trying to work their way into the rotation. Redshirt sophomore Dennis Thames showed very encouraging signs this spring and often took reps with the first-team defense. Thames played mostly on special teams last year and had 10 tackles, including one tackle for loss and also two passes broken up.
And looking to get their first action this fall are a pair of walkon redshirt freshmen Asian Ruff and Ivan Muniz.
"Dennis is just a good football players who loves the game and has a good passion for the game," said Hughes. "He is a tough player, a good tackler and he plays with a lot of emotion because football means a lot to him. He has the heart of a champion and is used to winning championships. He is a winner and what we base our program on. He has two years now of understanding the defense and that execution has helped him. He will make more plays because he is more comfortable out there. He is just playing ball now and reacting instead of thinking too much.
"Asian and Ivan did some good things this spring, too. They are still in the developmental stage and that takes some time."
When two-a-days crank up in August, the Bulldogs will welcome several more new faces to the secondary mix. In February, MSU signed four safety candidates in Darion Arrington, Zach Jackson, Kendrick Market and Taveze Calhoun.
"Well, we lose two seniors this year so getting those guys was a good situation," said Hughes. "You can never have enough of those types of bodies, especially in the SEC. You need those guys that are 5-11 or 6-1 and 200 pounds that can run, hit and tackle.
"Look at Bonner last year when he wasn't starting. He was still contributing in nickel and dime packages and also in the kicking game. So you need those guys and we try to recruit those guys every year. They are so valuable in so many areas of the team and not just at safety."