It was no secret that Mississippi State's linebacker corps drew the attention of curious on-lookers more than any other defensive position this spring. After all, MSU just had two 2010 starters drafted in the NFL - Chris White and K.J. Wright - and a new coach was in charge of the Bulldog linebackers in Geoff Collins.
"Obviously, we graduated some tremendous players," said Collins. "But that is in the past now. I watched all of our Gator Bowl practices before spring to get a good feel of who we had coming back. And this spring I was happy with the way they progressed. Our biggest emphasis was to make sure our linebackers understood the ins and outs of every linebacker position and the entire defense. We left spring knowing the flexability of our guys and their defensive capabilities.
"Take a Chris Hughes for example. He played will linebacker basically all spring but only played there a little bit in the spring game. All of our linebackers played all three spots. I don't want to get into the season and say we have a starting sam linebacker go down and his backup is our sixth-best overall linebacker. I want our best guys to play regardless of the spot and I want them to all be ready in case something happens."
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For the past three years, the Bulldogs have placed NFL talent in the middle of the defense. First it was Jamar Chaney and then last year it was White. While no middle backer returns with starting experience, junior Brandon Wilson and senior Jamie Jones have received reps during their college careers.
Last year, Wilson played a back-up role to White and also thrived on special teams as did Jones. Wilson finished with 17 tackles last year while Jones had three stops, including one tackle for loss. Also in the mix at middle linebacker was redshirt freshman Ferlando Bohanna.
"With Brandon, Jamie and Ferlando, you have to make sure those guys are the leaders of the defense," said Collins. "That spot is like the quarterback of the defense and they have to get everything lined up. I thought Brandon was a good linebacker from watching last year's film. But he did some outstanding things this spring. We do our champions' club after each practice and Brandon and Cam Lawrence were always in that group.
"Brandon made plays that a lot of people didn't think he could make. He made those sideline to sideline plays, and showed off his athleticism that many didn't know he had."
During his career, Jones has played all three linebacker spots and has received much of his playing time on special teams.
"Jamie has been here four years and hasn't played a lot of football," said Collins. "But this spring he was one of the guys that committed himself to learning all three spots. He might be our most knowledgable guy in knowing those three packages. He also stepped up on special teams, too, and embraced what Coach (Dan) Mullen desires there."
Bohanna redshirted last year and experienced his initial spring practice this year on the college level. And he ended this spring on the upswing and collected a game-best eight tackles and two sacks in the spring game.
"Ferlando just progressively got better," said Collins. "Who he was in that first practice to who he was in the last practice was so different. He was one of the most dominant players in the spring game. He did a nice job of making plays, has good energy and we're hopeful another summer under his belt will only make him better."
Collins and the defensive staff will welcome another mike candidate to the mix and he's more than just another addition. Former Clemson linebacker Brandon Maye arrives in Starkville this summer and the former ACC starter has one year left in his college career.
"Brandon is a high-character kid," said Collins. "What we lost with K.J. and Chris leaving was leadership. So Brandon immediately gives us a guy that's been in BCS ball and he really helps with our leadership.
"I thought our older guys on defense - Charles Mitchell, Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox - saw our linebackers this spring and by the end they saw they were already good. But now you add Maye and it enhances that talent and it will be a nice fit for everybody."
The lone starting experience features among the linebackers is at the will spot. Lawrence, a junior, started a handful of games last year and collected 34 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and one sack. But that was at sam linebacker before Lawrence moved to the will spot this spring.
Pushing Lawrence this spring was redshirt sophomore Deontae Skinner, who had seven tackles in 2010. And another redshirt freshman linebacker - Christian Holmes - got his first taste of college spring practice and lined up at the will position.
"We had Cam, Deontae and Holmes at our primary spots at will linebacker," noted Collins. "Cam has played both outside positions here and the will and sam are kinda similiar. He was outstanding at times this spring. He has a great motor, is an effort guy and really embraced being a leader this spring. His teammates all respect him and respect how hard he works. He made a lot of plays in space just by fighting through guys.
"And Skinner was a lot like Ferlando as far as how far he came from the start to the end of spring practice. He really embraced knowing and reading his keys. He would have 10 to 12 tackles in practice and that was because he was looking in the right spots and going to where he was supposed to run. We had him looking at the right things."
Holmes also displayed progress this spring and also found another role on the team.
"Christian really benefitted from redshirting last year and then made a lot of strides this spring," Collins said. "He also did a real nice job on special teams and was one of our top special teams' guys. He really worked so hard and started to pick things up."
With Lawrence moving to will, that left the sam position as the most inexperienced spot among the linebacker groupings. But there is not a lack of talent nor athleticism at sam linebacker.
Hughes spent most of the spring as the starter but redshirt freshman Matt Wells also took some first-team reps at sam linebacker. Hughes was one of three true freshmen to play in 2010 and he had 13 tackles, including one sack and one forced fumble.
"Hughes is a tremendous athlete and one of our most explosive players," said Collins. "He can run with anybody and is a violent player. In the past he has been a reckless player. But this spring he played with more composure and he did that because he put himself in the right place to make plays. He let his keys make the plays and allowed his athletic ability to take him to the plays he was supposed to make."
Wells spent last year redshirting at MSU and spent his practice time in the Bulldog secondary at safety. But this spring Wells played sam linebacker and also took some reps at nickel safety.
"At times we had Matt lining up in the box as a linebacker and at other times he would line up against the slot receivers like Chad Bumphis," said Collins. "At his spot you need both sets of skills, needing to cover guys and also be physical in the box.
"And Matt improved every single day and did a nice job for us and showed the ability to match up with slot receivers in the SEC. We're not worried about him making those calls and he was a pleasant surprise for a lot of people this spring."
Later in the summer, the Bulldogs will welcome another face to the linebacker roster in 2011 signee Benardrick McKinney.
"We're excited to see what the new guy can do," said Collins. "He has a lot of length and size and is a speed guy, too, like Skinner was in high school. So we will teach him all three linebacker spots and see where his natural fit is and go from there."