Gone is former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Seniors Chris White and K.J. Wright, the team's leading tacklers, are in the NFL. Defensive end Pernell McPhee is in training camp with the Baltimore Ravens.
However, new defensive coordinator Chris Wilson thinks his defense can do even more in 2011 than it did when he was co-coordinator in 2010.
Last season was the first in Starkville for Diaz and Wilson, who took over for the departed Carl Torbush, and Wilson has high expectations for what can be accomplished now that his players have two years of experience with it.
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"Second year in the system, [we expect] more detailed execution," Wilson said. "Smarter play. Faster play. Guys making decisions a lot quicker than they did last year. I expect us to be on a higher level of execution. Also, just some of the nuances of this deal that we weren't able to do a year ago because we were trying to get the foundation in."
Priority No. 1 for Wilson, also the defensive line coach, will be developing a pass rush. In McPhee's wake, Wilson said it is a senior he expects to step up. The defensive coordinator said end Sean Ferguson realizes that time is against him, as he only has eight months left before, as Wilson puts it, "there's no more scholarships."
"He and I had a conversation prior to going into the summer about how his role is evolving," Wilson said. "He's taken it to heart and a lot of guys follow him. He's done it not only verbally, which is important, but he's done it with his work ethic. That's why I'm excited for Sean and he'll come out and give us a chance to be that leader. It's hard to replace Pernell McPhee, so we may have to do it by committee. We're getting those guys involved and getting them ready to go."
In addition to McPhee's graduation, the Bulldogs also lost defensive tackle Jeff Howie, who would have been a senior had he not decided to leave the program.
Wilson said those on the outside look at it the wrong way, though. While others may think there's not much talent left on the line, Wilson says, he disagrees. The talent is there, just not the experience.
However, he thinks it is talent elsewhere on the field that will help his pass rush. Some of the most important players for the defensive line, Wilson said, are cornerbacks Corey Broomfield,Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, as well as safeties Charles Mitchell, Nickoe Whitley and Wade Bonner.
"What people don't realize is sacks are affected by as much the coverage as they are the front end," Wilson said. "So once they're married up, it really makes things nicer. You've got guys who can get close, who understand route structures, who understand things that they're going to see every day. It really helps you in the front end as far as getting to the quarterback. That's what really excites you. We just try to find ways to move stress around every week."
Banks and Broomfield are juniors and returning starters, though Wilson said they will be challenged by Slay, a junior college transfer. Mitchell and Bonner are both seniors and starters, while Whitley is the youngest of the group but still very experienced.
Of course, that's six players to fill four spots.
"You've got some depth, and you've got some competition, and that's the thing that we take pride in every day creating competition, every week creating competition," Wilson said. "That's what keeps guys sharp. No one gets complacent when it's competitive. What we're trying to do is find the right combination of guys. Obviously, they're the strength of our defense and we're going to rely on them quite a bit. What they allow us to do is be very, very multiple. When you're smart on the back end, it allows you to do things up front."
Another significant area of competition is at linebacker, where the Bulldogs replace all three starters, including the two NFL-bound players who led the team in tackles.
Just like the secondary, Wilson said the number of linebackers who want to start combined with the clear openings to do so creates a very healthy competition that he believes will make all of them better in the long run. The position group has a mix of young talent and veteran leadership, with guys like Brandon Wilson, Cameron Lawrence and Clemson transfer Brandon Maye providing the experience and youngsters like Ferlando Bohanna, Christian Holmes and Chris Hughes providing the youth and hunger.
"Those are the guys, when they look at each other, and Bohanna looks at Chris Hughes, they go, 'Wow, there's some really good players sitting in this room.' It really, really pushes competition," Wilson said. "It's hard and difficult to replace two NFL players. Again, that's one of those things we're going to have to do by committee. As we go through camp, we're constantly going to be moving, changing, finding out who's the right fit for that deal."
While the bodies are there at linebacker, it's a matter of finding the best ones, Wilson said, which often requires seeing them in live-action.
As Wilson surveys his players, the three units on MSU's defense in 2011 are all in very different situations. The secondary is deep and experienced. The linebackers are deep and inexperienced and the defensive line is a mix of both.
With so many variables and such different circumstances in his defensive units, Wilson said his plan is not to force anything. Rather than fit the players to a system, Wilson said the plan is to find a system that fits the players.
"It's players first, not system first," Wilson said. "We find out what our players can do instead of always talking about what they can't do. That's the biggest thing that we've done."