Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen had to love what he saw from his defense in Saturday’s spring game, right up until Jonathan Abram's unnecessary head shot on Bennie Braswell that turned out to be the game’s final play.
Leading up to that targeting penalty midway through the fourth quarter, Todd Grantham’s troops had stolen the show. The Bulldogs defense intercepted five passes -- four from starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald in the first half -- and returned two for touchdowns that gave the White team (mostly the first-team defense) a 21-10 victory over the Maroon (mostly the starting offense).
That was exactly what new coordinator Grantham wants from a defense that was only OK at creating turnovers (State ranked 38th nationally with 23 takeaways under Peter Sirmon) last season, and flat-out bad at defending the pass (State was 120th in pass defense, surrendering 281.5 yards per game).
It wasn’t just the pick-sixes by Cameron Dantzler and Brian Cole that defined the new-look defense’s first outing under Grantham, it was that multiple players got in on the act. Fitzgerald’s interception total could easily have been five or six, as both Cole and Lashard Durr got their hands on other passes that nearly became interceptions.
Even big Deion Pope got in on the action, nimbly dropping into coverage from his spot on the defensive line, picking off a pass that Fitzgerald threw directly to him and rumbling 20 yards with the return.
Judging by Grantham’s results since returning from the NFL to work as a college coordinator in 2010, Saturday could be a sign of things to come for his defense. Generating pressure and takeaways are at the center of Grantham’s defensive philosophy, and his Georgia and Louisville units both improved in those areas immediately upon his arrival.
In 2010, Grantham’s first season at Georgia, the Bulldogs’ takeaway total jumped to 26 after tying for 118th nationally in 2009 with just 12. Georgia was in the top 20 in turnovers gained for each of the next two seasons before regressing badly in 2013, Grantham’s final season in Athens.
History repeated itself in 2014 at Louisville, with the Cardinals jumping from a tie for 23rd in takeaways the year before Grantham’s arrival to a tie for 11th in his debut season. The Cardinals also tied for the national lead in interceptions with 26 that season. Louisville tied for 21st and 24th, respectively, in takeaways over the past two seasons before Grantham’s offseason departure for Starkville.
The point is this: Grantham’s defensive style generally creates turnover opportunities, and the personnel we saw on the field Saturday looked like a group that can make those game-changing plays.
Redshirt freshman Dantzler was probably the star of the show with two interceptions -- including the 81-yard pick-six -- and a brilliant tackle for loss on Nick Gibson to force a field goal just before halftime. However, there were lots of standout performances, even with starters such as Leo Lewis, Dezmond Harris and Brandon Bryant sitting out.
Eleven different White defenders made tackles for loss and six recorded sacks.
Jamal Peters halted the Maroon’s opening drive by picking off a Fitzgerald pass and later made a pretty pair of pass breakups. Not only did Cole log a 54-yard interception-return score, but he also diagnosed a reverse run by receiver Gabe Myles and rapidly tracked him down for just a 3-yard gain.
These guys -- many of them new faces who joined the roster this offseason as junior college transfers -- looked as though they could cause some problems this fall. Granted, Fitzgerald’s offense was shorthanded, operating without key players at receiver, tight end and on the line, but State’s defense still made an All-SEC-caliber quarterback look bad at times.
The defense didn’t do that much last season, and that has to help Mullen approach the 2017 campaign with a lot more optimism.