Denico Autry played his high school football in the shadow of Charlotte, N.C., and had his sights set on playing collegiately at North Carolina.
“I didn’t have the grades, and my plans changed,” said Autry, who’s from Albemarle, N.C., a small town about 40 miles east of Charlotte.
It’s a good thing for Mississippi State those plans did change, because Autry has been a force this spring for the Bulldogs after going the junior college route the past two years. He’s given them the kind of edge pressure from his defensive end position that they didn’t possess a year ago.
“That’s what I do best, get to the quarterback,” said Autry, who had three sacks in Thursday’s scrimmage. “I know I can rush the passer, but you can always get better. I think I’ve gotten better this spring. The big thing is that I have to get better in all parts of my game. They’re not going to be passing on every down. You’ve got to be able to play the run, too.”
Ironically, the 6-5, 255-pound Autry found his way to East Mississippi Community College with the help of another SEC assistant.
Auburn linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen was coaching at North Carolina when Autry was in high school and had a connection with East Mississippi Community College defensive coordinator William Jones.
“Coach Thigpen hooked me up with coach Jones at East Mississippi, and that’s how I got to (the state of) Mississippi,” Autry said.
It didn’t take him long to start wreaking havoc on opposing junior college quarterbacks. Autry earned All-America honors last season in leading East Mississippi to the junior college national championship. He collected 11 sacks and 41 quarterback hurries and was rated by most analysts as the top junior college defensive prospect in the country.
The offers came pouring in. Miami offered. So did USC, Oregon, Florida, Auburn, Tennessee and North Carolina.
But Autry remembers watching Mississippi State play Alabama and LSU last season and thinking to himself that he could help the Bulldogs get over the top against those teams.
“I watched them against LSU and Alabama,” Autry recalled. “LSU didn’t offer me. Alabama was recruiting me, but they really didn’t offer me when it got down to it. I saw how Mississippi State played both of those teams and wanted to be a part of that.”
Autry was a must-get for the Bulldogs, who desperately needed to add a finisher to their defensive line. Tackle Fletcher Cox gave up his senior season to enter the NFL draft, and of the Bulldogs’ 27 sacks last season, only six came from defensive ends.
“I want to be that third-down guy, somebody that helps get us off the field on third down and takes the other team out of their game,” Autry said.
With the Bulldogs set to conclude their spring on Saturday with their annual Maroon-White spring game, Autry is a big reason there’s a renewed sense of optimism on defense in Starkville. The Bulldogs were fourth in the SEC in scoring defense last season, but eighth in total defense.
"He is who we thought he was," Mississippi State defensive coordinator Chris Wilson told The Mobile Press-Register. "When he's not out there thinking (too much), he makes us different. I don't always like to say better. I think it's an overused term, but he really makes us different."
Autry said he loves Wilson's attacking style of defense, which he said will be the Bulldogs' calling card in 2012.
"We're a hard-nosed defense that’s going to keep coming after you, and you’re not going to get anything easy against us," he said.
Autry also knows that he's not the first junior college player to come into the league surrounded by a lot of hype. Some of those guys pan out. Others don't.
Pernell McPhee earned All-SEC honors a couple of years back at Mississippi State after starting his career at Itawamba (Miss.) Community College. Jones has said that he thinks Autry is better than McPhee, who's now with the Baltimore Ravens.
Autry would prefer to do his talking on the field ... this fall.
"The only thing that matters is what you do in the games," he said. "That's where you have to prove it."