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Mississippi State's biggest offseason need: Defensive line

This week we're taking a team-by-team look at the biggest offseason needs for every team in the SEC. Next up are the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

Key losses: A.J. Jefferson, Jonathan Calvin, Nick James, Nelson Adams

Key returnees: Jeffery Simmons, Cory Thomas, Braxton Hoyett

Key newcomers: Montez Sweat, Chauncey Rivers, Lee Autry, Deion Pope

Breakdown: When Todd Grantham swapped places with Peter Sirmon and agreed to become Mississippi State’s next defensive coordinator, did he take a look at the roster? If he had, he would’ve realized that the Bulldogs are having to replace seven starters, including all four starters up front, on a defense that finished 13th in the SEC in points allowed per game (31.8) last year.

Grantham has put together solid defenses in the past, but replacing the entire defensive line? That’s no easy task, regardless of your credentials.

The two starting defensive ends, Jonathan Calvin and A.J. Jefferson, are gone. Calvin led the team in tackles for loss (11.5) while Jefferson finished just behind him (10.5). Both starting tackles, Nick James and Nelson Adams, are also gone. Combined, the two made up 605 pounds of strength in the middle of that defensive line, and Adams was the one who blocked a potential game-winning field to preserve the bowl victory against Miami (Ohio).

There is good news, though. First, Grantham will have a potential star in Jeffrey Simmons to build the line around. Simmons, most known for his off-field altercations before he arrived at Mississippi State, finished with 39 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman last year.

Simmons will be joined up front by rising juniors Cory Thomas and Braxton Hoyett. Both have been patiently waiting for their opportunity to start, and with all of the pending departures, the time is now for both players. Despite playing behind Adams, Thomas still finished fourth on the team with 5.5 tackles for loss this past season.

Mississippi State also signed four ESPN JC 50 defensive linemen who are already on campus and ready to go through spring practice. Defensive ends Montez Sweat and Chauncey Rivers, both ranked among the top 20 junior college transfers nationally, will have every opportunity to step in and replace Calvin and Jefferson as potential starters on this defense. At tackle, Lee Autry and Deion Pope are expected to add much-needed depth behind Simmons, Thomas and Hoyett. All four signees should see the field this fall.

Looking only at who Mississippi State lost from a year ago, there would be a lot of concerns about next year’s defensive line. But take a second glance, and the Bulldogs are actually in pretty decent shape heading into 2017, as long as some of these juco transfers pan out.

Now it’s up to Grantham to put this unit together and make them competitive in the SEC. It’s one of the reasons why they went out and hired him.