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Todd Grantham brings everlasting chip on shoulder to Mississippi State

Todd Grantham loves being the underdog. Ever since his grind-it-out high school days as a lineman in Pulaski, Virginia, Grantham has felt compelled to add some sort of edge to his game and personality. At every stop (more than 25 years of combined experience at college and the NFL), Grantham has weighed himself down with a figurative chip -- a constant burden meant to incite motivation and persistence.

Now, as he prepares to serve his first year as Mississippi State's defensive coordinator -- and steels himself to return to the SEC -- Grantham's chip has grown. He's challenged with turning around one of the nation's worst defenses (ranked 110th nationally after giving up 459.1 YPG in 2016), while still feeling compelled to prove he's one of the nation's best defensive minds.

"You have to always have that edge," Grantham told ESPN in early June.

That edge has given Grantham quite the reputation. While his everyday conversational tone rarely reaches high decibels, he has been singled out as a hothead on the sideline. He's boisterous and animated when the bright lights go on.

He made national news as Georgia's defensive coordinator in 2010 by flashing the "choke" sign at Florida punter/makeshift kicker Chas Henry, before Henry nailed a 37-yard field goal to win the game in overtime.

Grantham laughs off that incident -- he quickly points out that he won his next three matchups against the Gators -- but concedes that his on-field theatrics are just part of the way he teaches. It stems from his years as a defensive line coach, a job that sometimes necessitates prodding guys in the trenches. Here, tone is everything.

That same tone would surface in high-pressure situations, and his brashness would immediately become visible. It's not always a bad thing, but it did make his new boss wonder what the real Grantham was like. Dan Mullen, who will enter his ninth season as Mississippi State's head coach, wasn't sure if "Choke Sign Grantham" was his new hire's everyday persona. While Mullen wasn't worried about Grantham the coach, he wasn't entirely certain who Todd Grantham was.

To answer Mullen's question, Grantham is a mostly easygoing fella from a blue-collar town. He's a guy who actually wanted to double as a high school teacher and coach before Frank Beamer hired him as a graduate assistant after his playing days at Virginia Tech. He likes watching former players become first-round draft picks just as much as he enjoys seeing former players show up at satellite camps as assistant coaches.

He's a guy who used his first big paycheck to buy a bass boat and a used pickup that leaked oil just so he could sneak away and fish during his first years as a Virginia Tech assistant in the early '90s.

Mullen didn't see that side of Grantham in games, but he did when the pair met to discuss working together after the 2016 season. Grantham was looking to leave Louisville, where he had just coached three top-14 defenses, including the nation's No. 6 unit in 2014. Meanwhile, former State defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon was exploring his own options away from Starkville. Mullen said that after reaching a mutual decision with Sirmon about parting ways, he was notified that Grantham had expressed interest in coming to Mississippi State.

Mullen was suspicious of a possible money grab by the million-dollar coordinator, but Grantham's agency -- which also represents Mullen -- made it clear that the coach's intentions were honest. After the two met and discussed their immediate plans, they were sold on each other.

Coincidentally, Sirmon left for Grantham's former job at Louisville, which made for quite the college football trade.

"I thought we were very fortunate to get someone of his caliber in here," Mullen told ESPN of Grantham. "... He's better than I thought he'd be.

"He's got a little chip on his shoulder, and I like that. That's who we are and that's a great fit for us."

Working with Mullen intrigued Grantham, but so did coaching in the SEC again. His four years at Georgia yielded somewhat mixed reviews; he went from coaching back-to-back top-10 defenses to dropping to 45th and then 32nd in his final two seasons. However, Louisville's defense allowed an average of 321.2 YPG in its three years under Grantham, good enough for 10th in the nation. While the Cardinals gave up 322.2 YPG and 23.8 PPG last season, those numbers dropped to 304.6 and 20.1 in conference play, rivaling Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson in importance at times.

Mississippi State's defense last season was tough to stomach, as SEC teams nearly topped 500 yards and 34 points against the unit on average. Hindered by injuries, inexperience and an increasing lack of confidence (not to mention the presence of a first-year coordinator), the Bulldogs' defense was one of the conference's most vulnerable units.

Grantham enjoys having to play surgeon in Starkville, however. He relishes returning to the toughest football conference in the nation with his work cut out for him. Grantham is even excited about his rag-tag group. After watching film and observing live practices this spring, the new coordinator claims his group is ripe with untapped potential, and believes the unit can blossom into something much more menacing this fall.

Grantham sees shine here and there within the defense, but he also sees a unit that is eager to prove it can surpass last year's flat performance. He sees, in fact, that very same chip he carries with him every day.

"It's been fun so far. I really do like our players here," he said. "We have the tools to be much, much improved."