Dogs’ defense shows savvy

Published 7:55 am Friday, August 17, 2018

STARKVILLE (AP) — Bob Shoop is Mississippi State’s fifth defensive coordinator in five seasons.

That lack of continuity in a football program usually isn’t ideal, but the 51-year-old Shoop said he’s been pleasantly surprised to discover that Mississippi State’s veteran-laden defense hasn’t grown jaded by the constant changes.

Instead, he said, an unintended consequence is this group is much more football savvy than an average bunch of guys in their early 20s.

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“The negative is really a positive,” Shoop said. “They know the game. They can talk the game in a meeting room. It’s not like talking to a high school kid, it’s like talking to a veteran football player. We have those types of discussions.”

Mississippi State’s defense was among the best in the Southeastern Conference last season under former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who joined head coach Dan Mullen at Florida during the offseason. The Bulldogs gave up just 306.3 yards per game — which ranked 10th nationally — and about 21 points per game.

Many of the players who made that group so good are back. Now it’s Shoop’s job to build on that performance while adding his own ideas.

Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons combined for 27 ½ tackles for a loss last season and will once again anchor the defensive line. The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Sweat, a junior college transfer, was so good in his first SEC season that he seriously considered going to the NFL before deciding to return.

Shoop said he believes Sweat “made himself a lot of money by staying” and still has a lot of room to improve during his senior season. So far, Sweat agrees.

“That’s all decided by this season, so I’m just going to take it day by day and grind,” Sweat said. “I love this defense.”

The secondary includes safeties Mark McLaurin and Johnathan Abram, who ranked first and second on the team in tackles last year.

McLaurin, who led the Bulldogs with six interceptions, said switching defensive coordinators adds some adversity, but it can also be positive if players take the right approach. McLaurin is a senior in his fourth season with the program, meaning he’s learned from Manny Diaz, Peter Sirmon, Grantham and now Shoop.

“It’s been tremendous, getting to know different systems and different things,” McLaurin said. “We just put everything together, continue to play and keep building.”

Shoop has made several changes and plans to use four players on the defensive line more often than Grantham. He said players have been receptive to teaching and — thanks to their unorthodox careers under several different coordinators — able to adapt in a hurry.

“I’ve found it to be very refreshing,” Shoop said. “You come here and you don’t know the guys. You hear about their personalities and you watch the film, but it’s a clean slate. The blue-collar work ethic of our team is really true.”

Shoop knows plenty about adapting to new situations as well. He’s been at four schools over the past eight years, including Vanderbilt, Penn State and Tennessee before joining Joe Moorhead’s staff in Starkville.

He said this Mississippi State situation reminds him of his first season at Penn State in 2014, when he took over a veteran defense that had cycled through several different defensive coordinators in a short span.

The Nittany Lions went on to give up just 18.6 points and 100.2 rushing yards per game that season. Both stats were among the national leaders.

“It was that same situation, and those guys could talk the game,” Shoop said. “The upperclassmen were very mature, and they went on to success at the next level. That defense went on to be (one of) the best in the country in run defense, so we will see what happens.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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