Linebacker-led defense will be different, but not necessarily worse

Erroll Thompson fielding questions at SEC Media Days. Photo by Aaron Cornia courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics.

Erroll Thompson fielding questions at SEC Media Days. Photo by Aaron Cornia courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics.

By Brett Hudson

HOOVER, Ala. — Chad Morris, Jeremy Pruitt and Ed Orgeron have all turned to the cliché: the Southeastern Conference is a line-of-scrimmage league.

That fact benefitted Mississippi State’s elite 2018 defense, with two first-round draft picks, two more pros on the starting group and impressive depth. Since that unit made its claim for being the nation’s best, it has lost 71 percent of its defensive line tackles, 72.5 percent of its defensive line tackles for a loss and 84.5 percent of its defensive line sacks.

The strength of the defense now shifts to the linebacker corps, where the strength is arguably just as potent but the matchup is different. Erroll Thompson is already recognized as one of the conference’s best, Willie Gay Jr. may not be far behind him, Leo Lewis enters his senior season and the program signed four to the position in its 2018 class. The case can be made that MSU claims the conference’s best linebacking corps; what’s left to be seen is if a linebacking corps this good can do to SEC offenses what an excellent defensive line did to them last year.

In some ways, there is an advantage to having the strength on the second level.

“You’ve seen an evolution in defensive football that very rarely you see two-tight end football teams that force inside linebackers to play tackle-to-tackle,” MSU coach Joe Moorhead said. “It’s as spread out, it’s wide; guys need to play the run like a ‘backer and play the pass like a defensive back. With the athleticism of Erroll and Willie and those guys, it helps combat the things people are doing to put the second level in conflict.”

Thompson and Gay roaming the second level may dissuade opponents from certain types of screens or make the short, middle-of-the-field passing game nonexistent. But it’s also clear that group leaned on the line play in front of them — something they’ll freely admit. They also know as new faces find their way on that defensive line, they will have to go above and beyond.

“They’re first round guys, you miss those guys,” Thompson said. “It’s probably going to be a little more strain on us, but we’re ready for the task.”

That strain is most likely to come in stopping the run.

With a front four as loaded as the one last year, it was easier for MSU to turn to single-gap schemes: linemen line up in a gap and are responsible for that gap. There wasn’t much need for movement or schematic shifts, other than variety for variety’s sake.

Having the strength at linebacker opens MSU and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to another potential staple.

“This may be a year where we pressure more or use more movement to bounce things to the outside,” Moorhead said. “If you’re not able to one-gap with your front four and let the linebackers run, there’s some things you can do and change the X’s and O’s to fit the personnel rather than the other way around.”

Not many defenses could lose three players to the first round of the NFL Draft and expect to remain among the nation’s best. Thompson does, and if MSU lives up to it, he and the linebackers around him will likely be what makes his happen.

“Last year we were great,” Thompson said, “but I feel like we have a chance to be the same thing we were last year.”