And do it very well, just as in 2011 when Skinner emerged as one of Mississippi State’s young linebackers to watch. A year later Bulldog fans, not to mention foes, expect to see more big hits from the big ‘backer. Skinner is back for more as the designated strong-side starter, though admittedly right now his coaches aren’t listing any lineup.
He has no problem with that, either. Skinner is just too energized after his breakout sophomore season, as well as increased familiarity with the schemes. “Once you understand the defense, it's easier for you to play. You're more relaxed and you can play a lot faster.” Older, smarter, comfortable and confident? Sounds like the other side should be un-relaxed scheming for him.
For that matter Skinner should be a scouting headache given his upgraded versatility seen in training camp. While his primary position is still sam linebacker the fact is coordinators Chris Wilson and Geoff Collins have some expanded plans in the works. Remember how in 2010 K.J. Wright often moved up to, essentially, an end position at the line of scrimmage? Right.
“My primary position is linebacker, so I feel more comfortable at linebacker,” said Skinner. “When I go to defensive end it reminds me of my high school days.” First-team All-State days at Noxubee County High days, to be specific. True, this is a whole ‘nother level but after three years on campus Skinner has developed nicely at linebacker without losing the old instincts.
Besides, he’s already made one college move. He was originally, or at least after a redshirt year, worked into the varsity as a weak-side guy. Not that there’s anything weak about him of course, but having the bigger body out on the non-tight end side seemed a good idea at the time. Particularly because he could alternate with starter Cameron Lawrence and learn along the way.
Three weeks into the season though the defense staff decided to go bigger at ‘backer. Skinner switched to the other side in place of freshman and converted safety Matthew Wells, and blossomed. “I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t a big transition, I wasn’t shocked. I was ready for the work.”
The stat sheet reflected his development, peaking as planned in November with seven, six, and nine tackles in the last three regular season games. “It was just the development. The first part of the season I was playing will and then I changed it up and went to sam. It was the development. It was a growing process, not just getting better with my game, and learning the plays and really understand the defense.
“Being SEC games you want to play your best so I just felt like I knew I had to do my job. And I just felt like it was my time and the team needed me at that position.”
Skinner finished fifth in team tackles with 60 including nine for losses, though working strong-side he wasn’t able to score any sacks. Not yet. He still might not get many clear shots at quarterbacks in 2012—unless of course he does get placed on the end and takes the right angle, which would be fun to watch. What Coach Dan Mullen has emphasized more for Skinner is coverage skills.
True, the spring practice routine saw Wells stepping in for obvious passing plays while Skinner stayed around to stuff expected runs. That might well prove the plan again this season…but it helps now to know that Skinner doesn’t have to leave the field just because it’s a third-and-throw situation.
Besides, Skinner smiles…those little old receivers aren’t happy about running into a 245-pounder on the second or third step. Messes up the routes and all, you know. Skinner also insists he’s more comfortable with these matchups even if he has to chase the fast fellows around.
“I like it. It really doesn’t matter but it feels good when you’re out there knowing that the receivers don’t really want to block you. It feels good, it gives you an edge just knowing that. You know, you’ve got to have an advantage in some type of way.”
Nature gave Skinner some built-in advantages. “His God-given abilities,” as Coach Collins calls them. “He’s 6-3, 240, probably runs a 4.5, 4.6. And he’s as strong as they come. Once you get him just muscle memory and everything he does schematically the sky is the limit for what he can be as a player.”
Remember too…Skinner has two whole seasons still to develop. Even better, there is a great teacher in the practice and game huddle. Skinner has benefitted greatly from the guy he was slotted behind last season, with Lawrence setting an example and a tone alike. Even having seen it, and benefitted from it, directly, Skinner still is awed by the senior’s near-mystical knack for seeing the coming play before the ball is snapped.
“I don’t know what he’s got going on. I just saw some times when he called something and then it happened. Can he do it really or not, but I’ve seen it happen before,” Skinner said.
Having Cam there is a great thing. He’s the senior of the group and really the leader of the group. Whenever we need something or depend on someone like when we need a big play, we lean to Cam and he steps up to make a play or makes the call.”
Yet the day is coming when it will be Skinner and Wells who have to make such calls himself, not just next year as the old hands but even today. There are a lot of youngsters in this meeting room after all. Not that younger necessarily means smaller; Skinner is a healthy fellow for sure but the leader at middle-linebacker opens eyes. Benardrick McKinney stands 6-5 with 235 pounds (and counting) and has the body of a real defensive end.
It sure seems the September 2011 scheme of smaller, faster linebackers has been shelved for the time being with Lawrence, Skinner, and McKinney as the starting point to build this linebacker rotation around. “From last year to this year I mean we’ve all got good size. But looking at McKinney, he’s a tall guy! I trust him, I know he’s got the size and the ability to do this job. He’s learning pretty fast, once you tell him something he might mess up one play. But once coach talks to him and tells him what to do he comes back on the next play and corrects it.”
The Bulldog defense might have a few corrections to make this week it seems. Monday morning saw a more serious scrimmaging session than anything up to then, and typically the stopping-squad has the edge the first time around. Not this time around, Skinner reported.
“I mean the offense had a great day and they made some big plays. They had a lot of big run game plays. I feel like the offense is getting really good and they’re coming along really great.” Now it is a rare thing for a Bulldog defender to not just praise the offense but openly enjoy talking about getting beat in scrimmaging. But hey, Skinner likes seeing points on MSU’s side of the board too. It makes his own job easier playing with a lead, so that scrimmage was a positive.
“Yeah, it encourages us a lot. I was out there sometimes when they were scoring but it feels good being on the team and knowing that we’ve got an offense that can make those long drives like that.”
That said…Tuesday and afterwards the mutual appreciation stops along with the offense. Expectations of the Bulldog defense are just about off the charts at this preseason point so it is their time to practice like it, per Skinner.
“The defense, we made some plays but we still have a long way to go.”
Tuesday is a single-practice date on the camp calendar.