As Coach Geoff Collins explained, the Mississippi State
gameplan for Jackson State really did begin with Cameron Lawrence and Deontae Skinner on the outsides, flanking Benardrick McKinney
. But on the first defensive snap McKinney was still on the sideline while Matthew Wells
was on the outside. It was an instant adjustment.
"It just depended. Benardrick was the starter, in base," said Collins. "But they didn't come out in a personnel grouping that let us play base until like the third series."
Actually Mississippi State had a notion all week, based on—accurate--expectations Jackson State would come out throwing. Given that Wells, a one-time safety, is regarded as the coverage linebacker of the veteran bunch, starting him alongside Lawrence made good sense. It certainly seemed genius when Wells was right place, right time to snag a deflected Tiger pass and run it back 22 yards for a touchdown.
What Collins was more proud of was Wells' overall performance and approach to a first start.
"He had a great game. After a year of playing as a redshirt freshman he's starting to get it. And the amount of focus he put into preparing, he knew the protections, he knew where they were going with the football and was able to do some things that last year he might not have been able to do. So it was good to see."
Wells has made a point this year of becoming more than a cover-guy. In spring he attacked tackling with a purpose and the effort is producing results. Such as when Wells lined up at the line of scrimmage, practically as a defensive end, for a safety-style blitz. It worked too as JSU flowed the other way and Wells had an unobstructed path to the helpless passer for a 10-yard sack.
It showed just how versatile Wells is and will be, Collins said. "And we have him playing a lot of different positions. To the casual observer it looked like he was doing the same thing the whole game. But the different packages we were running, he was able to do things in each package. I think he gave Jackson State fits."
Wells finished first in team tackles, though he had just five; the statistics were spread thin Saturday with so many defenders players. Including linebackers; non-starters collected a dozen tackles between them. McKinney was one of them with four off the bench. Ever since April when he moved ahead of Ferlando Bohanna, big things have been forecast for the redshirt freshman.
His coach liked what McKinney showed once inserted. Or at last, as the kid would have put it. Collins said it took three series before Jackson State showed their base ‘21' personnel set. "We just made sure we manipulated some of the groups get him in there, because he was so geeked-up to play! I didn't want him to sit three or four series on the sidelines, ready to get that that opportunity."
Once in, McKinney was no geek.
"First is getting everybody else in the right call, doing the right thing," Collins said. "And then he had to take care of himself, which is a lot to ask of a redshirt freshman. But he did a lot of really good things. And the things he did that the casual observer wouldn't notice that we know, he was on-point with everything."
As was Wells along with seasoned hands Lawrence and Skinner. Those veterans also had short work-nights as the offense scored on four of the first five turns and CB Darius Slay added another interception-return touchdown. Collins offered a piece of inside info, too, about Wells' third-quarter touchdown. "On Matt's pick, Ferlando comes in and causes the bad throw."
Even allowing for the light opening-night opposition, there was much to commend the linebacker corps about. "And the big thing, last year we had four guys, maybe five that we felt really comfortable with. Right now we think we're at seven that we can just roll in the game and mix up personnel groups. And we're excited to do that."
PARTIPATING: Mississippi Stated used 71 players against Jackson State, among them 24 first-time players. Two of these, both junior college transfers, drew starting jobs: offensive tackle Charles Siddoway and defensive end Denico Autry.
2011 redshirted scholarship freshmen who played for the first time were Dak Prescott, Joe Morrow, Josh Robinson, Taveze Calhoun, Zach Jackson, Kendrick Market, Benardrick McKinney, Justin Malone, Rufus Warren, John Harris.
Five true signee freshmen played—kicker Devon Bell, defensive tackles Quay Evans and Nick James, defensive end Ryan Brown, and cornerback Cedric Jiles. This almost matched the total of true frosh who played in '10 and '11 combined, with three each those two seasons.
Also making the field for the first time were walk-ons RB Kasey Akins, DB James Baldwin, ST D.J. Blanks, SN Winston Chapman, and PK Charlie Grandfield.
The full participation list with *starters:
*WR Chad Bumphis 1-1, WR Brandon Heavens 1-0, WR Jameon Lewis 1-0, *S Nickoe Whitley 1-1, RB Nick Griffin 1-0, *WR Chris Smith 1-1, *CB Darius Slay 1-1, *LB Cameron Lawrence 1-1, LB Chris Hughes 1-0, *CB Johnthan Banks 1-1, CB Cedric Jiles 1-0, QB Dak Prescott 1-0, WR Joe Morrow 1-0, *QB Tyler Russell 1-1, TE Brandon Hill 1-0, *WR Arceto Clark 1-1, DB Louis Watson 1-0, *LB Matt Wells 1-1, *FB Sylvester Hemphill 1-1, CB Jamerson Love 1-0, *S Corey Broomfield 1-1, ST James Baldwin 1-0, *RB LaDarius Perkins 1-1, RB Derrick Milton 1-0, S Jay Hughes 1-0, WR Sam Williams 1-0, TE Marcus Green 1-0, RB Josh Robinson 1-0, FB Adrian Marcus 1-0, CB Taveze Calhoun 1-0, S Dee Arrington 1-0, P Baker Swedenburg 1-1, K Devon Bell 1-1, K Charlie Grandfield 1-0, RB Kasey Akins 1-0, LB Ivan Muniz 1-0, LB Christian Holmes 1-0, LB Zach Jackson 1-0, S Kendrick Market 1-0, DE Ryan Brown 1-0, LB Benardrick McKinney 1-0, *LB Deonte Skinner 1-0, LB Ferlando Bohanna 1-0, DL Quay Evans 1-0, OC Dylan Holley 1-0, DE Corvell Harrison-Gay 1-0, OT Archie Muniz 1-0, DT Devin Jones 1-0, *OG Gabe Jackson 1-1, *OC Dillon Day 1-0, OG Ben Beckwith 1-0, *OG Tobias Smith 1-1, OG Justin Malone 1-0, SN Winston Chapman 1-0, DT Dewayne Cherrington 1-0, *OT Blaine Clausell 1-1, OG Joey Trapp 1-0, *OT Charles Siddoway 1-1, OT Damien Robinson 1-0, WR Robert Johnson 1-0, TE Rufus Warren 1-0, HO Chris Cameron 1-0, D.J. Blanks 1-0, DT Nick James 1-0, *DE Denico Autry 1-1, DE Preston Smith 1-0, *DT Kaleb Eulls 1-1, *DE Shane McCardell 1-1, *DT Josh Boyd 1-1, DL John Harris 1-0.
MSU-ELLANEOUS: State officials said about 150 tickets remain for the SEC opener. A sellout would be the 18th-straight at Davis Wade Stadium.
By now most have learned to regard the Bulldog depth chart as something published purely for pre-game convenience. Still, the opening-night listings at linebackers were not misleading. Or mistakes. Just think of them as subject to instant adjustment.