[There is a Vimeo video of the Cedric Jiles interview at the end of this article. It is viewable with your computer, iPhone, iPad and other devices.-Gene]
Jiles is certainly one of this club, a regular in Mississippi State’s ongoing cornerback rotation. He does have three starts to this second freshman-season credit, in sequence against Alcorn State, Auburn, and Troy; and has taken turns in all the other games. Turns which can come at just about any moment as Coach Deshea Townsend runs his corners in, and runs them out, and runs everyone ragged.
“We have a great group of guys, so the rotation is rapid-fire,” Jiles smiles. Because he’s enjoying this sort of shuttle-service in defensive duty. Or for that matter, simply being in the midst of all the action again.
“I’m just having fun. I love the game of football. I go out every Saturday and try my hardest, give my all, and intend to get better every week.”
This would be a great time for Jiles and the entire Dog defense to improve. The weekend sends them back on the SEC road, facing a South Carolina offense that can and does beat people with whatever works. The Gamecocks can pound the ground, can air it out, or have the quarterback haul the ball for big gainers. The common thread though is everything gets done with power as even the wideouts take and give contact.
“They’re a pretty physical group of guys,” Jiles said. “We just have to come prepared to face a big-time opponent. You just practice good technique, hit the bags and stuff, and get ready to tackle the great running backs South Carolina has.”
Without, that is, ignoring the increased air threat. Veteran quarterback Connor Shaw is completing 64% of his passes and tossed 14 touchdowns against a single interception. He has limped through the last game on a knee sprained at Tennessee, but rallied his team to a second-half and overtime win at Missouri anyway. And even in the absence, Dylan Thompson got the ball to receivers effectively in the open field. If not for turnovers he could have gone the distance that day.
This is a stiff challenge for State’s secondary. The defense as a whole has been giving up almost nine yards per SEC-game completion and ranks just 11th in league pass efficiency defense. There has been some encouraging progress of late though. Against both Bowling Green and Kentucky, Bulldog defensive backs forced incompletions at the very end to secure narrow victories. It would have been easier on everyone making more stops earlier, but to come through in clutch coverage is something the secondary will build upon.
The key? That’s basic, Jiles said. “Just getting back to everybody communicating.” This is what was missing in too many of the third- and fourth-down conversions made by Auburn, LSU, and right up to the end Kentucky. Review showed failure to get the word around in the secondary at times and it cost. “We were out there playing around and nobody really talking about what is going to happen before the play happens. So, communication.”
Of course some margin might be allowed considering all the shuffles. After all, State hasn’t started the same four-man secondary in consecutive games so far. Injuries, whether season-ending to SS Jay Hughes on opening day or repeatedly to CB Jamerson Love, have forced some of the changes. Matchups and practice performances have led to others. And now the uncertain status of FS Nickoe Whitley, ejected in the second quarter last week, likely leads to yet another adjustment.
Yet clearly the backfield has made modest steps each week whoever is together. A healthier Love obviously helps, while Jiles and third-year soph Taveze Calhoun alternate opposite his side. Juco Justin Cox had a rough first month in coverage work but is finding his senior college footing as hoped. And now a new facemask joins the club with soph Will Redmond activated at last. A year-and-half layoff didn’t keep Redmond from making some key plays against BGSU, and his progress will only accelerate with more playing time.
“It’s great to have my brother back,” Jiles said. “He’s a great athlete and he comes out to practice and just plays hard, gives his all. I love him.” It hasn’t taken long for the corners to love having an unexpected starter between them too. They miss Hughes’ heady presence to be sure but Kendrick Market has assumed charge at strong safety naturally.
“Kendrick is a tough little man!” Jiles said. “Yeah, he communicates to us, he gets the play called, plays hard, and I don’t expect nothing less from him. He’s pretty vocal, I think all our safeties are vocal. He’s accepted the leadership responsibility, no doubt.”
Today Jiles has no doubts about his unusual route into this rotation. Remember, the Clinton native so impressed last year’s staff that Jiles was rushed into rookie-year duty, in a backfield with three senior cornerbacks already ahead. “I was hoping to play, I was ready to play,” Jiles said. “I wanted to get out there and make plays for my team.”
Which he did, for three games. That’s when a bad break, in form of a hand injury, was used as a good break by the coaches to give the kid a retroactive redshirt year anyway. Jiles was cleared to play later in the season but by then the decision was made. For the long-term best, he believes now.
“It helped me a lot, I’m glad I did sit out.” For this year’s rookie class and future frosh, Jiles wants them to understand something about redshirting. “It’s not an insult. It’s a blessing. It’s really a great vacation!” Which isn’t something one often hears linked with a first year spent on scout team and doing thankless drills. “But at the same time getting your fundamentals together,” Jiles explained. “Because when you’re playing that first year you have to focus on football and academics.”
And this still-young pup knows very well what he’s talking about. He’s majoring in microbiology with a long-term ambition of veterinary science. Jiles used the first college year to make a good start along a grueling academic track…and still got to taste college and SEC football briefly anyway. Yes, this is a most unusual redshirt.
“It was just a blessing, I get an extra year to play and I’m hoping to take advantage of every game.”
Starting again with this one. The Bulldogs go on the road this, and for that matter the next week, as double-digit underdogs. So? says Jiles.
“We see this as a great opportunity. A great opportunity to show the world what we’ve got, to continue to get better not only against great opponents but better ourselves and get the W.”