However, the Bulldogs do have a few experienced performers among their linebackers’ corp. Also in his first season, linebackers/special teams coach Amos Jones has the task of finding the right combinations every Saturday.
"Hopefully so," Jones responded when asked of a bright future for his group. "The competition is going to be good here for a few years."
During the early part of the season, Jones noted of two players that should remain on the same path.
"Every kid that comes here wants to play and didn't come to sit the bench," said Jones. "Brad Horton and Kenneth Kern are two that pretty much got even reps at the mike linebacker position. That probably won't change that much over the course of the season, unless one of them gets extremely better than the other one."
Of course, having a second team available and having faith in those second-team linebackers are two entirely different animals. Jones, a coaching veteran of 23 years, is still searching for confidence-builders at wheel linebacker.
"At wheel linebacker, Marvin Byrdsong is getting as many reps as he can in our base defenses," said Jones of the preseason, third-team All-SEC selection. "There are spots we feel we can put him in to make a big play.
"We also have to give Clarence some type of break, either with Chris Swain or our Lowndes County boy Gabe O'Neal. Those guys have played well along with our other freshmen linebackers (Titus Brown and Anthony Littlejohn). We just haven't pulled the trigger on them yet."
It is that time of the year where the dreadful term "redshirt" is tossed around, with many final decisions being handed down. Jones likes his rookies and is doing his best to prepare them for the rugged Southeastern Conference slate.
While they are still adjusting to the collegiate level, Jones believes at least one true freshman is ready to make the jump.
"Right now our plans are to keep getting them ready each week," said Jones concerning his trio of freshmen. "We scrimmage them every Monday so they are getting reps with our base defensive calls and everything. I was hoping to have played Gabe (in the opener). I probably need to grow up myself and let him play. That was more on me than him. He's ready to play and his confidence is enough to play."
O’Neal had the luxury of playing on both sides during his playing days at Columbus High School. That knowledge should help the former prep quarterback adjust quickly, according to Jones.
"He played on both sides of the ball in high school and that helps him now," said Jones. "He's had a chance to watch what offensive players do, as well as his position. And now he is just concentrating on one spot. The biggest thing is I have to try to find the right spots to put him in the rotation as well as a couple of other guys."
With guys like McDougal, Byrdsong and possibly O’Neal in the future, they all strive to fit Jones’ needs in the middle of a defense. In these days of spreading offenses, coaches covet linebackers with the ability to cover tight ends or running backs, along with their usual duties of stopping the run.
Jones admits it plays a role into coaching, and more importantly, recruiting future defensive gems.
"I don't think you can get without one," said Jones. "You are not going to play many teams in today's game that don't have a tight end that can stretch you vertically and catch the football as well as block. The same thing falls on our shoes. We have to have a linebacker that can do the same thing.
"You don't go recruit mike (linebackers). You get outside or inside linebackers that grow into that position. That's pretty much how we like to look at things from a perspective of a talent level."
And Jones has returned to familiar stomping grounds in the South. The Aliceville, Ala., native grew up less than an hour from both Mississippi State and Alabama.
The former Tide player and assistant coach last called Tuscaloosa home at the conclusion of the 1991 season. After the next 13 years featured stops at Pittsburgh, Tulane, Cincinnati and James Madison, Jones jumped at the chance to work with Croom and return "back close to home".
He also likes the fact of having his own cheering section in the stands, which includes wife, Stacey, and their four children.
"I'm excited to be here," said Jones. "It was close to home for me, just like it was for Coach Croom. I will always have folks in the stands (at Mississippi State) so that's a nice bonus for being here."
Paul Jones is a writer for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. Paul, also a sports writer for the Columbus Commercial Dispatch, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.