'It's about competition:' Mississippi State football has depth at safety after injury-filled year

Andy Kostka
Mississippi Clarion Ledger
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As the injuries in the secondary piled up toward the end of last season, Mississippi State safeties coach Jason Washington thought he might have to take matters into his own hands.

“I thought I was gonna have to suit back up and go in and play a little bit,” joked Washington, who was a defensive back at Texas State almost 20 years ago. “Luckily, we didn’t get all the way down there.”

Still, the injury situation at the safety position — including one that held Fred Peters out for much of the season — played a key role in the Bulldogs’ issues defending against the pass, finishing 105th in the country in passing yards allowed per game at 263.4 against an all-SEC regular season schedule before concluding on a high note against Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl.

But Washington doesn’t anticipate those same issues this season — both in coverage and with depth. Washington noted Peters and Collin Duncan are the leaders at the position, although his list of names kept coming. There’s Jalen Green, Shawn Preston Jr., Jay Jimison, Dylan Lawrence, Kyle Cass and Londyn Craft all in the mix.

Mississippi State safety Collin Duncan (19) intercepts a Vanderbilt pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

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In short, Mississippi State has options. And that’s a breath of fresh air after a season with more holes than answers in the secondary.

“It’s about competition,” Washington said. “Life’s about competition. If you want to be a CEO or the biggest guy on campus or whatever it is, it’s something you always want to compete. It’s a job interview each and every day. And if you don’t, and you don’t want to come and work, there’s someone behind you scratching at your heels right now.”

Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett said the coaching staff has a “pretty good idea who the top-22” players on defense are about two weeks out from the Bulldogs’ season opener against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 4 at Davis Wade Stadium.

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There are even certain standouts down the depth chart that give confidence should injuries arise. For instance, freshman Corey Ellington has popped out to Washington.

The safeties coach had seen plenty of what Ellington could do on film while recruiting the Lexington native, but Washington didn’t truly grasp over video what the 6-foot-3 Ellington looked like in person until they stepped onto the practice field this summer.

“Good God almighty, you’re a good-looking creature,” Washington recalled saying when he first saw him. “Now it’s just bringing that long, tall, lanky body of his and letting that grow and letting that develop. And I’m excited about his future.”

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Ellington likely won’t find the field much this season, but it’s players like him who give Mississippi State belief they can build on a strong defensive showing overall last season. Add in the players returning from injuries that sidelined them last year, and there’s plenty of competition for playing time at safety.

“Hopefully they’ll challenge each other,” nickelbacks coach Tony Hughes said, “and it’ll uplift our play in the position group.”

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