By JOEL COLEMAN
Beniquez Brown is finally front and center.
Playing in every game the last two seasons, the 6-foot-1, 238-pound junior linebacker has unquestionably been productive, collecting 101 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles. Yet through it all, he’s seemingly always been a bit in the shadows.
Sharing the defensive load with guys like former teammates Deonte Skinner and Benardrick McKinney, Brown has long had the opportunity to contribute, while also learning more and more about his craft. Finally, the pupil has become the teacher.
“It was a process knowing that when they left the opportunity was going to be there for me to lead,” Brown said. “I feel like it is my time now.”
Brown will serve as the anchor of a Mississippi State linebacking corps that defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Manny Diaz said is “certainly deeper” than the unit he had in his 2010 stint at MSU, a group that included current National Football League players K.J. Wright and Chris White.
Such a responsibility might seem to carry a heavy burden, but Brown says he’ll just keep right on doing the same things that have made him successful up to this point.
“Some people would look at it like pressure, but I do not,” Brown said. “I just come in everyday and do the same things I did last year.”
Considering the skill and potential of MSU’s other linebackers, Brown has good reason to not be too concerned. While McKinney and the versatile speedster Matt Wells have gone on to the NFL, the Bulldogs retain an experienced nucleus. Besides Beniquez Brown, junior Richie Brown and senior Zach Jackson also provide MSU with plenty of veteran presence.
“We’ve all played together before and we love playing together,” Richie Brown said. “We have good team chemistry that we’ve had for a while and we’re only getting better too.”
Diaz says he’s extremely confident in the central figures of the MSU linebacking mix.
“Beniquez has picked up right where he left off,” Diaz said. “His understanding of the game has slowed the pace of the game down compared to what it is for other guys. Richie right beside him is doing really good things. Zach has a different sense of urgency now than what he did in the spring now that it is his last time through. He has high goals and aspirations for how he wants his year to go.”
Outside of the two Browns and Jackson, the Bulldogs have a wealth of young linebackers ready to burst onto the scene in the Southeastern Conference. Of that group, perhaps no one has caught as much attention as Gerri Green. The 6-foot-4, 243-pound redshirt freshman is opening plenty of eyes this fall, exciting both coaches and teammates.
“Gerri is going to be another (McKinney),” Jackson said. “He’s a leader. He runs to the ball. He takes coaching. He’s just going to be a good player.”
Being compared to a talent like McKinney is obviously high praise, but Beniquez Brown says he’s worked on letting Green know that, to be successful, Green just has to be himself.
“I tell him every day not to let the comparison of Benardrick McKinney get to him,” Beniquez Brown said. “At the end of the day, he is not Benardrick McKinney. He is Gerri Green.”
Green isn’t the only Bulldog ready to break out. Sophomore J.T. Gray returns, having been the only true freshman to see playing time on the MSU defense a year ago. Gray played primarily on special teams in 2014, but seems primed to play a much more significant role this season.
The return of sophomore Dezmond Harris should provide MSU with additional depth. Harris tore his anterior cruciate ligament in MSU’s win over Auburn last year, but should be ready to go for Mississippi State once this season kicks off.
A pair of newcomers could also compete for playing time at linebacker. Junior college transfer Traver Jung will look to break through, as will true freshman Leo Lewis.
Lewis, the nation’s top inside linebacker recruit of the 2015 signing class, is beginning to pick things up strategically at this new level of football, but already has the physicality down according to Jackson.
“He’s still spinning a little bit, but the positive thing about him is he’ll hit,” Jackson said. “As long as he’ll hit, the coaches can teach all the other stuff.”
With the depth at the position, Diaz anticipates the battle for playing time to be fierce. He also says he’s not locked down as to which linebackers will play in the middle or on the outside.
In the quest to bring a championship to Starkville, Diaz says he’ll be consistently evaluating his talent, and he’ll keep running his most productive players onto the field.
“We have all types of guys competing for those spots and the competition will go right up to day one and game one and will not end there,” Diaz said. “Whoever is best to play on Sept. 5 may not be the best on Oct. 5 or Nov. 5 and our goal is to be playing on Dec. 5. To me those guys understand that it is wide open and what position you see them playing today is irrelevant.
“I told them to wait about two weeks to see who the top six are in order to get them ready for the first game, and if it is three Sams and three Mikes then two of them will have to learn to play Will. If it’s one Will, two Mikes, and three Sams then we are going to play and get our best six guys out there and go from there.”
By JOEL COLEMAN