By JOEL COLEMAN
When new Mississippi State defensive line coach Brian Baker was sizing up the Bulldogs on video before deciding to come to Starkville, he was drawn in by the attitude of MSU up front. The longtime National Football League assistant saw young men with fire in their eyes and made the choice to come guide them when presented the chance following the departure of former coach David Turner to Texas A&M.
“It’s a group that plays fast and a group that plays aggressive,” Baker said of his position group. “After meeting with (MSU head coach Dan Mullen), I understand why because this team plays to his personality. That was the thing that became really intriguing to me when this opportunity opened up.”
Now going through his first spring at Mississippi State, Baker is just as impressed with his group in person as he once was through the television screen. The Bulldogs, led on the line by seven returning lettermen and a pair of starters in seniors A.J. Jefferson and Nick James, are a veteran bunch already displaying the hunger Baker wanted to see when he donned the maroon and white.
“We’ve got an older group so we’ve got a group that understands it all and wants to grind,” Baker said. “They are a group that understands what it takes and they’ve been through it and played in the SEC. They know what kind of work it takes to win in this conference, and that’s good. If you had a whole room full of young guys that don’t know what that battle is like, then once they line up, it is going to be a shock to them. We’ve got some experienced guys though that can get them through it and tell them what to expect. That’s what you want. It’s the same thing coaching in the NFL. You want veterans to show those young guys what it’s all about.”
MSU boasts six seniors on the defensive line. Along with Jefferson and James, Nelson Adams, Johnathan Calvin, Will Coleman, and Torrey Dale all return for their final year with the Bulldogs.
Of that group, Jefferson’s resume is the most impressive. The defensive end had one of the best seasons by an end in Mississippi State history last year when he racked up a team-high 13.5 tackles for loss, the ninth-best total in the SEC. He produced at least one tackle for loss in nine of MSU’s 13 games in 2015.
Beginning this spring, Jefferson is able to add another feather in his cap. He is one of the unquestioned leaders of MSU’s defense and is helping to mold the younger Bulldogs.
“It’s different,” Jefferson said. “The last few years, I’ve been used to pressing (former MSU defensive linemen) Ryan (Brown), Kaleb (Eulls) and P.J. (Jones) on what to do. It’s different. It’s a good feeling though. I mean I learned from guys like that. I think we all enjoy it.”
James is also relishing the chance to share knowledge with his younger teammates. Holding a leadership role is a spot that not even James thought he’d be in not long ago, but hard work has allowed the defensive tackle to grow as a person and as a player. Now, he’s surprising himself with how much he likes being a go-to guy for tips and knowledge.
“I’m actually enjoying it,” James said. “I thought I’d get tired of it, but it boosts me up and I’m feeding off of it.”
It’s not that Jefferson and James have things all figured out themselves. The duo still has plenty to learn. With a new position coach, there’s still an adjustment period, but Jefferson likes what he’s seeing from Baker.
“We’re still in the process of doing things the way Coach Baker wants them done, but I think he’s doing a good job, especially with the younger guys,” Jefferson said. “Then he puts a lot of pressure on the older guys and is just pushing us to raise the standard.”
Baker’s motivational tactic for his players, both veterans and newcomers alike, is simple. Baker says his philosophy is to have “an attitude of gratitude”. It’s a motto that he has for himself, and it’s one he is instilling into his new pupils now that he has the chance to be back around the college game.
“I am a man of faith and I’ve always wanted to share that part of my philosophy and my coaching experience,” Baker said. “I want to give back to the players what the good Lord has given to me. I didn’t always have that chance in pro ball and it didn’t lend itself to that.
“It’s them understanding as players that them being here is a gift from the good Lord and me being here as a coach is an absolute gift from the good Lord. Again, they should work every day to show that appreciation. Their work should show that attitude and I try to do that through the way I coach and the way I lead.”