Whitley is the Key
By Matt Osborne
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Subjected to a prominent role in Mississippi State’s defensive scheme, expect to see Nickoe Whitley respond with his best performance yet as a senior.
Undoubtedly doing so under the radar of many national pundits, the Mississippi State Bulldogs have quietly averaged eight wins per season over the last three years.
The Bulldogs’ recent run of success has not been accompanied by a surplus of national acclaim, but Dan Mullen has thoroughly accomplished his goal of elevating the status quo in Starkville. Though Mississippi State lacks a “signature win” under the direction of Mullen, the Bulldogs have, as of late, displayed the ability to win the games they are supposed to win.
Arguably the preeminent reason for the program’s recent resurgence has been a severe upgrade in talent level on both sides of the football in the passing game. While wide receivers Arceto Clark, Chad Bumphis and Chris Smith torched opposing secondaries over the past three seasons, defensive backs Corey Broomfield, Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks prevented the opposition from doing significant damage through the air.
With all of those aforementioned players departing Starkville, however, the Bulldogs are left searching for a way to continue their aerial domination.
On offense, the trio of Joe Morrow, Jameon Lewis and Robert Johnson is expected to help lessen the blow of the departures at wide receiver. A slight decrease in production is to naturally be expected, but this will still be a talented unit with plenty of upside and potential.
In the secondary, while most of the projected starters have career playing experience, senior safety Nickoe Whitley is the lone returning starter. Projected secondary starters Jamerson Love and Jay Hughes both played in all 13 contests last season, while newcomer Justin Cox will be making the transition from junior college football.
With the distinction of being the team’s lone returning starting defensive back, Whitley will assuredly face increased pressure to perform at a high level and lead the secondary on Saturdays.
And if past performance is any indication, it is a task for which he is adequately prepared.
Whitley, who is a three-year starter, has registered 10 interceptions and 174 tackles through his first three seasons. His numbers were predictably solid again last season, as he finished his junior campaign with three interceptions and a career-high 88 tackles.
Not considered to be one of the elite prospects in the 2009 recruiting class, Whitley immediately impressed the Mississippi State coaches with his versatility and athleticism upon his arrival to Starkville. His game was obviously not without flaws, but he displayed a skill set which had the coaching staff drooling over his potential.
Now entering his final season of collegiate eligibility, many people around SEC country have questioned Whitley’s true level of talent. Sure the statistics are impressive, but many fans wondered just how much he benefitted from playing alongside a talented supporting cast in the defensive backfield for the past three years.
But while the casual observer may question Whitley’s skills, NFL scouts have no such concerns.
Widely considered to be one of the top free safety prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft, Whitley was recently ranked as the top overall safety prospect by The National Football Post’s Justin VanFulpen. His lofty ranking came about as a result of VanFulpen describing Whitley as “a good-sized safety who can make plays in both the passing game and run game”.
Whitley’s balance and versatility recently helped him be named as a preseason second-team All-SEC selection by both Athlon Sports and Phil Steele.
As the Bulldogs hope to continue their recent upward trend on the gridiron, the team will rely heavily upon Whitley to lead the way in the secondary.
Though a lack of proven talent at his side could be interpreted to mean that Whitley’s productivity will drop this fall, great performances are frequently spurned on by necessity.
Subjected to a prominent role in Mississippi State’s defensive scheme, expect to see Whitley respond with his best performance yet as a senior.
The team’s defensive success as a whole very well may hinge upon it.