When you hear the words “impact” or “breakthrough” in connection with the 2010 SEC football season, the image of Cameron Newton running over a linebacker probably comes to mind. Or perhaps you see visions of Marcus Lattimore bulling through SEC defenses.
But there’s another name that should come to mind… even though it probably doesn’t: Manny Diaz.
On October 17th of last year, Diaz’ MTSU defense squared off against Dan Mullen’s first Mississippi State team. State won the game 27-6. They outgained the Blue Raiders 333-248, too. But the aggressiveness of Diaz’ defense caught Mullen’s eye even in the loss. And when Mullen and last year’s D-coordinator Carl Torbush parted ways at the end of the season, Diaz’ phone rang.
That has all turned out awfully well for the Bulldogs.
It only took a couple of games in 2009 for Mullen and Torbush to cross swords. The young head coach had this to say after Auburn shredded his Dogs last September: “We weren’t very aggressive in the Auburn game and I think that showed. We did a poor job of putting our players in a position to make plays.” It was only a matter of time before Torbush departed (for Kansas) and Mullen found someone more aggressive.
And Diaz has definitely brought an attacking style to Starkville. That style has been a key factor in State’s hot 6-2 start.
“… We definitely come from everywhere — cornerback, safety, linebacker, defensive line,” said linebacker Chris White last week. “We check a lot, so if the offense is checking to a screen, we’re going to check to a play that stops the screen. We don’t let them get in an offense to beat us.”
So far this season, Diaz’ scheme has been as tough to score on as any in the SEC. Against BCS foes (and the Bulldogs have faced four so far), State is giving up a touchdown once every 43.5 snaps. That’s second in the league only behind Alabama (45.0 snaps) and well ahead of third-place LSU (30.6 snaps).
Compare that to last year when the Bulldogs surrendered a touchdown once every 18.6 plays to opposing offenses.
State’s rush defense has improved (from 3.96 yards/carry allowed to 3.63). The pass defense has improved (from 7.95 yards/attempt allowed to 6.43). The Bulldogs are giving up 30 yards less per game (down from 366 to 336). And MSU has climbed the scoring defense category from 71st last year (27 points allowed per game) to 14th best in the nation this season (17 points allowed per game).
Diaz has made these improvements with only four seniors slotted into his starting line-up (three at linebacker). His secondary is especially youthful. And State’s roster isn’t exactly dotted with five-star guys to work with, either.
To be fair, the Bulldogs still have some big tests ahead. Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss can all put points on the board. You should expect the numbers to rise in a few of those defensive categories mentioned above.
But Mississippi State is already bowl eligible just eight games into its season. As a result, its 2011 recruiting class currently ranks in the nation’s Top 25 according to Rivals.com. Mullen’s club already has a signature, 10-7 win at Florida under it’s belt, too. And that win can be credited in large part to the defense.
Manny Diaz might not get the pub of some of the SEC’s higher-paid coordinators, but so far he’s been the impact hire in the Southeastern Conference in 2010.
Lucky thing Mullen inherited a 2009 schedule that featured a game against MTSU on it. If not for that, who knows where the Bulldogs would be right now. Probably not sitting at 6-2.